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If socialism fails: the spectre of 21st century barbarism

By Ian Angus

July 27, 2008 -- From the first day it appeared online, Climate and Capitalism’s masthead has carried the slogan “Ecosocialism or Barbarism: there is no third way.” We’ve been quite clear that ecosocialism is not a new theory or brand of socialism — it is socialism with Marx’s important insights on ecology restored, socialism committed to the fight against ecological destruction. But why do we say that the alternative to ecosocialism is barbarism?

Marxists have used the word “barbarism” in various ways, but most often to describe actions or social conditions that are grossly inhumane, brutal, and violent. It is not a word we use lightly, because it implies not just bad behaviour but violations of the most important norms of human solidarity and civilised life. [1]

The slogan “Socialism or Barbarism” originated with the great German revolutionary socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who repeatedly raised it during World War I. It was a profound concept, one that has become ever more relevant as the years have passed.

Rosa Luxemburg spent her entire adult life organising and educating the working class to fight for socialism. She was convinced that if socialism didn’t triumph, capitalism would become ever more barbaric, wiping out centuries of gains in civilisation. In a major 1915 antiwar polemic, she referred to Friedrich Engels’ view that society must advance to socialism or revert to barbarism and then asked, “What does a ‘reversion to barbarism’ mean at the present stage of European civilisation?”

She gave two related answers.

In the long run, she said, a continuation of capitalism would lead to the literal collapse of civilised society and the coming of a new Dark Age, similar to Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire: “The collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery.” (The Junius Pamphlet) [2]

By saying this, Rosa Luxemburg was reminding the revolutionary left that socialism is not inevitable, that if the socialist movement failed, capitalism might destroy modern civilisation, leaving behind a much poorer and much harsher world. That wasn’t a new concept – it has been part of Marxist thought from its very beginning. In 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles … that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

In Luxemburg’s words: “Humanity is facing the alternative: Dissolution and downfall in capitalist anarchy, or regeneration through the social revolution.” (A Call to the Workers of the World)

Capitalism’s two faces

But Luxemburg, again following the example of Marx and Engels, also used the term “barbarism” another way, to contrast capitalism’s loudly proclaimed noble ideals with its actual practice of torture, starvation, murder and war.

Marx many times described the two-sided nature of capitalist “progress”. In 1853, writing about British rule in India, he described the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”

Capitalist progress, he said, resembled a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” (The Future Results of British Rule in India)

Similarly, in a speech to radical workers in London in 1856, he said:

“On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.” (Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper)

Immense improvements to the human condition have been made under capitalism — in health, culture, philosophy, literature, music and more. But capitalism has also led to starvation, destitution, mass violence, torture and even genocide — all on an unprecedented scale. As capitalism has expanded and aged, the barbarous side of its nature has come ever more to the fore.

Bourgeois society, which came to power promising equality, democracy and human rights, has never had any compunction about throwing those ideals overboard to expand and protect its wealth and profits. That’s the view of barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg was primarily concerned about during World War I. She wrote:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping in filth, this capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics — as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness …

“A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism.” (The Junius Pamphlet)

For Luxemburg, barbarism wasn’t a future possibility. It was the present reality of imperialism, a reality that was destined to get much worse if socialism failed to stop it. Tragically, she was proven correct. The defeat of the German revolutions of 1917 to 1923, coupled with the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution, opened the way to a century of genocide and constant war.

In 1933, Leon Trotsky described the rise of fascism as “capitalist society … puking up undigested barbarism”. (What is National Socialism?)

Later he wrote: “The delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism — chronic unemployment, pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road.” (In Defense of Marxism)

More than 250 million people, most of them civilians, were killed in the wars of extermination and mass atrocities of the 20th Century. This century continues that record: in less than eight years over three million people have died in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World, and at least 700,000 have died in “natural” disasters.

As Luxemburg and Trotsky warned, barbarism is already upon us. Only mass action can stop barbarism from advancing, and only socialism can definitively defeat it. Their call to action is even more important today, when capitalism has added massive ecological destruction, primarily affecting the poor, to the wars and other horrors of the 20th century.

