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Destroying the Means of Planetary Destruction: In Conversation with Andreas Malm
The following interview first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
Andreas Malm works at the Department of Human Geography at Lund University in Sweden. His most famous book is Fossil Capital, a Deutscher-prize-winning book. He’s also written The Progress of This Storm, engaging with the theoretical questions. Forthcoming, he has How to Blow Up a Pipeline and Corona, Covid, Climate Emergency, and then, with the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel. Richard Seymour, part of the Salvage Editorial Collective, spoke to him in Spring 2020, via the internet.
Richard Seymour: One thing your books have in common is the theme of disaster. And that’s a theme for which Salvage has a certain sympathy. But what is it with you and disaster? Why are you so fascinated by it? You’re on a creative roll here, you’re thriving writing on these dark themes, and yet you seem incredibly hopeful.
Andreas Malm: (forlorn laughter) I don’t feel incredibly hopeful! Yeah, I guess there’s something perversely attractive about it, I don’t know. To be honest with you, what I really enjoy the most is to do completely nerdy historical research. From a purely hedonistic viewpoint what I’d rather do is sit and indulge in archival studies and things like that. These three books that are forthcoming, all of them are a self-imposed deviation from the project I wish I could spend time on, which is a rather less disaster-obsessed project about how subalterns or oppressed people have used wilderness or wild nature as a resource.
In the spring of 2018, I was completely disinhibited in my revelling in historical nerdiness. I got obsessed with ancient Egypt, the Exodus story and the historical background. But, toward the end of spring, I began to wonder, is it really justified to do all these super-nerdy research when everything is on fire. So that’s when we started the Zetkin project. It’s more that I feel extremely afraid about climate catastrophe in particular, and other aspects of the ecological crisis including the pandemic. I’m sure you and the Salvage collective feel the same, these are crises that are breathing down our necks. It’s hard to think about other stuff, and justify for oneself doing things that are more enjoyable. I feel some duty to take those disasters seriously, and be as militant in our politics as they require. I wouldn’t completely reject any allegation that there’s also something attractive about disaster, but my libidinal urges draw me more to past social struggles: that’s what I think is fun.
So Fossil Capital, about nineteenth century watermills: that’s really where you would like to be, in the archives digging out the most recondite facts. I want to get on to the Corona book. In it, you draw to some extent on David Quammen’s work, but more generally on literature dealing with the threat of zoonotic disease. You argue, of course, that it’s an ecological problem: there are a growing number of pandemic threats. Most of them come from microbes that live in animal populations. The animals that are domesticated, that we’re used to – cats, dogs, cows, horses – their microbes we’re fine with. But most animals aren’t domesticated, and the vast majority of microbes can be harmful to us, and we just haven’t got any exposure to them. There is the danger that as human communities, and specifically human production encroaches on wild animal populations – you focus on bats – the risk of an outbreak increases. There are a number of books hedging around this general area, talking about consumption, globalised economies, trade, as causing us to encroach on animal populations in our food production and so on. The same question applies here, as with Fossil Capital: why is it the grammar of capital specifically that is invested here?
Yeah, that’s a good question. This is, of course, hard to completely disentangle from one’s broader analysis of how the world works. But trade and consumption, and those things that you mention, are fundamentally epiphenomena of capital accumulation. They are aspects of the fundamental process of self-valorising value, or expanded reproduction, or simply capital accumulation, or even just making money. So, trade is clearly important for producing risks of spillover. That was clearly the case in the fourteenth century with the plague. And in the Roman empire, pandemics were linked to trade as well. But today, trade works very differently than it did in the fourteenth century, or during the Roman empire. It’s no longer a matter of merchants picking up a few goods in exotic locations and sending them back to the metropolis as in the fourteenth century.
Nowadays, trade works much more aggressively, in that large capitalist corporations seize swathes of land and subsume natural processes as far as they can to the imperatives of capital. As in palm oil plantations, for instance. You can’t just explain it by saying, well it’s trade. Trade works differently depending on the drivers, and globalised trade we’ve seen over the last few decades is unimaginable without capitalism as the fundamental driver. I guess the argument I make in the book is that there is something special about the relationship between capital and wild nature. You see, throughout history, that rulers and ruling classes, have always had this suspicion of wild nature as being outside of their power. There are some exceptions. Ancient Egypt, for instance, you had the original class society, the first nation-state, where the Pharaohs made an extremely sharp distinction between territory under their control and wild nature. Wild nature was out of their control and therefore inherently dangerous.
