Weaving history with interlocking contemporary crises, James Anderson and Ian Shuttleworth i navigate a route to a better future in the midst of our present disaster. They introduce their Parable with a short article on ‘Climate Change and the Virus’ which was commissioned by The Ecologist. Check out its excellent collection of essays and articles theorising and explaining the ecological dimensions of our crisis. 29 June 2020
CLIMATE CHANGE and THE VIRUS: A Dual Eco-Economic Crisis
James Anderson and Ian Shuttleworth
The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are both intrinsic to capitalism. Both are global problems, and both are simultaneously ecologicalandeconomic – oreco-economic. But each crisis is playing out very differently on the ground. They are interacting, and with other factors, but in unforeseen and still poorly understood ways. So we will approach these complexities separately through a speculative or hypothetical parable (see below).
Comparing the Virus and the Climate Crisis
In addressing soil degradation, the major ecological problem of his day, Karl Marx conceptualised it as a ‘rift in the interdependent social metabolism’ which had ruptured not only the relationship between ‘society’ and ‘nature’ (an incomplete interpretation by some using the modern terms ‘metabolic’ or ‘ecological rift’ ii), but also relations withinsociety itself. The separation of ‘city and countryside’, and the location of food consumption away from the location of food production, led to urban pollution instead of soil re-fertilization. It involved ‘robbing the workers’ as well as ‘robbing the soil’ – ‘the original sources of all wealth’. Somewhat similar ‘rifts’ in the social metabolism can be seen in the problems of climate and the virus.
However, in order to connect our two ecological problems to the economy – and bring ecology and economy into each other’s ‘mainstream’ – we think they can more usefully be seen in terms of crisis theory. But they do not produce the usual capitalist crises of over-production – where the circulation of capital in relentless pursuit of growth and profits is disrupted or blocked because goods cannot be sold as people cannot afford them, and profitable investment opportunities dry up. Rather the crisis results from under-production where the inter-actions of the economy with the natural environment damage it in such a way that the circulation of capital and profit-making are similarly disrupted or may even be stopped. iii In pre-capitalist societies underproduction – due for instance to wet weather and poor harvests – was the typical cause of economic crisis, but now we find there are underproduction crises in contemporary capitalism for global ecological reasons.
Both our crises are rooted in the unintended – but actually to be expected – consequences of capitalist production, though this is more direct and obvious where burning fossil carbon produces global warming, but much less obvious for the murkier origins of coronaviruses (which we discuss separately in the parable).
The differences between the two crises are striking, especially in their respective spatio-temporal frameworks and outworkings. These help explain why the virus crisis received almost instant, full, official recognition and attention, which climate activists can only dream about, while they think – quite rightly – that the climate crisis is a much more substantial long-term problem. And perhaps that is the explanation for the difference in response, right there: the climate threat is indeed more long-term but capitalism tends to be pre-occupied with the short-term.
The virus threat ‘fits’ the short-term horizons of capital and the short attention-span of capitalist politics. It could almost have been designed for maximum impact. It has been sudden, immediate, peaked quickly and spread rapidly across the world. Aside from highly varied government responses (epitomised by the USA, Brazil and England on the one hand, and New Zealand, Germany or South Korea on the other), the workings of the pandemic have been quite uniform globally. The virus could potentially kill anyone and frighten everyone (though in practice it has killed relatively few). Most people stayed away from work as officially advised, global production and profits fell sharply and kept falling in the second quarter of 2020.
The climate crisis on the other hand has been building for decades (of indifference, the climate activists might add). But so far its impact has generally been patchy and fragmented across space and time. While global warming is clearly causing extreme weather events to increase in frequency and severity, they are separate episodes and still relatively localised or regionalised in scope. For example, they are confined to the areas in the path of the hurricane or gale; heatwaves are getting more extreme but are largely confined to particular climatic zones and are far from global; while even the threat of something as uniformly global as the rising sea-level is still mainly perceived as a threat confined to low-lying coastal areas. These events and problems are probably far from reaching their peak, but the much more serious threats from irreversible changes to the world’s climatic zones lie almost wholly in the future and are still the subject of predictions, not a present and immediate threat like the virus. As global warming continues most predictions suggest major changes could come within a decade or two. But it is mostly still in the future and hence, despite the ‘feedback’ warnings from all the extreme weather events, official action on climate falls victim to capitalism’s built-in tendency to downplay the long-term in favour of the short. In periods of crisis the short-term gets even shorter, basically because the reality for capitalists is that unless they make profits in the short-term they probably won’t have a long-term.
There are, therefore, strong systemic tendencies to invest as little as possible in reserve or emergency stocks – needed in a pandemic – and to put off dealing with disasters which are clearly coming down the line – like climate change. Adequate preparation and stocking would eat into immediate profits. Indeed contemporary capitalism’s famous ‘just-in-time’ system, itself created in conditions of incipient crisis, involves holding minimal stocks and getting deliveries at the last minute, so that rather than lying idle tied up in large stocks the capital can instead be invested to make more profits elsewhere. But then when the pandemic struck it became the ‘just-not-in-time’ system, starkly revealing society’s fragility.