21st century barbarism

That view has been expressed repeatedly and forcefully by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Speaking in Vienna in May 2006, he referred explicitly to Luxemburg’s words:

“The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism. … When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now.” [3]

A few months earlier, in Caracas, he argued that capitalism’s destruction of the environment gives particular urgency to the fight against barbarism today:

“I was remembering Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg and the phrase that each one of them, in their particular time and context put forward; the dilemma ‘socialism or barbarism.’ …

“I believe it is time that we take up with courage and clarity a political, social, collective and ideological offensive across the world — a real offensive that permits us to move progressively, over the next years, the next decades, leaving behind the perverse, destructive, destroyer, capitalist model and go forward in constructing the socialist model to avoid barbarism and beyond that the annihilation of life on this planet.

“I believe this idea has a strong connection with reality. I don’t think we have much time. Fidel Castro said in one of his speeches I read not so long ago, “tomorrow could be too late, let’s do now what we need to do.” I don’t believe that this is an exaggeration. The environment is suffering damage that could be irreversible — global warming, the greenhouse effect, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea level, hurricanes — with terrible social occurrences that will shake life on this planet.” [4]

Chavez and the revolutionary Bolivarian movement in Venezuela have proudly raised the banner of ``21st Century Socialism'' to describe their goals. As these comments show, they are also raising a warning flag, that the alternative to socialism is 21st century barbarism — the barbarism of the previous century amplified and intensified by ecological crisis.

Climate change and ‘barbarisation’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been studying and reporting on climate change for two decades. Recently the vice-chair of the IPCC, Professor Mohan Munasinghe, gave a lecture at Cambridge University that described “a dystopic possible future world in which social problems are made much worse by the environmental consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions.”

He said: “Climate change is, or could be, the additional factor which will exacerbate the existing problems of poverty, environmental degradation, social polarisation and terrorism and it could lead to a very chaotic situation.”

“Barbarisation”, Munasinghe said, is already underway. We face “a situation where the rich live in enclaves, protected, and the poor live outside in unsustainable conditions.” [5]

A common criticism of the IPCC is that its reports are too conservative, that it understates how fast climate change is occurring and how disastrous the effects may be. So when the vice-chair of the IPCC says that “barbarisation” is already happening, no one should suggest that it’s an exaggeration.

The present reality of barbarism

The idea of 21st century barbarism may seem farfetched. Even with food and fuel inflation, growing unemployment and housing crises, many working people in the advanced capitalist countries still enjoy a considerable degree of comfort and security.

But outside the protected enclaves of the global north, the reality of “barbarisation” is all too evident.

  • 2.5 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, survive on less than two dollars a day.

  • Over 850 million people are chronically undernourished and three times that many frequently go hungry.

  • Every hour of every day, 180 children die of hunger and 1200 die of preventable diseases.

  • Over half a million women die every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. 99% of them are in the global south.

  • Over a billion people live in vast urban slums, without sanitation, sufficient living space, or durable housing.

  • 1.3 billion people have no safe water. 3 million die of water-related diseases every year.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2007-2008 warns that unmitigated climate change will lock the world’s poorest countries and their poorest citizens in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats and a loss of livelihoods. [6]

In UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervi’s words: “Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole. But it is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs.” [7]

Among the 21st century threats identified by the Human Development Report:

  • The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition.

  • An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.

  • Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.

  • Expanding health risks, including up to 400 million more people facing the risk of malaria.

To these we can add the certainty that at least 100 million people will be added to the ranks of the permanently hungry this year as a result of food price inflation.

In the UN report, former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoes Munasinghe’s prediction of protected enclaves for the rich within a world of ecological destruction:

“While the citizens of the rich world are protected from harm, the poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh reality of climate change in their everyday lives…. We are drifting into a world of ‘adaptation apartheid’.”

As capitalism continues with business as usual, climate change is fast expanding the gap between rich and poor between and within nations, and imposing unparalleled suffering on those least able to protect themselves. That is the reality of 21st century barbarism.

No society that permits that to happen can be called civilized. No social order that causes it to happen deserves to survive.

* * *

Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism and an associate editor of Socialist Voice, where this article first appeared.

Footnotes

[1] In “Empire of Barbarism” (Monthly Review, December 2004), John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark provide an excellent account of the evolution of the word “barbarism” and its present-day implications.

The best discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s use of the word is in Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (NLB 1976), which unfortunately is out of print.

[2] The works of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and Trotsky that are quoted in this article can be found online in the Marxists Internet Archive.

[3] Hands Off Venezuela, May 13, 2006.

[4] Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005.

