“Societies will have to change – or just be doomed”: Andreas Malm on Covid and Climate

What is the relationship between Covid and the climate crisis?

It is a relationship on quite a few different levels. The coronavirus, SARS-Cov-2, is just one of many instances in recent years of emerging infectious diseases that leap over into humanity from the animal kingdoms. This trend is connected to a similar trend in rising temperatures. They are part of the same ecological crisis: you could call them global sickening and global heating.

What is the precise connection?

They share some driving factors, mainly deforestation, which is the second most important driver of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Global heating will drive more zoonotic spill-over, it will push animals to migrate, including bats that carry viruses. They tend to come into contact with human populations they haven't been in contact with before. If we want to avoid more pandemics, we need to stop and reverse deforestation and tackle global heating.

What is the underlying cause for both?

The reason is our way of dominating nature that is characteristic of capitalism - the compulsion of capital to turn wild nature into fields for producing various commodities. And to control nature and material production with the weapon of fossil fuels that allows capital to exercise a high level of control over material flows that wasn't possible with the renewable energies that preceded fossil fuels.

Societies will have to change or will just be doomed to have more of these disasters.

Is Covid the sign that we are at a breaking point?

The situation is chronic. That doesn't mean it's stable. Global heating is by definition accumulative, an inherently deteriorating process. It gets worse until it is stopped and reversed. And it is not a condition that we can live with forever. Clearly the economic systems are pressing so hard against the natural systems that things snap. Societies will have to change or will just be doomed to have more of these disasters.

There was a lot of discourse, specifically early on in the pandemic, that now is the time that societies can change. Is there something to learn from this moment?

One lesson is: States can intervene in business as usual and make quite dramatic incursions into private property and markets and close down certain types of economic activity, because they're harmful. This is a real lesson that the climate movement and its allies should use henceforth in its propaganda. On the other hand, the hopes that the way out of this COVID-19 crisis will be a transition away from fossil fuels and a general green recovery – these hopes so far have been disappointed. When you see all the reports that the G-20 economies are pouring 50 or 60 percent more money into fossil fuels than into renewables, you realize: This crisis seems to be another lost opportunity.

What can be done about this?

The break with fossil fuels and business as usual cannot happen without an impetus from civil society and from movements. This pandemic has been a singularly difficult time for movements to navigate because everyone has been locked up inside their homes. It has been extremely hard to make use of the opportunity of this crisis.

Is there a lesson to be learned how to translate political protest into political action?

2019 showed us to an extent that this is possible. The key decision of 2019 in Germany was the coal commission. Even if the end of coal by 2038 is a completely unacceptable date for the climate movement, just the fact that there was a coal commission and the following discussions was a success – and is directly attributable to the mobilization by Ende Gelände and other movements.

How do you translate the energy of these movements into real impact?

That’s the $10 billion question. How exactly do you make contact with the state? How do you make sure that the demands are transmitted into the state apparatus? Do you do so by winning seats in parliament and become the state yourself? Or do you stand outside knocking on the door and demanding that those inside - whoever they are - change their policy. I'm not sure I have a ready recipe for this.

In your book about the Covid, you talk about war communism and ecological Leninism: Could you explain these concepts?

Ecological Leninism: That idea is formulated in contrast to old-school, reformist social democracy on the one hand and anarchism on the other. I argued both are inappropriate for this moment. Social democracy of the classical kind is inappropriate primarily because of its temporal form where their premise for social democratic reformism from Bernstein to Swedish social democracy has always been that we can have gradual slow, incremental change because time is on our side while here time is definitely not on our side. We need massive, abrupt change.

And anarchism?

Anarchism, on the other hand, is by definition hostile to the state. But I don't think that real solutions to any of the crises that we face, are even conceivable without the state being a central actor. Now, Leninism has neither of these two problems, because Leninism is based, first of all, on a sense of urgency and impatience. What Lenin did during the second half of 1917 was to say again and again: “Delay is fatal, we have to topple the provisional government, now we can't wait any longer.”

How does that translate to today?

That’s quite easy to apply to the present context. Our strategic task for the climate movement, the Left, progressive forces, is to try to transform those moments of crisis where the symptoms become apparent into a political crisis for the drivers and causes of catastrophe. We have to transform something like the extreme summer of 2018 into a crisis for fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry. In the case of the present pandemic, our task should be to transform it into a crisis for the companies that cause deforestation. That hasn't happened yet.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

I don't want to live like this. The losses we face as even fairly privileged human beings are quite significant. For example, a life without snow is obviously a meaningful and bearable life, but it's a loss. Especially for the children.

Andreas Malm is a climate historian at the University of Lund

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