In the economic competition of firm versus firm, or the USA versus China, immediate growth and profits are what count. When working properly the system can be very productive, but increasingly it is not working properly. More production can simply mean more problems; but, unfortunately, so too can less production – under capitalism it leads to more unemployment and more poverty. Our economy is basically ruled by the anarchy of the market with no overall control, democratic or otherwise. We are congenitally vulnerable to eco-economic crisis. As our parable suggests, capitalism is uniquely good at producing ecological problems and uniquely unfit for purpose when dealing with them.
A Parable of History Repeating Itself
The parable proved a stimulating way of getting a more rounded perspective on the fragility of contemporary society, the workings of ecological crisis and their interactions.
The complexities called for a novel approach (pun intended!). It is a fictional-factual fable set in the future, but looking back at a mysterious global catastrophe in our own day: ‘constructive escapism’ – we hope – for times of partial lockdown.
What caused the catastrophe? Could it happen again? The virus and climate change are among the suspects in our fictional society, but they are not the only ones and they don’t behave as you might expect. Perhaps ‘expect the unexpected’ is the first lesson of ecology. It is salutary to remember that as recently as the 1980s global warming was well below the public’s ecological radar. Then a few specialist researchers on the Greenland ice-cap suddenly discovered it was an immediate threat within a generation, not one safely buried in some geological future. iv
The fictional society has collapsed back into repeating ‘medieval’ poverty, squalor and ignorance. So far, so grim. But crisis theory suggests that while crises are wasteful and damaging, they throw up winners as well as losers and are a major opportunity for reorganising society – and the crucial question is on whose terms?
So our fictional characters are faced with the question can they make a better society arise from the catastrophe? Can they avoid repeating previous mistakes? They search for utopias or ‘heaven on earth’ – as actually happened in medieval history and after. Even better, they find a community which has created and re-created its own class-less utopia of leisured life and sustainability and in a most unexpected place. There was just one catch – the real advantages of modern science and medicine that had been lost in the catastrophe. Could these be re-invented and produced by the class-less society they wanted to keep? v
If history repeats itself, it’s not in simple ‘circles’ but more like a ‘spiral’ through time with some bits lost but also new elements. vi We need theory as well as history, but history is richer, so over now to A Parable of Historical Repeats and Innovations – Political Ecology in a Time of Crisis.
A Parable of Historical Repeats and Innovations
Political Ecology in a Time of Crisis
In his gripping thriller The Second Sleep, i Robert Harris comes up with the brilliant ‘back to the future’ device of re-running medieval times some eight centuries after our own day. Around 2025, five years from now, the entire earth apparently suffers some vaguely imagined global catastrophe which has returned Europe to the pre-Christopher Columbus 15th century (except for some tell-tale exotica).
Conditions are actually worse than in the first medieval era – more poverty and squalor, most people living on a diet of potatoes (potatoes in the 1460s?). Levels of ignorance are definitely worse: almost total ignorance of the past and about the rest of England never mind overseas. We’re in deepest Devon, apparently in the Church of England Diocese of Exeter except Catholic celibacy has been restored. The local Bishop knows something of the catastrophe, but the Church is keeping it hidden in order to control a highly superstitious population.
So questions abound. What was the catastrophe, what caused it, could it have been stopped, could it strike again? What did happen to the rest of England, Europe and the world? Are things any better elsewhere, much the same, or worse? We finish the book not knowing.
We do know that some years after 2025 our time, a surviving community of the scientifically well-informed is finally wiped out, buried in an underground Devon bunker, and the historical clock is re-set. A very inquisitive group have stumbled on this basic secret. But most of the group, along with local authority in the shape of the Bishop and his squad who have come to arrest them, are buried alive in the bunker they’ve only just discovered. It collapses on top of them as night approaches. Only two of the group are still alive, Fairfax a young, once-celibate but now disillusioned priest, and Sarah his lover. They think they might be able to escape to the surface, but exhausted they fall asleep together in the bunker, their grave too. An echo of the ‘second sleep’ theme, ii it’s a sad yet neat ending.
Or is it? When morning comes might they escape the bunker and flee to London or perhaps abroad? Does Robert Harris have another gripping thriller – or two – up his sleeve? To make a trio equalling his Cicero trilogy? There are all the unanswered questions, Fairfax and Sarah even more inquisitive, the authorities even more determined to track them down – the hunters after truth hunted by the forces of obscurantism.
Intrigued by the possibilities, we took the liberty of borrowing his brilliant literary device and formulating our own follow-up stories. We sent Mr Harris our plan but were not unduly surprised when there was no reply, for we suspect he does indeed have his own plans and may produce second and third volumes which will no doubt be very different from ours. We hope he does. It will be interesting to get his overall message whether it ends up negative or positive; interesting also to compare our amateur efforts against the professional novelist, and see what more clever literary devices he comes up with.
His first volume holds a dire apocalyptic warning about the fragility of civilization, but it is rather one-sidedly dystopian, we thought, though Sarah and Fairfax embody some vague hope. We wanted our two volumes to redress the balance with some innovations: with more substance on the threats facing society but also much more on the search for utopias, as happened in and after medieval times.
