Wednesday 23 February 2022

Interview – Ecosocialist author Andreas Malm

Interviewer – Ian McKay first published at Syndemic Magazine

The L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History was thrilled to welcome Dr. Andreas Malm on 27 May 2021 as a guest speaker in our Syndemic Lecture Series.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Ian MCKAY: Welcome everyone to this special sitting of our regular Syndemic Series on the pandemic and its consequences. We’re calling it Syndemic – we’ve lifted that name from Richard Horton of The Lancet. Dr. Horton’s point is that this is a pandemic that has brought together so many different crises…. It’s not just one thing: it’s many things all at once.

Welcome Andreas. I was going to say that you’re probably Sweden’s second most famous environmental activist and it’s such a delight to have you here. I should just say a few words about you. Your really big book of scholarship is called Fossil Capital. It’s a study of the transnational history of coal and capitalism. It won the prestigious Deutscher Prize in 2016….

In much of our conversation today, though, we’ll be talking about a more recent book called The Progress of This Storm (2018) and then Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, which just came out with Verso Books this year (2021), one of the most stimulating interpretations of the pandemic. So, welcome Andreas, to virtual Canada.

Andreas MALM: Thank you so much Ian…

MCKAY: … By my count you have since the 2016 publication of Fossil Capital produced three books, several major research articles, a range of interviews, and also devoted your time and energy to parenting two children. My questions would be a) what do you have for breakfast? but also, b) …is there a tension between such activist scholarship that you’ve been pursuing lately and the immense labour of research that went into the 488 pages of Fossil Capital? How do you reconcile being a scholar and an activist at the same time?

MALM: That’s a very good question. I would not say that that is an easy combination and it’s not one that I master particularly well I guess – primarily because I’m not really an activist these days, in the sense of being an organizer. I was an organizer in the climate movement 14 [to] 16 years ago. My activism nowadays is limited to my academic work with occasional participation in demonstrations and in climate camps when I have a chance to attend those.

But yes, I think that if you’re working on the climate crisis as I’ve been doing for some time [and] given the magnitude of the crisis, it’s severity, the depth of it, it would be strange… to produce just knowledge for the sake of knowledge without any kind of attempt to make that knowledge useful for movements that struggle with these with these questions and to be to be politically relevant… This is certainly something that I struggle with.

In the spring of 2018, I was really immersing myself in nerdy historical research of the kind that I really enjoyed doing for its own sake, but I was freaking out towards the end of that spring… I felt that I can’t really justify this kind of research when the world is catching fire and all of that, and it actually was catching fire in the summer of 2018,  here where I live.

We had the extreme summer with droughts, and wildfires, and unprecedented heat waves –  that then prompted Greta Thunberg to start her school strike. So, I told my publishers that I can’t justify to myself doing this kind of work… Part of that became a volume that’s just been published called White Skin, Black Fuel, on the danger of fossil fascism, which I wrote together with the Zetkin Collective. It is unlike the Corona book that you mentioned, and The Progress of the Storm. [It is] based on prodigious research, but research done by twenty people in a collective…

So that has been my main research project over the past couple of years, and it’s been a very collective project. It’s been very explicitly conceived as a kind of activist scholarship project, and we had a conference that was both for activists and academics working on the political ecologies of the far right… to feed into an emerging conversation around the intersections between racism and … climate and justice

MCKAY: I really get the sense from your pamphlets that you’re combining the two worlds of scholarship and activism and in the sense that people can learn a lot about the abstract concepts… You’ve really made the “metabolic rift” a… core idea of your own scholarship… Scholars like Mike Davis, Rob Wallace, and a lot of [other] people are really seized with this metaphor, which in a sense originates with Marx and Das Kapital. 

I was wondering if you could tell us what is so important about metabolic rift from your point of view? What is it (for people that may not have encountered this before)? And why is — and I’m going to the book that you wrote called The Progress of This Storm — why is maintaining … conceptual distinction between humanity and [non-human] nature not only intellectually but politically important?

MALM: The theory of the metabolic rift (I have to say that I’m not sure that I have used it that much in my own writings – I’m not even 100% sure that the term appears in Fossil Capital I can’t really remember if it does) … has proven to be a tremendously fertile research program and a very productive and generative model of environmental destruction. It’s derived from Marx, but it’s really the product of John Bellamy Foster and his fellow colleagues.