That attitude to wild nature is transhistorical among dominant classes. But it’s only with the emergence of capitalist property-relations that you get this systematic imperative to subordinate wild areas to the production of surplus value. And here I think, even though there are problems with Political Marxism, Ellen Meiksins Wood and the others are correct in pointing to the preoccupation with improvement in English agriculture as a key shift in the relations between humans and nature. Because when you get that obsessed with improving nature, subordinating wild nature and turning it into a source of profit, you have this new drive to constantly expand into wild territories, and turn them into productive use, which is to say profitable use. Egyptian pharaohs, and pre-capitalist English lords, did not necessarily have that compulsion to do so. As you know, they extracted surplus by forcing the peasants to turn over some of what they produced. So, the hostility to wild nature is a transhistorical phenomenon, but the drive to subordinate it to profit is specific to the capitalist mode of production, and that has spiralled on since its origins and has become a global plague.
Let me spin off laterally there, into a more involved theoretical question that arises in this context. In your book, The Progress of This Storm, you confront this question, should we get rid of the human/nature dichotomy. Jason W. Moore and a number of others, perhaps following in the tradition of Donna Haraway, argue that what we call nature is already so bound up with human economy, culture, politics and so on, that it really makes no sense to maintain that dichotomy, and it could be quite misleading. And I suppose an example of that would be, following from the capitalist drive to create new territory, the English colonisation of North America, imagining this land to be pristine and untouched, and actually it was heavily re-worked by pre-existing political communities. So, why do you think it is important methodologically, and I guess therefore politically, to maintain that distinction, to recognise nature as a valid category in itself? Because that’s important for your wilderness argument too.
If we just look at this pandemic, I think it’s impossible to understand what’s at stake politically unless you make that distinction. Because what we have is precisely the situation that you describe, we have these pathogens circulating naturally in wild populations, and that is not something that humans have created. So, it’s not by dint of human action that coronaviruses circulate among bats, for instance, it’s a matter of biological evolution. On the other hand, you have certain social drivers that propel humanity into contact with those wildlife populations, and it’s precisely at the intersection or articulation or mutual interpenetration of the natural and the social that you get this risk of a pandemic.
So on the one hand, it’s recognising that Covid-19 is natural and its existence is not something you can do anything about, and on the other hand it’s about recognising social drivers so that you can say that these natural facts that we can’t do anything about, we have to adjust our way of living to take account of those realities. The climate crisis has exactly the same structure: what we can do something about is our economies, our political structure. These are entirely social constructs that are completely distinct from nature: capital, as a relation, doesn’t exist in nature. It’s something that comes out of how social life has developed. Every critical theory really needs to make that distinction. Coming out of the Zetkin collective, if you look at critical race theory, or any critical theory of race, it’s fundamentally based on that distinction. Race exists on the social side of things, it’s not part of nature. Every critic of racism makes that distinction. Critical theory just cannot do without that distinction.
That’s interesting because in the Haraway iteration – I don’t suppose Moore would agree with this – the axis of the interpenetration of what she calls ‘natureculture’, shifts from production to metabolism all the way back to cognition: the fact that, for us to encounter something as nature, we already have to have a set of conceptual schema, which is inherently cultural, which is inherently human. Obviously anything that we think about nature is inherently human, but you’re insisting on a distinction that has a direct practical relevance to the struggles we are facing. You link it to the pandemic. If you want to relate it to climate change, you could say – this is contested, but – roughly every 26 million years there is a mass extinction event on this planet. Certainly mass extinctions are unavoidable. Climate change is unavoidable. These are phenomena that derive from planetary processes that we have no hope of mastering. At least in any foreseeable future. It’s interesting that you have brought it back to that; it’s the bit that humans can’t do anything about, and in the face of which we are both helpless and dependent.
Exactly. I don’t think that the border between what in nature is susceptible to human influence, and what is not, is not constant. So that border can shift. So, for instance, solar geoengineering promises to alter the amount of solar radiation that comes into the earth. Francis Bacon did dream of this but, historically, few would have thought that human beings could ever do anything of the kind. Now it clearly is under human influence. But if that were to happen, the whole project of solar geoengineering would then come under the influence of a series of other processes we can’t do anything about. Because we know that solar geoengineering opens a whole Pandora’s Box of consequences and chain reactions in the earth’s system.
You can analyse the rise of fossil fuels in the same way. Fossil fuels represented a new form of human domination over nature and allowed us, or some of us, to exploit energy in a completely different fashion. But it triggered, or activated spheres of nature beyond human influence. As a materialist, I don’t see how human history could ever escape this basic structure of our relationship to nature.