VOLUME II – The Second Escape
In our Volume II the pressing problem for our heroine and hero is to evade the authorities and stay alive, and then find answers to the big questions.
How are things in London and the rest of England? Can they find support from like-minded people in the capital (if it is the capital, and of what)? Can they escape and continue their search, or will it be stopped in its tracks?
They eventually reach London getting stopped and questioned several times – any one of which could have disappointingly ended the story there and then. But they bluffed their way through and things are looking up. Through an old colleague of Fairfax they find refuge with a secret group of other disillusioned priests.
But London is small and mostly rubble, slender stumps of buildings occasionally pushing through on mounds covered in weeds and long grass. The ‘national’ authorities barely control the local area never mind the wider territory. Things are not much better than Devon.
Then they have all the questions about the catastrophe. There’s a semi-breakthrough when the disillusioned but also inquisitive priests produce several still readable ancient texts and a few rolled- up maps and charts which they had unearthed from the muddy ruins of a university library. They are mainly interested in a book about a Reformation of the Church, the people taking over control from the priests; different sects demanding democratic control of society, a search for ‘heaven on earth’. iii In fact this has become their ‘Bible’, more interesting than the official one and the basis for secret sermons to their small collection of followers.
However, Fairfax and Sarah are much more interested in one called Our Final Century iv and they persuade the priests to concentrate on that for it seems to foretell the catastrophe. It’s by someone called an ‘Astronomer Royal’ who writes about the end of the world – in fact what actually happened wasn’t quite the end but it was a close-run thing. It could be caused by global warming and climate change, a nuclear war, an epidemic or plague, or perhaps an ‘Act of God’ like a meteor smashing into the earth and a huge dust cloud blocking out the sun. All and more are possible causes from what little we know from the first volume. But there’s speculation about drastic changes to the climate in another text, or the bits of it not stuck together with mud: apparently the world was warming up because of people burning oil and coal, and at some time in the future – they couldn’t say when – the climate would change for ever. Something called the Gulf Stream which warmed the shores of England might be ‘switched off’ and they would get a climate of snow and ice similar to somewhere called Labrador – they didn’t know where that was but it sounded really grim. There were fears too about a huge war, and about an economic or banking crisis. The priests think that some human stupidity is the likely cause of catastrophe – probably changing the climate – and maybe with an act of punishment meted out by an angry God. But there it rests, we’re not much the wiser.
It’s clear no-one in England knows the cause, whether it could strike again, or why there wasn’t a recovery. The Church too is in ignorance on that, and it totally monopolises what pass for ‘universities’. They know there was a catastrophe, the cause is anyone’s guess. The inquisitive priests search diligently but cannot find any answers in the surviving records – indeed they’re not even sure what they’re looking for.
But there’s good news and exciting developments. Sarah and Fairfax have escaped the authorities, the search can continue. Even better, authority meets serious opposition. When their story gets out and it’s realised that the general population has been kept in ignorance and poverty by the Church and its rich supporters there is uproar. Our fugitives from authority become stars of society. Different radical groups and new religious sects spring up demanding religious freedoms and political reforms. It’s another ‘Reformation’, though only in England at this stage and without a Luther or Calvin. The unofficial ‘Bible’ of the priests has come into its own, and they are in the vanguard, along with Fairfax, Sarah and their children – for they now have two daughters and a son.
The catastrophe is forgotten in the general excitement. There’s another Peasants War, and a march on London demanding all sorts of changes – democratic control of the Church, women to equal men, the land to belong to everyone, a heaven-on-earth utopia or ‘The world turned upside down’ as someone once said. The authorities and the wealthy take fright. Oppressive laws are relaxed, and society escapes the stranglehold of the Church. Women don’t become equal to men but do get a lot more opportunities and independence, in terms of the jobs open to them, legal rights and suchlike. The attempts to get common ownership of land don’t succeed either but rents are lowered and the poor escape their absolute grinding poverty.
VOLUME III – The Second Discovery
The mystery of the catastrophe remains however. Only in the era of Sarah and Fairfax’s great-grand-children when the search has gone ‘international’ will the answers emerge and from a most surprising source. The answers themselves are even more surprising.
In Volume III the story reaches a grand finale re-running the ‘Age of Discovery’. But second time around it’s conducted with more speed, wit, humility and civility. They have a few old maps and charts so have a rough idea where they’re going; they have heard that the arrogance of previous European explorers annoyed the natives and was counterproductive; they don’t steal or plunder but limit their quest to the catastrophe. The quest has started in France where there are already a few trading links swapping wool for wine, but it and the rest of Europe prove a sad disappointment, mired in poverty and ignorance, as bad as England before its re-formation. The same goes for Africa, Asia and the Americas, or at least their coastal fringes which are as far as they bother to explore. Answers there seem very unlikely – the only sign of cities are grassy mounds of rubble totally deserted, worse than London – so they press on.
