A disaster waiting to happen

Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash

For the first time in almost four months Boris Johnson has given the go-ahead for pubs, restaurants, schools and outside gyms to reopen to the public, who have waited with static anticipation for the news that, only now, we are coming out the “other side” from this global crisis.  Covid-19, in turning late-capitalism upside down in a world-historical inversion, has broken not only the threads of normality which tie our socio-political system together, but has stripped the concept of state atomism and market responsibility down to their basic insufficiencies. By doing so, the pandemic has rewired the mode of relation between the State and the people. For in this unprecedented turn of events, Government legislation has amplified gross public spending, protectionist measures, has temporarily closed high-street businesses and controlled the social parameters of individual whereabouts in a drastic measure to ‘protect lives and save the NHS’. But the Government’s rapid and aggressive implantation of lockdown restrictions, in an attempt to arrest the spread of Covid-19, has also illustrated a new path of interrogation amongst critical theorists who have quickly pointed out that, when faced with a chronic, climate emergency, the Government ceases to take onboard the same ethical obligations, affluence and authority. For as the engine of mass consumerism and fossil fuel industries restart amidst the “lifting” of lockdown, the catastrophic damage upon our ecological and anthropological scenes will inevitably start to resurface. Even more worryingly, with the disruption to activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion it must now be asked: why hasn’t the State undertaken a drastic, interventionist role in the climate emergency, as they have with the pandemic threshold? 

To address this question, it is firstly crucial to examine the ideological project undertaken by Governments since the early days of Thatcherism, which have altered the DNA of the State and other democratic institutions. The rest of this feature will then focus on two imbricated bodies of thought; racial and geo-politics, to breakdown the other possible reasons for the Government’s corporate compliance and democratic impotence. 

It is particularly interesting that, given the hyper-marketized order that society has usually operated under, since lockdown the Government’s extreme actions amidst this crisis have seemed to suspend normative minimal state interference. On all accounts, lockdown has taken drastic measures to contain the virus which, in a time for many, the proximity between life or death appeared permeable and uncertain. 

One could argue that the dismantlement of the regulated financial economy was hugely guided by the ‘Public Choice Theory’, which, to quote Nancy Fraser in ‘Capitalism, a Conversation in Critical Theory’, harbours the idea that economist logics ‘all aimed at disabling [Western state’s] democratic oversight and control’ over market and private power, aberrating them from their fundamental duties. This theory, applauded by Thatcherites, deployed the social illusion that ‘new layers of governance above the level of states’ could justly ‘set strict limits on what states could and couldn’t do with respect to matters like labour rights and environmental protections’ by disarming the Government’s ability to exercise authoritative mobilisation. 

Considering this structural dismantlement of state welfare, lockdown implementations have anchored an extreme diversion in modern economic history but, it must be questioned, did this diversion need to be proved necessary by a crisis so aggressive, when we’ve been facing a similar struggle against climate collapse for almost half a decade? By no means am I underestimating the brutal losses that have arisen as a result from co-vid19; an estimated 45,000 deaths in the UK alone secures that. I simply wish to point out that ethical welfare and good public service spending should have been crucial to political and sustainable life long before 2020. Indeed, this is a cruciality which has been demonstrated by the chronic deterioration of environmentalism for many years, a cruciality which governments and corporations have also exacerbated and failed to act upon. So, the next question is- why? 

In a podcast by Politics Theory Other, guest speaker Andreas Malm unravelled his theory ‘the timeline of victimisation’, which considered the nexus between neglected, Southern environmental intuition and Northern geographical privilege. In doing so, he recognised how the long, global drift towards climate catastrophe has first and foremost eroded natural, ecological systems in parts of Africa and South Asia. By writhing through the squalor of the world’s poor; disease, famines, droughts, sea level rise and temperature increase have collectively underpinned the climate disaster that the most vulnerable and exploited populations today face the brunt of. But the North’s absence of authority or impinged political bearings upon these environmental threats are shadowed by their privileged geographical position where, although temperature levels are globally on the rise, the anthropological and ecological emergency has been an overwhelmingly stagnant endurance for the North in terms of both extremity and natural exploitation.  

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

But returning to the issue of Covid-19, Westphalian countries- who have usually developed their own economic infrastructures to cushion themselves against mounting disasters- have fallen short at the ravenous mobility of the virus. Their early victimisation illuminates the atypical trajectory of Covid-19, for whereas the climate disaster is universally accepted as a crisis most active in the South, Covid-19 embellished a new wave of panic and emergency from rich, economically liberal populations. Where coronavirus ‘hit the rich at an early stage, with capitalists, celebrities, and political leaders falling ill’, the supersonic search for a vaccine and extreme lockdown measures are most reflective of who suffered from the virus, rather than the vital recognition of long-term anthropocentric faults at play as, after all, many of the early, European victims endure ‘no vulnerability to the climate crisis’- at least not yet. It is perhaps, then, best to think of the ‘timeline of victimhood’ theory as comparing the extremity of the coronavirus catastrophe across the North-West to the periodic eco-deterioration, displayed by the South. 

Perhaps, now, it is beneficial to unpick the racial and capitalist dynamics at work here. For whilst there is no point in this feature in which I would argue that the North-West have entirely jettisoned the recognition of chronic decay, it must be understood that this part of the world nourishes an ignorant passivity towards the climate emergency.  

As such, earthquakes, famine and malaria outbreaks, occurring in some ‘faraway land’, are often blurred into the white noise of economically and racially powerful countries. But is, it must be asked, this basement of integral ignorance and unreceptive agency channelled by the wider capitalist ethos? 

For despite fears that, according to data from Extinction Rebellion, 2019, 95,000 additional deaths due to childhood malnutrition’ will be expected by 2050 and suffered largely by countries who are already at a higher risk of exposure to the climate emergency, the Westphalian’s continuous appropriation of natural resources, labour and supply chains eschews inclination for systematic change, despite the rapid erosion of ecological materials. 

Here brings us to the imbricated segments of late-financial capitalism; natural exploitation and labour expropriation, which for the remainder of this feature will be drawn into the relative framework of chronic environmentalism. 

In a world of mass industrialisation and hyper-extractivism, financial capitalism- a radical form of liberal economics- has established an essential economic nexus with eco-imperialism and anti-colonialism. Axiomatically, capitalism relies on the ‘environmental-load displacement’, in which affluent and powerful countries exploit Southern peripheries and their natural resources. For as capital’s demand for cheap natures and production rises quicker than it can secure them, the importation of cheap and raw materials rest upon a hidden abode of low-wage, foreign labour from where the North-West funnels goods into the production chain to produce ecological surplus. In this systematic order, environmental well being sits on the margins of economic value, whilst Southern peripheries are appropriated to tough labour and toxic industrialisation.

It is little wonder, then, why the North’s recognition of the environmental decay in the Global South has faced such little attention. For not only have their colonial-like actions exasperated the South from achieving a sustainable ethos as well as penetrating peripheries with abodes of environmental racism, but their economic order is so integrally dependent on the exploitation/ expropriation nexus, that transcending market logic alone with counter-alternatives of sustainability and democracy threatens the bodily integrity of global capitalism itself. 

Whilst climate mitigation certainly necessitates the transcendence of financial capitalism, the Global South too is in critical need of environmental revision. Covid-19 has penetrated our collective consciousness with loss, fear and social vulnerability, but the looming disaster of environmental breakdown proves, perhaps, an even greater threat to humanity, as the climate crisis harbours an undifferentiated mass burden of irreversible disaster. 

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