The basic idea [as] I understand it, is that a metabolic rift is a rupture in metabolic flows between humans and the rest of nature or within extra-human nature – various types of biogeochemical cycles – and this rupture is caused by the disruption coming from capitalist property relations. This is how I understand the model. It’s been … applied to lots of different environmental problems, from the from the nitrogen cycle to overfishing, to climate change and lots of other things.

Now, there’s been a debate within ecological Marxism where, very notably, Jason Moore has argued that the model of the theory of the metabolic rift is guilty of Cartesian dualism because it makes a distinct and analytical distinction between what’s natural and what’s social. What I did in The Progress of This Storm was… to defend the theory of the [metabolic rift] against that charge. I think his and others’ idea, that any kind of analytical distinction between nature and society or the natural [and] the social… is guilty of Cartesian dualism, reproduces… the separation between the two realms that is at root of environmental destruction itself.

I think…that argument is flawed. I think obviously the theory of the metabolic rift is not an attempt to say that nature and society are two realms apart, that they are separated. The thrust of the theory is of course exactly the opposite. They are always intertwined and fundamentally united, but there are destructive relations that can tear the flows apart and lead to various kinds of environmental problems.

Now I also think that it’s crucial analytically and politically to maintain a distinction – an analytical distinction – between what’s natural and what’s social. If you look at this pandemic for instance: it’s something natural that pathogens, including coronaviruses, circulate in wildlife populations such as bats, the natural reservoir hosts of coronaviruses. That’s natural; it’s not something that humans have created over time.

On the other hand, it’s … a social phenomenon that you have wildlife trading or … certain kinds of conspicuous consumption patterns….That’s something that has developed …in a particular moment in time in history, through a very contingent development of relations between people. Likewise, it’s a distinctly social phenomenon that you have global supply chains that cause very destructive deforestation in tropical forests,… probably the main driver of zoonotic spillover (all of these new infectious diseases that jump from those animal populations into humans).

The political value of maintaining that distinction is that it allows you to say what we as humans should change in our social relations, in our society, so as to avoid causing this disaster again….

We can’t do anything about the fact that coronaviruses exist in nature and travel on the bodies of bats. (Well, we could potentially eradicate all bats, but that probably wouldn’t be a wise solution.) What we can do differently is that we can modify everything that’s social, including global …supply chains, how we deal with wildlife, crackdown on wildlife trading…. I think that this the value of the analytical distinction…

MCKAY: Thank you. I thought one of the most fascinating moments in Corona Climate Chronic Emergency are two graphs…that are really brilliant…in terms of showing us that in many ways when we look at natural hazards, we put them in this black box, and we call it “Nature.” And we say, “Okay, it’s going to generate these ‘black swan events,’ but we human beings just have to respond to them.”

You point out that in many ways, looking at it as that black box is … misleading, because within what we’re calling “nature” are non-negligible prime movers [that are] generated socially. The social, you write, has “saturated the hazards themselves” – so that in the case of the coronavirus, what we’re responding to is …a set of natural hazards that are [also] social themselves. Could you elaborate on that theme?

MALM: Yeah, this is an argument developed in dialogue with the work of Ben Wiesner and his colleagues, and that work was absolutely foundational in the 1970s and 80s in the development of a kind of critical vulnerability or critical disaster research. What preceded it was a very simplified geophysical view of disasters, which held that disaster is the result of some kind of a natural hazard striking a population that is vulnerable, because it lives close to a fault line, or in an area prone to drought, or whatever. Wiesner and others pointed out that the vulnerability of people to a natural hazard is always differentiated, and it depends on the assets that people have, the buffers that can protect them from the impact of a natural hazard.

It’s been shown…in many cases that earthquakes strike much more painfully if people live in ramshackle housing, in slums, for instance, and if you have solid houses because you’re reasonably affluent. Some have even called earthquakes “class quakes” … I’m not objecting to this, but I’m pointing out a limitation of that model – which is that [in it] the natural hazards themselves are [considered to be] caused solely by natural forces and processes, [whereas] all the social factors are placed on the side of the impact where the vulnerability is constituted.

My argument … is that, now, you find the social drivers and existing not only on the side of vulnerability, but in very production of the hazards themselves. For instance, there was a recent report that came out… that said that 30 million people around the world were internally displaced last year because of extreme weather events – representing 75% of the internally placed displaced people around the world last year. More people had to flee because of hurricanes, droughts, and flooding than because of war and conflict, and this is apparently the first time that you have that clear [a] distribution.