The other question I wanted to ask about this, and this is going back to your analysis of the causes of pandemics, and specifically we’re talking about the subsumption of life processes under the frame of capital. The concern I have, which is not with your thesis, but rather it is with the political ramification of what capital would do with this understanding. It’s not beyond their capacity to come up with innovative ways to regulate this risk in the same moment that they subsume more and more of life processes. Indeed, the very fact of a pandemic can be a stimulus to more and more subsumption of life processes. I suppose there is a danger of a certain kind of capitalist biopolitics that involves regulating, not capital, but humans: human movements, human consumption. Do you think there’s a danger that’s what we’re up against?
Yes, it sounds entirely likely that this is what we’re up against. However, since I wrote this little Corona book in April, I haven’t really followed these processes closely. It would strike me as similar to what you see in how the climate crisis is governed with fake solutions, carbon offsetting, flexible mechanisms, or some kind of geoengineering: this failure to address the fundamental drivers of the disasters, while at the same time capitalising on them and using them to come up with new methods for control and profit, seems to me the method of capital when it comes to confronting these problems. But I don’t really know much about this.
I would be overstating this if I implied there was some sort of global coherence to what was going on. That’s exactly what’s not happening. This is an age in which there is a lot of fragmentation at the level of governance, hence what you’re seeing in the United States. Where they may well have to go back under lockdown having come out too early. There appears to be no global consensus as to what to do about this sort of crisis. What I think it is worth paying attention to is what is happening in southern Asian states, particularly south-east Asia, because they have got to grips with this crisis a lot better, a lot more efficiently, precisely along the lines that I’ve talked about. China is not about to massively change its food production system because it’s part of a globally integrated set of value-chains. But it has worked very hard to control human movement, and to change human behaviour. That has increased the leverage of the state with regard to populations under its control. And that’s not – I don’t know if you would accept the methodological distinction between the imperatives of capital and the drives of the state, whatever one’s state theory is, but it isn’t exactly the drives of capital.
But can I ask you one thing, because I don’t really know what the situation is around the world, but in Sweden for instance the ecological dimension of this problem is completely absent from the public discourse. It’s only a discussion about, how do we deal with this disease? But you would imagine that if there is a kind of collective rationality of the capitalist class, the next World Economic Forum, or whatever bourgeois public forum there is out there would be completely filled with ‘how do we make sure this crisis never happens again?’ if we’re stuck with the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, potentially, ever. If they were rational, they would be completely focused on how we avoid this kind of spillover again. I guess there are also technocratic, potentially capitalist solutions that could be broached. You sent me an article proposing that you have to have more surveillance at the interface, technologies for ascertaining whether there are risks of spillover at points of the world economy. I would imagine if there was any kind of capitalist rationality to avoid self-destruction, they would take steps to avoid this happening again. Is that part of the capitalist discourse? Does the World Bank talk about it?
It doesn’t seem that they’re talking about it on the level that you are but, what you’ve just described, talking about surveillance of animal populations, the frontiers of human and animal populations, picking up on what they call ‘microbial’ or ‘viral chatter’, language that is imported from counterterrorism – that is as far as I can tell absolutely common place not only among government officials, but first and foremost among the scientists, the disease specialists, who are publishing the bestselling books. There’s an interesting series of overlaps here between behavioural economics, epidemiology and counterterrorism. Science is being drawn – not as a conspiracy, but not as an accident either – into a triad of economics, counterterrorist methods of population control, and disease control, which has been considered since the nineteenth century a matter of controlling human behaviour. Without, I should say, addressing the drivers.
Here’s the other thing. In terms of the long-term calculation and thinking about this. We’ve seen what that looks like in terms of climate governance. World governments did make an effort to address climate change, but they never wanted to address, impede or even slow the intense expansion of global capital accumulation, and the development of global value chains. So we got what we got, which is things getting worse and worse. There is a distinction to be made, though, between what happens at the level of capital – because as Poulantzas would have said, capital does not have the kind of unity in itself to come up with these kinds of long-term solutions, they are under enormous pressure to make profits tomorrow, it is the state that is the unifying instance. What’s been happening over the last five years is the state and its coherence has been in crisis. Hence the urgency of the Left coming up with its own answers on this. The imperialist dimension is important here. If Obama were still in office, there would probably be some sort of global, neoliberal project like after the credit crunch. Hence all this Post-Washington Melancholia, people complaining America doesn’t want to lead the world any more: there’s an element of truth in that.
What’s your bet on the outcome of the next election? Biden is ‘palpably decomposing’, you wrote.