[5] “Expert warns climate change will lead to ‘barbarisation’” Guardian, May 15, 2008.

[6] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2007/2008.

[7] “Climate change threatens unprecedented human development reversals.” UNDP News Release, Nov. 27, 2007.

Comments

Mike Davis: Living on the Ice Shelf

June 26, 2008 10:48 am
Tomgram: Mike Davis, Welcome to the Next Epoch

For those who didn't happen to notice, perhaps because it wasn't exactly front-page news in most of the country, NASA's James Hansen, the man who first alerted Congress to the dangers of global warming 20 years ago, returned to testify before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming this week. This time around, he was essentially offering a final warning on the subject. Unless the U.S. begins to act soon, he pointed out, "it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control."

For the "elements of a 'perfect storm,' a global cataclysm" being assembled, he placed special blame on the "CEOs of fossil energy companies [who] know what they are doing and are aware of [the] long-term consequences of continued business as usual." He added that they should, in his opinion, "be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature… I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials." That's a novel thought in our nation's capital. Oh, and while he was at it, he probably should have thrown in George W., Dick C., and crew. What they haven't done (and what they've blocked from being done) over these last eight years may turn out to be their greatest crime of all. Talk about smoking guns... or is it melting ice?

And here's the sad thing, as with so much else in these last years, the only way global warming has gotten the slightest respect in Bush's Washington is as a national security issue. Big surprise. The Navy, for instance, was already holding a symposium entitled "Naval operations in an Ice-Free Arctic" in April 2001; now, it seems that by 2010, or 2015 at the latest, it may have its wish -- an iceless Arctic Ocean in the summer for the first time in perhaps one million years and a scramble for energy and mineral wealth at the poles. An office of the Pentagon, war-gaming climate change back in 2004, wrote up a hair-raising, spine-tingling end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it report on a future planet in eternal conflict amid every kind of weather disaster; and only this week, the U.S. Intelligence Community, the official 16 agencies gathering the stuff for the government, chimed in with a grim new report, "The National Security Implications of Global Climate Change Through 2030."

As "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," a 2007 report from the military-allied research organization, the CNA Corporation, indicated, admirals and generals galore have been worrying about the subject for a while. Think, for instance, of those low-lying U.S. bases, like the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, that might just go under. Could climate change not only send millions fleeing from flooding or salinating lowlands, or out of areas of conflict over ever scarcer resources, but start the process of de-garrisoning the globe for the Pentagon? ("Climate change could compromise some of [our] bases…[T]he loss of some forward bases would require longer range lift and strike capabilities and would increase the military's energy needs.") It's enough to set a military-minded group to worrying.

Now, in a striking report from the front lines of science, Mike Davis, TomDispatch regular and author most recently of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire, "welcomes" the new geologic era we're officially entering, a period in which humanity may simply, and catastrophically, outrun history itself. Tom

Living on the Ice Shelf
Humanity's Meltdown
By Mike Davis

1. Farewell to the Holocene

Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.

This February, while cranes were hoisting cladding to the 141st floor of the Burj Dubai tower (which will soon be twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest story to the geological column.

The London Society is the world's oldest association of Earth scientists, founded in 1807, and its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale. Stratigraphers slice up Earth's history as preserved in sedimentary strata into hierarchies of eons, eras, periods, and epochs marked by the "golden spikes" of mass extinctions, speciation events, and abrupt changes in atmospheric chemistry.

In geology, as in biology or history, periodization is a complex, controversial art and the most bitter feud in nineteenth-century British science -- still known as the "Great Devonian Controversy" -- was fought over competing interpretations of homely Welsh Graywackes and English Old Red Sandstone. More recently, geologists have feuded over how to stratigraphically demarcate ice age oscillations over the last 2.8 million years. Some have never accepted that the most recent inter-glacial warm interval -- the Holocene -- should be distinguished as an "epoch" in its own right just because it encompasses the history of civilization.

As a result, contemporary stratigraphers have set extraordinarily rigorous standards for the beatification of any new geological divisions. Although the idea of the "Anthropocene" -- an Earth epoch defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force -- has been long debated, stratigraphers have refused to acknowledge compelling evidence for its advent.

At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised.

To the question "Are we now living in the Anthropocene?" the 21 members of the Commission unanimously answer "yes." They adduce robust evidence that the Holocene epoch -- the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilization -- has ended and that the Earth has entered "a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years." In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which "now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude," the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.