It is noticed, however, that a few communities who live by hunting and gathering food actually have a much better and freer life than the Devon families stuck on farms struggling to pay rent to the landlords – better food, better housing and a lot more leisure. Had the Neolithic ancestors taken a wrong turn when they allowed themselves to be ‘caged’ on farms working for others? Was that what the Fall or getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden really meant? In one biblical account they were banished ‘to till the earth’, so perhaps that is what was symbolised. v
‘Primitive Communism’ for a second time
It’s only when a latter-day James Cook ‘re-discovers’ Australia on his second voyage that things fall into place. Captain James sails again but this time it’s James Fairfax – affectionately ‘Captain James’ to his crew, and Sarah and Fairfax’s great-grandson. The story he and his crew bring back is full of insights and ironies and deserves detailed telling. For the Australians know all about the catastrophe. Besides, from the wreckage of disaster they haven’t just searched for utopias, they’ve created their own utopia.
They’re of mixed Aboriginal, European and Asian ancestry now thoroughly jumbled together, and they speak different Aboriginal languages but have an English lingua franca which the English sailors can understand with a bit of effort. Their tale is basically a re-run in reverse of the horrible story of how Aborigines vi had suffered some years after Cook’s visit in 1770. That’s a big date in their stories for their culture and society is built on traditional pre-1770 lines with some European and Asian innovations. It was partly reconstructed from folk memory in the outback, but was also heavily dependent on a sacred text about different traditional Aboriginal ways of living across Australia, The Biggest Estate on Earth by a Bill Gammage. vii They can no longer read it – they lost all interest in reading or writing and reverted to a purely oral culture. But they know that their ancestors who came through the catastrophe – in or escaping to remote outback communities – had read it as an invaluable manual for re-building a viable society, so Gammage and his book are now venerated.
From the far outback they had eventually migrated back several centuries later, to re-settle devastated and completely de-populated but richer coastal regions, ancient homelands of Aboriginal tribes from which they had been driven by Europeans. This was especially true of the areas around the former cities of Melbourne and Sydney where Captain Fairfax and his crew encountered them.
They are settled and contented but are aware their First Australian ancestors had been among the most despised of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples. They couldn’t match the firepower of European guns, but the Europeans wrongly thought they lived like ‘animals’, viii or ‘savages’ at the mercy of the elements. Much worse, they had sometimes actually hunted and shot them for sport as they might have hunted foxes. It was said that unlike natives in all the other continents they had never domesticated any animals or plants (their dogs had come from New Guinea). But their descendants know the irony that this was totally at odds with historical truth.
They domesticated entire eco-systems
Traditional Aboriginal communities had in fact domesticated not individual species but whole eco-systems – of woodlands and meadows, mountains and plains, rivers, lakes or sea-coasts, complete with their flora and fauna. Vegetation zones had been shifted around, and they had let nature do the hard work. Who for instance needs the bother of herding, breeding and feeding troublesome kangaroos when they can do it for themselves, and then be quickly dispatched when food was needed? For they grazed in carefully designed and enticing meadows enclosed by woodlands where they were easily corralled. It was a beautiful landscape of parks and trees artificially created by the sophisticated use of controlled fire (e.g., undergrowth was periodically burned off, and different species of tree were selectively burned down at varying intervals, some every ten years or so, some twenty or thirty years, others longer).
It must indeed have been a very sophisticated society. Their hunting boomerang for instance has the aerodynamics of an airplane wing to keep it up in the air; and, even more remarkable, their ‘returning’ boomerang has the qualities of a gyroscope – thrown up in the air it hovers like a bird of prey before returning to the thrower. One of its uses was to force flocks of birds to fly low to the ground where they could be captured in nets for food.
To Cook’s crew the beautiful parklands inland from Botany Bay had looked remarkably like the carefully constructed parklands on the gentry estates back home, for which landscape architects like Capability Brown were justly famous. But – blinded by arrogance or not bothering to investigate – they had simply assumed they were looking at purely natural landscapes rather than ones embodying even more human ingenuity than Brown had mustered.
Similar principles were applied to creating managed ecological systems in different types of habitat across the land. For example they dammed up rivers and lakes to create the conditions for a regular supply of different types of fish, there for the taking. Their intimate knowledge of natural environments had been built up over many millennia – maybe the longest period of relatively settled life over the largest area of any community in human history ix . They were part of the natural environment and it was part of them. Take for example the amazing story of the tribe around Eden down the coast from Botany Bay. They believed they became orca or ‘killer’ whales when they died but stayed in touch with their tribe. So when some of them worked as boatmen for European whalers catching huge whales for their oil, they were helped by platoons of orcas which cornered the whales and then signalled to the men to come and get them by splashing their tails loudly on the water. But how could that be? The English sailors thought the last bit of the story was made up. x
However, there were no doubts about their intimate environmental knowledge and labour-saving approach; and it had clearly allowed them the leisure-time to live like lords with a rich cultural life of religion, music, painting and story-telling. And unlike the English gentry on their estates, they didn’t do it on the backs of the poor for there were no ‘poor’. Everyone had more or less the same standard of living, which James Cook – one of the smarter or least bone-headed of European explorers and of humble background himself – seems to have appreciated, but later Europeans certainly did not. After Cook – in 1788, a date they would rather forgetvthe English overlords had turned Australia into a strange prison for dumping petty criminals and Irish rebels. Their carefully crafted society had been fairly quickly wrecked, though many First Australians got Irish surnames and a millennium later they still have them.