Black Lives Matter could get him elected. His ratings have drastically improved in the aftermath, all that stuff that was damaging him, his terrible media appearances, the Me Too case against him, that’s all been put in the background. Now, it’s pretty clear that Trump is going to fight a culture wars election, statues and so on, and he’s going to racialise it heavily and bring in a weird kind of anticommunism. Biden is kind of, I think, hoping that he doesn’t have to give the Left anything, because Black Lives Matter will fire people up. But this is before any of the debates. I fear that Trump will tear Biden apart. He’s much more skilled at this than Biden is. I fear the media will say that Biden won, because from their point of view it will look like he did, but not in the wider public. Also, we should not underestimate the sophistication of the far-right’s social media operations. We just got shafted by that in Britain. So, it’s possible but every time I think the centre may be stabilising itself, something else happens.
I want to get on to your book with the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel. It is an amazing book. And in a different way from Fossil Capital. Fossil Capital is the kind of book where you’ve made nineteenth century water mills fascinating, that’s quite a skill. But this book is really urgent, because there is just something that needs to be theorised here. Why is it that most of the far-right, at this stage, is cleaving toward climate denialism? That isn’t an obvious or intuitive stance for them to take. And you guys have developed a heteroclite marxist theory of why this is. I want to start with your analysis of ‘fossil capital’. You make a distinction here between ‘primitive fossil capital’, and ‘fossil capital’, which is most of capital that depends on fossil fuels. You’ve developed this theory of the energetic basis of capitalist civilisation. You’ve then described the denialist industry as an ideological-state apparatus. Which, as an Althusserian, I rather like.
Why is it that this industry, this denialist industry, was taken up and then junked by primitive fossil capital? And then why does the far-right go on and take it up?
I have to recall the argument we made, because it’s some time now since we wrote this shit. In ‘primitive fossil capital’, there was virtually consensus around denialism until Kyoto when a chunk of it broke off and realised that, ‘we can actually protect our businesses better by jumping on the bandwagon of market solutions which will not in any way harm us or endanger our profits. So we can have the cake of an appearance of caring, and we can eat our profits.’ I don’t know if that metaphor makes sense. So, that’s when you have the first defections. Some held on longer, most famously ExxonMobil. And there was a moment, under Obama, when what we in the book called capitalist climate governance became so hegemonic that most primitive fossil capital withdrew at least the explicit support for denialism and accepted that this is a problem that exists – and we’re not going to do anything about it.
At the same time, the rise of the far right, as we understand it in the book, is partly about defending the privileges which come from fossil fuels, and other modes of climate destruction. In Brazil, it’s aggressive deforestation. And oppose even the notion that we should do anything about it. So, the far right, the AfD in Germany, the Sweden Democrats here, Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and many other places that we analysed, have developed furious reactions even to the nominal acceptance of the climate crisis. Because the deeper the crisis becomes, any acknowledgment of that crisis has the implication that you have to address radically the privilege that comes with fossil fuels. So the far-right has taken upon itself the role of least compromising defender of fossil fuels and their consumption, and therefore revived the old denialist ISA that Shell, BP and ExxonMobil and others originally developed, and have done it in a way that is congruent with the general far-right rejection of science, and with their conspiracy theory about ‘cultural marxism’.
So, they took up the large denialist apparatus that was originally developed by large capitalist corporations between the late Eighties and late Nineties. This doesn’t mean that ExxonMobil and others are so committed to capitalist climate governance that they will maintain any sort of distance from far-right denialism. To the contrary, they’re completely on board with it as you’ve seen from the past four years in the United States, where you’ve had a complete concord between Donald Trump and his explicit climate denialism, and the day to day profit-making of the big oil and gas and coal companies. Although it hasn’t worked out too well for them. So, ExxonMobil and others have continued to expand under the protection of revived denialism. It’s completely promiscuous in taking on nominal acceptance and taking on a president who is completely denialist.
There are two possible issues there. One of them, as you point out in the book, there’s a difference between the far-right and the fossil giants, in that the latter have to adhere to some basically scientific worldview. They are people who have, and must have a specialised understanding of earth processes. They need the sciences. They can’t have the attitude of the far-right which is opportunistic, at best, with regard to scientific findings. And which is given to conspiracist thinking, wherein science itself can be regarded as an attempt to brainwash. The far-right’s view is organised around resentment. These guys, fossil giants, know exactly what is going on. They always have, as you document in the book. But it’s become impossible for them to openly engage in denialism, even if they might send the denialists some back-handed money.
The other thing that I wanted to bring up, though, is that when the Trump administration at first announced it was withdrawing from the Paris Accords, and a number of fossil fuel giants – ExxonMobil may have been among them – wrote to Trump saying, actually don’t do this. We were pretty good, we were locked in for the next forty years and you’re ruining it. I don’t know if the position has moved on. But it’s interesting that the alignment between the far-right and fossil extraction is not without its tensions.
