2021 is the Year of Catastrophic Climate Change, But Capitalism Doesn’t Care


A photo from Twitter that may or may not be real, but that, I believe, expresses a profound truth about the nature of climate change, in this year of unprecedented wildfires and floods, and, in general, human beings’ inability to deal with its ramifications.

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Since I first saw it on Twitter last week, I’ve been haunted by the photo above, showing holidaying diners by the sea, or by a lake, seemingly oblivious to the wildfires engulfing a forest on the hills behind. It may or may not be from Turkey, recently ravaged by uncontrollable wildfires. Or it may be, as one commentator suggested, from similar wildfires in Oregon four years ago. It may even be photoshopped, but in the year that wildfires have engulfed forests in country after country across the globe to an unprecedented degree, in yet another year of record-breaking heat in numerous locations, and in its juxtaposition of this disaster with the people blithely, self-obsessedly asserting their right to enjoy themselves, it vividly captures an uncomfortable truth about our collective inability, as human beings, to put aside the allure of self-gratification that is so engrained in so much of our culture, when faced with an existential threat that is largely of our own making.

In that sense, it is as profound as the photo, from 2017, of US golfers continuing their pointless game, in Washington State, while the world around them was consumed by flames, which prompted me to use the photo to accompany an article I wrote in May 2019, entitled, I Pledge My Allegiance to the Struggle for Survival Against Catastrophic Climate Change, inspired by the campaigning of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and by the the publication in 2018, by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of a landmark report in which, as the Guardian described it. the world’s leading climate scientists warned there was “only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”

Unfortunately, while not being oblivious, or in denial, or still enslaved, like so many of my fellow human beings, by simply trying to survive in a harsh capitalist system that exploits so many for the benefit of the comparatively few, my fine words in 2019 haven’t translated into reality. I have continued to work towards the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, to raise money to live on, to play music and to chronicle London in photographs on daily bike rides.

Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that environmental concerns have continued to nag at me over the last two years. Last year, when Covid first emerged, and most of the business of gratification — involving international tourism and the hospitality business — ground to a halt, revealing how much it has taken us over as a species, I saw environmental hope in its collapse.

As the giddy, hectic, merry-go-round of escapism fell, as insanely crowded commuter journeys to largely pointless jobs were paused, and as building sites, with all their attendant pollution, also ground to a halt, it seemed that we might have an opportunity to recalibrate our notions of what existence means, and, crucially, to recognise our impact on this planet, our only home, and to take significant steps to mitigate the worst effects of the already unfolding patterns of cataclysmic climate change that our existence — and our dependance on burning fossil fuels — have done so much to unleash.

We “cannot bear very much reality”

But it was not to be. “Humankind”, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” The notion of the supremacy of self-gratification has been so powerfully engrained in us, the economically fortunate ones — particularly over the last 40 years or so — that our fellow citizens, in significant numbers, soon forgot the beauty of the clean air, the silence and the return of birdsong to our city centres in the first Covid lockdown, and felt stifled, longing to return to whatever their previous obsessions had been — tourism, spectacle, over-consumption.

As cars returned to London’s streets in significant numbers, and construction lorries once more began transporting their deadly cargoes, and as the air once more began to taste of petrol, I found myself reflecting on how, despite our supposed intelligence, human beings cannot, in general, cope with its potential. People live their lives shuffling from one act of self-gratification to another — eating, drinking, obsessing about their looks, being relentlessly competitive, craving novelty, buying corporate goods marketed as the triumph of individual expression and self-entitlement.

Around the world, more people are more spoilt that ever before, even though most of the world’s population still lives in drudgery. But think back throughout human history to how harsh life was before the all-encompassing comforts that so many of us take for granted: a home of our own, a car (or two), permanent electricity, heating and air-conditioning, fridges and cookers and washing machines, healthcare, an endless supply of whatever we want, whenever we want it, from supermarkets that offer a cornucopia of choice that, in the UK at least, simply didn’t exist until the late 1980s.