Captain Cook had also understood that the First Australians had wanted little from the Europeans, very much preferring to be left alone. It wasn’t surprising. They had a comfortable life, and – if they knew it – the world’s biggest ‘estate’ with world-class estate management and ecological sustainability. xi
Their descendants had re-created a version of this ‘classless society’ or ‘primitive communism’ (‘primitive’ as in ‘first’, not ‘lack of sophistication’). Individuals have their own particular styles or tastes, some people more needs than others, some greater skills, but all the adults, women as well as men, get roughly equal amounts of food, shelter and leisure; and all have a say in discussions and decisions on the main issues facing the community. If some have more of a say it’s because they’re more persuasive, not because of any ‘authority’. It was a bit like the democracy of the sailors’ own crew meetings on board ship, though they still had officers and Captain James was still the captain, and certainly in a storm you couldn’t have a crew meeting before deciding what to do. But clearly the Australians’ democratic procedures and deliberations were much more sophisticated than anything the sailors could have imagined let alone experienced. And the women members of the crew were mightily impressed by the equality the Australian women had achieved. xii
Traditional Australia with some additions had been slowly and painstakingly re-born in selected regions in the eight centuries since the catastrophe. Some of their thinking had come from Asia and Europe as well as memories from Australia itself. 1968, a year of big youth rebellions which led to a cultural revolution across the world was another big date in their stories. They knew that some Australians had been very active in it; new ideas about democracy, equality and the position of women in society had been very popular in the years before the catastrophe; and they themselves were still benefiting from them. The mix had improved on their main pre-1770 legacy.
The catastrophe remembered
They were determined to preserve their society – just the people to prevent ‘second sleepers’ making the same mistakes twice. For they also knew the other irony that their European coal-exporting ancestors had led the world in global warming. With government backing they’d denied climate change in order to continue the massive and lucrative coal-exporting on which their profits depended. At the same time Australians themselves had suffered terribly from global warming caused by the burning of coal and oil. It had polluted the atmosphere with carbon-dioxide heating it like a greenhouse. So there was more energy in the atmosphere, producing more extreme weather. In the years before the catastrophe, extremely high summer temperatures had been accompanied by floods and droughts, and devastating, uncontrollable wildfires. The Australians knew all about it for some of their ancestors had worked in the coal mines while others had died in the fires.
They knew too that these had been the worst ecological disasters suffered by any advanced industrial country – the opposite of intelligent estate management or sustainability. And irony of ironies, the First Australians’ sophisticated use of fire to manage forests and control undergrowth would have prevented the wildfires. But they had been made almost inevitable by the profits-and-growth-at-all-costs system which the coal-exporters epitomised. It would all have been inconceivable if the Aboriginal sustainability principles had prevailed.
The story as told by the Australians was however considerably more complicated with several twists and turns. Instead of having one, or even two, of the likely causes picked out from the Astronomer Royal’s list, there were multiple factors involved in the catastrophe at different stages, before, during and after. There was an important ecological cause and an important ‘Act of God’ but neither was the expected one; and both fed into a serious economic banking crisis but it became more an effect than a cause.
The catastrophe was vividly recorded in the Australians’ rock and cave paintings made at or near the time. They show the terrible fires and floods; crowds of people in face masks, a few with elaborate breathing gear; lots of ambulances, coffins and dead bodies; planes falling out of the sky.
But, more important, the catastrophe is central in their Dreamtime oral culture – a culture of recall which can capture events from even millennia ago, though some stories are allegorical, others perhaps just garbled. There’s a tribe in western Australia who tell of their ancestors resisting the last major rise in the sea-level by standing in a line with their spears. That was all of 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. xiii In this context a catastrophe only 800 years ago is like yesterday.
They have detailed and consistent stories, mostly about Australia but they recall what their ancestors must have picked up in news from other countries: they know Australia was typical in some ways but had its own particulars. There are stories of big protest movements about climate change – even the schoolkids went on strike – and protests against the coal companies and their government friends; other stories of the extreme weather continuing and fires recurring every summer for years on end; also of a year when many of their ancestors died from a virus plague, their government and society, like many others, completely unprepared for dealing with it. And then came the day when all the lights went out, machines stopped, electrical cables ignited and started yet more fires, planes crashed, and so did all the computers and mobile phones. Their screens stayed blank, people couldn’t communicate or get information, and society quickly collapsed.
People in the cities – that is most people – had died within weeks, mostly from starvation. The capitalists’ famous ‘just-in-time system’ of last-minute delivery (stocks were kept to a minimum so capital wasn’t tied up in them when it could instead be making more profits) had quickly become the infamous ‘just-not-in-time’ system as stocks ran out. Many people had died in gunfights over what little food there was. Others survived longer by getting to the countryside and finding food on farms but that couldn’t last: many farms had been wrecked by floods or droughts and sometimes both, and anyway a lot of Australia’s food had been imported from abroad. Frightened farm families with dwindling supplies had started shooting strangers on sight.
Only a very lucky few – their families’ ancestors – most of them urban Aboriginal people and their friends, managed to escape to Aboriginal or mixed communities in the far outback where some of them had relatives. There they had just about weathered the worst of the storm and its aftermath.