Can I then ask you, at once stage in the book you hint that it might be worth exploring the death-drive of the nationalist far-right. I’m unsure if you have developed a theory of that. But it does seem to be an issue with the far right: we’ve seen this during the pandemic. Bolsonaro coming out to meet crowds without the mask on, and now he’s tested positive for coronavirus.
How they relish the prospect of disaster. How they seem to egg it on. Did you have any intuitions about why they seem so attracted to the world burning?
You know Freud and psychoanalysis a thousand times better than I do. I got a little bit fascinated by one footnote in Civilisation and its Discontents where Freud quotes Goethe’s Faust, the point being that everything that lives belies the omnipotence of the narcissistic ego, that there is actually a living force outside of me, that has its own separated existence irrespective of my own. It potentially limits what I can do. Therefore, there is an enormous attraction in burning and destroying that kind of exuberant autonomous nature that is outside of myself, because it is a threat to my greatness. So, death becomes extremely alluring. Another obsession that I developed during my work is precisely that psychological tendency that I saw developed extremely conspicuously in Marinetti’s writings – anything that reminds him of a nature that is something different from his own ego, that just has to burn. Literally, it has to burn.
This is what Freud calls ‘His Majesty, the ego’.
Yeah. This is a step beyond what Freud talks about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle where it’s more like the ego wants to kill itself, and the aggression is primarily directed inwardly. And then in Civilisation and Its Discontents and later Freud, the death-drive is more connected to narcissism and aggression. When you look at Bolsonaro, it has that element of self-destructiveness as well. His whole denial and, just let the pandemic burn, eventually hits himself. It’s almost as if he wished that to happen. So you would have to integrate that earlier version of death-drive theory as well, and I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that.
I think it’s more productive as a question than as something that we have a ready-made answer to. The death-drive theory is actually not much of a theory, to be honest. It’s more of a problematic. Because it’s palpably manifest that this is part of human behaviour. Just in connection with that, and this is another lateral question, but do you perhaps know Isaac Babel’s stories at all?
They’re very short, and almost hallucinatory. I think you’d like them. There’s one in a series of stories that he wrote about the Civil War in Russia. It’s called ‘The Road to Brody’. It opens with these lines: ‘I mourn for the bees. They have been destroyed by warring armies. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia. We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulphur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smouldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees. Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible. Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabres. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.’ It’s mourning, but it’s also guilt. Well, of course, one of the aspects of climate destruction that is sometimes under-remarked, but we can’t leave it out when we’re talking about fossil fascism, is war and imperialism. If fascism is in a way the ‘chemical distillation of the culture of imperialism’ in the good old Trotskyist Fourth International formulation, you can see that Trump represents that precisely. Even if he is critical of some wars, the culture of imperialism is in everything he says. You know, ‘bomb the shit out of them’. Everything that he says reflects the barbarism that comes from empire.
I wonder if, in the repertoire of disasters that you’re looking at, have you gone back and looked at writings on the nuclear threat? I think Edward Thompson calls it ‘exterminism’. The compulsive investment in the idea of a completely destroyed world. Maybe we’re not at risk of a nuclear war, though some would say we’re more at risk of a nuclear war than ever before. But have you gone back and looked at that literature? Does that appeal to you?
I haven’t looked at that literature, except for when you read Adorno, and he refers to – sometimes in general, vague terms – the threat of complete planetary destruction. What he has in mind is nuclear annihilation. But he phrases it so abstractly that he could be talking about the climate catastrophe, or any other kind of catastrophe. But he wrote most of these reflections under the shadow of the atomic bomb and, of course, the Holocaust. It’s interesting to see how well it fits the present moment. But no, I don’t know that literature. I also have to say, I don’t know how much we should be worried about nuclear war at this stage – but it’s always the unexpected. We could be surprised by a disaster on that front, just as we were surprised by the pandemic.
For what it’s worth, what some specialists fear is not a Cold War style confrontation, but rather that the nuclear sovereign is breaking up, nuclear weapons are getting smaller, nuclear materials are easier to get hold of, and the risk is of a non-state actor getting hold of a weapon or manufacturing a dirty bomb with far less inhibitions on its use.
