Rather, the crisis results from below-production where the interactions of the economy with the natural environment damage it in such a way that the circulation of capital and the making of profit are also disturbed or can even be stopped.
In pre-capitalist societies, underproduction – due for example to wet weather and crop failures – was the typical cause of economic crisis, but now we see that there are crises of underproduction in contemporary capitalism for global ecological reasons.
Our climate and coronavirus crises today are both rooted in the unintended – but actually foreseeable – consequences of capitalist production, although this is more direct and obvious where the burning of fossil carbon produces global warming, but many less obvious for the darker origins of coronaviruses (which we discuss separately in the parable).
The differences between the two crises are striking, especially in their respective spatio-temporal frameworks and their outcomes. These help explain why the virus crisis received almost instantaneous, full official recognition and attention, which climate activists can only dream of, when they – rightly – believe that the climate crisis is a much bigger long-term problem.
And that may be the explanation for the difference in response there: the climate threat is indeed more long-term and capitalism tends to be preoccupied with the short term.
The viral threat “matches” the short-term horizons of capital and the short attention span of capitalist politics. It could almost have been designed for maximum impact. It was sudden, immediate, quickly peaked, and spread rapidly across the world.
The way the pandemic has worked has been fairly uniform globally, apart from widely varying government responses – epitomized by the United States, Brazil and England on the one hand, and New Zealand, Germany or South Korea on the other hand.
The virus could potentially kill anyone and scare everyone – although in practice it has so far killed relatively few. Most people stayed away from work as officially advised, global production and profits fell sharply and continued to fall in the second quarter of 2020.
The climate crisis, on the other hand, has been building for decades – for decades of indifference, climate activists might add. But so far its impact has generally been uneven and fragmented in space and time.
Although global warming is clearly driving an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, these have so far been distinct and still relatively localized or regionalized episodes.
For example, they are confined to areas in the path of the hurricane or gale; heat waves are becoming more extreme but are largely confined to particular climate zones and are far from global; while even the threat of something as uniformly global as sea level rise is still mostly seen as a threat confined to low-lying coastal areas.
These events and problems are far from reaching their peak, but the much more serious threats of irreversible changes to the world’s climate zones lie almost entirely in the future and are still the subject of scientific predictions, not of present and immediate threat like the virus.
As global warming continues, most predictions suggest that major changes could occur within a decade or two. But it’s mostly still in the future and so, despite warnings of “feedback” from all extreme weather events, official climate action falls victim to capitalism’s inherent tendency to downplay the long term in favor of the short. .
In times of crisis, the short term becomes even shorter, basically because the reality for capitalists is that unless they make short term profits, they are unlikely to have long term profits.
There are therefore strong systemic tendencies to invest as little as possible in reserves or emergency stocks – necessary in the event of a pandemic – and to postpone the management of disasters that are clearly looming – such as climate change.
Proper preparation and storage would reduce immediate benefits. Indeed, the famous “just in time” system of contemporary capitalism, itself created in conditions of incipient crisis, consists in holding minimal stocks and having them delivered at the last minute, so that instead of remain idle tied up in large inventories, the capital can instead be invested to make more profits elsewhere. But when the pandemic hit, it became the “just in time” system, glaringly revealing the fragility of society.
In the economic competition business against business, or the United States against China, it is growth and immediate profits that count. When it’s working properly, the system can be very productive, but increasingly it’s not working properly.
More production may simply mean more problems; but, unfortunately, the same is true less production – under capitalism this leads to more unemployment and more poverty. Our economy is essentially governed by the anarchy of the market without any global control, democratic or otherwise.
We are inherently vulnerable to combined ecological and economic crises. As our parable suggests, capitalism is particularly good at producing ecological problems and particularly unsuitable for its purpose when dealing with them.
The parable proved to be a stimulating way to gain a fuller perspective on the fragility of contemporary society, the workings of the ecological crisis and their interactions.
The complexities called for a new approach (pun intended!). This is a fictional, factual fable set in the future, but looking back at a mysterious global catastrophe in our time: a “constructive escape” – we hope – for periods of partial lockdown.
What caused the disaster? Could this happen again? The virus and climate change are among the suspects in our fictional society, but they are not the only ones and they do not behave as one would expect. “Expect the unexpected” is perhaps the first lesson in ecology.
It is salutary to remember that, as recently as the 1980s, global warming was well below the public’s ecological radar. Then a few researchers specializing in the Greenland Ice Sheet suddenly discovered that it was an immediate threat within a generation, not one buried safely in a geological future.
The fictional society has collapsed in the repetition of “medieval” poverty, misery and ignorance. So far, so dark. But crisis theory suggests that while crises are unnecessary and damaging, they bring winners as well as losers and are a major opportunity to reorganize society – and the crucial question is, under what conditions?
Our fictional characters are therefore faced with the question: can they bring a better society out of the catastrophe? Can they avoid repeating previous mistakes?
They are looking for utopias or “heavens on earth” – as really happened in medieval history and after. Even better, they find a community that has created and recreated its own classless utopia of leisure and sustainability living and in a most unexpected place.
There was only one catch: the real benefits of modern science and medicine that had been lost in the disaster. Could these be reinvented and produced by the classless society they wanted to maintain?
If history repeats itself, it is not in simple “circles” but rather in a “spiral” through time with some lost pieces but also new elements. We need theory as well as history, but history is richer, so let’s get it over with. A parable of historical repetitions and innovations – Political ecology in times of crisis.
James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography at Queen’s University. Belfast. Ian Shuttleworth is a Senior Lecturer in Social Geography at Queen’s University, Belfast.