To answer: perhaps, but it’s up in the air as to whether this will be a good thing. To ensure there’s no doubt, I am not making this assertion from an anti-human perspective which holds an inherently evil or destructive quality to human life. Nor am I doing so from a position that holds humanity as a combined whole to blame for what has come to be called the Anthropocene.
I take most people are by now well familiar with common predictions of human decline over the coming century, often claiming something between the collapse of world civilization beginning by 2050 through to human extinction by 2100. To pluck a recent example, take this policy paper by the Australian environmental think-tank the National Centre for Climate Restoration (Breakthrough). I pick this more so than anything else because it represents an increasingly panicked wing of bourgeois thought regarding climate change. Breakthrough draw their work not only from the body of scientific work on climate change, but from figures like retired naval veteran Admiral Chris Barrie and ex-fossil fuel exec turned climate advocate Ian Dunlop. This is important for us here, because works such as the paper above are the considerations of one faction of bourgeois thought speaking primarily to their own class. It is for that reason the report above, as with their other publications, is so grimly blunt about the prospects for human civilization.
As such, let’s look at the predictions this policy paper makes by the year 2050 – with a given that all plans for a mass mobilization of world capital and labour to rebuild the economy along ecologically sustainable lines are ignored:
Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability.
The destabilisation of the Jet Stream has very significantly affected the intensity and geographical distribution of the Asian and West African monsoons and, together with the further slowing of the Gulf Stream, is impinging on life support systems in Europe. North America suffers from devastating weather extremes including wildfires, heatwaves, drought and inundation. The summer monsoons in China have failed, and water flows into the great rivers of Asia are severely reduced by the loss of more than one-third of the Himalayan ice sheet. Glacial loss reaches 70 percent in the Andes, and rainfall in Mexico and central America falls by half. Semi-permanent El Nino conditions prevail.
Aridification emerges over more than 30 percent of the world’s land surface. Desertification is severe in southern Africa, the southern Mediterranean, west Asia, the Middle East, inland Australia and across the south-western United States.
The effects of this in the long term over the remainder of the century are as thus:
A number of ecosystems collapse, including coral reef systems, the Amazon rainforest and in the Arctic.
Some poorer nations and regions, which lack capacity to provide artificially-cooled environments for their populations, become unviable. Deadly heat conditions persist for more than 100 days per year in West Africa, tropical South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, contributing to more than a billion people being displaced from the tropical zone.
Water availability decreases sharply in the most affected regions at lower latitudes (dry tropics and subtropics), affecting about two billion people worldwide. Agriculture becomes nonviable in the dry subtropics.
Clearly, such conditions will result in mass death on a scale heretofore unseen across the broad sweep of recorded human history – handily surpassing in raw fatalities the horrors of even the most devastating disasters and atrocities. We may take from current trends in both the advanced capitalist countries and many developing capitalist countries that the 10-figure-strong movements of refugees will not make it to safety. With an acceleration of current conditions, it is far from out of the question to presume most of these people will either be detained in concentration camp-like conditions, turned back with force, or simply executed on the spot during attempted border crossings. This may become even more likely if the hard and fast borders of present nation-states do not regress under a pall of uncertainty to the more vague frontier regions of pre-20th century nations.
Compounding this, the fact that many nation-states will collapse – at least in areas rendered uninhabitable but likely elsewhere too – will lead to the apocalypse-narrative staple of savage resource wars. The effects of prolonged warfare in this scenario will likely result in even further excess fatalities, and exacerbate already severe outbreaks of famine and endemic disease. All told this scenario which appears in the above policy report quite likely would lead most to presume total human extinction to be the logical next step in the decades or at most centuries post-2050.
The saving grace of such scenarios is the end of suffering, albeit one as a result of life itself ending, but it presupposes that suffering does end in relatively short order – leaving behind a scorched and silent Earth as it does. Here, however, is where I propose that – thanks to the vicissitudes of capital – a far worse scenario is in fact more likely to play out. There are worse fates than death. The maintenance of a life of suffering without relief, a life in which death itself is viewed as a grand mercy, is entirely possible.
The worst case scenario, which we may well be hurtling toward, is one in which the status quo is in fact maintained in its most brutal, ruthless, and savage forms. That is to say predictions of mass death in the billions come to pass, at least a third of the Earth’s surface is rendered entirely uninhabitable, but in the areas where life can continue so does humanity. Let us suppose the tipping point of 2050 outlined above comes to pass, what will the conditions of those societies in the less devastated areas be? As above, a ferocious border policy is more than likely – one which pairs with an equally ferocious internal labour regime. The matter of managing labour shortages and surpluses will likely be an easy one for capital, presuming those states which survive find a relatively stable footing. Even in spite of an excess death rate which reaches a billion or more lives over a period of decades, that will leave a gargantuan refugee population which can be mobilised for extremely cheap labour or ignored and left to perish as needed.