This is not exclusively due to the fact that people in the Global South are vulnerable to extreme weather events. It’s because the extreme weather events themselves become more intense, frequent, and ferocious, and that curve is a product of social processes, around fossil fuel combustion in particular. The same argument applies to zoonotic spillover and pandemics.

MCKAY: It’s a really good example, I would say, of the importance of this dialectical turn in thinking about nature and society, because you’re suggesting [society and nature] aren’t the same, but they’re also not separate… Something like the coronavirus is basically both [a] social and …a natural phenomenon…As an historian,…what I think I really find encouraging about your work is that it … opens up a pathway that had been blocked by the postmodern turn in the twentieth century.

Basically historians were left with the idea that they are telling stories that are almost arbitrarily selected from the past… We’re not really expected to be preoccupied with causal factors or serious analyses… I see your work as opening a new vista. Historians are responsible for rational reconstruction,… for the actual interpretation, objective interpretation, of the past…. Do you sense that new horizons are in fact opening up for historians who have this kind of structural perspective in mind?

MALM: …I’ve had this feeling or idea that global warming in a sense lifts a veil on the import of what’s been going on for two centuries, in that it’s only with this crisis that it becomes fully apparent what it really meant to establish large-scale fossil fuel combustion and burn fossil fuels…. Global warming raises new questions for historians, and I think also send us looking back at things that have happened with new eyes.

It’s part of what we’re doing in this White Skin, Black Fuel book on the danger of fossil fascism. We look at how classical Fascists, the Mussolini regime in Italy and the NSDAP regime in Germany, …dealt with fossil fuel technologies. Against the background of what’s happening today (with the far right positioning itself as the kind of most aggressive defender of business-as-usual), it’s quite significant that the interwar far right, the classical Fascists, were so extremely fetishistic about cars, airplanes, and coal combustion…

So, yes, I think in the light of the climate crisis, there is a lot of work for historians to do…. We’re putting together a volume with texts by people in the Bolshevik regime, primarily in the 1920s, discussing the drawbacks of oil and some advocating for solar power and things like that and ecological discussions in early revolutionary Russia really take on a new importance in the light of what’s going on today. And this can be applied to very many different historical fields over the past centuries.

MCKAY: I thought your coronavirus book [posed an interesting] historical question when you [wrote] that there’s been such a dramatic state response with the coronavirus, with lockdowns (and the Chinese response being perhaps the most dramatic of locking down vast cities in a way that I don’t think has ever really been attempted at that scale before) – and that’s all in stark contrast to how the climate crisis has been unfolding.

People and diplomats gather together every couple of years, pass impressive resolutions, and CO2 [levels] keep rising. There seems to be a marked contrast between willingness to take state action on the one side – quite dramatic state action – and on the other side,…dithering and passing resolutions that are… basically ineffectual. How would you respond to this contrast between the two moments of coronavirus and … the wider climate crisis?

MALM: My argument, to begin with, in the Corona book is that there are certain differences between the climate crisis and the crisis at the moment of the outbreak of the pandemic that account for the differences in state responses…One is that this pandemic struck out of the blue, and it traveled with lightning speed into the affluent core of the Global North, whereas the climate crisis has been going on for a long time, and it’s always been distributed in a way that the primary victims are people in the Global South.

Decision makers in the Global North have become almost … inured to the idea that there is this climate misery always going on in the Global South,…whereas we are the main beneficiaries of business-as-usual, so we can keep going…. When the pandemic hit northern Italy (jumping from China and then to Iran),… that was really the moment when it was constituted as a global crisis and when there was a panic reaction in Europe and governments started closing down and likewise in the US. It had a different temporal process and a different profile when it comes to the distribution of suffering….That might be one explanation for the difference differences in reaction. There are many others, of course.

One is that all the measures taken were advertised as temporary. It’s not like on the climate front where the fossil fuel industries would have to be shut down forever… Here all the lockdowns and the restrictions were proclaimed to be just temporary measures that would then be taken away and we would go back to normality…

In the latter parts of the book, my argument is that if you look closer, in fact the differences are not that great, because what states have showed themselves capable of doing on the pandemic front is to combat the symptoms, the effects. All the discussions, all the policy-making, the decision-making around the pandemic, has stayed at the level of symptoms – as in, how are we going to manage this crisis, what kind of social distancing should be imposed on people, when do we get the vaccines, how do we distribute the vaccines, and so on and so forth.