This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that "the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks." Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.

2. Spontaneous Decarbonization?

The Commission's coronation of the Anthropocene coincides with growing scientific controversy over the 4th Assessment Report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is mandated to establish scientific baselines for international efforts to mitigate global warming, but some of the most prominent researchers in the field are now challenging its reference scenarios as overly optimistic, even pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The current scenarios were adopted by the IPCC in 2000 to model future global emissions based on different "storylines" about population growth as well as technological and economic development. Some of the Panel's major scenarios are well known to policymakers and greenhouse activists, but few outside the research community have actually read or understood the fine print, particularly the IPCC's confidence that greater energy efficiency will be an "automatic" byproduct of future economic development. Indeed all the scenarios, even the "business as usual" variants, assume that at least 60% of future carbon reduction will occur independently of greenhouse mitigation measures.

The Panel, in effect, has bet the ranch, or rather the planet, on unplanned, market-driven progress toward a post-carbon world economy, a transition that implicitly requires wealth generated from higher energy prices ultimately finding its way to new technologies and renewable energy. (The International Energy Agency recently estimated that it would cost $45 trillion to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.) Kyoto-type accords and carbon markets are designed -- almost as an analogue to Keynesian "pump-priming" -- to bridge the shortfall between spontaneous decarbonization and the emissions targets required by each scenario. Serendipitously, this reduces the costs of mitigating global warming to levels that align with what seems, at least theoretically, to be politically possible, as expounded in the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change of 2006 and other such reports.

Critics argue, however, that this represents a heroic leap of faith that radically understates the economic costs, technological hurdles, and social changes required to tame the growth of greenhouse gases. European carbon emissions, for example, are still rising (dramatically in some sectors) despite the European Union's much praised adoption of a cap-and-trade system in 2005. Likewise there has been little evidence in recent years of the automatic progress in energy efficiency that is the sine qua non of the IPCC scenarios. Although The Economist characteristically begs to differ, most energy researchers believe that, since 2000, energy intensity has actually risen; that is, global carbon dioxide emissions have kept pace with, or even grown marginally faster than, energy use.

Coal production, especially, is undergoing a dramatic renaissance, as the nineteenth century has returned to haunt the twenty-first century. Hundreds of thousands of miners are now working under conditions that would have appalled Charles Dickens, extracting the dirty mineral that allows China to open two new coal-fueled power stations every week. Meanwhile, the total consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to increase at least 55% over the next generation, with international oil exports doubling in volume.

The United Nations Development Program, which has made its own study of sustainable energy goals, warns that it will require "a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 against 1990 levels" to keep humanity outside the red zone of runaway warming (usually defined as a greater than two degrees centigrade increase this century). Yet the International Energy Agency predicts that, in all likelihood, such emissions will actually increase in this period by nearly 100% -- enough greenhouse gas to propel us past several critical tipping points.

Even while higher energy prices are pushing SUVs towards extinction and attracting more venture capital to renewable energy, they are also opening the Pandora's box of the crudest of crude oil production from Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil. As one British scientist has warned, the very last thing we should wish for (under the false slogan of "energy independence") is new frontiers in hydrocarbon production that advance "humankind's ability to accelerate global warming" and slow the urgent transition to "non-carbon or closed-carbon energy cycles."

3. Fin-du-Monde Boom

What confidence should we place in the capacity of markets to reallocate investment from old to new energy or, say, from arms expenditures to sustainable agriculture? We are propagandized incessantly (especially on public television) about how giant companies like Chevron, Pfizer Inc., and Archer Daniels Midland are hard at work saving the planet by plowing profits back into the kinds of research and exploration that will ensure low-carbon fuels, new vaccines, and more drought-resistant crops.

As the current ethanol-from-corn boom, which has diverted 100 million tons of grain from human diets mainly to American car engines, so appallingly demonstrates, "biofuel" may be a euphemism for subsidies to the rich and starvation for the poor. Likewise "clean coal," despite a vigorous endorsement from Senator Barack Obama (who also champions ethanol), is, at present, simply a huge deception: a $40 million advertising and lobbying campaign for a hypothetical technology that BusinessWeek has characterized as "being decades away from commercial viability."

