2020 has hit Australia with two devastating environmental crises in rapid succession: first, the December and January bushfires and then the coronavirus. Although the aftermath of the bushfires have been eclipsed by pandemic and the ensuing economic catastrophe, it’s important to maintain the connection between them. Both disasters are symptoms of the same underlying disorder: capitalism’s pathological and exploitative relationship to the natural environment.
The 2019-20 Australian bushfire season was unprecedented in length, intensity, and scale: previous disasters were given names like Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, Black Friday, and Red Tuesday, but this one was called Black Summer. The fires burned from September to March, destroying about 46 million acres, directly killing thirty-four people and at least a billion animals.
Researchers have since estimated that 445 people were killed indirectly, as a consequence of smoke inhalation. Thousands more were admitted to hospital. Eighty percent of the population was affected: Sydney breathed smoke regularly from November through January. The smoke reached New Zealand, South America and beyond, before making a full circuit of the globe and returning to Australia.
The Air Quality Index measures carbon and particulate matter in the air. A rating of over two hundred is hazardous. Canberra’s AQI reached over 4,500 on New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Eve in Wuhan, Chinese health officials informed the World Health Organization that forty-one patients had presented with unusual pneumonia-like symptoms and were undergoing treatment. Twenty-seven had recently visited the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. By January 5, officials had ruled out Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). On the seventh, they announced a novel coronavirus. Now we are facing a global health crisis and the worst depression in a generation.
Both of these crises, as well as their consequences, stem from a market logic which regards natural environments as resources to be severed from their context, commodified, and sold.
Symptoms of the Same Disorder
While the Murdoch press spread lies about arson, conservative politicians blamed “greenies” for preventing hazard reduction burns. But there is little doubt that anthropogenic climate change was to blame for the severity of the fire season.
When record breaking heat and drought removed moisture from fuel, conditions were primed for fires so powerful they generated their own weather systems, including supercell thunderstorms and fire tornadoes, leading to multiple fronts combining across Victoria and New South Wales.
Fire has been part of Australian ecosystems and their metabolism with human society for thousands of years, but not fires like these. In a 2008 report on climate change commissioned by the Rudd Government, Ross Garnaut warned that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.” We can expect worse in the years ahead and even worse a few decades from now unless global warming is slowed.
There is a similar story behind new viruses like COVID-19. A 2008 paper in Nature found that the rate of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs) has been increasing since 1940. Most EIDs have been zoonotic, meaning transmitted to humans from non-human animals. Over 70 percent of those have originated in wild animals.
A recent study modeled the connections between EIDs, habitat encroachment, and biodiversity loss, elucidating a fascinating process: as human beings clear land and intrude into primary forest, they are exposed to microbe-rich ecosystems in the process of destroying that very biodiversity. Evidence that urbanization, industrial agriculture, and climate change are causing the emergence and spread of new pathogens is regularly presented in mainstream scientific journals.
While most scientists are less inclined to seek the structural causes of EIDs in capitalist social relations, the work of epidemiologist Rob Wallace is an exception. Wallace urges us to consider the relationship between industrial agriculture and increasingly formalized wild food sectors across and beyond the developing world.
As factory farms and commercial cash and export crops force smallholder operations out of business, impoverished farmers and workers head “deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens.” Indeed, in some places, agribusiness has begun to expand into the wild food sector: take, for example, South African ostrich farms, porcupine farms in Vietnam, or Balinese tourist traps where travelers pay a premium to drink “cat poop coffee” (produced by intensively farmed palm civets).
As capital cultivates disease-susceptible genetic monocultures on the edges of biodiverse areas, it often forces poor workers — themselves serviced by ailing health systems — to hunt or farm wild animals. The result is the creation of new biological interfaces, leading to a heightened risk of exposure to previously isolated viruses and the destruction of the immune ‘firebreaks’ provided by natural diversity.
In sum, as capitalism destroys natural barriers against contagion, previously unknown and potentially deadly viruses are unleashed onto large populations, accelerating their spread and impact. As Wallace says in a recent Guardian interview: “We can blame the object — the virus, the cultural practice — but causality extends out into the relationships between people and ecology.”
