Climate Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy, and Socialism

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The following is the first part of the interview-debate “Climate Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy, and Socialism” between linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky, Chilean exponent of the Marxist-Collapsist theoretical current Miguel Fuentes, and American ecologist and evolutionary biologist Guy McPherson. Each participant takes a different theoretical and political-programmatic approach to the same problem: the imminence of a super-catastrophic climate change horizon and the possibility of a near civilizational collapse. The debate leads back from reflection on the ecological catastrophe to older debates arising from the history of the left. The interview has been edited to accord with Sublation Magazine’s stylistic standards. The original document can be found in the debates section of the Marxism and Collapse website.


Also to be found there is the debate, referred to in the text, between Michael Lowy, Miguel Fuentes, and Antonio Turiel together with critical comments by Spanish Marxist ecologist Jaime Vindel, Argentinean left-wing leader Jorge Altamira, and Chilean journalist Paul Walder.


Marxism and Collapse: In a recent discussion between ecosocialist stances and collapsist approaches represented by Michael Lowy (France), Miguel Fuentes (Chile), and Antonio Turiel (Spain), Lowy constantly denied the possibility of a self-induced capitalist collapse and criticized the idea of the impossibility of stopping climate change before it reaches the catastrophic level of 1.5°C degrees of global warming. Do you think that the current historical course is heading to a social global downfall comparable, for example, to previous processes of civilization collapse or maybe to something even worse than those seen in ancient Rome or other ancient civilizations? Is a catastrophic climate change nowadays unavoidable? Is a near process of human extinction as a result of the overlapping of the current climate, energetic, economic, social and political crisis and the suicidal path of capitalist destruction, conceivable?


Noam Chomsky: The situation is ominous, but I think Michael Lowy is correct. There are feasible means to reach the IPPC goals and avert catastrophe, and also moving on to a better world. There are careful studies showing persuasively that these goals can be attained at a cost of 2-3% of global GDP, a substantial sum but well within reach — a tiny fraction of what was spent during World War II. And, serious as the stakes were in that global struggle, what we face today is more significant by orders of magnitude. At stake is the question whether the human experiment will survive in any recognizable form.


The most extensive and detailed work I know on how to reach these goals is by economist Robert Pollin. He presents a general review in our joint book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. His ideas are currently being implemented in a number of places, including some of the most difficult ones, where economies are still reliant on coal. Other eco-economists, using somewhat different models, have reached similar conclusions. Just recently IRENA — the International Renewable Energy Agency, [which is] part of the UN — came out with the same estimate of clean energy investments to reach the IPCC goals.


There is not much time to implement these proposals. The real question is not so much feasibility as will. There is little doubt that it will be a major struggle. Powerful entrenched interests will work relentlessly to preserve short-term profit at the cost of incalculable disaster. Current scientific work conjectures that failure to reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will set irreversible processes in motion that are likely to lead to a “hothouse earth,” reaching unthinkable temperatures 4–5ºC above pre-industrial levels, likely to result in an end to any form of organized human society.


4 degrees Celsius of global warming (yellows and browns are uninhabitable)


Miguel Fuentes: Noam Chomsky highlights in his response the possibility of a global warming that exceeds 4-5ºC above pre-industrial levels within this century. This, according to him could mean, literally, the end of all forms of organized human society. Chomsky endorses what many other researchers and scientists around the world are saying. A recent report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, for example, points to 2050 as the most likely date for the onset of widespread civilizational collapse. The central idea would be that, due to a sharp worsening of the current climate situation and the possible rendering uninhabitable by the middle of this century of a large part of our planet, a point of no return would then be reached in which the fracture and collapse of nation states and the world order would be inevitable. [For this and other related reports, see the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration website.] At the same time, he states that the steps necessary to avert this catastrophe will lay the foundations for a transition to “clean energy” and a more just society. This he views as still being perfectly achievable. Specifically, Chomsky says that this would only require an investment of around 2–3% of world GDP, the latter within the framework of a plan of “environmental reforms” described in the so-called “Green New Deal” of which he is a leading advocate.


Let’s reflect for a moment on the above. On the one hand, Chomsky accepts the possibility of a planetary civilizational collapse in the course of this century. On the other hand, he reduces the solution to this threat to nothing more than the application of a “green tax.” Literally the greatest historical, economic, social, cultural, and even geological challenge that the human species and civilization has faced since its origins is reduced, roughly speaking, to a problem of “international financial fundraising” consisting of allocating approximately 3% of world GDP to the promotion of “clean energies.” A danger that, as Chomsky puts it, would be even greater than the Second World War and could turn the Earth into an uninhabitable rock, should be solved either by “international tax collection” or by a plan of limited “eco-reforms” within a capitalist economic model (known as the “Green New Deal”).


