Maverick Citizen

JUST TRANSITION OP-ED

The climate crisis will not be resolved by the capitalist class — it’s either eco-socialism or extinction

The climate crisis will not be resolved by the capitalist class — it’s either eco-socialism or extinction
Those who have paid little to no part in the creation of the climate crisis will be the most affected, with the disproportionate impact exacerbating existing inequalities. (Photo: iStock)

In their pursuit of profits at all costs, capitalist enterprises have long been at the centre of the brutal extraction and destruction of the natural world as well as the oppression and exploitation of billions of people.

One would be naive to believe that the delegates at last year’s COP27 summit had any intention of taking radical, coordinated, urgent action to avert climate catastrophe and realise climate justice. As the summit sat in Egypt, the clock continued to tick on the time bomb manufactured by capitalism, colonial plunder and imperialism. 

This clock has been ticking since the first COP summit sat in 1995 and again and again it has fallen on the deaf ears of the capitalist class and the states which protect their interests.

As the gears of capital have continued to turn, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere have continued to rise. Average global temperatures, sea levels and the frequency of extreme weather events have risen in step. In their pursuit of profits at all costs, capitalist enterprises have long been at the centre of the brutal extraction and destruction of the natural world as well as the oppression and exploitation of billions of people. 

As a direct result, our planet now faces the threat of total collapse while all our people find themselves thrown into one of the most decisive moments of human history.

Those who have paid little to no part in the creation of the climate crisis will be most affected by it, with the disproportionate impact exacerbating existing inequalities.

The effects of rising global temperatures are visible and alarming. 

Extreme weather events and the increasing frequency of natural disasters are already here. In 2021, the total number of registered internal displacements increased by 38 million, 23.7 million of which were triggered by natural disasters.

In South Africa last year, devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal caused mass death and destruction. Just a few months ago, 33 million people in Pakistan were affected by enormous floods which submerged a third of the entire country. Consequently, millions of people were displaced. As natural regulating factors like the oceans and forests are ravaged by industry and continue to collapse, the changes to the climate will become more rapid, unpredictable and disastrous. 

Across Africa, the effects of climate change and the extractive activities which drive it are causing devastation to the lives of millions. 

The tropical forests in the Congo Basin, the second largest in the world, are decreasing on a large scale. According to estimates by the African Wildlife Foundation, deforestation in Africa is taking place at four times the pace of the global average. This is despite the fact that more than two-thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on natural forests for food, fuel and for their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, commercial fishing and the pollution of the oceans are forcing communities along the western, eastern and southern coasts of Africa to abandon subsistence in search of wage labour. Thus, the ruination of the Earth’s climate serves the capitalist class through the creation of a surplus, displaced and easily exploited labour force, allowing them to further expand their profit margins.

In 2016, a report on the health impacts of coal-fired power stations was commissioned by GroundWork, which found that pollution on account of electricity generation by burning coal was responsible for the deaths of at least 2,000 South Africans annually. This is not surprising if you consider the 2018 report by UCT’s Energy Research Centre, which identified Mpumalanga, a province which housed 12 coal-fired power plants at the time, as a global pollution hotspot, producing the highest concentrations of the poisonous nitrogen dioxide greenhouse gases in the world. This classification of Mpumalanga, and the Witbank region, in particular, as having the dirtiest air quality in the world is inseparable from the destructive business operations of Sasol.

As of 2020, South Africa as a whole weighed in as the 13th-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. In the same year, our greenhouse emissions were calculated to be 7.41 metric tons per capita, more than 11 times that of Nigeria. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that the South African government will do little, if anything, to act against a company like Sasol. This is largely because the SA government has tied up the pension and provident funds of government employees in Sasol shares — making the government one of Sasol’s largest shareholders and giving it a vested interest in the continuation of Sasol’s operations, irrespective of how damaging they are. 

Drought and devastation

Particularly worrying in South Africa is the real threat of drought, with the country only emerging in late 2021 from a devastating drought which was, for three provinces, the worst in a century. In an already water-scarce country, with roughly  37% of our clean drinking water being lost through leakages, worsening droughts in combination with poor water management infrastructure threaten to collapse the fabric of our society. 

Likewise, as the unforgiving heat and inescapable dryness of the Kalahari Desert intensifies, our indigenous San communities — those who live and breathe the wisdom of the earliest human communities and who have played no part in the destruction of the natural world — have become increasingly threatened by the rapid collapse of an intricate ecosystem. 

The hardships imposed on the San, and countless other communities, are worsened by capitalist governments in South Africa and Botswana who often grant mining rights on indigenous land to destructive and extractive multinational mining companies. 

In 2014, the British corporation Gem Diamonds opened the first underground diamond mine in Botswana, on the ancestral land of the San people. The San communities were evicted, following prior approval from that country’s government. 

Here Marx’s observation on the function of the state executive under capitalism continues to ring true. The notion that the capitalist state serves and defends the common interests of people is exposed as a farce. Rather, it is “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

Mining remains a sickening legacy of colonial extraction in the Global South, adding immensely to the environmental devastation of our communities and the suffering of our people. The effects of air pollution, radiation and lead poisoning, and other toxic outputs of the mining industry have also gone unaddressed.