Perversely there is a chance that, rather than bringing the total collapse of world civilization (and with it the dominant mode of production, capitalism) the devastation wrought by ecological collapse will prove a lifeline for capitalism. Erratic weather patterns are sure to destroy considerable amounts of fixed capital which, as areas are retreated from or abandoned, will over time cease being repaired, recovered, or maintained. As areas are abandoned, an even greater amount of fixed capital will simply be abandoned too – this encompassing agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing industries depending on where the land becomes inhospitable to human life. Once it becomes clear which areas will remain habitable and the process of investment into building new infrastructure begins, it will become apparent that the abandoning or destruction of entire industries will leave behind an incredible number of new potential areas of investment. The rebuilding post-WWII which helped buoy staggering growth on the continent and, indeed, for the entire world economy via carefully managed economic planning could be enacted across the entire remaining habitable surface of the Earth.
All of this is to say that there is the distinct possibility that three factors will serve to give capitalism a chance to reinvigorate itself out of the conditions of its own self-made disaster. First is obviously that with a vast swathe of humanity desperate to survive at any cost, the pool of freshly proletarianized surplus labour will be larger and potentially easier to manipulate than ever before. The cost of labour power will be astonishingly low, and if capital has difficulty regaining a steady footing then there is always the alarming potential that the states which come to exist will simply revert to slavery as the primary mode of production. With a disaster of this magnitude and destruction of this scale on the table, I at least wouldn’t bet on the bourgeois sticking to the niceties of liberal democracy. Secondly, the opportunity for investment in the areas humanity retreats to will be huge – especially if previously barely or uninhabited areas become comparatively pleasant compared to worse ravaged regions. As above, the potential need for entire states worth of new infrastructure and industry will leave capital without want for areas of expansion in the initial period. And third, once a stable footing in the more habitable regions is attained, capital will turn its eye back toward freshly abandoned land – positively salivating at the opportunities provided by such a vast swathe of the Earth being back up for grabs in spite of how inhospitable it becomes.
The fate worse than death is that of surviving, but only in a state which resembles the worst human history has to offer. The casual brutality of pre-revolution Haitian slavery mixed with the hyper-alienation of the 21st century. The cheapness of human life witnessed only in the worst famines of history, wrought across the entire labouring population of Earth in perpetuity. Never quite enough to kill off the rest of the species, but always so close for so many that denying them final rest only exacerbates the misery.
This is what I mean when I contend that extinction by next century may not be the worst scenario we face. The implications of which are fairly complicated, especially given the pall of extinction nihilism which hangs over most environmental discourse at present. One of the major implications for the left in particular is, if this case is taken to be at least one of the possible trajectories for the future, it cements the intertwined nature of class conflict and environmental management. Though most socialists acknowledge the case for this intertwining as it stands (barring the grifters at Sp!ked magazine), it is usually applied to environmental discourse somewhat haphazardly. It is not just that generally speaking the working class stands to suffer the most from ecological collapse. Said collapse will likely sharpen class contradictions to a near impossible point, a literal matter of life or death in the day-to-day conduct of each class.
The trend toward neo-Malthusian explanations for environmental decline, and the political adoption of ‘ecofascist’ policies, will near inevitably solidify as the guiding principles for economic management. Doing so will allow a quasi-liberal face to be maintained in the interest of preserving a facsimile of civil society, while giving a ready made justification for savage repression of rebellious labour. I doubt it will be easy to scare the bourgeois into a grand compromise without industrial unrest on a scale which would near the levels of a global social revolution.
What exactly can be done, I’m unsure. If I had the answers I’d have more to offer than a grim prognosis. If the climate teens manage to convince notable numbers of workers to strike at the next big action on the 27th September, perhaps it will bring forth a chance for the development of eco-industrial actions by certain sections of the working class. I doubt, though don’t discount, that the teens can pull it off. But if they do, and I certainly hope they do, then the remnants of the socialist movement will have to be prepared to take the opportunity and run. At the very least, every effort should go into encouraging the teens to take up the strike as a vital tool in not only industrial but political struggle. For all we know, they may well be our last hope to tear socialism out of gaping jaws of barbarism.