We, the enormously fortunate, have been led to believe that we can have, and are entitled to have, whatever we want, whenever we want, and we are so detached from the realities of production that we either don’t know, or don’t care, how and where our food is produced, our clothes are made, or our gadgets manufactured.

In contrast, those exploited to enable so many of us to live like kings and queens, and princes and princesses, continue to live lives that more closely resemble the “nasty, brutish and short” lives that Thomas Hobbes described in the 17th century, experienced by the majority of our ancestors throughout human history. And yet our comfort, ironically, has led to us being more detached than ever from the reality of what a sustainable existence actually involves. The more we get, the less we know — or the more we forget.

In other ways, we still live with the legacy of those centuries, those millennia — via religions, for example, which promised a heavenly afterlife in exchange for good behaviour on earth, as an antidote to the harshness of life, and that also posited universal father figures as an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable consciousness that, when we are not simply following our urges, endows us — perhaps even curses us — with the ability to wonder who we are, and what it all means, and, unbidden, to reflect on and perhaps even be traumatised by the knowledge of our certain death.

That ability ought to mean that we recognise that we live on a truly miraculous planet that sustains a bewildering array of life, but that could become uninhabitable — for us at least — if we don’t treat it with respect. I’ve recently been watching ‘The Planets’, Professor Brian Cox’s extraordinary series that powerfully frames the miracle of life on earth in terms of chemistry and physics, surveying five billion years of the history of our solar system, and establishing, repeatedly, how fortunate we are to exist at all, when other worlds that might perhaps have sustained life — our nearest neighbours Venus and Mars, for example — suffered such drastic chemical changes that all hope of biological life establishing itself was extinguished.

Our life here on earth is precious — miraculous, even — and yet, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that our collective actions are increasingly suicidal, we find ourselves paralysed.

On one level, of course, I understand that paralysis. To return to Eliot, we simply cannot bear very much reality. Those who grasp the enormity of the environmental crisis risk losing friends by insisting that we stop thinking of ourselves, and commit to drastic collective environmental action instead. But in another way, we are being comprehensively failed by our leaders, and by the capitalist system that they — with our complicity — so slavishly defend.

The role of capitalism

As the New York-based author Hamilton Nolan explained in an article for the Guardian two days ago, the G20, “that coalition that is as good a proxy as any for the combined will of the world’s richest countries”, wrapped up its latest meeting last week “without firm commitments on phasing out coal power, or on what steps nations will promise to take to try to hold global warming to 1.5C.“ As he added, ”This goal is both necessary and, perhaps, unlikely — a report by scientists found that China, Russia, Brazil and Australia are all pursuing policies that could lead to a cataclysmic five degrees of warming.”

Nolan proceeded to describe the G20 as “a perfect model of our collective failure to build institutions capable of coping with deep, long-term, existential problems” that cannot be solved by war, with which our leaders find it uncommonly easy to engage. As he explained, “On the one hand, the head of the United Nations says that there is no way for the world to meet its 1.5C warming goal without the leadership of the G20; on the other hand, a recent analysis found that G20 members have, in the past five years, paid $3.3tn in subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption. The same group that claims to be bailing out humanity’s sinking ship with one hand is busily setting it aflame with the other hand.”

As he also explained, “As overwhelming and omnipresent as the climate crisis is, it is not the core issue. The core issue is capitalism. Capitalism’s unfettered pursuit of economic growth is what caused climate change, and capitalism’s inability to reckon with externalities — the economic term for a cost that falls onto third parties — is what is preventing us from solving climate change. Indeed, climate change itself is the ultimate negative externality: fossil-fuel companies and assorted polluting corporations and their investors get all the benefits, and the rest of the world pays the price. Now the entire globe finds itself trapped in the gruesome logic of capitalism, where it is perfectly rational for the rich to continue doing something that is destroying the earth, as long as the profits they reap will allow them to insulate themselves from the consequences” — or, to be more accurate, to delude themselves into thinking that they can insulate themselves from the consequences. Money, as Extinction Rebellion have been pointing out, is of no use on a dead planet, or one in which wildfires devour your home, or flash floods make it uninhabitable.