A Carrington solar storm
For it was indeed a storm – an electrical storm from the sun – which had suddenly and unexpectedly tipped society into chaos. It had actually featured in the Astronomer’s set of possible causes – as Captain Fairfax now remembered – but the priests had ignored it. Changes in the weather, a war or a plague they understood, even something like the moon crashing into the earth they could imagine, but an ‘electrical solar storm’ was beyond them (as was the threat from artificial Intelligence which was also ignored, not that that mattered). Now in the light of the Australians’ stories, the electrical storm began to make sense to Fairfax. The Astronomer said such a storm – a ‘Carrington event’ he called it xiv – had happened a century and a half before he was writing and he predicted that one in his own day would do an awful lot more damage. All electrical engines and gadgets using electrical power – i.e., by then most gadgets – would stop functioning, and that included virtually all transport and all means of communication. Which is indeed what had happened. This, and not a meteor, was the ‘Act of God’: for once humans were not to blame. Unless of course the priests were right and ‘Carrington’ was God’s punishment for human stupidity. And there was plenty of that around.
It was clear to the Australians that the Carrington had caused the collapse of a world already tottering on the edge of chaos from ecological and economic crises. The economy had already been in a crisis of stuttering or stagnating growth for years, as low wages meant people couldn’t afford to buy all the goods being produced and had to get into debt – their Aboriginal ancestors were particularly hard hit. But profits had still declined, though in fact that was as nothing compared to what was to come. Likewise, extreme weather was weakening the world’s defences (and not least in Australia), but it was not a cause of the catastrophe either. Indeed, it was only after society collapsed that climate became a key factor.
The main ecological cause was very different, a global coronavirus epidemic or plague. Its origins were murky and disputed but it was generally agreed that it started in wild animals and was passed on to humans or the human food chain via other animals, in conditions of industrialised or intensive capitalist agriculture and dense urban settlement. Apparently health specialists had been warning of the dangers of such epidemics for years but were generally ignored, their remedies ‘too expensive’ for so-called ‘neoliberal’ politicians who opposed such large expenditures by the state. And so for most people the plague was totally unexpected, but within months of first being discovered it had engulfed virtually the whole inhabited world. In country after country, as in Australia, governments had imposed ‘lockdowns’ and people were mostly confined to their homes to avoid catching and spreading it, for there was no vaccine. Economic production ground to a halt in all but a few essential sectors like food and health services. Profit levels plummeted and capitalism suffered the greatest depression in its history, dwarfing the previous stagnation.
However, under pressure from desperate capitalists – the true believers in profits-and-growth-at-all-costs – some governments had quickly relaxed the emergency lockdown so production could resume. But too quickly, too soon. There were political battles for ‘Lives before Profits’ because the ‘costs’ of the profits were extremely high: second waves of the epidemic which killed a lot more people than the first, and did even more economic damage.
Then as the second wave subsided there wasn’t time for a hint of economic recovery before the Carrington struck and humanity nearly suffered a real end of history.
Captain Fairfax’s Report
Captain James and his crew begin a Report for his superiors back in London (and this Report is part of Volume III). Piecing together all the historical evidence from the Australian stories and sources like Our Final Century, they have a much clearer picture of the catastrophe, and some ideas about adapting the Australian solutions for conditions back home.
The two main causes of the catastrophe, the virus and the Carrington, seemed to have disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. But not before they had quickly wrecked the capitalist economy and society and killed a big majority of the population. It was the ultimate short, sharp shock, and for the first century human survival had been touch and go.
But it had been against all expectations that climate change was not one of the catastrophe’s causes. Strange, because in many ways it was a more substantial threat than the virus. The virus had of course made millions ill world-wide, and kept tens of millions away from work creating the greatest depression ever. But as viruses go its fatality rate was relatively low (they thought under 5% of infected Australians had died from it; deaths in the catastrophe were overwhelmingly due to Carrington, though some famines had started because of the virus). Climate was the more long-term, apocalyptic problem.
As the Australians explained to Fairfax – and their ancestors had been at the sharp end of both problems – the impact of the virus crisis was a bolt from the blue concentrated in a short period. In comparison the climate threat had been fragmented, still patchy across the country and stretching into the future. The virus had been pretty much instantaneous, here and now, literally in your face, a cause of general fear because anybody could catch it, and fairly uniform in how it worked world-wide. There were variations but mainly because some governments responded much more stupidly than others: the USA, Brazilian and English ones were absurdly bad, their own one not great, while their no-nonsense Kiwi neighbours in New Zealand had one of the best. This was all news to Fairfax and the explorer in him was fascinated, he wanted to hear more. But the Australians themselves were strangely disinterested – rather insular, thought Fairfax, but then Australia is an island.
In contrast to the virus, global warming, although also indeed global, was still relatively localised in its extreme weather effects. They were still confined to particular regions of a country, still very uneven or experienced only indirectly as things happening elsewhere. So while the virus sent share prices tumbling across the globe, the impact of climate barely registered on the stock markets. It undoubtedly would have in the future but it didn’t have time.