But how is it possible that Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, is able to make this “interpretive leap” between accepting the possibility of the “end of all organized human society” within this century and reducing the solution to that threat to what would appear to be no more than a (rather timid) cosmetic restructuring of international capitalist finance? Who knows? What is certain, however, is that Chomsky’s response to the climate threat lags far behind not only those advocated by the ecosocialist camp and even traditional Marxism. That thinking is based on posing the link between the problem of the root causes of the ecological crisis and the need for a politics that defends the abolition of private ownership of the means of production as a necessary step in confronting it. Moreover, Chomsky’s treatment of the ecological crisis seems to be inferior to theoretical tendencies, such as the theory of degrowth or a variety of collapsist currents, all of which advocate the imposition of drastic plans of economic degrowth and a substantial decrease in industrial activity and global consumption levels. The latter by promoting a process of “eco-social transition” which would not be reduced to a mere change in the energy matrix and the promotion of renewable energies, but would imply, on the contrary, the transition from one type of civilization (modern and industrial) to another that is better able to adapt to the new planetary scenarios that the ecological crisis, energy decline, and global resource scarcity will bring.


But reducing the solution of the climate catastrophe to the need for a “green tax” on the capitalist market economy is not the only error in Chomsky’s response. The main problem of the arguments he uses to defend the possibility of a successful “energy transition” — from fossil fuels to so-called “clean energy” — is that they are built on sand. This is because, first, it is not true that so-called “clean energies” are indeed “clean” if we consider the kind of resources and technological efforts required to implement them. Solar or wind energy, for example, depend not only on huge amounts of raw materials associated for their construction with high polluting extractive processes (e.g., the large quantities of steel required for the construction of wind turbines is just one illustration of this), but also on the use of extensive volumes of coal, natural gas, or even oil. The construction of a single solar panel requires, for instance, enormous quantities of coal. Another striking example can be seen in the dependence of hydrogen plants (especially the “grey” or “blue” types) on vast quantities of natural gas for their operation. All this without any guarantee that the reduction in the use of fossil fuels that should result from the implementation of these “clean” technologies will effectively offset a possible exponential increase in its “ecological footprint.” [An explanation of this paradox can be found in Jorge Riechmann’s YouTube presentation “Where are we? Ecosocial crisis and climate emergency.”]


Secondly, it is false to assume that an energy matrix based on renewable energy could substitute for the energy production based on fossil fuels in the short or medium term, at least, if a replication of current (ecologically unviable) patterns of economic growth is sought. Examples of this include the virtual inability of so-called “green hydrogen” power plants to become profitable in the long term. Similarly, power sources such as solar or wind energy (highly unstable) face enormous challenges in meeting sustained levels of energy demand over time. All this without even considering the significant maintenance costs of renewable energy systems, which, again, are also associated with the use of highly polluting raw materials whose manufacture depends on the use of fossil fuels. [More information about this topic can be found in Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s documentary The Planet of Humans.]


But the problems in Chomsky’s response are not limited to the above. Most importantly, the danger of the climate crisis and the possibility of a planetary collapse can no longer be confined to a purely financial issue (solvable by a hypothetical allocation of 3% of world GDP) or a strictly technical-engineering challenge (solvable by the advancement of a successful energy transition). The magnitude of the problem has gone beyond the competence of economic and technological systems, and has moved to the sphere of the geological and biophysical relations of the planet itself. This calls into question the very techno-scientific (and economic-financial) capacities of contemporary civilization. In other words, the problem represented by the current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or those related to the unprecedented advances in marine acidification, Arctic melting, or permafrost decomposition rates, today constitute challenges whose solution is largely beyond any of our scientific developments and technological capabilities. Let’s recognize that current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (already close to 420 ppm) have not been seen for millions of years on Earth. Elsewhere I have defined this situation as the development of a growing “terminal technological insufficiency” of our civilization to face the challenges of the present planetary crisis.


In the case of current atmospheric CO2 concentrations, for example, there are not, and will not be for a long time (possibly many decades or centuries), any technology capable of achieving their substantial decrease. Certainly, there will be no technology available before such concentrations skyrocket to levels that could render a large part of our planet completely uninhabitable. In the case of CO2 capture facilities, for instance, they have not yet been able to remove even an insignificantly small fraction of the more than forty billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted each year by industrial society. [See here, for example, the interview with Peter Wadhams, Martin Rees, and Hugh Hunt entitled “Climate Change and Carbon Dioxide Removal.”] Something similar is true with other ecological problems such as the aforementioned increase in marine acidification levels, the rise in ocean levels, or even the increasingly unmanageable proliferation of space debris and the consequent danger it represents for the maintenance of contemporary telecommunication systems. In other words, again, these are increasing threatening problems that humanity has no effective technologies to manage, at least not over the few decades that remain before these problems reach proportions that will call into question our very survival as a species.


