Feb/Mar 2018

Unnatural History

How capitalism causes global warming

Michael Robbins

The Progress of This Storm:

Nature and Society in a Warming World (Verso Futures)

by Andreas Malm


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With the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the highest it’s been since the Pliocene, there is no dearth of au courant theories explaining how nature and society do not in any sense compose distinct spheres. Nature cannot be distinguished from society because the former, no less than the latter, is “constructed”—a discursive figuration or trope with no independent external reality. Or they can’t be distinguished because nature now constitutes a hopelessly blurred hybrid with society. Or because nature has simply ended. Or because, as French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour declares, channeling his inner Thatcher, society does not exist, and neither does nature.

Andreas Malm is not amused. Malm is the author of Fossil Capital (2016), the best book written about the origins of global warming. Drawing on currents of political Marxism, Malm showed that British capitalists turned from hydropower to industrial coal-fired steam power in response to class struggle rather than, as mainstream views have it, because coal proved a cheaper or more efficient energy source. What steam power enabled was cheaper and more efficient control of labor. It also, as we now know, empowered capitalists to change the climate of the planet by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (a process later exacerbated by petroleum-based industry).

This argument depends on a common-sense separation of nature and society. The coal was part of nature until humans ex-tr-ac-ted it from the ground and put it to use in steam engines, producing goods for consumers in society. Of course there is a trivial sense in which everything that exists is natural. Humans are one of many animal species that evolved on Earth, so Manhattan is no less natural than a beehive or an anthill. But most people have no trouble understanding what work “nature” and “society” are doing in the second sentence of this paragraph.

Latour and his followers, on the other hand, want to erase the distinction “between a society ‘that we create through and through’ and a nature ‘that is not our doing.’” Against this view, The Progress of This Storm upholds Kate Soper’s eminently reasonable definition: “Nature is that which Humanity finds within itself, and to which it in some sense belongs, but also that from which it seems excluded in the very moment in which it reflects upon either its otherness or its belonging.” We are obviously natural beings; we are also the only such beings we know of capable of understanding ourselves as natural, or of reflecting on our relation to the rest of nature.

Malm defends a position he wryly calls “socialist climate realism”—a play on “socialist realism” that urges both a realist account of climate change and an anti-capitalist stance on behalf of the climate. This defense mainly takes the form of refutation of arguments so silly as to beggar the imagination. His polemic is like one of those carnival games where you knock over milk bottles with a baseball. Faddish academic philosophies stack up and Malm calmly plunks them down. Constructionism? Plunk. Hybridism? Plunk. New materialism? Plunk. Poor Latour, whose work informs all these theories, gets set up and plunked down again and again, winning Malm roomfuls of oversize teddy bears, which, according to Latour, don’t exist.

I confess that the stakes of these disputes seem fairly low. When the new materialists claim that inanimate matter possesses as much agency as human beings (“What spoons do when they scoop up soup is not very different from what I do when I talk about spoons,” says Timothy Morton), or Jason W. Moore suggests that “entropy is reversible and cyclical,” my inclination would be to refer readers to Humpty Dumpty and leave it at that: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Click to enlarge

MidAmerican power plant, Council Bluffs, Iowa, 2014. Rich Carstensen/Flickr.

But Malm is interested in how these claims illustrate visions of reality and power relations that are hardly unique to the withered groves of academe. It matters for climate activism whether global warming is something set in motion by capital or in part by carbon dioxide as an agent in its own right. So Malm proceeds methodically, disentangling the threads of the natural from those of the social with impassioned clarity (though I could have done with fewer references to Daenerys Targaryen).

Take the hole in the ozone layer, an example that Latour is fond of. It is, in one sense, socially constructed: It wouldn’t be there if corporations like DuPont hadn’t manufactured chlorofluorocarbons for appliances and aerosol cans. But that means only that society is capable of affecting nature. Malm drily notes that the chlorine atoms released by those products still had to break down ozone molecules in the atmosphere, which is a natural process that society did not engineer. Thus Malm bulldozes claims like Jedediah Purdy’s: “In every respect, the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.”