Moreover there are disturbing signs that energy companies and utilities are reneging on their public commitments to the development of carbon-capture and alternative energy technologies. The Bush administration's "marquee demonstration project," FutureGen, was scrapped this year after the coal industry refused to pay its share of the public-private "partnership"; similarly, most U.S. private-sector carbon-sequestration initiatives have recently been cancelled. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Shell has just pulled out of the world's largest wind-energy project, the London Array. Despite heroic levels of advertising, energy corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, prefer to overgraze the commons, while letting taxes, not profits, pay for whatever urgent, long-overdue research is actually undertaken.

On the other hand, the spoils from high energy prices continue to gush into real estate, skyscrapers, and financial assets. Whether or not we are actually at the summit of Hubbert's Peak -- that peak oil moment -- whether or not the oil-price bubble finally bursts, what we are probably witnessing is the largest transfer of wealth in modern history.

An eminent Wall Street oracle, McKinsey Global Institute, predicts that if crude oil prices remain above $100 per barrel -- they are, at the moment, approaching $140 a barrel -- the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone will "reap a cumulative windfall of almost $9 trillion by 2020." As in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, whose total gross domestic product has almost doubled in just three years, are awash in liquidity: $2.4 trillion in banks and investment funds according to a recent estimate by The Economist. Regardless of price trends, the International Energy Agency predicts, "more and more oil will come from fewer and fewer countries, primarily the Middle East members of OPEC [The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]."

Dubai, which has little oil income of its own, has become the regional financial hub for this vast pool of wealth, with ambitions to eventually compete with Wall Street and the City of London. During the first oil shock in the 1970s, much of OPEC's surplus was recycled through military purchases in the United States and Europe, or parked in foreign banks to become the "subprime" loans that eventually devastated Latin America. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the Gulf states became far more cautious about entrusting their wealth to countries, like the United States, governed by religious fanatics. This time around, they are using "sovereign wealth funds" to achieve a more active ownership in foreign financial institutions, while investing fabulous amounts of oil revenue to transform Arabia's sands into hyperbolic cities, shopping paradises, and private islands for British rock stars and Russian gangsters.

Two years ago, when oil prices were less than half of the current level, The Financial Times estimated that planned new construction in Saudi Arabia and the emirates already exceeded $1 trillion dollars. Today, it may be closer to $1.5 trillion, considerably more than the total value of world trade in agricultural products. Most of the Gulf city-states are building hallucinatory skylines -- and, among them, Dubai is the unquestionable superstar. In a little more than a decade, it has erected 500 skyscrapers, and currently leases one-quarter of all the high-rise cranes in the world.

This super-charged Gulf boom, which celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas claims is "reconfiguring the world," has led Dubai developers to proclaim the advent of a "supreme lifestyle" represented by seven-star hotels, private islands, and J-class yachts. Not surprisingly, then, the United Arab Emirates and its neighbors have the biggest per capita ecological footprints on the planet. Meanwhile, the rightful owners of Arab oil wealth, the masses crammed into the angry tenements of Baghdad, Cairo, Amman, and Khartoum, have little more to show for it than a trickle-down of oil-field jobs and Saudi-subsidized madrassas. While guests enjoy the $5,000 per night rooms in Burj Al-Arab, Dubai's celebrated sail-shaped hotel, working-class Cairenes riot in the streets over the unaffordable price of bread.

4. Can Markets Enfranchise the Poor?

Emissions optimists, of course, will smile at all the gloom-and-doom and evoke the coming miracle of carbon trading. What they discount is the real possibility that a sprawling carbon-offset market may emerge, just as predicted, yet produce only minimal improvement in the global carbon balance sheet, as long as there is no mechanism for enforcing real net reductions in fossil fuel use.

In popular discussions of emissions-rights trading systems, it is common to mistake the smokestacks for the trees. For example, the wealthy oil enclave of Abu Dhabi (like Dubai, a partner in the United Arab Emirates) brags that it has planted more than 130 million trees -- each of which does its duty in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this artificial forest in the desert also consumes huge quantities of irrigation water produced, or recycled, from expensive desalination plants. The trees may allow Sheik Ahmed bin Zayed to wear a halo at international meetings, but the rude fact is that they are an energy-intensive beauty strip, like most of so-called green capitalism.

And, while we're at it, let's just ask: What if the buying and selling of carbon credits and pollution offsets fails to turn down the thermostat? What exactly will motivate governments and global industries then to join hands in a crusade to reduce emissions through regulation and taxation?