There’s been no initiative that I know of to go to the root causes, the drivers of zoonotic spillover, and in fact deforestation in the tropics accelerated massively in 2020 and reached the third-highest level since comprehensive measuring began in 2002. The year 2020… was absolutely disastrous to tropical forests around the world, particularly in Brazil and I don’t know of any concerted effort from any advanced capitalist state or from any forum for collective bourgeois class rationality.

One would imagine that the World Bank, the IMF, or the G20 or something like that would ask themselves:  How we make sure this doesn’t happen again? How do we avoid another pandemic a few years down the road? And how do we address the causes of this problem? … That discourse is entirely absent….The passivity in relation to the drivers of zoonotic spillover corresponds pretty well to the passivity in relation to the drivers of global heating. There’s almost more talk about doing something about climate change than there is about doing something about the things that cause zoonotic spillover.

What you see states capable of doing on the climate front, again, is to deal with symptoms. When you had flooding in New South Wales earlier this year, for instance, a year after the wildfire inferno, you had government evacuating areas, closing down roads, telling people to work from home, taking measures very similar to those taken to combat the pandemic, so as to deal with the symptoms of global heating in Australia.

But the Australian state has done nothing to address the drivers of the problem. In fact, Australia is still the world’s largest coal and gas exporter, and the government of Scott Morrison is doing everything to keep that structure in place and expand it. Australia looks like it’s bent on burning and drowning itself to death. So again, the “business-as- usual” [approach] on the climate front corresponds to… “business-as usual” on the pandemic front….

MCKAY: You point out [that] even in Sweden the connection between environmental activism and the pandemic is almost… invisible…. I guess that we need to work harder to make people understand that these two phenomena are connected, because one would have thought, in Sweden, that this would be an easy sell?

MALM: Yeah, but…people have a misperception of Sweden, this welfare state where people are reasonable and rational. Don’t get me started on the politics – they are getting more and more extreme by the day. This is unfortunately not a bastion of rationality.

We need to work harder on making the connections. I think that one of the reasons that those connections haven’t been made or that they at least haven’t percolated into the public discourse … is that there’s been no movement mobilizing around this throughout the pandemic. The social movements directly related to the pandemic have mostly been protesting the lockdowns that we’ve had in both Europe and North America.

But there has been no movement mobilization around things like … deforestation. (We need to get the supply chains under some kind of public control to make sure that they don’t raze tropical forests.) No movement has really pushed that onto the agenda. That is partly, I think, because the climate movement went into a coma when the pandemic broke out, and the general environment movement did as well. The climate movement… in the Global North reached its peak so far of mobilization [in 2019] and then it just completely fell off a cliff when the pandemic broke out….

MCKAY: I really like the discussion in the book from E. Ann Kaplan…. You say that people right now are living in a kind of “pre-trauma.” They’re traumatized before the event because they can see that they’re living in a world with a very uncertain future and an unreliable natural environment.

This pandemic has clarified some of the harshest features of the capitalist world that we inhabit. Sometimes I worry that the left is becoming a kind of collective Cassandra. We quite reasonably and realistically pile up these existential crises threatening humanity, but I wonder if that doesn’t induce in traumatized people (or pre-traumatized people) an almost suicidal sense of living in the End Times.

When I raised that question… with Mike Davis, he said [in effect], I think with an element of sternness,… “Well we are living in an age of apocalyptic capitalism and it’s the job of the left to tell people the facts.” I can see the truth in that. But I still do wonder if we don’t need to be respectful of where people are right now which is kind of in this pre-traumatized state. I wonder if frightened people aren’t going to be impelled to do irrational, frightening things…Where [would] you would stand on this question?

MALM: I think that E. Ann Kaplan’s theory of pre-trauma is based on observations and not on prescriptions. I don’t think her argument is that we should scare people even further and frighten them into action, because – well as far as I remember the book at least – that’s not her argument.

My own take on emotions in relation to the climate crisis is that the one emotion that is conducive to collective action and social movement organizing is anger. There is this research on climate psychology and this debate about how we get people to act. Do we give them hopeful messages about how good things can become – or do we give them alarming messages about how bad things are and how much worse they’re going to get?