In conclusion, Nolan stated, “Capitalism is a machine made to squeeze every last cent out of this planet until there is nothing left. We can either fool ourselves about that until it kills us, or we can change it.”

Impending collapse

The need to act — and to act immediately — was made even clearer in a truly alarming Guardian article yesterday, revealing that the Gulf Stream — the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) — may collapse if we don’t change our way of living immediately. As the Guardian explained, the collapse of the Gulf Stream “would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting the rains that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level in the eastern North America. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.”

Niklas Boers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who conducted the AMOC research, said, “The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary.” He added, “It’s something you just can’t [allow to] happen.”

Boers further explained that it is “not known what level of CO2 would trigger an AMOC collapse”, but that it was certain that “the only thing to do is keep emissions as low as possible. The likelihood of this extremely high-impact event happening increases with every gram of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere.”

As the Guardian also explained, “Scientists are increasingly concerned about tipping points — large, fast and irreversible changes to the climate. Boers and his colleagues reported in May that a significant part of the Greenland ice sheet is on the brink, threatening a big rise in global sea level. Others have shown recently that the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more CO2 than it absorbs, and that the 2020 Siberian heatwave led to worrying releases of methane.”

The Guardian added, “The world may already have crossed a series of tipping points, according to a 2019 analysis, resulting in ‘an existential threat to civilisation.’” The newspaper also noted that a major new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which gave us 12 years to avoid irreversible disaster back in 2018, is due to be published on Monday, and is “expected to set out the worsening state of the climate crisis.”

For those living close to wildfires, or to those who have suffered through the various incidents of flooding that have also been widespread this year, the realities of cataclysmic climate change can no longer be ignored, and it just may be that, as the earth reaches a tipping point, so too may politicians’ ability to placate their populations with what Greta Thunberg has so witheringly described as their ”fine words” that are followed by no action.

I hope so, because the most compelling truth about climate change is that there is no way to avoid it, or to wish it away, and if we don’t deal with it now, we will find ourselves dealing with its effects — many of them unspeakably horrendous in their impact on our lives — in the very near future.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, taking as my starting point this photo, which may or may not be real, but which, it seems to me, expresses a profound truth about the relationship between the climate crisis and our self-absorbed culture of gratification.

    In the article, I look at how 2021 has become the year of unprecedented wildfires and flash flooding around the world, indicating that we are at a tipping point when it comes to dealing with catastrophic climate change, and yet our leaders, the nature of capitalism and our own apparent inability to deal with the enormity of the crisis have left us, if not in denial, then largely in a state of paralysis.

