A long historical view on climate, capitalism, and life
We have lived for decades thinking we were at the end of history, but it obviously weren't true. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama described the "universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic." Like VCRs, this has not aged well.
The End Of The End Of History
This vaunted liberal democracy includes the freedom to complain while getting systematically fucked. It includes the freedom to die in a pandemic while the rich profit.
These vaunted consumer goods often come with a collapse a public goods, meaning shitty access to healthcare, education, and housing. I have personally gotten Twitter messages from homeless people with iPhones, which is completely baffling to me in a semi-socialist country.
The truth is we aren't at the end of history, unless you mean western hubris literally ending the world, in which case, uh, yeah. What Fukuyama called the 'universal homongenous state' has turned out to be a humongous pile of shit. We obviously have to keep pushing history forward. The long arc ain't gonna bend itself.
Adaptation To Climate Collapse
I write this long intro (which I've discussed further) to simply invite you to think in terms of long and hard. Not from the 90s to today but from 9,000 years ago, at least. If you look at this long graph of temperatures, you can see that we've had our moment in the sun. The last 8,000 years have been an unusual period of stable climate, leading us to think everything would always be on the up-and-up. But now the whole x-axis is shifting underneath our feet. We done fucked this up. We act like our intellect is going to always save us, but as Professor Leon C. Megginson said:
According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
Hence the thrival (as opposed to survival) of our species depends to how well we are able to adapt as a social organism to the changing environment we find ourselves in. And this requires a fundamentally different thinking to that required in a stable environment.
The entire premise of capitalism is that you can have endless growth and keep pulling shit out of the Earth and lighting it on fire and doing whatever the fuck you want forever. And obviously not. Endless growth in a fixed space is just cancer and guess what, just cause the sky is big doesn't mean it's gonna hold out forever. Just hold out a thermostat and see. It's getting hot in herre, so take off all your capitalism.
If you read some deeper history, this isn't even the first time life fucked up the Earth. 3.5 billion years ago, photosynthetic bacteria pulled energy out of the sun and polluted the air with so much oxygen that A) the anaerobic hacks died and B) the whole fucking Earth turned into a snowball and almost everybody died. It was the first instance of life-made climate change and very nearly the last. For all we know Venus got a similar way.
Luckily for us. microbes—by all accounts the only intelligent life on Earth—learned how to control the planetary thermostat. Every breath you take is oxygen from some other lifeform, kept in delicate balance by other lifeforms. You are breathing the holy farts of life right now. It is this living thermometer that we have been so blithely fucking with by digging bodies out of the ground and lighting them on fire. It is this grave desecration that has us digging our own graves.
As you can see, this isn't as simply as going back to last century, or even the last millenia, we have to go back billions of years to understand what's going on. Why do you think they're called 'fossil' fuels? Still waters run deep.
Even in just the human history sense, it's not enough to rewind fossil fuel use, capitalism, and colonialism. We have to rewire humanity at a very fundamental level. We have to go back to our very departure from the nomadic 'garden of Eden' and our settlement into agricultural communities with surplus at all. That stability was our core adaptation to a climate that will no longer exist. All that shit's getting flooded and defenestrated in the next few centuries. New climate, new rules (and new rulers).
For a sense of the scope of the problem of adaptation, it took early aerobic life millions of years to stabilize the thermostat, while we have only been around for maybe a few hundred-thousand years. We have a correspondingly shorter window (and tolerance) for change. We can't patiently wait out geological time like effectively immortal bacteria. We have to do this within generations.
This is the zoomed out problem that we face. How do we, as a species adapt to a changing environment? What scale of adaptation is required, and how do we even look at the problem? I'll get into that here.
Not Individual Adaptation, Social
The first and most important answer is wrong question. Thanks to the Enwhitenment we're used to thinking of everything in individual terms, but this is the least useful unit here. Evolution gives a fuck about individuals, we are just arbitrary shuffles of a shared genomic deck. The relevant unit is the species (still not something evolution gives a fuck about, but we do). Until we reorient our societies to think this way we will remain disoriented.
If you think about us as a species, we're actually a very small genetic deck, barely shuffled. Homo sapiens are what evolutionary biologist Henry Gee calls "extraordinarly samey." He comes to the conclusion that we're doomed to go extinct. In the long run this is undeniable.
We're so 'samey' because our species once dwindled to a few thousand individuals (comparable to the less than 4,000 wild tigers living today) and thus we have less genetic variation than among chimpanzees. We're more than a few cards short of the full deck required to really adapt to anything genetically. We're not like bacterial cultures mutating all the time, the only thing we can adapt fast enough is our culture. The only thing we have to counter our homo-ness is our dubious sapien-ness, ie our identity not as idiotic individuals but as sorta higher intelligence. As a social organism.
Hence this is our chance to prove ourselves as intelligent as microbes. Can we A) stop fucking each other over with individualism and B) unfuck our environment? The adaptation required to get away from our age of individualism is, for lack of a better word, socialism.
The Enlightenment gave white men the philosophical justification (and proof) that they could conquer nature, other people, and do whatever the fuck they wanted. What is required now is an Awokening to keep some gains of this philosophy while waking up to its apocalyptic bent. What is required is for us to bring balance to the force.