The one … amply supported conclusion,… is that anger is the emotion that really makes people act… Look at the George Floyd uprising. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t despair – it was outrage over the murder of George Floyd that brought those tens of millions onto the streets in the US.  And most social movements historically seem to have worked that way…

I think that what the task of the climate movement is to articulate climate rage and that’s not very difficult – at least it shouldn’t be difficult. There are all those insane projects for expanding fossil fuel infrastructure still going on around the world that people should be angry about. [There are] reports such as the one that came out last autumn from the Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam that said that the richest 1% of humanity has emitted twice as much as the poorest half of humanity since the 1990s. (…If you add investments, the disparities are even greater). 

How can you respond to a figure like that with [any other] emotion than anger? It should inflame people. It doesn’t. And that’s the problem. There is a deficit of anger. That’s the deficit that the climate movement needs to fill.

MCKAY: …How do we mobilize, how do we create that historical subject that can change this situation, and who will that historical subject be? Since the…world-historic defeat of the left in the 1970s, it’s very hard to think of a large social force that can actually change this trajectory. And  yet it’s also hard to think of changing that trajectory without a large social, class-based force….

MALM: That’s the one big existential question for all of us I think, and… we’re really groping around for an answer…. So far, every candidate for a substitute for the organized working class hasn’t really been able to fill in the shoes … of that class. You can draw various conclusions from this on the climate front. Some would argue that the only chance for the climate struggle is to resurrect the organized working class and make it climate-conscious. Make …trade unions and labour-working-class parties… the subject of the climate transition again, just as they were the subject of socialist politics in the 20th century.

I’m not entirely sanguine about the prospects for doing that and I don’t really think that the organized working class in the Global North is in a position to be the driver of the climate movement right now. There could be a massive upswing in class struggle in the Global North that might change this, but I don’t see that happening right now.

The big climate mobilizations that we saw in 2019 in the Global North were not based on class, they were not based on gender, and they were not based on race. They were based on age. It was …very distinctly, a youth movement. And that tells us something about what a possible subject in the Global North could look like.

Now, in the Global South, where you have the mass climate suffering already playing out and unfolding, it’s a little bit different. The problem here is … [that] these people are not close in space to the source of their misery…. The source of their misery is cumulative emissions over time that have primarily happened in the Global North. It’s very hard for them to put up a fight… Palestinians encounter their oppressors every day and know exactly who’s the source of their misery…But it’s very different with [the] climate injustice that plays out across the globe.

Now when you think about these matters — and I’m banging on about this in every context I’m in, since I closed the book — the most wonderful resource for thinking about those things that I know is the novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, where he really outlines an incredibly compelling scenario for climate struggle emerging from the Global South after a hyper lethal heat wave hits northern India in 2025 killing 20 million people in about a week.

And after this extreme cataclysm, enraged and embittered people in India …form a group called the Children of Kali and start attacking fossil fuel infrastructure around the world. That’s obviously a work of fiction, but I think he sketches a future that’s not inconceivable….

MCKAY: “In many ways,” you write, “a global struggle to suppress COdoes not sit naturally within the framework of the nation state.” I was wondering if that gestures toward an agenda of creating stronger transnational state institutions capable of responding far more effectively, not only to future pandemics, but also capable of transforming the social drivers that are now perpetuating this metabolic rift…. Yet, this will require the global left to really shift gears from what I would loosely call a kind of anarcho-libertarian stance… to an older left [emphasizing] state planning and … rational management of humanity’s metabolism with the natural world… Do you think that the left needs to undergo a rethinking of its anarcho-libertarian stance?

MALM: Yes… I’m a recovering anarchist. I was an anarchist for a time in my youth, but I started recovering from that around the age of 20. I guess the …ecological crisis … should be an incentive to people for people to get rid of that anarcho-libertarian hangover that so many of us have had since the collapse of the Stalinist states and realize that, whatever we think of the state, it’s incredibly difficult to see any other actor than the state being capable of doing something like cutting emissions by seven or ten percent per year. … It requires, just as you say, comprehensive planning, allocation of resources, regulation, enforcement of certain orders, nationalizing… of companies.

We can’t have private property and fossil fuels; we can’t have a freedom for capitalists to extract fossil fuels and sell them at a profit. The fossil fuel industries should be nationalized and transformed into something completely different and so on and so forth. This is not happening, because the state apparatuses that we live under are beholden to dominant class interests, but it’s very hard to see anyone else than those institutions even hypothetically being capable of doing this.

It’s only that they would have to be torn away from dominant class interests and forced by mass pressure to do what’s necessary. But the idea that we can accomplish these feats of transition through some kind of horizontal networks or local initiatives, or mutual aid networks, is to me extremely unconvincing.