    I think we are running out of time, and that, unless we change our priorities as a species immediately, the crisis will soon — and irreversibly — dominate our lives in ways that far too many of us cannot even imagine.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    And today research confirms that “Last month was the world’s worst July for wildfires since at least 2003 when satellite records began, scientists have said, as swaths of North America, Siberia, Africa and southern Europe continue to burn. Driven by extreme heat and prolonged drought, the ignition of forests and grasslands released 343 megatonnes of carbon, about a fifth higher than the previous global peak for July, which was set in 2014.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    The real ‘safe’ level of anthropogenic warming was no more than 0.5C,nothing remotely like 1.5 or 2C.
    We went off the cliff somewhere in the 70’s or early 80’s.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    But with so much destruction taking place right now through fires and flooding, it’s going to be test of solidarity that our leaders will fail, Kevin, hence the need for concerted action, for people to believe that together, if there are enough of us prepared to act, we can effect change.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    There’s press coverage today about further findings on the destabilising of the Gulf Stream – that’s apparently an 8 degree centigrade plunge in UK temperatures if it stops delivering.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I remember first hearing about the Gulf Stream decades ago, David, and how it is responsible for the general mildness of our climate here in the UK, and fearing what would happen if it collapsed. But really, everything that sustains life as we know it is so fragile that that’s why we need to collectively recognise the horror of tipping points – destabilising the conditions for life to such an extent that cataclysmic change becomes irreversible. How many wake-up calls can we ignore?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, it’s the nature of these things that wake up calls need to be severe and to affect the policy makers directly. Most policy makers are very well insulated from the harsh realities.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Unless the voters turn on them, David, and in some places I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen. In Turkey, for example, Erdogan, in his 1,000-room palace, is looking increasingly unpopular.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    We were on a collective roll towards some kind of meaningful change of attitude and behaviour in 2019 – school strikes, declared emergencies in councils accross the land, XR, the rise of veganism, and then, like September 11, Covid snatched away the entire debate. Funny that. A virus cooked up most likely in a lab in one of the most damaging capitalist countries on the planet, totally de-railed our momentum. Are they that bright? Or are we that stupid? Or a mixture of both?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t think they’re very bright at all, Neil. Remember, under Boris ‘Get Brexit Done’ Johnson, we – the UK – are almost completely incapable of cooperating with anyone anywhere in the world on anything, which rather fundamentally undermines any notions of a global conspiracy. Governments in countries that had experienced other dangerous viruses in the past (SARS, bird flu etc.) had measures in place, but the West had nothing, and, spoilt by increasing longevity, freaked out when the prospect of millions of deaths was touted – even though those estimates turned out to be exaggerated.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    The picture sums it up perfectly sitting there dining while the world burns or drowns which is exactly what’s happening. Most people are in denial becouse it’s not happening to them it’s not outside their front door … yet. Yes we’re all hoping and praying that it’s not happening but it is happening and right in front of our eyes. Anywhere you go there’s this denial, you wanna see anything on YouTube you’re bombarded with these happy clappy … jet two … what’s your vibe … for package holidays promoted by the aviation industry or endless adverts for … TAT.
    Reading this morning the gulf stream is in imminent danger of collapse maybe today tomorrow or in 20 years but the process has begun. If that happens we’re in big trouble but if you say anything … you’re a fkin leftie a Marxist/Communist … funny Cuba has one of the best healthcare education systems in the world.
    Conspiracy theorists nuts … we have become here in the west gorged and bloated on a lifestyle … like Mr creosote in monty python just before he explodes … on material wealth on money on everything and people have become so enabled by this lifestyle that they can’t even function without it … I watched a doc on skid row in LA 53 blocks of homeless the streets were littered with things that the poor had taken with them, remnants of a vanished life … look at all this stuff … just garbage.
    I’m over halfway through my life I’ve more behind and if I’m lucky I’ll have 25 or 30 years … but it’s the young I feel sorry for, they’re gonna have to deal with this … it’s not just the heat or the fires the flooding the food shortages……it’s the chaos the war the murder the rape and eventually the cannibalism … when people’s are in survival mode the base instincts come out. I’ve seen what monsters people become.
    If we wanna live … we go after all these leaders you know who they are the oil industry … if you wanna live everything must stop because believe me this isn’t the last pandemic. Unless things change we’re futureless … sorry to sound so grim Andy but this is how it’s going to play out unless we fight back

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m feeling pretty bleak about it all myself, Damien, hence this article. It felt like I’d been pushing aside the enormity of it all, but that I couldn’t do it anymore. The flooding, the wildfires – it all seems to suggest that we’re actually witnessing the collapse right here, right now. But as you note, people are still in denial, and yet even if it’s not extreme heat or flooding the planet is talking to us. When I was off my bike for three months with a sprained leg, capable of nothing more than hobbling down to the local shops, I reflected that at least I wasn’t missing great sunny summer days out on my bike, like last year’s heatwave, because the weather in May and June this year wasn’t what we’ve got used to. It was cold, it was overcast – our own version of climate change, and, it seemed to me, a premonition of what the collapse of the Gulf Stream would mean for us here in the UK and across northern Europe.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Andy it will be either extreme heat, endless extreme heat or endless rain like blade runner 2049 endless grey heavy cold rain but as I mentioned … it’s just the weather.
    How will people be when food runs or is short … then … the monsters will emerge … and that is the harsh reality. People will do whatever it takes to survive and yes horrifying as this is … if you’re starving you’ll eat your pets and then each other … this is the base instinct to survive. We’ve been warned since the 60s … well… here it is.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    For years I’ve had the odd morbid fantasy about being able to defend myself if the apocalypse comes, because I live on a hill, Damien. 😉