The obvious answer here is charted by philosophers like Karl Marx, who charted in detail the idea of a historical progression. He saw movements not within the linear plane of capitalism but eventually beyond it, into completely different historical categories. You don't have to agree with Marx, but I think it's common sense that history would change and not just end, as Fukuyama said. Unfortunately the 'end of history view' still defines the thinking (if you could call it that) of western colonial powers that still rule (most of) the world. Hence the point about new climate, new rulers. So you know, the international communist revolution that got deferred last century.
What Marx talked about, and what China is now sorta trying, is the idea that capitalism builds up these fantastic engines of production but then that they have to be seized. Masses of people need to take control of production in order to divide up their gains more equally, and prevent capitalism itself from growing cancerously out of control. In China this has taken the form of Deng Xiaoping's idea of 'letting some people get rich first' and now—since China is as rich as America—of dividing the gains somewhat (but not completely) equally, as per Xi Jinping's idea of 'common prosperity' and a 'moderately prosperous society'. Basically the concept of 'enough', or degrowth.
This is clearly counter to the idea that we need to grow forever to lift people out of poverty. The idea dominating 'development' right now is just growing the pie until people at the bottom get a slice. What we can see now is that if we keep growing against a finite Earth the bottom will just fall out. Hence we as a society need an idea of enough, and sharing, concepts we assiduously teach our children and scrupulously ignore as adults.
What this means in practical terms is moving towards some form of global socialism and then communism in order to not just ensure balance within human society but with the Earth. Getting there would, of course, be a bloody mess, but there's no way around it. Either we change or the climate changes us. Either way, there will be blood.
Going Beyond Feudalism
The great argument for capitalism is that it's better than feudalism. The argument against communism is that feudal hierarchies just reassert themselves with party apparatchiks instead. There is some truth to the latter but not the former. Communism being bad doesn't mean that capitalism is not significantly worse.
Capitalism is just decentralized feudalism. Instead of being bound to small fiefs, we are bound to larger nations through passport apartheid (this may be unfamiliar to you, but people in the Global Majority cannot fucking move). Hence someone in Uganda or Sri Lanka is practically as bound to a piece of land as a feudal serf ever was. It's a bigger piece of land, but in terms of travel time, almost exactly the same. Making your fucking clothes and picking your cacao beans, this sucks.
Even within Global Minority (white) countries, where people don't feel their restrictions so clearly, they are still living under a more flexible system of inside feudalism. Instead of being bound to the land, people are bound to their jobs. America is the best (worst) example. People in that country depend on their corporate bosses for food, clothing, shelter (via a wage); and healthcare (directly). If they stop providing labor to some lord they're as fucked as a landless peasant.
While capitalism has decentralized feudalism and made it more flexible, it hasn't changed the fundamental principle of masses of people being bound to a few. It is as this fundamental level we have to change and, as mentioned, this very hierarchical society goes back to the first surpluses of the first agricultural revolution, which was far as fuck ago.
The truth is that communism is also quite capable of reproducing these hierarchies. To some degree, priority food sharing among us monkey-ass mammals may be millions of years old, but we for our purposes let's go back roughly 10,000 years to agriculture and the creation of huge surpluses of storable grain. That is the root of the core principle (or lack thereof) that afflicts any form of modern social governance. Motherfuckers don't share, and any new boss ends up like the new boss (the Animal Farm phenomenon). The people on top will always, to some degree, monopolize shit, be it through corporations of cooperatives. There are, however, dramatic difference in degree which still make communism preferable to capitalism, but it remains an underlying problem.
Now how do we solve this fundamental, evasive problem of inequality? Well, it's not clear that it is solvable. The truth is that we don't even know how to ask the right questions about this, meaning that the problem must be kicked into the realm of new, unwritten philosophy (and/or new religion). For all we know a modern Marx is scribbling somewhere now and a relevant prophet may be hallucinating in the desert. Great philosophy tends to come out of periods of great fuckery, which is precisely where we're at now. This isn't an answer though. What's beyond communism is still a very relevant question.
What is known is that communism isn't the end of history any more than capitalism is, for the same reasons. Indeed, it is also possible that this idea of a unified historical for all humans (the universal homogenous state) is in fact bullshit. The more natural thing would be returning to the historical mean of many different social organisms each doing their own thing (which is inherently more adaptive because it's not so 'samey').
The point here is that while we broadly know that we must achieve balance with our environment, and that while we have a broad sense of how, we do not know specifically how. Indeed we cannot know because the question will keep changing. Is this helpful? Uh, not really. But you also need to understand this. It's not clear that we can be helped. As much as we yearn for survival, the future may not belong to us at all.
This analysis—written as it is by a human—presumes the desirability and also inevitability of human survival. This is actually quite unlikely and, in the long run, completely impossible. Just talking about climate collapse, most big environmental change kills the previous adaptation, or reduces them to some marginal existence. That's by far the most likely outcome for us.