MCKAY: To just conclude with the pandemic. Since you wrote your book on the pandemic, in many ways the evidence for [your] position gets stronger with, say, the shambolic vaccine rollout which will end up privileging the Global North over the Global South, or just the absence of any effective world body that can tell Bolsonaro, in effect: “No, actually, you can’t do that.  You have to take a more responsible position not only with vaccinating and, protecting people but also in deforesting Amazon – these [policies] are not allowable.” To my eye, it calls for some sort of transnational state authority that can actually defend humanity.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: You just made a comment about the transnational kind of organization, and I feel like that’s kind of a mistake that we’ve made. There kind of is a transnational organization, led by the United States, and I think the local population like Brazil, or any country actually don’t want to deforest. The majority of the population of many countries are ecologically knowledgeable, and the world needs to kind of get out of people’s way and let Brazil figure it out themselves instead of kind of incentivizing them to exploit their own resources. I don’t know if anybody has thoughts on that.

MALM: …You’re absolutely right. The deforestation that happens in Brazil is tied to global supply chains, and Bolsonaro is opening up the rainforests for entrepreneurs that serve those chains. Despite all his nationalist rhetoric, what he’s really doing is … opening the rainforest to the advanced detachments of global capital, to put it perhaps a little bit crudely… When it comes to the state, I think that the Brazilian case is interesting, because there was a period not that long ago when Brazil was the shining example of reduced deforestation.

That was during the early period of Lula[1] when the state actually started cracking down on destructive deforestation in the Amazon and installed monitoring, set aside reserves, punished illegal loggers with fines. It managed to reduce [deforestation] to a fraction of what it was before Lula. Bolsonaro is the latest wave in a reaction to that not-revolutionary-but-reformist progress that Lula presided over. The reaction began already under Dilma, then after the [2016] coup,… it has accelerated under Bolsonaro.

This really is just one illustration of what the state can do potentially if it’s aligned with interests such as… the majority interest in Brazil, [which] would presumably be to preserve the Amazon and not to wreck it entirely… The state can limit destruction. On the other hand, you can say that the Lula case once again shows the shortcomings of reformism because the backlash wasn’t prevented… The forces Bolsonaro represents were biding their time and just waiting for the opportunity to seize state power again and destroy everything that had been achieved.

This is the tragedy of incomplete revolutions that Rosa Luxembourg and others have pointed to…. In the case of Brazil and other countries in the tropics, deforestation cannot be brought under control without this kind of state intervention. It probably needs to be more radical than what happened under Lula, but his early achievements are maybe the best case of what can be what can be done.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Well, I want to introduce the dragon in the room… I want to look at the other end of that supply chain, namely China. So, China – Global North, Global South? And how does it play into your prescription of [a] radicalized, environmentally conscious working class?

MALM: That’s a good question… China is the dragon in the room, and China inaugurated the equivalent of one new coal-fired power plant every week last year. There’s no way that we can get these problems under control without a radical change of trajectory in China. I don’t know Chinese politics; I wrote a little bit on the emissions in China and the situation in the Chinese manufacturing industry and the strike waves and things like that back in 2010, but I haven’t really followed developments since then very closely, so I’m not in a position to say whether the Chinese working class is even a potential subject for change and whether it’s showing signs of some kind of proto-environmental consciousness that could perhaps drive change…

Now, the emissions explosion that’s been going on in China since the turn of the millennium is clearly a globalized phenomenon in that — and this is what I wrote about back in 2010; it’s one of the last chapters in Fossil Capital — this explosion happened because so much of global manufacturing was relocated to China to make use of the supplies of …cheap and disciplined workers.

They’re not so cheap and disciplined any longer, perhaps. But it’s still very much the case that the coal explosion there is deeply tied to supply chains that cross the globe, and it’s a mistake to attribute everything that’s going on in the Chinese economy to China itself because so much of it [entails] American, Swedish, British, Italian, and Australian companies moving their factories into China or having moved them there for a couple of decades….

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Andreas, I’m from Sweden too, so this will be a question from a little bit far up north… You talked a little bit about the need of anger to change things with people. That we need to muster up our anger and our will to change to make people change and to make politicians change things.