Can we come back to one of your arguments about fossil fascism? Fossil fascism is, in your argument, linked specifically to a kind of not entirely ad hoc, but also not entirely coherent assemblage of the new far right, primitive fossil capital, and various civil society actors pushing in this direction. There’s another danger, which you address in the book, but it’s clear you don’t think it’s the dominant danger, which is of ecofascism. There are a number of developments which are minor, relative to the import of the line that Trump and Bolsonaro are taking. We’ve seen ecofascist massacres, like those in Christchurch and Arizona, we’ve seen growing attempts by ecofascists and various Nazis, white supremacists, to penetrate Green groups. In your book, you document the history, often the rotten history of environmentalism, and its involvement with racism, anti-immigrant politics, Malthusianism. The Sierra Club was anti-immigrant right up until the 1990s. Garret Hardin is pretty close to being a fascist in some form. You’ve got green nationalists like Paul Kingsnorth, the founder of Earth First is basically a white nationalist. All of that’s there, and you have a number of factors that could push in that direction.
I suppose the question is not whether you think this is a threat because I know you’re aware of all this but, are there aspects of the climate crisis that would yield, in however bloody and brutal a fashion, to far-right solutions? Can a far-right solution to the climate crisis be anything other than a pseudo-solution? If, for example, the idea was, let’s brutally reduce the global population – and this is a discourse on the Left as well as the Right, population reduction. Donna Haraway wrote about it. She argues that, although it’s often articulated in a Malthusian way that doesn’t take account of the structures of capital accumulation, economic disparities, there is nonetheless a reality here which is that more people equals more resources being consumed. As you might put it, a higher throughput. Therefore the idea is, she wants us to reduce the world population to something like three billion, which is a huge reduction and caused many people to think: ‘are you talking – what are – how are we going to get there?’ I wonder if in some sort of neo-patriarchy, with reproduction under control, perhaps akin to China’s one child policy, if that would lend itself to an oppressive, autocratic solution to climate change, and would it actually have any kind of effect on the emissions problem?
Exactly as you say, it has all the potential to lead us into fascism with an ecological veneer, but it would be obviously a giant miss. It would be a pseudo-solution. If you go out in the world and try to reduce population growth, what you do is go after Afghanis, Somalis, Mozambicans, Haitians, these are the people whom eco-Malthusians come up with as being guilty of multiplying too fast. But if you were to eradicate half of Afghanistan’s population, or Somalia’s population, you would barely make a dent in curbing emissions. If anyone proposed that we annihilated the entire population of Americans, western Europeans and perhaps Gulf states, then you might make a difference. But if you were to make that choice of target, you would make it on another basis than, this is where the population is growing fastest. You see what I mean? If you want to make a difference to the emissions curve, you go after the rich.
It’s interesting that the valences of fascism go in different directions here. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Dennis Kelly series, Utopia, which is all about an establishment plot involving various intelligence agencies to wipe out large parts of the world population in order to avoid climate disaster, starvation, etc. Some people, like the 5G conspiracists, plainly inhabit that fictional world. But it reminds me of that famous Jevons paradox. Just because you’ve found a more efficient way to use energy doesn’t mean you’ll use less of it; the chances are you’ll use more of it. The same goes here. You’re creating enormous new vectors for capitalist growth. And colonisation. Of course it would require nearly despotic powers over individual lives to prevent the population from growing again as it does when capitalism is expanding: this is what Marx and Engels noticed in The Communist Manifesto. The irony, of course, is that in so doing you would be multiplying the possible bases on which living systems can collapse for other reasons. However, this is something we have vexed about in Salvage, is there in principle, setting aside whatever the number should be, some limit in terms of the human population, beyond which it would just not be realistic to continue to grow. Humans are not like other animals. We don’t want to live in poverty, we don’t want to live in dirt, we want to be reasonably comfortable and have long lives. There’s a minimal throughput or level of consumption associated with a human life. Is there some sort of threshold that we have to look out for, or is that something we’re never going to know?
Yeah, I think there is. This is an issue that I struggle with myself and haven’t looked into as closely as the problem deserves. On the one hand, I would say that if you compare a scenario where you have one billion human beings on earth, with one where you have ten billion human beings on earth, there is no natural law that says ten billion will inevitably consume more biophysical resources than one billion. It depends entirely on patterns of consumption. It might well be that ten billion people have a more sustainable aggregate lifestyle than one billion.
In the human ecology department at Lund University, we recently had a PhD student who calculated that if everyone shifted to a vegan diet, we could feed 24 billion people I think, with no expansion of current agricultural land on earth. If you were to shift the human population to a completely vegan diet, clearly, you could feed a lot more people. These limits are malleable, they’re not set in stone.
On the other hand, you’re right: at some point, human numbers create problems. In particular, I would say this goes for a damaged planet, where you have built into the earth’s systems all the repercussions of the past two centuries of planetary and climate disruption. If you have one billion people living on a shoreline, clearly you have more people vulnerable to a sea level rise than if you have two hundred people living there. So, when it comes to the effects of the climate crisis and other ecological crises, the larger the human population the greater the potential for disaster. It’s a problem that some of the most exposed territories around the world, when it comes to sea level rise, are extremely densely populated. Deltas around the world are hotspots for the climate crisis. And they are among the most densely populated territories that you can find. And that is a problem that we can’t just pretend doesn’t exist.