This was the key difference. Extreme weather was increasingly commonplace, but the big threat lay in the chaos of major and irreversible changes to the climate of entire countries or continents, such as England getting a cold climate like Labrador; and this threat lay in the future, still ‘only’ a matter of prediction. Furthermore, most predictions about the world tipping into permanent climate changes had timed them for five, ten, maybe twenty years after 2025, that was, it so happened, after the catastrophe. So in fact they never happened because the industrial-scale burning of carbon fuels virtually ceased when capitalism collapsed – England never became a Labrador.
So the virus crisis and then Carrington overtook the climate crisis. But there was a sting in its tail. Climate problems continued, blocking any chance of a quick recovery and prolonging the aftermath of the catastrophe for a century or more. The carbon dioxide emissions had almost ceased, but too late. The backlog already in the upper atmosphere ensured that global warming got a lot worse before it started getting better. It never reached the tipping point of permanently changing the world’s climate, but it increased enough to continue the wildfires and other extreme events.
Despite the umpteen ‘feedback’ warnings from these events, the threat of permanent climate change had not been taken seriously by most capitalists. Predictions about what might happen at some unpredictable point in the future were not an immediate threat to their profitability in the short-term, and that is mostly what they cared about. So they could just shrug and get on with their job of making profits.
The short-sightedness astounded Fairfax – and the Australians but they knew it had unfortunately been typical. It wasn’t necessarily because of the capitalists’ personality flaws or excessive greed – in fact they could have been lovely people. Instead it was due to the fact that immediate profits were what mattered to capitalists and their governments especially in uncertain times of crisis: if you wanted to stay in business, to stay a capitalist, you needed the profits in the short term because without them you might not survive to have a long-term. This helped to explain the inability to take future threats like climate change seriously, and society’s extreme vulnerability when faced with the virus.
A repeat catastrophe?
The Australians had no worries about another catastrophe. Most of the social conditions which had produced it or made them vulnerable had been destroyed or replaced. At some level they understood the problems were mostly capitalist problems and their society was no longer capitalist.
That certainly applied to the coronavirus plague, to climate change, and the economic or banking crisis. The virus-friendly environment of intensive agriculture and swollen cities was now in the distant past. So was the regular occurrence of extreme weather, while proper forest management had ended the wildfires. There was no longer a coal industry – just communities digging or collecting small amounts mostly for their own use. Most things in fact they made for themselves, or else for other known users who had asked for them in advance and agreed a fair exchange. The previous system where individual capitalists made lots of the same thing for lots of unknown users seemed to them to be just asking for trouble – especially if the users didn’t have enough income to buy the things, and there was no overall democratic control of what was being produced. Thank goodness they didn’t have debts or banks in Australia and no danger of a banking crisis.
Nor were they unduly worried about the threats the English sailors told them about. Nuclear war? They didn’t have nuclear weapons nor as far as they knew did other people, and anyway they weren’t at war with anyone. Artificial intelligence? How stupid was that – even if they knew how to make it, which of course they didn’t, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to make a machine which was smarter than themselves and might take over.
But they did have nagging doubts about good things from before the catastrophe which had been lost. Could they ever be regained or re-invented, either by themselves or perhaps now by the English? They remembered especially the tales about the old medicine and some people getting surgical operations which stopped them dying young.
The ‘Acts of God’ however were an entirely different matter. At one level they didn’t bear thinking about: there was no way of stopping another Carrington event, or a meteor hitting the earth (and the sailors said that volcanic mountains throwing ash and dust into the air could have the same effect of blocking out the sun). But they consoled themselves with the fact that nothing like that had happened in the centuries since the catastrophe, and they knew their society was now much less vulnerable to a Carrington, or another cause of food shortages. Remembering that starvation had been the main killer, each community now had a large reserve stock of food – the opposite of the capitalists’ fragile ‘just-(not)-in-time’ approach – and at least no-one would go hungry for several years, of that they were fairly sure. Of course if Australia was unlucky enough to take a direct hit from a large meteor there wasn’t much they could do about it – so why waste time worrying?
Sailing for home
It turned out that some years back a group of Maoris and other Kiwis had visited Australia in three large ocean-going canoes and exchanged ideas about creating a better society. They have developed their own quite different re-creation of traditional ways, and the Australians picked up some useful tips. But the Maoris knew hardly anything about the catastrophe, and the exchange of ideas was rather one-sided, at least that’s what the Australians thought. But Fairfax suspects it’s not the whole story. He knows (perhaps better than the Australians) that habitats in New Zealand are quite different from Australia’s and in some ways are much more like Europe’s. Some of the Maori answers sounded to him more adaptable or appropriate for England, and he wanted to go over and see for himself. However, a majority of the crew are keen to sail directly for home with all their news and ideas from Australia. On a show of hands Captain James is persuaded to leave the Maoris to his next voyage.
The weather on the homeward lap was good with favourable winds, apart from a storm as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and turned for England… Cabo da Boa Esperanca, Fairfax liked that name, much better than Cape of Storms. The voyage passed quickly, working on their Report with crew meetings and informal discussions. The Australians had seen them off with plenty of food, including three live kangaroos to be killed for fresh meat. But they quickly became pets and it was unanimously decided to keep them as exhibits to show the people back home.