Current levels of atmospheric CO2 (the highest in the last 650,000 years)


We face unsolvable problems, as unsolvable as those confronting someone seeking to “restore” a clay pot or a glass bottle after it has been shattered into a thousand fragments by smashing it against a concrete wall! To restore a glass of the finest crystal after it has been smashed to pieces? Not even with the investment of ten, a hundred world GDPs would that be possible! This is what we have done with the world, the most beautiful of the planetary crystals of our solar system: We have blown it into a thousand pieces by ecocidal industrialism! To restore? To resolve? Bollocks! We have already destroyed it all! We have already finished it all! And no “financial investment” or “technological solution” can prevent what is coming: death! To die then! To die and to fight to preserve what can be preserved! To die and to prepare for the worst that might befall us — to conquer socialism however we can, on whatever planet we have, and to wrest the future out of the hands of the devil himself if necessary! That is the task of socialist revolution in the 21st century! That is the duty of Marxist revolutionaries in the new epoch of darkness that is rising before us! That is the mission of Marxism-Collapsist!


Guy McPherson: There is no escape from the mass extinction event underway. Only human arrogance could suggest otherwise. Our situation is definitely terminal. I cannot imagine that there will be a habitat for homo sapiens beyond a few years into the future. Soon after we lose our habitat, all individuals of our species will die out. Global warming has already passed two degrees Celsius above the 1750 baseline, as noted by the renowned Professor Andrew Glikson in his October 2020 book The Event Horizon. On page 31 of that book, he wrote, “during the Anthropocene, greenhouse gas forcing has risen by more than 2.0 W/m2, equivalent to more than > 2°C above [pre-industrial temperatures], which constitutes an abrupt [climate change] event over not much longer than a lifetime.”


So yes. We have definitely passed the point of no return in the climate crisis. Even the incredibly conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already admitted the irreversibility of climate change in its September 24, 2019, ?Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.? A quick look around the globe reveals unprecedented events such as forest fires, floods, and mega-droughts. The ongoing pandemic is just one of many events that are beginning to overwhelm human systems and our ability to respond positively.


All species are going extinct, including more than half a dozen species of the genus Homo that have already disappeared. According to the scientific paper by Quintero and Wiens published in Ecology Letters on June 26, 2013, the projected rpublic-DraftStyleDefault-block-depth0 fixed-tab-size public-DraftStyleDefault-text-ltr” id=”viewer-8bks6″>The Wikipedia entry also points out the consequences of the kind of abrupt climate change currently underway, including desert expansion, heat waves, and wildfires becoming increasingly common, melting permafrost, glacier retreat, loss of sea ice, increased intensity of storms, and other extreme environmental events, along with widespread species extinctions. And the World Health Organization has already defined climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. The Wikipedia entry continues, “Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations collectively agreed to keep warming ‘well below 2.0 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) through mitigation efforts.’” But Professor Andrew Glikson already pointed out in his aforementioned book The Event Horizon that the 2 degrees Celsius mark is already behind us. Furthermore, as we already indicated, the IPCC has admitted the irreversibility of climate change in its “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” Therefore, 2019 was an exceptional year for the IPCC, as it concluded that climate change is abrupt and irreversible.


How conservative is the IPCC? Even the conservative and renowned journal BioScience includes an article in its March 2019 issue entitled “Statistical Language Supports Conservatism in Climate Change Assessments.” The paper by Herrando-Perez and colleagues includes the information:


We find that the tone of the IPCC’s probabilistic language is remarkably conservative. . . emanating from the IPCC’s own recommendations, the complexity of climate research and exposure to politically motivated debates. Harnessing the communication of uncertainty with an overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change should be one element of a broader reform, whereby the creation of an IPCC outreach working group could improve the transmission of climate science to the panel’s audiences.


Contrary to the conclusion of Herrando-Perez and colleagues, I cannot imagine that the IPCC is really interested in conveying accurate climate science to its audiences. After all, as Professor Michael Oppenheimer noted in 2007, the US government during the Reagan administration “saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the political agenda.”



Marxism and Collapse: Have the human species become a plague for the planet? If so, how can we still conciliate the survival of life on Earth with the promotion of traditional modern values associated with the defense of human and social rights (which require the use of vast amounts of planetary resources) in a context of a potential increase of world’s population that could reach over twelve billion people this century? The latter in a context in which (according to several studies) the maximum number of humans that Earth could have sustained without a catastrophic alteration of ecosystems should have never exceeded one billion. Can the modern concept of liberal (or even socialist) democracy and its supposedly related principles of individual, identity, gender, or cultural freedom survive our apparent terminal geological situation, or it will be necessary to find new models of social organization, for example, those present in several indigenous or native societies? Can the rights of survival of living species on Earth, human rights, and the concept of modern individual freedom be harmoniously conciliated in the context of an impending global ecosocial disaster?


