26 April 2011
The two towering world events thus far in 2011 are the Arab revolutionary wave and Japan’s triple calamity (quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown).
My intention is to explore these events in a whole-of-system way, linked into the five terminal crises which are tipping global capitalism towards collapse.
Avoiding the hard questions
27,000 people were killed in Japan’s megaquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011.
Countless others, not just in Japan but across the Northern Hemisphere, are at risk from the spread of contaminated particles from Fukushima’s tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors. It will take a decade to get more clarity on how many are harmed.
A freak combo of “natural” disasters is to blame, insist Japanese leaders.
They’re keen to avoid the hard questions:
Why was a nuclear power plant constructed on the fearsome Ring of Fire, which generates 80% of the world’s major quakes?
And why build the plant so close to shore?
We can’t be looking at a uniquely Japanese error of judgement, since nearly half of America’s nuclear reactors are sited near major fault lines. And some are a stone’s throw from the ocean. A case in point: San Onofre nuclear plant, near California’s highly volatile San Andreas fault, sits on the beach with just a breakwater as defence against any tsunami.
The real ‘natural’ disaster
Siting nuclear plants in clearly hazardous locations is madness from a health and environmental perspective.
But capitalism’s law of profit requires all economic activity, including nuclear plants, to return a quick buck. So risks are taken, and if bad stuff happens, society pays the price.
Thus the Japanese government is looking at raising taxes to “support” Fukushima’s owners, revealed trade & industry minister Banri Kaieda.i
The system is genetically predisposed to reward insane risk-taking by the nuclear industry. That’s the real “natural” disaster of Fukushima.
Hooked on foul fuels
US president Barack Obama, who in October 2009 said America should follow the example of Japan’s “safe” nuclear energyii, remains a nuke duke after Fukushima.
Obama is bankrolling 20 nuclear plants, the first to be built in America for three decades. They form part of Washington’s tripartite energy plan: offshore drilling, “clean” coal and nuclear power.
Despite token bows to renewable energy, other powerful states are in lockstep with Washington. Why? Because, under the law of profit, solar and wind power make economies less competitive than oil, gas, coal and nuclear.
So world capitalism remains hooked on fuels which are running out fast and fouling our planet. Life-threatening climate change is one consequence.
‘Load and bend’ the crust
In recent years, geologists have linked climate change with upheavals inside the Earth’s crust: earthquakes and eruptions.
Professor Bill McGuire, director of the Hazard Research Centre at University College London, says rising sea levels from ice melts can “load and bend” the Earth’s crust. The result? Magma can be squeezed out in volcanic eruptions. And earthquake faults can be activated, spawning landslides and tsunamis.iii
For example, eruptions of Alaska’s Pavlof volcano tend to happen during winter when the regional sea level is merely 30cm higher than in summer.
“You don’t need huge changes to trigger responses from the crust,” states McGuire. “The changes can be tiny.”iv
‘Unloading’ the crust
Earthquakes can also be triggered by the “unloading” of the Earth’s crust as global warming melts ice from mountain ranges, such as New Zealand’s Southern Alps, McGuire reports.
Other scientists agree. Professor Patrick Wu, a geologist at the University of Alberta, states: “The pressure of the ice sheet suppresses earthquakes, so removing that load triggers them.”v
What the figures say
We cannot say if climate change was a factor in Japan’s megaquake and tsunami. Or in the quake waves that, since September 2010, have devastated Christchurch, New Zealand.
However, statistics from recent decades do suggest an upswing in seismic events.
According to the US Geological Survey, the number of earthquakes worldwide almost doubled between 1990 and 2008 (the last year complete records were kept), rising from 16,590 to 31,777.vi
There was also a steep climb in megaquakes (like Japan’s), from four in the 1980s to six in the 1990s to 13 in the last decade.vii
While we should remain cautious about a “statistical blip”, these figures do fit with geological evidence from long, long ago.
Nature’s irresistible laws
Earth’s previous eras of climate change were marked by an increase in the frequency and intensity of earthquakes and eruptions.
“Looking back to other periods in our planet’s history when the climate was swinging about wildly,” notes McGuire, “far more than the weather was affected. The solid earth also became restless, with an increase in volcanic activity, earthquakes, giant submarine landslides and tsunamis.”viii
800,000 years of activity from 50 volcanos in eastern California were analysed by professor Alan Glazner, a volcano specialist at the University of North Carolina. “The peaks of volcanic activity occurred when ice was retreating globally,” he reported. “Other scientists also found evidence that climate affects volcanism.”ix
It seems that Earth will always respond to climate change as a single, integrated system governed by nature’s irresistible laws.
Yet nature’s laws are at odds with capitalism’s law of profit, the main driver of global warming activities. The conclusion? To protect life on Earth, humanity must escape the law of profit.
One true love
Now let’s turn from upheavals in the Earth’s crust to upheavals in the social crust that long entrapped the Arab street.
The Arab lower classes are rising up against military dictators, absolute monarchs and autocratic presidents, most but not all allied to Washington. This unlovely bunch share one true love: neoliberalism.