So, I agree with Donna Haraway as I remember her putting it in Staying With the Trouble, we should allow ourselves to strive for a stabilisation of human numbers. That is a goal that I am in favour of. If you look at Egypt for instance, that has a population growth that is completely out of control. That is a recipe for ecological and social disaster in that country. Because the material basis of that country, the Nile river flow, and the Delta, the area of agricultural productivity in northern Egypt, all of these are in danger. And at the same time you have a population growth that is completely out of control. If you compare that to Iran, for instance, that was extremely successful in the 1990s after the end of the war in reducing its population growth, largely because of welfare programmes that covered the whole population, and cut the galloping population growth that was produced by the Khomeini regime in the 1980s, and cut it to below reproduction rate I think, that was a vastly preferable trajectory to what we have in Egypt today. Unfortunately, some of that has been reversed in Iran too.
I don’t think that the ambition to restrict population growth is by definition a reactionary endeavour, a Malthusian plot that the Left always has to be against. But, you’re absolutely right that the environmental movement has this inner spectre that keeps jumping out again and again and again, saying, the solution is to have a mass die-off: we have to get to three billion people! Someone reportedly said in Michael Moore’s recent documentary – I haven’t seen it – that we shouldn’t aim for renewable energy, we should have a mass die-off of humanity. That is an inherently fascist-oriented political impulse that has to be combatted. We will never deal with the drivers of climate catastrophe by cutting human numbers, particularly the human numbers that grow. I mean, it’s not the 130 million or so Egyptians that are the reason why we have the climate crisis. So seeing that as the problem is proto-fascist and very dangerous.
You mentioned the PhD student who said if we had everyone on a vegan diet, in principle we could feed up to twenty billion people without expanding production. And, those are the kinds of solutions, that’s the kind of radicalism that we’re talking about here. We’re talking really profound, deep changes in people’s relationships to their own reproduction, their lifestyles, what they enjoy, what tastes good, how they get about. One of the things that concerns me is that we have a great deal of difficulty in confronting a situation that is quite unlike that which confronted Kropotkin, for example. In the nineteenth century, he could say, the problem is bread. People are basically good as long as you solve the problem of making sure everyone has enough bread. The problem now is not bread. There are sections of humanity for whom it is, but we could feed those people if there was a political will to do so. The problem now is, rather, we’re going to have to do without certain things that have been taken for granted, particularly in the core capitalist economies. Your shops are full, with food from all over the world. That’s not going to be the case so much. You’re not going to find it as easy to travel about by air, if at all. Certain capitalist freedoms, specifically capitalist freedoms, have got to go. The Right is going to find a way to say, this is a project for taking stuff away from you. How can we confront honestly the fact that, yes, we’re going to have to give up some things – in the same way for example that, as Gilroy points out, anti-slavery activists in the eighteenth century said we’re not going to eat sugar, because there is blood in your sugar, it’s made by slaves – we’re going to have to give up some things just to survive. How can we do that without it being entirely a net loss? What is potentially attractive in the eco-future?
There is an enormous amount of work about the Green New Deal, degrowth, Kate Soper has a book coming out about alternative hedonism, showing that a sustainable economy that does away with some freedoms can still massively expand other kinds of freedoms – not the least freedom from work. In sum, a positive net effect. This improvement would be uneven. Rich people would feel a drastic curtailment of their freedoms, in any kind of transition. So, they would lose a lot of freedom. But for a lot of working people around the world, the amount of freedom, the good life, could easily expand in a transition.
We just got a glimpse of this in lockdown. Polls showing that people (in the UK, paid to stay at home) enjoyed more time off work, they enjoyed more time with neighbours and friends, even if you had to be spatially distant, people found freedom. Also, of course, there is a lot of unfortunate writing, but some of it quite good, about the streets being free of traffic, hearing birds sing, nature revived: an odd little utopian kernel in the middle of mass death. Let me finish on this question, because we haven’t really talked about your other book, How To Blow Up A Pipeline. Is this glorifying terrorism? Is that what you’re doing here?
