Welcome to the future. It feels like it, doesn’t it? Like we have reached the end of something—of the days when the Arctic was not actually in flames, when the permafrost was not a sodden mush, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were not rushing to join the quickly rising seas. Perhaps we have also, finally, reached the end of the days when we could soothe ourselves with lies, or delusions at least; when we imagined that we were the only masters here, that we could keep taking what we wanted, and that no one would ever have to pay.
We are paying now. Twenty eighteen was the year that temperatures scraped 90 degrees in the Norwegian Arctic; that permafrost in northern Siberia failed to freeze at all; that wildfires burned on the taiga there, as well as above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Sweden, in the moors of northern England, in Greece, and in California, where they showed no sense of poetic restraint whatsoever and reduced a place called Paradise to ash.
And where there wasn’t fire, there were floods: Hundreds died and millions were evacuated from rising waters in Japan, southern China, and the Indian state of Kerala. Venice flooded too, and Paris, where the Louvre had to close its Department of Islamic Arts, which it had consigned, ahem, to a basement. It was also the year the United Nations’ climate change body warned that, to avoid full-on cataclysm, we, the humans of planet Earth, would have just 12 years (11 now) to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent, and 32 years (31 and counting) to eliminate such emissions altogether.
Still, the weather may be the least of our problems. The fire that razed Paradise displaced 52,000 people overnight, forcing many into the ranks of California’s swelling homeless population and what passes for a safety net these days: free berths on the asphalt in a Walmart parking lot. Millions more of us will become refugees when a mega-storm drowns Miami or Manila, and when the Bay of Bengal rises high enough to swallow Bangladesh. Narendra Modi’s India is ready, and has nearly finished stretching barbed wire across the entire 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. By conservative estimates, climate change will displace a quarter of a billion people over the next 31 years. Most will not be wealthy, and most will not be white.
We do know, at least, how we got here. It was all that oil and coal that we burned, that we’re still burning. But that “we” is misleading. It isn’t all of us, and never was. As the Swedish scholar Andreas Malm recounts in Fossil Capital, his exhaustive account of the rise of the coal-powered steam engine, coal was initially embraced by a tiny subclass of wealthy Englishmen, the ones who owned the mills. They came to favor steam over hydropower in large part because it allowed them to erect factories in cities and towns—rather than submitting to the dictates of distant rivers and streams—giving them access to what we would now call a flexible workforce: masses of hungry urbanites accustomed to the indignities of factory labor, willing to toil for less, easily replaceable if they refused.
In the process these early industrialists created the illusion fundamental to the functioning of our entire economic system: the possibility of self-sustaining growth. Machines could always move faster, squeezing more work out of fewer hands for greater and greater profits. After the Second World War, the same logic would push the transition from coal to oil: It took far less labor to get oil out of the ground and to transport it across continents, plus coal miners had an alarming tendency to strike.
From its inception, then, the carbon economy has been tied to the basic capitalist mandate to disempower workers, to squeeze the most sweat out of people for the least amount of money. For the last 200-odd years, the exploitation of the planet has been inseparable from the exploitation of living human beings.
This is why, though the alarm bells about anthropogenic warming began tolling more than half a century ago, the carbon habit has proven nearly impossible to break. Since 1990, when international climate negotiations commenced, carbon emissions have jumped by more than 60 percent. Last year, as the fires burned and the floodwaters rose, they leaped by a projected 2.7 percent. It’s almost as if someone’s profiting from our misfortune. And they are: Six of the 10 highest-earning corporations on last year’s Fortune Global 500 list made their money extracting or delivering fossil energy; two were automobile manufacturers and one—Walmart, the planet’s richest brand—relied on a system of globalized trade inconceivable without massive consumption of fossil fuels. Even on an individual level, the richest 1 percent have a carbon footprint 2,000 times larger than the poorest inhabitants of Honduras or Mozambique, countries that have contributed next to nothing to global warming and are suffering disproportionately from it. We already know well that the 1 percent do not let go of power willingly.
Nor will our political system likely be much help, even with our survival as a species at stake. Politicians are not often good at thinking in planetary terms. The system in which they function—national governments and international institutions alike—evolved alongside the carbon economy and has for decades functioned mainly to serve it. However enlightened their representatives may appear at climate talks, wealthy countries continue to subsidize fossil-fuel extraction—last year to the tune of $147 billion. In the United States, Trumpian climate denialism and Pelosian tepidity are two faces of the same phenomenon. Congressman Frank Pallone, who chairs the toothless committee that Pelosi resurrected to tackle climate change, announced that he plans to propose nothing more than “some oversight” of Trump’s assaults on preexisting federal programs, and that requiring committee members to reject donations from fossil-fuel industries would be “too limiting.”
Centrists continue to reassure, unshaken in the conviction that no problem exists that cannot be solved with a little technocratic fiddling. Just before he left office, Barack Obama penned an article in Science, contending that climate change “mitigation need not conflict with economic growth.” Wealthy countries, the argument goes, have already managed to reduce emissions without sacrificing growth. “Decoupling” is the magic word here. Imagine a gentle, Gwyneth Paltrowesque divorce between fossil fuels and capital, followed by a fresh romance with greener tech, perhaps a few extra therapy bills for the kids.
But someone always gets hurt in a break-up. The techno-optimist dream holds together only if you hide the fact that much of the progress made by the United States and Europe came at the expense of poorer countries: As corporations off-shored manufacturing jobs over the last few decades, they sent the carbon-intensive industries with them, allowing Western consumers, at the clean end of a very dirty process, to import massive quantities of goods. The only year so far this millennium that global emissions have dropped was 2009. It took a global financial meltdown and more than a year of recession for fossil-fuel consumption to even dip.
For now, the petroligarchy is winning. Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina gave us an early taste of the future they have built for us: a murderous, militarized, racialized response to human vulnerability. Now we are living in it. We know what their world looks like: abundance for the few behind walls and razor wire, precarity and impoverishment for the rest of us; endless prisons for endless streams of migrants, concentration camps by other names.
But there are other futures, other worlds as yet unmade. We have only to choose ours, and to fight like hell for it—fiercely, with forms of solidarity that we have not yet been able to imagine. Solidarity not only with one another but with this planet and the many forms of life it hosts. There is no way out of this but to cease to view the Earth, and its populations, as an endless sink of resources from which wealth can be extracted.
This is not hippie idealism but purest practicality: There is no way to preserve anything approximating the status quo without turning into monsters, or cadavers, and no way to survive that is not radical. In this future we will need to keep our eyes open and learn to calm ourselves only with truths. If other worlds are not yet visible, it is because they are ours to make.