World capitalism turned to neoliberalism three decades ago to counter a longterm decline in profitability. More wealth had to be sucked from the poor by the rich. That was the “natural” reaction of a system governed by the law of profit.
In one form or another, neoliberalism was embraced by all Arab rulers. They privatised, globalised and financialised their economies.
The result? The Arab profitariat skinned the Arab proletariat. And the masses seethed.
Arab world’s tectonic plates
We can draw parallels with the impact of climate change on our planet’s geology.
Neoliberalism set one tectonic plate, the Arab elite, grinding far more harshly over another, the Arab street.
A huge amount of frictional energy built up, looking for release. Protests, strikes and other foreshocks became more frequent.
On 17 December 2010 a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight in protest at official harassment.
This random jolt triggered a megaquake under the Arab world, unleashing a social tsunami.
Tsunami of democracy protests
So far, the tsunami has swept across North Africa, the Middle East, the Levant and southern Africa.
28 days of demonstrations toppled Tunisia’s tyrant, Zine Ben Ali, on 14 January. One down! On 11 February Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocrat, succumbed to 18 days of protest. Two down!
Libya is now locked in civil war. Major mobilisations have rocked Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Oman, Syria and Yemen.
Lesser protests have disturbed elites in many other countries, including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Swaziland.
Big rallies in Gaza and the West Bank have demanded that Fatah and Hamas unite to resist Israeli occupation.
The breadth of the protests, both geographically and socially, is stunning.
And, mostly, there’s been an impressive unity of will: Down with the dictator! Down with his regime! Bring in democracy!
Tyrants use extreme force
After Tunisia and Egypt, more tyrants began using extreme force to beat back popular movements.
State thugs have killed, jailed and tortured untold thousands of democrats in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Djibouti, Iran and elsewhere.
Will state violence slow or stop the protest momentum? What forms of resistance to regime brutality will be thrown up? Will the uprisings morph from regime change to social change?
Those are questions which cannot yet be fully answered. Only time will really tell.
Six conclusions we can draw
Despite being early days, it does seem reasonable to draw these six conclusions:
#1 NEOLIBERALISM. The Arab enforcers of neoliberalism have been hit hard by the democracy protests. In consequence, it will become more difficult for Arab states to continue hardline neoliberal policies. Maybe there will be open challenges to the law of profit, such as campaigns for welfare benefits, free healthcare, public education, minimum pay and speculation taxes.
#2 IMPERIALISM. Washington’s response to the popular mobilisations has been disjointed and uncertain. It’s a far cry from when US dictates shaped the Arab world. While the US state remains a malignant force in the region, its Arab Empire of just a few years ago is decomposing. Maybe Libya’s rebels have read the signs right, demanding foreign airstrikes and armaments in the belief that Washington lacks the power to turn them into imperial capture.
#3 INTERNATIONALISM. The intercontinental scope of the revolutionary wave has been an inspiration around the planet. Many more people now won’t think it silly to imagine a global uprising for social justice and ecological salvation. Maybe an important impulse has been given to the campaign for a broad socialist international.
#4 POPULAR UNITY. The popular unity against Arab dictators linked into a general impatience with factionalism, particularly among the youth driving the uprisings. This experience will make it harder for Arab states to employ traditional divide-and-rule tactics. Maybe the sectarianism that has dogged the political left will lose its potency in the Arab world, and even beyond.
#5 ORGANISATION. The social media employed in the uprisings, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, gave an immediacy and interconnectivity that was historically unique. It allowed the popular will to swiftly flow into popular organisation in a more decentralised way than ever before. Maybe social media will provide the essential tools for broad left organisation that were lacking before now.
#6 LEGITIMACY. While nobody can predict the future of the revolution, the Arab world has already been shifted onto another axis. The legitimacy of dictators has been collapsed by popular movements for democracy. Once stripped of legitimacy, even well guarded regimes stand naked, and some of their guards start sympathising with the opposition. Maybe reliance on state force will rebound against dictators, repressing popular frustrations until they find release in unstoppable eruptions of revolutionary energy.
Heading towards collapse
On surface appearances, the Arab revolution is unrelated to the Japanese disaster. Once examined from a whole-of-system perspective, however, parallels between these events can be seen. Those parallels link directly into capitalism’s law of profit.
In pursuit of profits, Arab dictators imposed neoliberalism, thus escalating social tensions to bursting point. The same addiction to profit influenced the insanely dangerous siting of Fukushima nuclear plant. And geologists are discovering how earthquakes can be triggered by climate change, in turn spurred by the fossil fuels on which capitalism is hooked for reasons of profitability.
So the law of profit is provoking upheavals in geology and climate as well as society. Humanity’s life support system, an amalgam of nature and civilisation, can no longer reproduce itself properly. The world system is heading towards collapse.