[cackles] I’m doing as Salvage did in the Black Lives Matter editorial, glorifying the burning down of the police station in the third precinct. I would say that the George Floyd uprising gave a lesson to the strategic pacifists. So, the strategic pacifists are my main analytical target in How To Blow Up A Pipeline. Bill McKibben, for example, but especially Extinction Rebellion basing themselves on Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephans’ book, Why Civil Resistance Works. These are the people that say you always fail as soon as you start using violence. You always put off the masses and alienate your support as soon as you use any kind of violence and destruction. Now, what the George Floyd uprising really proved was the opposite, as you wrote in that editorial. They showed that, by burning down the police station, showing that the police are not above the law, and can do whatever they want, we can actually impose our will on them. That’s the moment where you got masses of people out on the streets. Now, do explain that, motherfucking strategic pacifists! If their theory held, everything would have died in an instance after that moment of violence. It was exactly the other way around.
What the climate movement needs is a similar moment. Of people storming a fossil fuel installation and burning it, and expressing that groundswell of revulsion and rage that we’ve seen on the streets of the US. Fossil fuel installations are continually growing around us, almost on a permanent basis. We have a new big airport opening up in Berlin, we have a new coal-fired power plant opening up in Germany this summer. We have a new airport opening up in southern Sweden near where I live. These things happen constantly. There is a big new power station in the UK that is about to begin operations. These things represent so much violence and so much actual death for people that, at some point, people have to connect the dots, at some point there has to be a moment of climate violence that will connect to the next climate disaster, we know that will happen again. So, when people make the connection that there is a link between the police precinct and what happened to George Floyd – that link is easier to make because it is obvious, but it shouldn’t be impossible to make the same imaginative link for the climate movement and get the same kind of dynamic in motion. It should have happened long ago. So yes, it’s a book that glorifies – definitely not terrorism; I make a clear argument that we should absolutely refrain from targeting people, and property destruction does not qualify as terrorism under any reasonable definition – but yes, I advocate property destruction as an overdue part of our climate repertoire. There is something very amiss, something very strange about the climate movement in sticking to an extreme version of pacifism that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
It’s interesting that you bring this up in connection to Black Lives Matter. In the immediate aftermath of the burning down of the police precinct, there was a poll that found that most Americans thought they were damned right to burn it down. Quite shocking. But what was striking was that in the coverage of the protests, there were a lot of mealy-mouthed discussions of innocent, peaceful protesters being beaten up by police. Now, quite a lot of people were peaceful, they weren’t combatants in any sense. However, it’s only fair to say that some people did go out and did engage in what people call ‘violence’, even if it’s damage to property, and they did fight the police. And in every single riot that you see, as far as I’m aware, it’s an absolute constant that people engage in direct combat with police. Another aspect of riots, even if they don’t go well and are ultimately crushed, is the feeling of empowerment. That may only apply to a small group of people who experience the empowerment of being out on the streets. What’s interesting is that the burning down of the police precinct gave people an image of violence as liberation. That’s something we’ve not had for a while. We’ve seen it in the past: killing Nazis in World War II, for example, but the strategic pacifists gained, I suspect, because in the core capitalist economies, that hasn’t been the rule. The rule has been that if you risk violence, you get your ass kicked. You’re talking about disabling, concretely, the means of planetary destruction. But there’s a limit to what we can do in that respect. Is this tactic largely about leveraging a wider repertoire of contention? And what else can we do other than blow up a pipeline?
I don’t argue that everyone should be blowing up pipelines! This book was written against the background of last year’s climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion, a wave of climate activism that now feels like it happened in a different geological epoch. Of course the book is written with a lot of frustration that we’ve been doing peaceful climate activism for a long time and we still haven’t got anywhere in terms of producing meaningful cuts. We have to escalate, to step up and supplement the kinds of activism we have developed already with more militant tactics. Because we need a radical plan, we need groups that are ready to demonstrate that these kinds of fossil infrastructures have to literally be taken offline, have to be destroyed. It’s not enough to have groups of saboteurs by themselves trying to abolish fossil fuels. It’s about ramping up the pressure on governments to act, and the methods that we have deployed so far have clearly been insufficient in this respect.
Another lesson we should learn from BLM: clearly people wouldn’t be tabling these reforms, however limited they are, when it comes to chokeholds and in some cases abolishing police departments, if the police station hadn’t burned and if those people hadn’t engaged in those violent confrontations. If there had only been candlelit vigils and civil protests without any physical confrontation, none of this would have come about, and we all know that. It’s exactly the same on the climate front. We won’t have any real change unless we have actual confrontation with these fossil giants. It’s not that the climate movement has never had any successes. It has. It has won a lot of local and regional battles, and blocked projects. But the argument is completely contingent on the particular temporality of the climate crisis. And the nature of the problem is such, that we need to inflict much more serious losses on our enemies, because time is running out.
Andreas Malm is a scholar of human ecology and the author of numerous books including How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire (Verso).