Noam Chomsky: Let’s begin with population growth. There is a humane and feasible method to constrain that: education of women. That has a major effect on fertility in both rich regions and poor, and should be expedited anyway. The effects are quite substantial, leading to sharp population decline by now in parts of the developed world. The point generalizes. Measures to fend off “global ecosocial disaster” can and should proceed in parallel with social and institutional change to promote values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, collective responsibility, democratic control of institutions, concern for other species, harmony with nature — values that are commonly upheld by indigenous societies and that have deep roots in popular struggles in what are called the “developed societies” where, unfortunately, material and moral development are all too often uncorrelated.


Miguel Fuentes: Chomsky’s allusions to the promotion of women’s education and the social values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, and harmony with nature, as “moral values” disconnected from a broader critique of the industrial system, capitalism, and the class society within which threats such as global warming have been generated and aggravated, become mere phrases of good intentions. On the contrary, the realization of these principles must be thought within a context of a large-scale world social transformation. Such a transformation is necessary if those principles are to be effective in combatting the challenges facing humanity today, the kind of civilizational crisis that is beginning to unfold as a product of the multiple eco-social (ecological, energy, and resource) crises that are advancing globally. In other words, we need a process of historical transformation that can envisage the abolition of the current ecocidal industrial economic system and its replacement by one in which production, exchange, and distribution can be planned in accordance with social needs.


But even a traditional socialist approach to these problems, such as the one above, falls short of accounting for the kind of planetary threats we face. Let’s put it this way, the discussion around the ecological crisis and the rest of the existential dangers hanging over the fate of our civilization today really only begins, not ends, by giving it a proper Marxist contextualization. One of the underlying reasons for this is that the traditional socialist project itself, in all its variants (including its more recent ecosocialist versions), would also already be completely insufficient to respond to the dangers we are facing as a species. That is, we face today dangers and interpretative problems that none of the Marxists theoreticians of social revolution over the last centuries ever imagined, from Marx and Engels to some of the present-day exponents of ecosocialism such as John Bellamy Foster or Michael Lowy. [For a discussion of the unprecedented problems facing the socialist horizon today, see the articles “Socialist Revolution in the Face of the Abyss” (2015–19) and “Ecological Crisis, Civilizational Collapse, and Terminal Crisis of Classical Marxism” (2019), available in the strategy section of the Marxism and Collapse website.]


One new problem that revolutionary theories face today is that of the uncontrolled demographic growth of humanity. This is a problem that already confers on us, amongst other things, one of the worst biological (or, in our case, “biosocial”) plagues existing to this day, if we consider the devastating role that our species has been exerting on the biosphere in recent centuries. A plague comparable in its destructive power is that represented by the cyanobacteria that triggered the first mass extinction event on Earth some 2.4 billion years ago. However, in our case, the mass extinction happens at an even more accelerated and “efficient” pace than that. Is this statement too brutal? Maybe, from a purely humanist point of view, alien to the kind of problems we face today, but not from an eminently scientific perspective. Nor can there be any doubt that our species is a “planetary plague” for any ecologist studying the current patterns of behavior, resource consumption, and habitat destruction. Is that too brutal a statement? Tell that to the more than ten thousand natural species that become extinct every year as a result of the role of a single species on the planet: ours! Tell it to the billions of animals killed in the great fires of Australia or the Amazon a few years ago! Tell it to the polar bears, koalas, pikas, tigers, lions, and elephants who succumb every year as a result of what we have done to the Earth! Very well, we are then a “plague,” although this term would only serve to classify us as a “biological species.” Is understanding ourselves in this way too “limited,” too lacking in social and historical perspective. [A very suggestive graphic example of the impact that the current rates of human reproduction are having on the planet can be seen in the audiovisual presentation entitled “World Population History (1 CE – 2050 CE).”]


Not really. The fact that we possess social and cultural systems that differentiate us from other complex mammals does not mean that our current status as a “plague of the world” is confined to the biological realm alone. On the contrary, this just means that this status could also have a certain correlation in the social and cultural dimension, in the sphere of the social and cultural systems particular to modern society. To put it in another way, even though our current condition of “plague of the world” has been acquired by our species within the framework of a specific type of society — the mode of production and particular framework of historical relations characteristic of industrial modernity — this condition should not be understood as a merely historical product, as excluding any biological and ecological dimension. In fact, beyond the differentiated position and role of the various social sectors that make up the productive structure and the socioeconomic systems of the industrial society (for example, the exploiting and exploited social classes), it is indeed humanity as a whole: rich and poor, entrepreneurs and workers, men and women, who share (all of us) the same responsibility as a species (although admittedly in a differentiated way) for the current planetary disaster. An example of this is how almost everything produced today by big multinationals — down to the last grain of rice or the last piece of plastic — is consumed by someone, whether in Paris, London, Chisinau, or La Paz. And we should also remember that even biological plagues (such as locusts) may have different consumption patterns at the level of their populations, with some consuming more and others consuming less. Just because one sector of a given biological plague consumes less (even much less), it should not necessarily be considered as separate from the plague in question.