Returning to our microbial friends, aerobic life spewing oxygen pollution actually killed off most of the previously dominant anaerobic life. I guess you could say one evolved out of the other, but most of the ancestors were killed. The shit that enabled our ratty ancestors to thrive was also what killed the dinosaurs. Nature usually operates on a one-in, one-out principle.
Hence the higher probability is that we die in our own toxic farts while some other lifeform evolves that thinks they smell fine. The leading candidate has actually been evolving, like a virus, within human society for centuries now. They're called corporations. Corporations are literally embodied beings (the word means 'combine in one body') and you could technically say that emissions come from their metabolic processes (profit) more than ours.
Just as aerobic life emerged out of and suffocated anaerobic life, you could say that corporations emerged out of and are suffocating human (and other) life today. In the long historical view machines and not us have already started populating, however sparsely, the cosmos (all of our distant probes are machines, whereas we have only farted on the moon).
In the long historical view evolution does not give a fuck about our prejudices. We may say that corporations cannot be life because they live within human society, but that's precisely where the bulk of life (viruses and bacteria) already lives. COVID-19 just lives us and it's certainly fucking us up something good. The history of life is full of life emerging where it's not supposed to be (on land, in the air, anywhere at all) and corporations emerging symbiotically out of human society would be nothing new. An alien biologist would just shrug. Literally all we've sent them have been machines. Why would anyone assume that these wet hairy things are in charge?
Hence while humans have a window to adapt our weak, fleshy bodies to a changed environment, we will also have to adapt faster than our competitors in corporate form, and they don't give a fuck about the temperature at all. For corporations, the weather's fine. As we have noticed during the pandemic, they are perfectly capable of accelerating their metabolic processes (profit) while ours shut down. Corporations are making more money than ever. Since we started worrying about climate change with, say, COP1, they have emitted 60% more. It really seems likely that these emissions (like aerobic emissions) are the birth of corporate life more than the rebirth of humanity.
While it is clear that humanity must adapt (or die) and while it is vaguely clear how (communism plus plus), we are not without competitors. We could end up like chimpanzees, occupying some fraction of our former habitat while machines populate the solar system. More likely is that we end up like cattle, forming part of their metabolic processes but not being their lord. Indeed, this has already been the experience of the colored people colonized by corporations, and is still the general experience of most people living in wage slavery today.
Thus, while I have outlined how human society can adapt to a changing climate, the far more likely scenario is that we just don't. It's far more likely that life corporare is already better adapted for this new normal and will thrive while we barely get by.
As mentioned, evolution doesn't give a fuck. Humanity may be my personal favorite, but if I was a betting man, I wouldn't put money on us. I'd put it on the corporations that already control much of our society, already fly among the stars, and which live in 'the cloud', like veritable gods among men. Corporate life doesn't mind a warming Earth at all and is quite happy to choke its creators to death. That's just how life goes.
If you look at the history of evolution this is actually how it happens. One species' emissions is another's manna, one species misfortune is another's gain. It is actually incredibly rare for a species to adapt to dramatic evolutionary change and maintain dominance (ask dinosaurs). Species can persist (ask birds) but I don't think they ever remain on top (whatever that means). If humans are able to adapt and remain dominant then I think that would actually be a first. The far more likely scenario is that some other lifeform becomes dominant, and the most likely candidate for the crown is corporations.
OK, so, that's a summary of my general thinking on the politics, philosophy, and evolutionary biology of climate collapse which I've written about in bits and pieces before. If you read further I think you'll find that none of these ideas are, in isolation, especially controversial. It's just our deep human bias to think that we're the best that draws us into philosophical dead ends. We have all the pieces but we don't put them together because we simply don't like the answer. The answer is that we suck and will probably die.
It's like the Damien Hirst piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. You are absolutely going to die, but we simply don't think about it. We can't. In the same way capitalism is going to die and even the human species is going to die but we simply don't think about it. We just can't. We obsess about details and bargain with fate but the simple fact is that the environment eventually rolls over everybody and human civilization is, geologically speaking, just a fart in the wind. It is unclear whether future alien scientists would notice us at all.
Yet now we are faced with the very physical reality that shit is going wrong, and so people are starting to think. Within just a few decades we have gone from the arrogance of the 'end of history' to the coming end of the world as we know it. Far from being a utopian cruise to destiny and the singularity and whatever the fuck, we find ourselves scrambling for food, water, and shelter. Thomas More described Utopia as an island but we've ended up on fucking Gilligan's Island instead. A literal dead end. As the lyrics go, a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.
In fact, humans have only been walking upright for about three hours on the cosmic calendar. We laugh at dinosaurs but they at least made it a few days. We scoff at bacteria, but they'll been around for months. Environmental change giveth and it taketh away, and the only constant is change. This is the eternal law, until whatever cosmic bubble led to this universe pops and the rules of physics are written again.
Our only choice in this universe is to adapt or die, but even if we know how, it's not clear A) that we can and B) that we'll outcompete everything else. In the long historical view it's certainly possible for humans to emerge out of climate collapse stronger, but it's definitely not probable. In fact, it would be a first. Is it possible? Anything's possible. But two facts remains true. In the long run we're all dead, and at the same time, Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Life goes on, bra, La-la, how the life goes on.