Capitalism is uniquely good at producing ecological problems and uniquely unfit for purpose when dealing with them.
The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are both intrinsic to capitalism. Both are global problems, and both are simultaneously ecological and economic. But each crisis is playing out very differently on the ground. They are interacting, and with other factors, but in unforeseen and still poorly understood ways.
We, the authors, have approached these complexities separately through a speculative or hypothetical parable. This article sets out some of the context and reasoning for our fictional work, A Parable of Historical Repeats and Innovations - Political Ecology in a Time of Crisis.
Karl Marx, the political economist, conceptualised soil degradation, the major ecological problem of his day, as a ‘rift in the interdependent social metabolism’ which had ruptured not only the relationship between ‘society’ and ‘nature’, but also relations within society itself.
The separation of ‘city and countryside’, and the location of food consumption away from the location of food production, led to urban pollution instead of soil re-fertilization. It involved ‘robbing the workers’ as well as ‘robbing the soil’ – ‘the original sources of all wealth’.
Somewhat similar ‘rifts’ in the social metabolism can be seen in the problems of climate and the novel coronavirus.
However, in order to connect our two ecological problems to the economy – and bring ecology and economy into each other’s ‘mainstream’ – we think they can more usefully be seen in terms of crisis theory.
But they do not produce the usual capitalist crises of over-production – where the circulation of capital in relentless pursuit of growth and profits is disrupted or blocked because goods cannot be sold as people cannot afford them, and profitable investment opportunities dry up.
Rather the crisis results from under-production where the interactions of the economy with the natural environment damage it in such a way that the circulation of capital and profit-making are similarly disrupted or may even be stopped.
In pre-capitalist societies, underproduction - due for instance to wet weather and poor harvests - was the typical cause of economic crisis, but now we find there are underproduction crises in contemporary capitalism for global ecological reasons.
Both our climate and coronavirus crises today are rooted in the unintended - but actually to be expected - consequences of capitalist production, though this is more direct and obvious where burning fossil carbon produces global warming, but much less obvious for the murkier origins of coronaviruses (which we discuss separately in the parable).
The differences between the two crises are striking, especially in their respective spatio-temporal frameworks and outworkings. These help explain why the virus crisis received almost instant, full, official recognition and attention, which climate activists can only dream about, while they think - quite rightly - that the climate crisis is a much more substantial long-term problem.
And perhaps that is the explanation for the difference in response, right there: the climate threat is indeed more long-term and capitalism tends to be pre-occupied with the short-term.
The virus threat ‘fits’ the short-term horizons of capital and the short attention-span of capitalist politics. It could almost have been designed for maximum impact. It has been sudden, immediate, peaked quickly and spread rapidly across the world.
The workings of the pandemic have been quite uniform globally, aside from highly varied government responses - epitomised by the USA, Brazil and England on the one hand, and New Zealand, Germany or South Korea on the other.
The virus could potentially kill anyone and frighten everyone - though in practice it has so far killed relatively few. Most people stayed away from work as officially advised, global production and profits fell sharply and kept falling in the second quarter of 2020.
The climate crisis on the other hand has been building for decades - during decades of indifference, climate activists might add. But so far its impact has generally been patchy and fragmented across space and time.
While global heating is clearly causing extreme weather events to increase in frequency and severity, they are so far separate episodes and still relatively localised or regionalised in scope.
For example, they are confined to the areas in the path of the hurricane or gale; heatwaves are getting more extreme but are largely confined to particular climatic zones and are far from global; while even the threat of something as uniformly global as the rising sea-level is still mainly perceived as a threat confined to low-lying coastal areas.
These events and problems are far from reaching their peak, but the much more serious threats from irreversible changes to the world’s climatic zones lie almost wholly in the future and are still the subject of scientific predictions, not a present and immediate threat like the virus.
As global heating continues most predictions suggest major changes could come within a decade or two. But it is mostly still in the future and hence, despite the ‘feedback’ warnings from all the extreme weather events, official action on climate falls victim to capitalism’s built-in tendency to downplay the long-term in favour of the short.
In periods of crisis the short-term gets even shorter, basically because the reality for capitalists is that unless they make profits in the short-term they probably won’t have a long-term.
There are, therefore, strong systemic tendencies to invest as little as possible in reserve or emergency stocks - needed in a pandemic - and to put off dealing with disasters which are clearly coming down the line - like climate change.
Adequate preparation and stocking would eat into immediate profits. Indeed contemporary capitalism’s famous ‘just-in-time’ system, itself created in conditions of incipient crisis, involves holding minimal stocks and getting deliveries at the last minute, so that rather than lying idle tied up in large stocks the capital can instead be invested to make more profits elsewhere. But then when the pandemic struck it became the ‘just-not-in-time’ system, starkly revealing society’s fragility.
In the economic competition of firm versus firm, or the USA versus China, immediate growth and profits are what count. When working properly the system can be very productive, but increasingly it is not working properly.
More production can simply mean more problems; but, unfortunately, so too can less production – under capitalism it leads to more unemployment and more poverty. Our economy is basically ruled by the anarchy of the market with no overall control, democratic or otherwise.
We are congenitally vulnerable to combined ecological and economic crises. As our parable suggests, capitalism is uniquely good at producing ecological problems and uniquely unfit for purpose when dealing with them.
The parable proved a stimulating way of getting a more rounded perspective on the fragility of contemporary society, the workings of ecological crisis and their interactions.
The complexities called for a novel approach (pun intended!). It is a fictional-factual fable set in the future, but looking back at a mysterious global catastrophe in our own day: ‘constructive escapism’ - we hope - for times of partial lockdown.
What caused the catastrophe? Could it happen again? The virus and climate change are among the suspects in our fictional society, but they are not the only ones and they don’t behave as you might expect. Perhaps ‘expect the unexpected’ is the first lesson of ecology.
It is salutary to remember that as recently as the 1980s global warming was well below the public’s ecological radar. Then a few specialist researchers on the Greenland ice-cap suddenly discovered it was an immediate threat within a generation, not one safely buried in some geological future.
The fictional society has collapsed back into repeating ‘medieval’ poverty, squalor and ignorance. So far, so grim. But crisis theory suggests that while crises are wasteful and damaging, they throw up winners as well as losers and are a major opportunity for reorganising society – and the crucial question is on whose terms?
So our fictional characters are faced with the question can they make a better society arise from the catastrophe? Can they avoid repeating previous mistakes?
They search for utopias or ‘heaven on earth’ – as actually happened in medieval history and after. Even better, they find a community which has created and re-created its own class-less utopia of leisured life and sustainability and in a most unexpected place.
There was just one catch – the real advantages of modern science and medicine that had been lost in the catastrophe. Could these be re-invented and produced by the class-less society they wanted to keep?
If history repeats itself, it’s not in simple ‘circles’ but more like a ‘spiral’ through time with some bits lost but also new elements. We need theory as well as history, but history is richer, so over now to A Parable of Historical Repeats and Innovations - Political Ecology in a Time of Crisis.
James Anderson is emeritus professor of political geography at Queen’s University Belfast. Ian Shuttleworth is senior lecturer in social geography at Queen’s University, Belfast.