Human population growth (1050-2017)


Another similar example: It is often claimed in Marxist circles (sometimes the numbers vary) that 20% of humanity consumes 80% of the planetary resources. This means that approximately 1.6 billion out of the total population of 8 billion consume 80% of planetary resources. That is a number roughly three times the current European population. In other words, a much larger segment of the world’s population than the capitalist elites (and their political servants) bear a direct, even grotesque, responsibility for the unsustainable consumption patterns that are aggravating the current planetary crisis. Or, to put it in more “Marxist” terms, a large percentage (or even the totality) of the working classes and popular sectors in Europe, the United States, and even in Latin America and other regions of the so-called “developing countries,” are “directly complicit” in the destruction of our planet, at least in regards of the reproduction of the current ecocidal modern urban lifestyle.


But let us extend the discussion to the remaining 80% of humanity, to the approximately 6.4 billion people who consume 20% of planetary resources per year. To begin with, let us recognize that 20% of global resources is not a negligible percentage, production of which entails substantial and sustained levels of environmental destruction. The latter in the context of an ever-growing world population that possibly ought never to have exceeded one billion, so that we could be in a position today to stop, or at least slow down, the disastrous impact we are having on ecosystems. Let us not forget that this 6.4 billion is more than four times higher than the entire human population at the beginning of the 20th century, which means that the number of basic resources necessary for their survival is an inevitable pressure on the earth’s natural systems, even if consumption levels are kept to a minimum.


In short, there is, therefore, no doubt that humanity has indeed become one of the worst planetary plagues in the history of terrestrial life, constituting this a fundamental problem for contemporary revolutionary thought and, more generally, for the human and social sciences as a whole. In other words, this is a problem that cannot be solved by a mere change in the mode of production, the class structure, or the sociopolitical system, but must rather be associated with the very “genetics” of industrial society, which is based on a voraciously destructive form of human-nature relationships. Such relationships remain the “structural basis” of all possible and conceivable models of capitalism or socialism. Whether in the framework of a neoliberal market economy or a socialist and/or collectivist planned economy, the industrial system and modern mass society in all its variants, whether capitalist or socialist — its megacities, its productive levels, its consumption patterns and lifestyles, its “anthropocentric spirit” — is structurally associated with demographic patterns in which the Earth is conceived as a mere space for human consumption and reproduction. That is the main problem.


Is it possible to reconcile current levels of overpopulation with the survival requirements of our species? No. We have become a planetary plague and will remain a planetary plague until such time as, by hook or by crook (almost certainly by crook) our numbers are substantially reduced and remain at the minimum possible levels, for at least a few centuries or millennia. Is it possible to solve the problem of overpopulation and at the same time defend the legitimacy of traditional modern values associated with the promotion of human and social rights, at least as these values have been understood in recent centuries? No. Modernity has failed. Modernity is dead. We are going to have to rethink every single one of our values, including the most basic ones, all of them. We are going to have to rethink who we are, where we are going and where we come from. The existence of almost 8 billion people on our planet today, and, moreover, the likely increase of this number to 10 or even 12 billion is not only incompatible with the realization of the very ideals and values of modern democracy in all its variants (capitalist or socialist), but also with the very survival of our species as a whole and, possibly, of all complex life on Earth. This simply because there are not enough resources to ensure the realization of these values (or even our own subsistence) in such a demographic context. There simply won’t be enough food and water. Our situation is terminal. Modernity is dead. Democracy is dead. Socialism is dead. And if we want these concepts — democracy or socialism — to really have any value in the face of the approaching catastrophe, then we will have to rethink them more humbly than we have done so far.


Modern civilization has borne some of the best fruits of humanity’s social development, but also some of the worst. We are in some ways like the younger brother of a large family whose early successes made him conceited and stupid and who, thinking of himself as “master of the world,” began to lose everything. We are that young man. We should therefore shut up, put our ideologies (capitalist and socialist) in our pockets, and start learning a little more from our more modest, slower, and more balanced “big brothers”: Traditional or indigenous societies that have been able to ensure their subsistence for centuries and, in some cases, even millennia. Compare industrial society, which has not even completed three centuries before endangering its own existence and that of all other cultures on the planet. We must start learning from those traditional societies that have developed social systems that are more respectful of ecological and ecosystemic balances. Those “ecosocial balances” are, in the long view of the evolution of species, the real basis for the development of any society. Because without species (be they animal or plant), human culture is impossible. Scientific and technological progress? Excellent idea! But perhaps we could take the long route, think things through a bit more, and achieve the same as we have achieved today in two centuries taking a bit longer — say ten, twenty, or even a hundred centuries? Who’s in a hurry? Let us learn from the tortoise which, perhaps because it is slow, has survived on Earth for more than 220 million years, until we (who as Homo sapiens are no more than 250,000 years old) came along and endangered it.