And you talked about the summer of 2018, and I remember it too and it was pretty close to me where this big fire was. When that happened, you could see a spike in the Green movement.  You could see it. You could see the anger. You could see a spike in the people wanting to vote for the Green Party. But then it just faded away. …Something is needed more than the anger. Have you thought anything about that?

MALM: I agree…Unfortunately disasters, such as the one that happened in summer of 2018 in Sweden and other parts of northern central Europe, will become more frequent and will become more intense. It wasn’t even a very serious disaster. I don’t think even a single [person] died in Sweden in that summer (or very few). For us, it was a shock, because we’ve never seen our country burn like that.

This will happen again. We don’t know if it will happen this summer or if it will happen the next or the one after that, but it will happen again, it will get worse, and there will be other events of this kind. It would be a little bit similar to the George Floyd situation – in that you get those incidents piled upon each other. If the intervals are an obstacle to the formation of climate anger or an obstacle to sustaining it, I think that that problem, unfortunately, will be solved.

These [disasters] will become more and more regular occurrences. The problem, of course, is that the more regular they become, the later in the day it will be and the harder it will be to do anything about the process. The challenge for the climate movement would be to fan the flames of anger before you have wildfires every month…

…I think that the climate movement made some headway on this in Europe in 2018 and 2019, because it actually kept growing and drew more people onto the streets for quite a long time after that summer – all the way up to the outbreak of the pandemic. So, for a year and a half almost. The problem then was that the pandemic shut down that whole wave of mobilization.

Another problem that is very conspicuous in Sweden (but this goes from for other countries in Europe as well) is that people tend to forget about climate and be obsessively focused on immigration. It’s the one political question that always pushes climate concern down to the bottom of the agenda again and again and again.

Swedish politics nowadays is only about the evil of the immigrants…. Immigrants can be blamed for absolutely everything, from poor results in school tests to segregated unemployment, everything. It’s the same in France and many other countries in Europe. If we want to keep climate in focus, we really need to find a way…to convince people that the threat to their existence is not people who are not white and have come to live in their countries, but global heating….

MCKAY: …A concluding comment that… takes us back to where we started, which is the urgent necessity of integrating scholarship and activism…  I think about Antonio Gramsci’s “Modern Prince,” and imagine a modern prince of the 21st century capable of both educating people about the climate [and] about pandemics but also… channeling their emotion usefully.

Gramsci would warn against wars of maneuver, perhaps like physical attacks on pipelines, rather than wars of position, [in which]  you’re slowly, soberly… trying to really change… the fundamentals of the situation. You’re slowly trying to create a new historical subject – very well informed and very well equipped, scientifically and culturally confident – that can take on so many of the so-called experts who basically have paved the way for this present catastrophe. Do you want to respond to that?

MALM: I agree with that. The only problem is the word you used: “slowly.” … There is very little time, and we need to act very quickly. That’s not to say that war of maneuver is the only path forward. But, maybe there needs to be some kind of a dialectic between war of maneuver and war of position, rather than just say war position alone.

MCKAY: In your guts, you’re very skeptical of gradualism, I sense?

MALM: …The problem is that gradualist climate politics could perhaps have worked if it had been commenced for real in the 1990s, when there was still plenty of time (well, plenty of time is perhaps an exaggeration, but more time than…now.) The paradox here is that the more the dominant classes succeed in postponing the break with business-as-usual, the sharper that break will eventually have to be, if it ever happens. The longer you wait, …the more revolutionary will the rupture eventually have to be.

And that’s a result of defeats that we have suffered over these decades. When we eventually win, our victory will have to be very sharp and abrupt, because climate change is a fundamentally accumulating phenomenon. It’s a result of everything that has been emitted. If you continue to pile emissions on the ones that have already been made, temperatures will rise.

This is the logic of the carbon budgets and all these things. That means that when the carbon budget is finished, and when the cumulative emissions have reached a certain level, you have to stop completely unless you want to pass certain thresholds. And stopping completely is an extremely abrupt thing to do….

MCKAY: In some ways there’s a parallel with the pandemic. When it started [in earnest] in January 2020,… the right response turns to out to have been the most radical and far-reaching one. …  As a senior official of the World Health Organization said, “You move fast, don’t look back — yes you’re going to make mistakes, but you cannot [look back], there is not time to waste.”

In many ways it’s very hard for Canadians to think that way, because Canadians are almost gradualist by definition. We just love being in the middle of the road, we love taking very carefully modulated steps. But the climate crisis isn’t that kind of crisis. It actually does call for this kind of real change – and not over decades, because there aren’t decades to spare.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: …As the pandemic continues on, how do we deal with the fact that Covid is quickly becoming a Third World problem? Some countries will never be able to obtain the number of vaccines First World countries can.

