What can a virus tell us about climate breakdown, in its causation and in humanity’s response? And what can both tell us about capitalism and communism? These are the questions that Andreas Malm addresses in his new book forthcoming next month. It is a remarkable work, a tour de force. It portrays capitalism not simply in metaphorical colors as a meta-virus run by parasites, but as the godfather of actual viruses, the patron of parasites. Written at whirlwind pace, one of its leitmotifs is tempo: the varying velocities of climate collapse, locust swarms, zoonotic pathogenic leaps, and the dynamics and gear changes of political response and strategy. While others were hesitantly piecing together analyses of COVID-19 and its links to climate change and the capitalist system, as the familiar coordinates heaved all around in April 2020, Malm seems to have summoned the energies of the crisis and guided them onto the page. The prose crackles—this is an urgent book.
Malm aims to demonstrate that Covid-19 and climate breakdown are “interlaced aspects of what is now one chronic emergency,” where in tracing the interconnections we’re not following random patterns (even cheese and chalk—CaCO3—have calcium in common, but such associations are contingent) but tracing deeper connections and shared causes. This is the topic of the second chapter, on which more below. In the first, Malm compares states’ responses to the twin threats. At first sight, they appear entirely different. In the case of COVID-19, governments came to recognize its seriousness. They forced businesses to close, distinguishing essential from nonessential occupations. Where they laid down rules, even draconian ones, citizens generally adhered. Much of the rhetoric figured it as an existential fight: “We are at war” (French president Emmanuel Macron); “we’re at war and ventilators are our ammunition” (mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio). “Parallels with World War II imposed themselves,” notes Malm. He quotes the Los Angeles Times’ “Call it war mobilization”—a reference to President Trump’s instruction to auto firms to produce ventilators. In Europe meanwhile the Spanish state nationalized its private clinics, Italy took over Alitalia, and Britain “all but nationalized” its railway system, leading Malm to effuse that “the fences around private property blew away like a thatched hut in a hurricane,” and that the COVID crisis “suspended capitalist relations.” This is hyperbole. Capitalism is not “suspended” through nationalizations today any more than it was, say, during the war economies of the 1910s or 1940s, and indeed many of the titans of fossil capital are state-owned: Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, Sinopec Group, et cetera. The basic point, however, is incontrovertible. States, up against a virus, took measures of a force and on a scale and with an alacrity for which climate activists have been clamouring for decades—without success.
Why, then, have governments responded in antithetical ways to global heating and global pandemic? Malm deals briskly with some red herrings. It cannot be that COVID is a greater threat; it’s obviously less. It cannot be that it benefits from greater scientific certainty; the science of climate breakdown is far more robust than the pathology and epidemiology of this still-mysterious virus. Nor is it that the pathogen’s threat spells death today whereas that from heating imperils only a hazy future; the WHO has been counting “more than 150,000 annual deaths from climate change for four decades running,” and the trend is upward. Any superficial appeal that such explanations may have is rooted in ideology alone, and so too are the laments one sometimes hears, in response to the acknowledged inaction on climate change, that the future will be relentlessly bleak regardless of what steps we now take. Such doomist determinism, like any determinism, breeds passivity and helplessness, yet the despair on which it feeds is not inevitable but reflects political decisions. Consider the sentiment “With Covid, unlike climate breakdown, it feels as though today’s preventive measures will have real consequences.” It appears to relate to unshakeable realities, but this is only because governments are taking action on Covid and not on climate. If they had acted decisively to cut carbon emissions, notes Malm, we would be facing the climate challenge with hope. Conversely, “if they had let the virus run amok, surely despair would have set in.”
On what basis, then, should the difference be understood? Part of it is that the war on Covid-19 “fits into the overarching paradigm that has taken hold of Northern politics in recent years: nationalism.” In border control, repression in the name of public health cuts with the well-worn grooves of xenophobic repression. Each nation for itself, with little prospect of, say, helping Uganda or Bangladesh bring their number of intensive care unit beds (0.1 and 0.7 per 100,000 residents, respectively) up to the Italian level (12.5). If, by contrast, you cut emissions, the benefits spread out on the wind, around the world. A war on global heating would benefit all, and above all the poor, without prioritizing the nation that invests the most. Another part is that, with the virus, well-heeled old white people were among the first into the ICUs. When Malm was writing, the ten countries in which COVID had brought the highest fatalities were the US, Italy, China, Spain, Germany, France, Iran, Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. As it happens, eight of these were also among the top ten territorial units responsible for the most cumulative CO2emissions since the Industrial Revolution, even as the poor nations disproportionately suffer the consequences. “The timeline of victimhood” placed rich and poor at opposite ends for climate and COVID, at least in the early stages of the latter. Humankind, quips Malm, should perhaps “thank Covid-19 for taking the early route through Europe.”