The Princess mine dump in Soweto is the world’s largest tailing dam. Roughly 300m away is the community of Snake Park, where extreme exposure to toxins is inescapable. A 2017 report by the Bench Marks Foundation found communities proximal to mine dumps have significantly higher rates of respiratory ailments, with two-thirds of households in Doornkop, an informal settlement in Snake Park, being affected. 

In addition, exposure to radioactive material during pregnancy increases the risk of fatal miscarriages and is likely to lead to stunted growth, deformities and the development of abnormalities in brain function, leading to disorders like cerebral palsy. This was found to be commonplace in Snake Park, which is just one example of thousands in South Africa, a country wherein more than 6,000 abandoned and improperly closed mine dumps and shafts litter the landscape.

In many cases, our “leaders” have dodged all accountability and have failed to tend to the needs of affected communities. Not only has the state allowed those responsible for these long-term effects of the mining-related health crises to disappear with their profits, but it still remains absent from the equation as well — neglecting to offer financial and social support to affected communities. More often than not, women are left to fill the void through the provision of additional labour in the form of social and care work. This exacerbates the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation on poor black communities, and on poor black women in particular.

Despite visible devastation and collapse, capitalist enterprise remains married to the logic of extraction and destruction in pursuit of profits. This is exemplified by Total Energies’ quest to build the East African Crude Oil Pipeline which threatens to displace more than 400 communities in Uganda and Tanzania and pollute the water sources that 40 million people depend on for livelihood and sustenance. 

We must never allow ourselves to normalise a state of affairs in which capitalist enterprise will stand to profit from our transition to a more sustainable world.

Green capitalism

In a ridiculous attempt to address the collapse of the climate from within the system that produced it, and which continues to exacerbate it, we have also seen the birth of green capitalism, which is entirely incapable of pursuing an agenda of climate justice. Greenwashing is a mask on the monster of capital, while reformist policies like carbon offsets, which allow corporations to trade their carbon emissions while doing very little to actually reduce their output of greenhouse gases, are simply unable to address the core of the crisis and avert the impending catastrophe.

What we require is the reclamation of the commons — that which, like our Earth itself, justly belongs to everybody and nobody — from the control of a capitalist class which has placed our planet in danger. In addressing the burning crisis of hunger, for example, we require socially owned and controlled food systems, along with a democratised water commons which function to fill the bellies of all people and not to fill the pockets of a few.

Likewise, in addressing unemployment and energy poverty, we need to urgently pursue radical energy alternatives which can provide clean energy to every household while simultaneously ensuring income and ownership for workers and communities.

As it stands, Eskom is a polluting corporation which is nonetheless unable to keep the lights on through its coal-fired power stations. As a member organisation of the Climate Justice Coalition, the Socialist Youth Movement echoes the call of the Climate Justice Coalition for a green new Eskom, which will undergo a deep, just transition to renewable energy generation at scale. It must be stressed that these energy systems need to be socially owned and democratically managed by workers and communities. 

To address the fact that climate shocks are already here, we require the rapid expansion of infrastructure (like safe and secure housing, water and sanitation) to mitigate the impacts that will be hardest felt by the poor and marginalised. These interventions must also be propped up by other social protection measures like the implementation of a R1,500 universal basic income grant which would work to provide nutrition, security, opportunity and a dignified quality of life to people severely burdened by the cost-of-living crisis.

Extractivism, destruction and exploitation

Grassroots community organisations have fought and won against multinational mining corporations, despite the support of the ANC government for these corporations. The impact of mining on the natural environment, along with the brutal exploitation of mining capital, culminating in the Marikana massacre in 2012, is radicalising many young people in South Africa. In the wake of the democratic dispensation’s darkest moment, we marched under the decolonial banners of #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall in 2015.

While we breathe new life into the call for free, quality, decolonised education today, we must assert that, beyond curricula and pedagogy, the decolonisation of our institutions must run deeper, inseparable from the demands to sever ties with bloody mining capital and delink entirely from the interests of the extractivist capitalist class.

Our existing decolonial discourse, the generational mission which Fanon warned us not to betray, must situate itself within the context of this climate crisis. A crisis which does not exist separately from the broader projects of colonisation and imperial domination.

All institutions of higher learning must therefore divest from fossil fuels and wash the blood of mining capital from their hands, severing the links with all mining corporations and subsequently with every institution of capital. We hold that a decolonised, de-corporatised education system must capacitate students for jobs within a green socialist economy. The green socialist economy is ours to build.

The system change that the climate crisis demands will not come from those who have constructed and benefit from the status quo, which poisons our atmosphere and steals the air from our lungs. The eco-socialist revolution we urgently need can only come from a mass movement of an organised and united working class. 

In articulating a truly revolutionary programme to define a world beyond the waking nightmare of capitalism, it is necessary for our socialism to be an internationalist, intersectional eco-socialism for the masses. Anything less is a denial of the political and material realities of our historical moment, a denial of the reality that the alternative to eco-socialism isn’t business as usual under the farcical stability of capitalism.

As the ticking clock continues to be unheard by the ruling classes, the more probable it becomes that we’ll find ourselves at the actual, mortifying alternative: our extinction. DM/MC

Raees Noorbhai and Zaki Mamdoo are members of the Socialist Youth Movement. Facebook: Socialist Youth Movement; Twitter: @SocialistYM; Instagram: @socialist_ym

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