MALM: This clearly is a massive problem.  It…prefigures… the worst scenarios for climate adaptation, where rich countries protect themselves behind walls of affluence, … while leaving others to fend for themselves. How do we deal with that? Well, I have to admit that I have not followed the developments with regard to vaccine distribution very closely, so I don’t really know what the negotiations and struggles look like around the companies, the various vaccines, the WHO, all of these things… Clearly the vaccine nationalism advanced capitalist countries are guilty of, is obscene and has to be fought one way or another, but I don’t know exactly how to do it.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: I’m also in Canada, and I’m not totally in agreement about Canadians being not prone to move into action. My experience in British Columbia, twice in the last 30 years in 1983 and then again between 2003 and 2005, tens of thousands of people moved into action around attacks and opposing attacks on union rights, social spending, a whole bunch of other related neoliberal attacks… But my understanding of what happened in those cases when people moved, was that in order to get large numbers of people in motion, it wasn’t just anger that moved people.

It was being afraid and then being angry about it, but also having a feeling that there was some chance of succeeding. Because in both of those cases, when the unfortunate leadership of the movements… called them off in full spate, the mobilizations wound down very quickly… People concluded that their chances of doing anything [had] evaporated.

I’m involved right now in taking a course about how you organize in a trade union situation for getting a new collective agreement or getting a new certification… The people that are talking to us are saying that one of the things that you have to do is not just throw out general messages to your entire population. You have to do some analysis…. Who are the people that are most likely to move? Who are the people who influence other people?

Who are the people that have some connections outside the plant or the workplace? … You have to do some analysis, and then you have to start talking about how to get people in those certain places to start moving first….The only class of people that I can see on the planet that can move simultaneously in a bunch of different countries have been the youth.

Unfortunately, youth don’t stay young.  In a certain economic and social situation when they’re young, … they move. They get a little bit older, and they wind up getting connected with jobs or poverty or whatever else, and they don’t have those universal characteristics anymore.

Anyway, I’m wondering if there’s someone who [has] started looking at how we can put together people or at least doing an analysis to get different groups in different countries to start connecting internationally, …to form some kind of an international of struggle?

MALM: …I think there are quite a few initiatives of that kind underway. The Fridays for Future movement, for instance, [is] fairly global in its reach. Likewise Extinction Rebellion. Internationally, there is the Progressive International…  But the problem…with these various initiatives and networks, in my view, is that they are almost exclusively based on social media, and social media [have], in my assessment, been a disaster for the left.

They have further entrenched the kind of anarcho-libertarian mindsets that Ian referred to as a kind of default way of doing politics.  Because mobilizations based on social media are very easy to get going. It’s very to respond to a Facebook call to come to a square or a demonstration or something like that. But it’s just as easy to drop out and disappear. Social media-based eruptions of protests tend to have this extremely effervescent way of drawing a lot of people. But then [such an eruption] just completely fizzles out and leaves no trace in any kind of solid, more-or-less institutionalized organization or political project. It just evaporates.

That’s been the tragedy for so many campaigns and movements of the past decade, starting perhaps with Occupy which happened just when the whole Facebook/Twitter/social media universe started taking over… That’s not to say that there is a ready-made alternative as in party projects like Syriza, Corbin, Sanders, or something like that. These projects have had their own shortcomings and haven’t really succeeded.… I’m not saying that the left should just opt out and delete all social media accounts and leave it to the devil. But there is there has to be a way to make those movements of mobilization more enduring in their effects

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: …I heard a speech by one of the leaders of the Quebec student strikes that happened several years ago [that] makes a distinction about social media. He said that social media [are] great for organizing the people that are already on side but [they are] not great for winning people to come alongside in any durable way. …They had focused on getting the numbers that were necessary to hand out leaflets and engage in discussion with people, and once they were on-site then, they could get them to move through social media in an efficient way. They didn’t depend on [social media] as a way to recruit people…

MCKAY: Thank you, Andreas Malm, for immensely informative chat, and I hope you’ll stay in touch.

[Andreas Malm spoke to Syndemic on 27 May 2021. For a review of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, see Mack Penner, “Whither Polycrisis?”, in this issue of Syndemic]

[1] Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, 2003-10.

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