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As the World Burns

Catastrophes in the Amazon and elsewhere are flash points for the larger, ongoing crisis that claims lives in less spectacular fashion—one that sees life itself as expendable.

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London killed seventy-two people. (Photo: Natalie Oxford)

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London killed seventy-two people. (Photo: Natalie Oxford)

Photographs of the Amazon rainforest on fire have made it hard to think about anything else. 

There’s a sense of existential horror in watching the trees burn, knowing that this particular stretch of green keeps us all breathing day in and day out as the world heats, and that the Brazilian president, the gleefully violent Jair Bolsonaro, wants to continue to destroy the rainforest in the name of profit. 

No matter how little meat we eat, the relentless drive for profit is going to keep the forests burning. Capitalism doesn’t care if we try to opt out.

 What Jasper Bernes called the “awful temporality” of the climate crisis means that we are grieving things we haven’t yet lost, watching futures slip away while the sun shines on a lovely summer, having to go on with life because we are too far away to physically stop the crisis with our bodies.

The world is ending, and we are at Target. We are trying to make little changes, to stop eating meat or taking airplanes or using plastic straws or recycle more or any number of things that, in the aggregate, would indeed help but on an individual level feel pitifully inadequate. Or begging the Democratic National Committee to pretend to care enough to stage a debate on climate change, as if there’s anything left to be debated anymore.

Because no matter how little meat we eat, the relentless drive for profit is going to keep the forests burning. Capitalism doesn’t care if we try to opt out. Commentators for centuries have noted that the Earth and its inhabitants are ground to shreds in the process of accumulation, that, in Marx’s words, “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

It is a process that cares not one bit for the fast-approaching, yet still eventual end of the world as long as there’s a little more to be gathered today. It doesn’t matter that, as many people gleefully noted when David Koch died last week, individual capitalists can’t take their wealth with them. Governments may declare climate emergency as the activists want, and then approve new pipelines. The emergency is never enough to admit the scale of what needs to be done.

This is not to be fatalist and say that we cannot fight back. The relentless gaze of the world on those photos of the Amazon has led to outcry, too-small attempts at backtracking, tiny drips of funding from the G7, plans build apace toward a climate strike. DNC or no, candidates keep putting out proposals for dealing with the crisis.

But it is important to remember where the crisis begins, and who will be fighting to ensure it continues. It has been stated many times but bears repeating that the struggle for a livable planet has been led by indigenous people, from the Amazon to the tar sands to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Because while capitalism sees us all as potential sacrifices, certain people are marked for the slaughter first. 

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Here in London, where I’ve spent the summer, there was another fire last week, one less tracked by eyeballs around the globe. It was a fire in a tower block in Notting Hill, just meters from where Grenfell Tower burned in 2017, killing seventy-two people.

The people at the helm, around the world, would watch us all burn rather than shake up the way things are, as long as they can be the last ones standing atop the wreckage.

The 2017 fire came just days after a general election, which  put an anti-gentrification campaigner in the seat for that district, and it was reported that the fire spread up the building so quickly because of cladding on the building designed to make it more attractive for the area’s richer residents. It may have been the lack of such cladding that stopped last week’s fire before it could cause injuries, as one resident noted, but the flames still terrified the locals who watched (and in some cases escaped) the Grenfell fire.

A resident of the building, who raised the alarm to his neighbors, told reporters that there were no alarms going off, and that the fire hoses at first only reached the fifth floor. Another complained, “No sprinklers. No alarms, nothing. You would think after Grenfell they would have learned and listened. I just don’t think they care about this part of the community.”

The working-class people of color and migrants in Notting Hill are considered expendable, and the two years since Grenfell burned have changed nothing in how they feel. Walking through the neighborhood, still dotted with memorials, murals, graffiti and signs, you cannot escape the feeling of walking through a battlefield.

The fires going up as we consider an overheating planet can feel almost too on-the-nose for our current apocalypse, stark visuals for a catastrophe that all too often is measured in smaller, slow-moving increments. They are flash points, though, for the ongoing crisis that claims lives in less spectacular fashion, that sees life itself as expendable.

The stakes are unbearably high. What writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher called capitalist realism, the feeling that it was simply impossible to imagine system change, or as Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed, there is no alternative, is at this point suicidal climate change denial.

The people at the helm, around the world, would watch us all burn rather than shake up the way things are, as long as they can be the last ones standing atop the wreckage. If we want to do more than watch those fires helplessly, we are going to have to demand much better, and fast.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. She is the author of the book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals (Nation Books/2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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