Do you remember April? It seems like decades ago, but I remember, amid the dread and claustrophobia of lockdown, an unexpected thrum of hope. Traffic had stopped. No aeroplanes crossed the sky and no pollution clogged it. Where I live we heard ambulances carrying off our neighbours almost daily but we heard birdsong too, louder than ever before. A tiny spiky ball of glycoproteins and ribonucleic acid had done what a century of dedicated revolutionaries had been unable to. It had slowed the world economy to a crawl.
It has been one of the defining accomplishments of contemporary capitalism that its totalising embrace makes it difficult to envision any other way of relating to one another and to the planet that we share. For a moment last spring, though, just as the world seemed to be ending, it was possible to glimpse the blurry outlines of another one, one far more beneficial to all non-human life. It became nakedly obvious that, among humans, the least-esteemed professions were essential and that the most prestigious were mainly parasitic. Almost overnight everything we had been told was unstoppable had stopped. It felt possible to ask questions that we might not have dared articulate before, such as how – assuming any of us survived – we might organise our societies and our minds, if the demands of profit were not all that pushed us.
Four years ago, the Swedish scholar Andreas Malm offered one of the sharpest diagnoses yet of the root disease we suffer from. In a book called Fossil Capital he traced the history of the coal-powered steam engine in 19th-century England. Coal, he argued, was not cheaper or more efficient than water power, but had the unique virtue of weakening those who laboured in mills to the advantage of the men who owned them. The fossil economy, as Malm called it, has from the beginning been inseparable from the exploitation of both humans and nature. Along the way it created the illusion of self-sustaining growth that remains fundamental to the current system, this machine that can never be allowed to stop, even as it destroys everything around us.
Malm’s latest book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, adds the pandemic to the picture, “a global sickening to match the global heating”. More than 300 new infectious diseases have arisen since 1940: think HIV, Zika, Ebola, Sars, Mers, innumerable new strains of flu. There is little debate about their immediate origins. Previously unencountered microbes leap to human hosts from other animals in an ongoing “zoonotic spillover”. The causes are no mystery: habitat destruction – mainly deforestation – and industrialised agriculture put large numbers of humans in increasing contact with highly stressed animal populations.
The real virus, Malm suggests, is capitalism, the fossil economy that subsists “solely by expanding”, gobbling up the planet as it does. Capital’s only mandate is to reproduce itself, to eternally seek out opportunities for “growth”. The Earth becomes a collection of commodities. What is not commodity is waste. In an “ecologically unequal exchange” by which the wealthy populations of the global north enjoy consumer lifestyles dependent on “scorched-earth extractivism” in poor countries out of sight, virgin forest falls to make way for palm oil plantations, cobalt mines, cattle pasture, soy. Wild lands are bulldozed to feed commodity markets continents away. Fresh consumer hungers are manufactured to keep the machine humming.
The result is devastation, the entire biosphere in need of an ICU. In 1700, before the birth of industrial capitalism, Malm writes, “95% of the planet’s ice-free land was either wild” or “used so lightly as to be categorised as ‘semi-natural’”. By 2000 only 5% was left. The problem is not the wet markets of Wuhan or the high-end trade in exotic animals, but a system that sucks all of nature into globalised circuits of capital. In doing so it cannot help but summon up fresh plagues, as it heats the atmosphere and poisons the air and the oceans.
Viewed from a far ideological shore – an uncannily tranquil one, sheltered from fires and floods – this is, even now, the best of all possible worlds. People live longer, more prosperous lives, some of them anyway, and democracy is thriving. Or it once did, or perhaps will again. In 2015, the 19 signers of a document called “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” argued in favour of abandoning the goal of “sustainable development”. If there are any “fixed physical boundaries to human consumption”, they reassured, “they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant”. We can still gobble all we want. More intensive industrial agriculture and resource exploitation will ultimately, via as yet undiscovered technological advances, “interfere less with the natural world”, or so the manifesto promised. Capitalism’s tendency towards unrelenting ecological wreckage could be “decoupled” from the benefits of growth so that we all might look forward to a “good, or even great, Anthropocene”.
Keep the champagne corked. The manifesto has not stood up well, particularly in its confidence that humanity has “made extraordinary progress in reducing the incidence and effects of infectious diseases, and … has become more resilient to extreme weather”. The ideas behind it, though, don’t differ much from the programmes of centrist governments the world over. This is the path we’re on, backed by a climate denialism at least as pernicious as the Trumpian sort. It respects science, if somewhat selectively, avoids disreputable associations with radicals, and speaks in tones that would disturb no one at Davos. Its message – that nothing fundamental has to change – is comforting, polite, and extremely dangerous.
The environmental geographer Ruth DeFries, one of the manifesto’s signers, concedes in her latest book What Would Nature Do? that “our hyperconnected, complex civilisation” – with minor variations, the phrase recurs like a tic – has a few downsides. The “modern, ultra-connected world” is “capricious”, “uncertain”, “unpredictable”. Indeed, though she doesn’t mention it, its temperatures are approaching a threshold not seen in 34 million years. “The modern, interconnected world” – it would be so much easier if she would only say “capitalism” – has a tendency, DeFries argues, to overlook the benefits of diversity and to “smooth over the rugged richness of cultures”. Agreed: 1 million species now face extinction, and drought and hunger will probably force between 50 and 300 million people to abandon their homelands within our children’s lifetimes.
What Would Nature Do? is written for those who feel certain that their own children will not be among the refugees. Poor, abused nature, having surrendered so many of her riches, is here mined mercilessly for bromides. DeFries looks for life lessons in plate tectonics, entomology, the stock market. Her range is broad and her anecdotes often entertaining, but the truths she wrings from them are the banal stuff of Silicon Valley corporatese: strategic redundancy can avert disaster; flexible networks absorb shocks better than rigid hierarchies.
The evasions, though, gall the most. “Bulldozers and pavement are eliminating the storehouse of biological diversity”, DeFries frets, as if engines and asphalt had agency and no human beings were profiting from the destruction they wreak and – knowing the cost – continuing to profit. Then there’s that first-person plural, always good for diverting blame: DeFries writes again and again of “our dynamic, interconnected, complex world” as if it belonged to all of us and were not a system of ingrained inequalities for which this book functions as an unfortunate but forgettable alibi.
The slender thread of hope that some of us felt last spring slipped quickly out of our grasp. The moment passed. With more clarity than they usually permit themselves, the guardians of the status quo announced that mere human lives could not be allowed to impede the flow of profits. The economy, a god hungrier than any Baal or Moloch, demanded sacrifice. As always it would not be the high priests whose lives were offered up, but those already rendered vulnerable by the economy’s predations: the aged and infirm, prisoners, migrants, and workers who had no choice but to labour on despite the dangers. They have died by the hundreds of thousands.
So here we are again, in a situation that years of extinctions and climate crisis have already made familiar: watching a real-time catastrophe unfold, knowing exactly what needs to be done to stop it but knowing also that we can’t because the very structures underpinning our societies are the ones pushing the disasters onward. Perhaps, if we survive the winter ahead and are not lulled into somnolence by the arrival of a vaccine – big pharma on a wheezing white horse – we will remember precisely who told us not to worry and who told us that our lives matter less than their dividends do. And perhaps in our anger and our grief we will find the strength to build something new. “The way out,” writes the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, on whose work much of Malm’s analysis rests, “is nothing short of birthing a world.” It won’t be easy, but neither are the alternatives.
• Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century is published by Verso (£10.99). What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times is published by Columbia (£22); To order copies go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.