Kyoto-type climate diplomacy assumes that all the major actors, once they have accepted the science in the IPCC reports, will recognize an overriding common interest in gaining control over the runaway greenhouse effect. But global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.

As the United Nations Development Program emphasized in its report last year, global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the "two constituencies with little or no political voice." Coordinated global action on their behalf thus presupposes either their revolutionary empowerment (a scenario not considered by the IPCC) or the transmutation of the self-interest of rich countries and classes into an enlightened "solidarity" without precedent in history. From a rational-actor perspective, the latter outcome only seems realistic if it can be shown that privileged groups possess no preferential "exit" option, that internationalist public opinion drives policymaking in key countries, and that greenhouse gas mitigation could be achieved without major sacrifices in upscale Northern Hemispheric standards of living -- none of which seems highly likely.

And what if growing environmental and social turbulence, instead of galvanizing heroic innovation and international cooperation, simply drive elite publics into even more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity? Global mitigation, in this unexplored but not improbable scenario, would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. We're talking here of the prospect of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.

Of course, there will still be treaties, carbon credits, famine relief, humanitarian acrobatics, and perhaps the full-scale conversion of some European cities and small countries to alternative energy. But the shift to low, or zero, emission lifestyles would be almost unimaginably expensive. (In Britain, it currently costs $200,000 more to build a zero-carbon, "level 6" eco-home than a standard unit of the same area.) And this will certainly become even more unimaginable after perhaps 2030, when the convergent impacts of climate change, peak oil, peak water, and an additional 1.5 billion people on the planet may begin to seriously throttle growth.

5. The North's Ecological Debt

The real question is this: Will rich counties ever mobilize the political will and economic resources to actually achieve IPCC targets or, for that matter, to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable, already "committed" quotient of warming now working its way toward us through the slow circulation of the world ocean?

To be more vivid: Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan? Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh?

Market-oriented optimists, once again, will point to carbon offset programs like the Clean Development Mechanism which, they claim, will allow green capital to flow to the Third World. Most of the Third World, however, probably prefers for the First World to acknowledge the environmental mess it has created and take responsibility for cleaning it up. They rightly rail against the notion that the greatest burden of adjustment to the Anthropocene epoch should fall on those who have contributed least to carbon emissions and drawn the slightest benefits from 200 years of industrialization.

In a sobering study recently published in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Science, a research team has attempted to calculate the environmental costs of economic globalization since 1961 as expressed in deforestation, climate change, over-fishing, ozone depletion, mangrove conversion, and agricultural expansion. After making adjustments for relative cost burdens, they found that the richest countries, by their activities, had generated 42% of environmental degradation across the world, while shouldering only 3% of the resulting costs.

The radicals of the South will rightly point to another debt as well. For 30 years, cities in the developing world have grown at breakneck speed without any equivalent public investment in infrastructure services, housing, or public health. In large part this has been the result of foreign debts contracted by dictators, payments enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and public sectors wrecked by the World Bank's "structural adjustment" agreements.

This planetary deficit of opportunity and social justice is captured in the fact that more than one billion people, according to UN-Habitat, currently live in slums and that their number is expected to double by 2030. An equal number, or more, forage in the so-called informal sector (a first-world euphemism for mass unemployment). Sheer demographic momentum, meanwhile, will increase the world's urban population by 3 billion people over the next 40 years (90% of them in poor cities), and no one -- absolutely no one -- has a clue how a planet of slums, with growing food and energy crises, will accommodate their biological survival, much less their inevitable aspirations to basic happiness and dignity.

If this seems unduly apocalyptic, consider that most climate models project impacts that will uncannily reinforce the present geography of inequality. One of the pioneer analysts of the economics of global warming, Petersen Institute fellow William R. Cline, recently published a country-by-country study of the likely effects of climate change on agriculture by the later decades of this century. Even in the most optimistic simulations, the agricultural systems of Pakistan (a 20% decrease from current farm output predicted) and Northwestern India (a 30% decrease) are likely to be devastated, along with much of the Middle East, the Maghreb, the Sahel belt, Southern Africa, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Twenty-nine developing countries will lose 20% or more of their current farm output to global warming, while agriculture in the already rich north is likely to receive, on average, an 8% boost.

In light of such studies, the current ruthless competition between energy and food markets, amplified by international speculation in commodities and agricultural land, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow exponentially from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.

Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change.

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