Guy McPherson: As ecologists have been pointing out for decades, environmental impacts are the result of human population size and human consumption levels. The Earth can support many more hunter-gatherers than capitalists seeking more material possessions. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the latter rather than the former. Ecologists and environmentalists have been proposing changes in human behavior since at least the early 20th century. These recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. However, even if it is possible to achieve substantial changes in human behavior, and if they result in an effective slowing down or stopping of industrial activity, it is questionable whether this is a useful means of ensuring our continued survival. One reason for this lies in the knowledge of what the effect of “aerosol masking” could mean for the climate crisis.


The “climate masking” effect of aerosols has been discussed in the scientific literature since at least 1929 and consists of the following: At the same time as industrial activity produces greenhouse gases that trap part of the heat resulting from sunlight reaching the Earth, it also produces small particles that prevent this sunlight from even touching the surface of the planet. These particles, called “aerosols,” thus act as a kind of umbrella that prevents some of the sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface (hence this phenomenon has also been referred to as “global dimming”). [For an informed and didactic explanation of this phenomenon, see the documentary by that title.] In other words, these particles (aerosols) prevent part of the sun’s rays from penetrating the atmosphere and thus inhibit further global warming. This means, then, that the current levels of global warming would in fact be much lower than those that should be associated with the volumes of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere today (hence the designation of this phenomenon as “climate masking”). To put it in a simpler way, the global warmingongoing events. However, I am convinced that rationalism is key to a positive response to these events.


From the incredibly conservative Wikipedia entry entitled ?Climate Change? comes this supporting information: ?Climate change includes both human-induced global warming and its large-scale impacts on weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current changes are more rapid than any known event in Earth?s history.? The Wikipedia entry further cites the August 8, 2019, report ?Climate Change and Land,? published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is among the most conservative scientific bodies in history. Yet it concluded in 2019 that the Earth is in the midst of the most rapid environmental change seen in planetary history, citing scientific literature that concludes: ?These rates of human-driven global change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biospheric forces that have altered the trajectory of the Earth System in the past; nor do even abrupt geophysical events approach current rates of human-driven change.?


The Wikipedia entry also points out the consequences of the kind of abrupt climate change currently underway, including desert expansion, heat waves, and wildfires becoming increasingly common, melting permafrost, glacier retreat, loss of sea ice, increased intensity of storms, and other extreme environmental events, along with widespread species extinctions. And the World Health Organization has already defined climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. The Wikipedia entry continues, “Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations collectively agreed to keep warming ‘well below 2.0 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) through mitigation efforts.’” But Professor Andrew Glikson already pointed out in his aforementioned book The Event Horizon that the 2 degrees Celsius mark is already behind us. Furthermore, as we already indicated, the IPCC has admitted the irreversibility of climate change in its “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” Therefore, 2019 was an exceptional year for the IPCC, as it concluded that climate change is abrupt and irreversible.


How conservative is the IPCC? Even the conservative and renowned journal BioScience includes an article in its March 2019 issue entitled “Statistical Language Supports Conservatism in Climate Change Assessments.” The paper by Herrando-Perez and colleagues includes the information:


We find that the tone of the IPCC’s probabilistic language is remarkably conservative. . . emanating from the IPCC’s own recommendations, the complexity of climate research and exposure to politically motivated debates. Harnessing the communication of uncertainty with an overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change should be one element of a broader reform, whereby the creation of an IPCC outreach working group could improve the transmission of climate science to the panel’s audiences.


Contrary to the conclusion of Herrando-Perez and colleagues, I cannot imagine that the IPCC is really interested in conveying accurate climate science to its audiences. After all, as Professor Michael Oppenheimer noted in 2007, the US government during the Reagan administration “saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the political agenda.”



Marxism and Collapse: Have the human species become a plague for the planet? If so, how can we still conciliate the survival of life on Earth with the promotion of traditional modern values associated with the defense of human and social rights (which require the use of vast amounts of planetary resources) in a context of a potential increase of world’s population that could reach over twelve billion people this century? The latter in a context in which (according to several studies) the maximum number of humans that Earth could have sustained without a catastrophic alteration of ecosystems should have never exceeded one billion. Can the modern concept of liberal (or even socialist) democracy and its supposedly related principles of individual, identity, gender, or cultural freedom survive our apparent terminal geological situation, or it will be necessary to find new models of social organization, for example, those present in several indigenous or native societies? Can the rights of survival of living species on Earth, human rights, and the concept of modern individual freedom be harmoniously conciliated in the context of an impending global ecosocial disaster?


Noam Chomsky: Let’s begin with population growth. There is a humane and feasible method to constrain that: education of women. That has a major effect on fertility in both rich regions and poor, and should be expedited anyway. The effects are quite substantial, leading to sharp population decline by now in parts of the developed world. The point generalizes. Measures to fend off “global ecosocial disaster” can and should proceed in parallel with social and institutional change to promote values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, collective responsibility, democratic control of institutions, concern for other species, harmony with nature — values that are commonly upheld by indigenous societies and that have deep roots in popular struggles in what are called the “developed societies” where, unfortunately, material and moral development are all too often uncorrelated.