The West African Ebola epidemic provides a further example. It emerged in the context of agricultural consolidation, land grabs, mining, logging, and migrations of fruit bat populations from destroyed habitats into palm oil plantations. In their 2016 piece on Ebola, Wallace and his father Rodrick issued the following warning:
Ecosystems … are being drastically streamlined by deforestation and plantation monoculture. Pathogen spillovers that once died out relatively quickly are now discovering chains of vulnerability, creating outbreaks of greater extent, duration, and momentum. There is a possibility that some of these outbreaks may come to match the scale of 1918’s influenza pandemic, with a global reach and high rates of incapacitation and mortality.
So just as we face worsening fire seasons, we may face similar or worse pandemics in the years ahead unless preventative steps are taken. That will require protecting primary forest and reintroducing diversity into livestock and crops. It will mean building a culture of land and forest stewardship by drawing on ecological science and recovering the suppressed knowledge and practices of smallholders, local communities, and indigenous peoples.
Our broader goal must be a socialized agroecology that can reconnect “our ecologies and our economies.” Mike Davis has argued that if we are to deal adequately with pandemics like this social movements must “break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit health care.” If we want to stop future outbreaks something similar may be true of for-profit agriculture.
Capitalism Exploits Nature
In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm clarifies the nexus between fossil fuels and capitalism, uncovering the social and economic forces that drove the adoption of coal power in the nineteenth century. Despite the cheapness and efficiency of water power, capitalists adopted coal because water could not provide the concentration of energy and spatiotemporal mobility needed to dominate workers, control nature, and gain the edge against competitors.
At the same time, as we now know too well, capital cannot take the consequences of burning fossil fuels into account. That is because capitalism regards many of the material qualities of the constituents of the production process as irrelevant.
As long as profits are turned, it does not genuinely matter if a firm accumulates capital by producing cars or by fattening thousands of pigs in small, filthy stalls. Of course, close attention must be paid to the prices of raw materials and whatever uses are relevant to the production of exchange value. But nothing else registers for the capitalist, including the greenhouse gases emitted in the process.
Just as Marx argued that abstract labor dominates concrete labor under capitalism, with the qualitative features of the labor process negated in the production of quantities of value, Malm argues that capitalist production must also proceed by abstracting away from the material features of the natural resources it exploits and negating the ecological contexts in which it takes place.
The capitalist “qualitatively ignores nature while quantitatively overtaxing it,” draining nature of resources “without really noticing what is in there.” The result is that harmful byproducts of extraction or production are simply ignored or even concealed until the scale of pathology they cause spills out of control.
This argument resonates powerfully in the context of COVID-19, as does Malm’s analysis of how capitalism leads us to “scavenge remote corners of the planet for useful materials” and “burrow into hidden stores.” Like Kohei Saito and John Bellamy Foster, Malm shows that the destruction of nature is no contingent “externality,” nor a moral failing on the part of individual capitalists. Capital must move in ignorance of natural boundaries.
This is why ecological crisis is a necessary feature of capitalism, as essential to its logic as exploitation, immiseration, imperialism and the declining rate of profit. As Saito and Foster argue, this can provide a new conceptual basis for a cohesive reading of Marx’s whole body of work, connecting his early concern for renewing “the intimate ties of man with the earth” with his mature reflections on metabolic interaction, soil depletion, and the expropriation of populations from land.
Stretching from Marx to the present, this ecosocialist tradition is important because it helps us to recognize our absolute dependency on nature. It also shows the way toward a form of collective life oriented by that dependency.
Our goal is not to master nature (whatever that would mean) but to master our relation to it, curing the disorder of which COVID-19 and climate change are symptoms. And if we fail in this, new disasters are not just inevitable — we can be sure they will accelerate and catalyze each other. Imagine fighting continent-wide bushfires under lockdown or how many more may die of respiratory infections if our lungs are already besieged by smoke.
Avoiding this dystopia means attacking the root cause of these symptoms: the extractive logic of commodity production.