How, they wondered would people respond to their news? They would be amazed by all the information on the catastrophe and undoubtedly relieved that a repeat was unlikely. But what about the yet more earth-shattering news of the easy life in Australia and its classless society? Would they be believed, or would it be too fantastic, too utopian, too good to be true?
They re-doubled their efforts on the Report, explaining the catastrophe as clearly as they could, and making the description of Australian society as realistic and persuasive as possible. Fairfax organised them into work groups to check and cross-check all the factual details, topic by topic. And then they had to come up with different options for how Australian answers might be adapted for European conditions (he still wished he’d seen the Maori answers at first hand).
How might the Australian principles of sustainability and letting nature do the work be applied? Can England’s re-formation be completed – equality for women, common ownership of land, a classless society? A final triumph against the odds, though it begs the question – and the Australians’ nagging doubts – about whether a classless society could go on to re-invent some of the good things lost in the catastrophe? xv
Perhaps a Volume IV has just been kicked into the long grass – on the mounds of London! Lurking there until we see how Volumes II and III progress?
Notes: Climate Change and the Virus [i] Emeritus Professor of Political Geography, and Senior Lecturer in Social Geography, Queen’s University Belfast
[ii] See, e.g., J.B.Foster, B.Clark and R.York 2010 The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s war on the earth, New York: NYU Press.
[iii] See, e.g., J. Anderson and J. Goodman 2020 ‘Crises of capital and climate: three contradictions and prospects for contestation’, Chapter 4 in S.A. Hamed Hosseini et al (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Transformative Global Studies, London: Routledge, pp. 58-68.
[iv] Anderson taught a post-graduate course in Political Ecology in the 1970s and neither he nor the students had ever heard of ‘global warming’. An excellent layperson’s summary of its sudden appearance is given by Jonathan Neale 2008 in Stop Global Warming: Change the world, London: Bookmarks, pp. 15-25.
[v] Conventional wisdom today says No: class-divided societies were an historical necessity as the class-less societies of antiquity had little potential for development. But perhaps they need to be rescued from what E.P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ ?
[vi] Contrary to Marx’s quip that history repeats itself ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’, our parable assumes that farce is avoided second time round. 1668
Notes: A Parable of Historical Repeats and Innovations [i] Robert Harris 2019 The Second Sleep, London: Hutchinson. [ii] This metaphor for historical repeats comes from the medieval habit of going to bed early in winter, getting up for various activities or chores in the middle of the night, and then going back to bed till dawn for a ‘second sleep’. [iii] Diarmaid MacCulloch 2003 Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, London: Allen Lane. [iv] Martin Rees 2004 Our Final Century: Will Civilization Survive the Twenty-first Century?, London: Arrow. [v] The ‘caging’ involved in intensive agriculture was probably unappealing and required force. See Michael Mann 1986 The Sources of Social Power: Volume I – A history of power from the beginning to AD 1760, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that the ‘Eden’ myth originated in southern Mesopotamia where intensive agriculture was first established. [vi] Their preferred terms are Aboriginal Peoples, First Peoples or First Australians. [vii] Bill Gammage 2012 The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Sydney: Allen and Unwin. [viii] Australians have no monopoly on denigrating natives, but ‘respectable’ histories of Australia were still re-cycling the ‘animal’ comparison in the 1970s. And Bill Gammage has an appendix on how some contemporary environmental scientists appeal to the supposed ‘objectivity’ of science contrasted with the supposed ‘subjectivity’ of history to deny or minimize the First Australians’ role in ‘making Australia’. [ix] Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2013 First Footprints. Four Videos and a book by Scott Cane. It brings together the geological and archaeological record of Australia with the record of the First Australians’ painting and oral tradition. The time-span of their occupation of Australia has been successively pushed back from 10,000 years to 20, to 40, and now researchers put it at around 60,000 years. [x] Perhaps, but perhaps not. See Google: ‘Eden killer whales’, and ‘Old Tom Museum’. Old Tom (died 1930) was the leader of the last platoon in the area. Similar stories are told on other Australian coasts. [xi] Their religious philosophy which spanned the continent included caring for all of the country and ‘leaving it as good as you find it’: a conservative philosophy not unlike the Conservatism of the English gentry passing on carefully preserved estates to their own descendants. But society was not static. They had to adapt to a climate already fickle long before global warming by humans made it even more so; and they had lived through global cooling, the last Ice Age peaking roughly 20,000 years ago, and then the subsequent warming. [xii] Women’s (in)equality in pre-1770 First Australia is a contentious issue, but here we are referring to post-catastrophe Australian society which also included innovations from the post-1968 era, as the next paragraph makes clear. [xiii] See First Footprints, above. Again, similar stories come from twenty other places around Australia’s coast. [xiv] See Google: ‘Carrington Event’. [xv] Could the real material advances made by class-divided societies, such as modern medicine, be produced or re-invented by a class-less Primitive Communism? It is conventionally written-off as having little or no development potential. But, as E.P. Thompson did for ‘losers’ such as the hand-loom weavers in The Making of the English Working Class, perhaps Primitive Communism also needs to be rescued from “the enormous condescension of posterity’? 6950