Miguel Fuentes: Chomsky’s allusions to the promotion of women’s education and the social values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, and harmony with nature, as “moral values” disconnected from a broader critique of the industrial system, capitalism, and the class society within which threats such as global warming have been generated and aggravated, become mere phrases of good intentions. On the contrary, the realization of these principles must be thought within a context of a large-scale world social transformation. Such a transformation is necessary if those principles are to be effective in combatting the challenges facing humanity today, the kind of civilizational crisis that is beginning to unfold as a product of the multiple eco-social (ecological, energy, and resource) crises that are advancing globally. In other words, we need a process of historical transformation that can envisage the abolition of the current ecocidal industrial economic system and its replacement by one in which production, exchange, and distribution can be planned in accordance with social needs.


But even a traditional socialist approach to these problems, such as the one above, falls short of accounting for the kind of planetary threats we face. Let’s put it this way, the discussion around the ecological crisis and the rest of the existential dangers hanging over the fate of our civilization today really only begins, not ends, by giving it a proper Marxist contextualization. One of the underlying reasons for this is that the traditional socialist project itself, in all its variants (including its more recent ecosocialist versions), would also already be completely insufficient to respond to the dangers we are facing as a species. That is, we face today dangers and interpretative problems that none of the Marxists theoreticians of social revolution over the last centuries ever imagined, from Marx and Engels to some of the present-day exponents of ecosocialism such as John Bellamy Foster or Michael Lowy. [For a discussion of the unprecedented problems facing the socialist horizon today, see the articles “Socialist Revolution in the Face of the Abyss” (2015–19) and “Ecological Crisis, Civilizational Collapse, and Terminal Crisis of Classical Marxism” (2019), available in the strategy section of the Marxism and Collapse website.]


One new problem that revolutionary theories face today is that of the uncontrolled demographic growth of humanity. This is a problem that already confers on us, amongst other things, one of the worst biological (or, in our case, “biosocial”) plagues existing to this day, if we consider the devastating role that our species has been exerting on the biosphere in recent centuries. A plague comparable in its destructive power is that represented by the cyanobacteria that triggered the first mass extinction event on Earth some 2.4 billion years ago. However, in our case, the mass extinction happens at an even more accelerated and “efficient” pace than that. Is this statement too brutal? Maybe, from a purely humanist point of view, alien to the kind of problems we face today, but not from an eminently scientific perspective. Nor can there be any doubt that our species is a “planetary plague” for any ecologist studying the current patterns of behavior, resource consumption, and habitat destruction. Is that too brutal a statement? Tell that to the more than ten thousand natural species that become extinct every year as a result of the role of a single species on the planet: ours! Tell it to the billions of animals killed in the great fires of Australia or the Amazon a few years ago! Tell it to the polar bears, koalas, pikas, tigers, lions, and elephants who succumb every year as a result of what we have done to the Earth! Very well, we are then a “plague,” although this term would only serve to classify us as a “biological species.” Is understanding ourselves in this way too “limited,” too lacking in social and historical perspective. [A very suggestive graphic example of the impact that the current rates of human reproduction are having on the planet can be seen in the audiovisual presentation entitled “World Population History (1 CE – 2050 CE).”]


Not really. The fact that we possess social and cultural systems that differentiate us from other complex mammals does not mean that our current status as a “plague of the world” is confined to the biological realm alone. On the contrary, this just means that this status could also have a certain correlation in the social and cultural dimension, in the sphere of the social and cultural systems particular to modern society. To put it in another way, even though our current condition of “plague of the world” has been acquired by our species within the framework of a specific type of society — the mode of production and particular framework of historical relations characteristic of industrial modernity — this condition should not be understood as a merely historical product, as excluding any biological and ecological dimension. In fact, beyond the differentiated position and role of the various social sectors that make up the productive structure and the socioeconomic systems of the industrial society (for example, the exploiting and exploited social classes), it is indeed humanity as a whole: rich and poor, entrepreneurs and workers, men and women, who share (all of us) the same responsibility as a species (although admittedly in a differentiated way) for the current planetary disaster. An example of this is how almost everything produced today by big multinationals — down to the last grain of rice or the last piece of plastic — is consumed by someone, whether in Paris, London, Chisinau, or La Paz. And we should also remember that even biological plagues (such as locusts) may have different consumption patterns at the level of their populations, with some consuming more and others consuming less. Just because one sector of a given biological plague consumes less (even much less), it should not necessarily be considered as separate from the plague in question.