Five terminal crises
Shaping the system’s collapse trajectory are five terminal crises:
#1 PROFITABILITY. Financialisation forms the core of the neoliberal crusade to restore profitability. International financial transactions have soared to 60 times the level of global gross domestic product. Increasingly, money creates money without also producing “real” commodities. The Great Financial Crash of 2008 was “cured” by the transfer of private debt to states. As a result, sovereign bankruptcies that trigger worse crashes are looking very likely. Everything the system is doing to restore profitability is destabilising the system.
#2 ECOLOGY. Rather than agreeing to reduce greenhouse gases, capitalist powers are promoting an emissions market. Looking to profit from the pollution that would destroy life on Earth indicates a system that is institutionally insane. And the emerging link between climate change and upheavals in our planet’s crust is grim evidence of the system’s death spiral. Yet climate change is just one of a raft of ecological hazards flowing from capitalism’s war on nature. We also face alarming threats to forests, species, oceans, rivers, farmland, atmosphere and more.
#3 RESOURCES. The Earth’s resources are being consumed by capitalism at a mad rate. In the 21st century we face not just peak oil, but peak everything, including strategic minerals, fresh water and recoverable coal, natural gas and uranium ore. Yet renewable energy cannot be prioritised because it would reduce profitability across the world economy. Consequently, a looming energy crunch threatens every cog of civilisation.
#4 IMPERIALISM. In each phase of capitalism’s 500 year history, one power has gained such relative economic and military superiority over rival nations that it became the global hegemon. Each successive hegemon kept enough “order” in the competitive world of capitalism for profits to be made. Over recent times America, the 20th century’s hegemon, has been in decline. Yet China, the rising power, has no possibility of securing the sort of superiority over other powerful states that the US enjoyed at its hegemonic peak. The world’s imperial throne will soon be left empty, for ever. Capitalism will lack a hegemon able to order system-level responses to the terminal crises tipping the world system towards collapse.
#5 LEGITIMACY. Slavery, feudalism and other past civilisations fell victim to a tangle of unsolvable crises. These societies started to collapse into ruin, sparking revolts by frightened citizens no longer frozen by a belief in their system’s legitimacy. Out of the chaos and conflict emerged a new type of civilisation more in tune with the dynamics of the time. World capitalism now faces a similar fate. The Arab revolution is strong evidence of a legitimacy crisis tailing the crises of profitability, ecology, resources and imperialism.
For much more on the five terminal crises of global capitalism, click here to read my long essay “Beware! The end is nigh!”x
Our free will
The onrush of system collapse carries the gravest of dangers, obviously. We should all be seriously scared.
Yet early collapse would also help us get out of the mess in the best shape possible. Why? Because, if capitalism were to hang on for another half-century, or beyond, it’s probable that civilisation will be wrecked by the combined impact of economic disintegration, ecological catastrophe, resource scarcity and imperial wars. And that would mean the dieback of most of humanity.
It’s when systems are collapsing that humans gain the most scope for our free will. No longer is our free will overruled by a system in control which enjoys popular legitimacy.
As we journey through the end time of capitalism, people with the will to act decisively should be able to shape outcomes to an extent not seen since the collapse of feudalism. That might be good. That might be bad. It will depend on who does what, and why.
Key to a good outcome is educating people around the globe about capitalism’s looming collapse. That will help to build united actions for a humanistic and ecological alternative.
Accordingly, before the end of 2011 it’s planned to launch an international website called terminal 5, in reference (of course) to the world system’s five terminal crises.
Want to get involved at ground level in the upcoming terminal 5 website? Now’s the time to say so. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org. Wherever you are on the planet, we want to hear from you.
i“Japan consumers may bail out nuke plant owner”, msnbc.com, 20 April 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42666814/ns/world_news-asiapacific/.
iiElizabeth Schulte, “Fukushima-style disaster is waiting to happen in the US”, Green Left Weekly, 13 April 2011. Originally published by SocialistWorker.org.
iiiBill McGuire, “The Earth fights back”, The Guardian, 7 August 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/07/disasters.
ivRichard Fisher, “Climate change may trigger earthquakes and volcanoes”, New Scientist, 23 September 2009, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327273.800-climate-change-may-trigger-earthquakes-and-volcanoes.html?full=true.
v“How Melting Glaciers Alter Earth’s Surface, Spur Quakes, Volcanoes”, Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2006, via http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=5966&method=full.
viTom Glick, “Global Heating Causes Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions”, New Energy News, 24 March 2011, http://newenergynews.blogspot.com/2011/03/guest-lead-post-earthquake-climate.html.
viiWilliam Marsden, “Climate change and quakes: a link?”, The Gazette, 16 March 2011, http://www.accuweather.com/blogs/climatechange/story/47084/link-between-severe-earthquake-1.asp.
viiiBill McGuire, “The Earth fights back”, The Guardian, 7 August 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/07/disasters.
ix“How Melting Glaciers Alter Earth’s Surface, Spur Quakes, Volcanoes”, Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2006, via http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=5966&method=full.
xGrant Morgan, ‘Beware! The end is nigh!’ Why global capitalism is tipping towards collapse, and how we can act for a decent future, UNITY publications, Auckland, New Zealand, March 2010. http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/2010/03/grant-morgan-beware-end-is-nigh.html.