Let Them Burn: The Logic of Capitalism Meets the Reality of Climate Change
In her piece titled “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World,” Naomi Klein takes aim at the handful of fossil fuel corporations who have turned large areas of our planet into sacrifice zones upon the altar of their profit god.
“Sacrifice zone” in this sense refers to the places where fossil fuels are extracted in spite of localised resistance and, occasionally, international outrage: oil in the Niger delta, tar sands in the Albertan forests, or coal in the mountains of Appalachia. But the term sacrifice zone also refers to the places on this planet that are already buckling under the pressure of 1°C global warming.
Although some of the warnings about impending doom contain an unhelpfully large dose of debilitating alarmism, the inescapable truth is that we have already altered the earth’s atmosphere beyond anything our species has ever experienced before.
As a result, the climate change crisis is already well underway, right before our eyes. In the last month we’ve seen inconceivable heat in Iran, we’ve seen the earth scorched in India and Spain, and we’ve witnessed a trillion ton iceberg break off from Antarctica. Last year we saw the return of anthrax as Siberian permafrost thawed and mass graves being dug for the still living in Pakistan.
Even our limited understanding of ecology would lead us to conclude that in such a crisis there can be no safe havens. The racist “Fortress Europe” is not a safe haven from climate shocks. Brexit or not, Britain is not a safe haven.
Here too there are many types of sacrifice zones, such as Preston New Road where fracking is being forced on the community. And there are sacrifice zones such as Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, where at least 80 people were allowed to burn to death on the night of June 13.
No, it is not a stretch to talk about the Grenfell fire and climate change in the same breath. They have the same root causes.
Just like climate change shocks such as the deadly forest fire which killed 62 in Portugal last month, the Grenfell Tower fire was political and preventable. The flames in both London and Portugal were the product of a system which is based on oppressing, exploiting, and sacrificing some for the benefit of others. Let’s be clear: this is social murder.
The people in Grenfell were sacrificed on the altar of austerity. For a mere £5000 their building would have had fire resistant cladding. For a few thousand more it would have had functional sprinklers. However, the British government—acting as a handmaiden for this irredeemable system we call capitalism—let people burn in their homes to save a few pounds.
Due to their continued inaction on climate change, the British government along with other “developed countries” like Canada, Australia and the U.S. are letting many more people, mostly brown and black people, burn, drown, and starve to death.
As Klein writes, “A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, [or, I would add, perish in a towering inferno] will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat.”
When it comes to our wellbeing or survival, austerity applies, but of course there is still money for wars we don’t want. Of course there are billions available to be doled out in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The cost of combating and adapting to climate change is in the trillions, but the money being pledged and delivered has always paled in comparison to this need.
It would make sense to talk of the failure of the system, but that’s sort of missing the point. The system is successful when it kills us, and blames us for dying. That’s why we say “system change, not climate change.” The success of capitalism is accelerating climate change. This means an increased likelihood of fire. It means an increased likelihood of landslides, of floods, of the countless other ways we are made to suffer for the pollution of others.
Similarly, the success of the state in implementing austerity in an attempt to safeguard the system has meant that the services to deal with things like fire—climate change induced or not—are spread too thin or only available to those who can afford them.
Whether it is in Kensington or Kenya people, through no fault of their own, are forced to live in conditions which are not safe. The people who ensure these unsafe conditions are not.
In the same way that austerity has been forced on us by elites and their stooges in government as the solution to the financial crisis, a form of austerity has also been offered as the solution to the climate crisis—an equally false solution. Countries and communities in the global south and poor people in the global north are blamed for polluting the planet. The least responsible and most vulnerable peoples are told to abandon their aspirations for a dignified life.
Whether it is in response to the climate or financial crisis, the demand is the same: that ordinary people ‘tighten their belt’ and ‘live within their means’. That we make difficult decisions between having dinner or having electricity, having a dignified life or a habitable planet.
Rich white people in rich white countries cause crises which they then demand everyone else must suffer and solve as individuals. While the 1% carry on as normal, the poor are told to change their lightbulbs and stop having kids. But as Kevin Anderson points out, “a 30% reduction in global emissions could be delivered in under a year, simply by constraining the emissions of that 10% responsible for half of all global CO2 to the level of a typical European.”
The polluting elites and capitalist high priests have known about the harm they’re causing for decades and their laughing response to suffering has remained the same whether it be in La Guajira or Greece or Grenfall: Let them starve, let them drown, let them burn.