Human population growth (1050-2017)


Another similar example: It is often claimed in Marxist circles (sometimes the numbers vary) that 20% of humanity consumes 80% of the planetary resources. This means that approximately 1.6 billion out of the total population of 8 billion consume 80% of planetary resources. That is a number roughly three times the current European population. In other words, a much larger segment of the world’s population than the capitalist elites (and their political servants) bear a direct, even grotesque, responsibility for the unsustainable consumption patterns that are aggravating the current planetary crisis. Or, to put it in more “Marxist” terms, a large percentage (or even the totality) of the working classes and popular sectors in Europe, the United States, and even in Latin America and other regions of the so-called “developing countries,” are “directly complicit” in the destruction of our planet, at least in regards of the reproduction of the current ecocidal modern urban lifestyle.


But let us extend the discussion to the remaining 80% of humanity, to the approximately 6.4 billion people who consume 20% of planetary resources per year. To begin with, let us recognize that 20% of global resources is not a negligible percentage, production of which entails substantial and sustained levels of environmental destruction. The latter in the context of an ever-growing world population that possibly ought never to have exceeded one billion, so that we could be in a position today to stop, or at least slow down, the disastrous impact we are having on ecosystems. Let us not forget that this 6.4 billion is more than four times higher than the entire human population at the beginning of the 20th century, which means that the number of basic resources necessary for their survival is an inevitable pressure on the earth’s natural systems, even if consumption levels are kept to a minimum.


In short, there is, therefore, no doubt that humanity has indeed become one of the worst planetary plagues in the history of terrestrial life, constituting this a fundamental problem for contemporary revolutionary thought and, more generally, for the human and social sciences as a whole. In other words, this is a problem that cannot be solved by a mere change in the mode of production, the class structure, or the sociopolitical system, but must rather be associated with the very “genetics” of industrial society, which is based on a voraciously destructive form of human-nature relationships. Such relationships remain the “structural basis” of all possible and conceivable models of capitalism or socialism. Whether in the framework of a neoliberal market economy or a socialist and/or collectivist planned economy, the industrial system and modern mass society in all its variants, whether capitalist or socialist — its megacities, its productive levels, its consumption patterns and lifestyles, its “anthropocentric spirit” — is structurally associated with demographic patterns in which the Earth is conceived as a mere space for human consumption and reproduction. That is the main problem.


Is it possible to reconcile current levels of overpopulation with the survival requirements of our species? No. We have become a planetary plague and will remain a planetary plague until such time as, by hook or by crook (almost certainly by crook) our numbers are substantially reduced and remain at the minimum possible levels, for at least a few centuries or millennia. Is it possible to solve the problem of overpopulation and at the same time defend the legitimacy of traditional modern values associated with the promotion of human and social rights, at least as these values have been understood in recent centuries? No. Modernity has failed. Modernity is dead. We are going to have to rethink every single one of our values, including the most basic ones, all of them. We are going to have to rethink who we are, where we are going and where we come from. The existence of almost 8 billion people on our planet today, and, moreover, the likely increase of this number to 10 or even 12 billion is not only incompatible with the realization of the very ideals and values of modern democracy in all its variants (capitalist or socialist), but also with the very survival of our species as a whole and, possibly, of all complex life on Earth. This simply because there are not enough resources to ensure the realization of these values (or even our own subsistence) in such a demographic context. There simply won’t be enough food and water. Our situation is terminal. Modernity is dead. Democracy is dead. Socialism is dead. And if we want these concepts — democracy or socialism — to really have any value in the face of the approaching catastrophe, then we will have to rethink them more humbly than we have done so far.


Modern civilization has borne some of the best fruits of humanity’s social development, but also some of the worst. We are in some ways like the younger brother of a large family whose early successes made him conceited and stupid and who, thinking of himself as “master of the world,” began to lose everything. We are that young man. We should therefore shut up, put our ideologies (capitalist and socialist) in our pockets, and start learning a little more from our more modest, slower, and more balanced “big brothers”: Traditional or indigenous societies that have been able to ensure their subsistence for centuries and, in some cases, even millennia. Compare industrial society, which has not even completed three centuries before endangering its own existence and that of all other cultures on the planet. We must start learning from those traditional societies that have developed social systems that are more respectful of ecological and ecosystemic balances. Those “ecosocial balances” are, in the long view of the evolution of species, the real basis for the development of any society. Because without species (be they animal or plant), human culture is impossible. Scientific and technological progress? Excellent idea! But perhaps we could take the long route, think things through a bit more, and achieve the same as we have achieved today in two centuries taking a bit longer — say ten, twenty, or even a hundred centuries? Who’s in a hurry? Let us learn from the tortoise which, perhaps because it is slow, has survived on Earth for more than 220 million years, until we (who as Homo sapiens are no more than 250,000 years old) came along and endangered it.


Guy McPherson: As ecologists have been pointing out for decades, environmental impacts are the result of human population size and human consumption levels. The Earth can support many more hunter-gatherers than capitalists seeking more material possessions. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the latter rather than the former. Ecologists and environmentalists have been proposing changes in human behavior since at least the early 20th century. These recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. However, even if it is possible to achieve substantial changes in human behavior, and if they result in an effective slowing down or stopp