It is, in fact, the interaction of the social and the natural that has led us to the brink of climate disaster, and so it is analytically vital to distinguish between them. Indeed, Malm’s bracing argument, for which his takedowns of careless theorists provide support, is that what we need at this dire juncture is more polarization. Postmodernist thinkers (to speak loosely) made a bugbear of binaries, and nothing delights their contemporary progeny more than the dissolution of dualities. But some categories cannot simply be collapsed into each other; society hinges on their difference:

Capital stands on one side and labour on the other, both as independent forms relative to each other; both hence also alien to one another. The labour which stands opposite capital is alien labour, and the capital which stands opposite labour is alien capital. The extremes which stand opposite one another are specifically different.

Here Marx insists not only that there is an antagonism of opposites, but that in order to understand how society works—in order to change how society works—one must correctly grasp the nature of that antagonism in its specificity. This is not a binary that can be magicked away; it must be analyzed. And “analysis demands razor blades,” as Malm says. Some people own stuff; other people produce stuff. The latter must rent themselves to the former to survive. The former get rich off the deal, and fuck up the climate in the process. (This is not to mention the millions who aren’t able even to rent themselves to anyone.)

As it happens, there is a method for thinking of opposites in their dynamic unity without dissolving their opposition. Unsurprisingly, Latour disdains dialectics. More than anything else, The Progress of This Storm is a furious defense of dialectical thought, and of historical materialism as the theoretical lens appropriate for viewing global warming in all its social and natural complexity. The fossil economy is a historical phenomenon that unfolded within a particular set of social relations.

Malm turns his attention, then, to the mode of production under which global warming began and under which it thrives. Like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Fossil Capital trenchantly demonstrated that capitalism and capitalists are responsible for climate change—not, as recent theorists of the Anthropocene would have it, humanity as such (and yes, both Klein and Malm address the objection “What about the USSR?”). An elite minority of humanity is to blame for global warming; the great majority had no say in the matter. We need to distinguish between human actors—the CEO of ExxonMobil, to take Malm’s examples, versus a herder ruined by drought in Burkina Faso.

Contra certain theorists, it isn’t clear that global warming, at least in the short run, threatens capital. Malm observes that a warming climate, whose social consequences include refugees and urban migration, adds souls to the developing world’s reserve armies of labor, “leading to rising rates of exploitation and profit.” And then there is the bright beacon of geoengineering—massive intervention in the climate system to offset the effects of global warming. No need to eject fossil fuels from the economy, we’ll just whip up some tech to mitigate their pernicious effects, and get richer! No surprise that Bill Gates has invested in the field, out of the goodness of his heart. It’s easier to imagine the end of the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Malm has a better idea:

Ecological class hatred [is] perhaps the emotion most dearly needed in a warming world. Surely the capitalist class deserves a pinch of hatred for turning forces of nature into mass killers of poor people—and then, among many other feats, spreading denial of that fact and sabotaging attempts to defuse the scattered bombs.

This is his advice for the climate movement, tied, obviously, to a program of “action and resistance.”

Though it should perhaps trouble Malm more that science has often “served to legitimate the ruling classes,” he’s right that “one branch has now delivered perhaps the most damning indictment ever to their rule.” There is no way to stop global warming without threatening capitalist domination. Climate-change deniers helm the most powerful state in the history of the world. “Negativity is our only chance now,” Malm writes. He takes his title from Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History”—the angel of history watches catastrophe pile wreckage upon wreckage, longing to “make whole what has been smashed” but powerless before the storm we call “progress.” In the section just before this, Benjamin writes:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.

Benjamin’s disdain for a conception of history that allows its adherents to be astonished that barbarism is “still” possible in our clearly enlightened present suffuses Malm’s book, as does Adorno’s recognition that real progress, in such a world, means “simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe.” This progress will not be secured without a struggle.

Michael Robbins is the author of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex (2014; both Penguin).