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Patrick Lyons wrote:

    ‘The Thing’ by Me=U

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Great, Patrick. I’ve missed seeing you live! The Four Fathers here: https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com/track/this-time-we-win

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Millington-Artist wrote:

    I read the article about the collapse of the Gulf Stream. It pointed out that the UK is in the same latitude as Labrador and Vladivostok. On that basis I expect it will get colder, and wetter. Which doesn’t bode well for food production. I’m concerned about the nuclear power stations, myself; they’re mostly built beside water, rivers or the sea, using the water for cooling. Any rise in sea levels will have catastrophic results anyway; but for nuclear power stations…….oooft.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Nationalising the polluters, and taking their profits to pay for the damage done and the damage not yet done would seem to be a good place to start, Jan!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    A very powerful article … I can only hope it’s not too late but I’m not feeling optimistic …

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jane. I can imagine the wildfires where you are must have been quite profoundly alarming. And in the UK, meanwhile, people who complained about not being able to travel last summer are, perhaps, this year realising that, even if international travel had been more positively encouraged, a large number of destinations were in flames. On the other hand, of course, they may have been like the diners in the photo, oblivious to pretty much everything except their own appetites.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Claire wrote:

    Andy thank.you so much for this article. My heart is weeping these days having seen first hand the devastation that wildfires do. As ever it’s the poor who’ve lost so much, the villagers who lost their crops, their bee hives, their animals, and even their homes. We can help, people are helping, but as you say this was all so inevitable because we know capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction, and we are now living through it. And on a personal level I am guilty. Today our air is heavy with a smog, from the fires here and in Greece and I long to come and see you all in the UK and that means flying in a plane.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m glad you appreciate the article, Sue. I have been thinking of you and Jane and all my other friends in Turkey a lot of late, as we’ve seen the scenes of devastation unfold. I understand your qualms about escaping for a while, but we’d be delighted to see you. I can’t promise what kind of weather will greet you here, though, as we’re also suffering climate change, like a premonition of the Gulf Stream collapsing, and the recent flash flooding has also been quite alarming.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Denver has now had 32 straight days of unhealthy air. For the past few days, it is rated the fifth worst air on the planet. Fires engulfing the west; extreme temperatures in OR and WA now moving further inland; torrential rains in AZ and the Eastern seaboard; Florida is “sinking” (not really but the waters are rising) but so are the other areas along the coastlines (DC, VA Beach, Seattle); Hurricane season is expanding; tornadoes more frequent and more powerful (there was a time they thought a tornado couldn’t form on top of 10,000 ++ ft mountain tops but here we are); New cloud formations; bacteria and viruses that have not been seen active in a million years are being released as the permafrost thaws … All makes for sensational news but no one is willing to do a thing as long as money can be made in the “not doing.”

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    So sorry to hear that litany of ferocious problems, Jan. It’s obviously good that the great denier-in-chief, Donald Trump, is out of the White House, but I doubt that Biden has the will to truly do what needs to be done. In the very near future, we’re going to need to see some genuinely revolutionary new leaders if we’re to avoid catastrophes beyond imagining.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Ultimately, Andy, capitalism will be the death of all living things.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    I wonder at what point capitalism will be replaced by eco-socialism, Jan; how many will have died, and how inhospitable the earth will have been made before the killers are removed from power.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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