Book review: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency by Andreas Malm

Gripping title, even more gripping content. It is made up of four elements: this is the climate emergency, this is Corona, this is how they are related to one another (be rest assured, they are) and this is what we do about it. The latter section is effectively a call to resistance. The word “sabotage” is used, and there are plenty of references to Marx, Soviets and Rosa Luxemberg.

Book cover

Let me take one step back. Malm is, in my opinion, one of the 21st Century’s great thinkers in the fields of climate, capitalism and now pandemics. Let me just qualify that – one of with the caveat that he is white, male and prosperous. If any readers can direct me to thinkers in his area that do not have this profile, please let me know. I genuinely want to understand these dynamics better. However, Malm’s earlier book, Fossil Capital, is transformative as a text on capitalist ideology – in the league of EP Thompson’s, Making of the English Working Class and, more esoterically, Nick von Tunzelman’s Technology and Industrial Progress: The Foundations of Economic Growth (both texts widely discussed by Malm). Where Fossil Capital was uncompromising in its extended narrative and detail, Corona is short, 175 pages (though with extensive end notes), and with pace that is difficult to keep up with. But we must, such is the real emergency here.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the arguments surrounding climate change, these are rehearsed in the early part of the text. Malm refers extensively – and rightly – to his earlier work. Humanity’s – by which he means capital’s – pursuit of growth enabled by the extraordinary store of energy captured in fossil fuels, is at the root of the current emergency. Growth has led to wealth, both absolute and relative, even in the poorest and most unequal societies and countries where capitalism is practised. Capitalism is inherently extractive and that means destruction of habitats. Now we can look at habitats – forests, for example – as exploitable resources, or we can look at them as places where there is essential biodiversity – counterintuitively, higher biodiversity correlates with lower transmission of pathogens (p41) – and the place where animals carrying pathogens live out of harms way . It is in this destruction and the stress it imposes on other creatures, according to Malm, that the pathogen makes the leap – zoonotic spillover – from animal to human.

We know that Covid-19 – or Sars-CoV-2 as it is now known – was likely to have been transmitted from bats (though probably through an intermediary animal). Prior to reading Malm, I did not really know anything about bats other than the fact they are flying mammals and they use some form of echo system to navigate at night. I certainly did not know that they very peculiar physiology – they being the only flying mammals – makes them supremely good hosts of viruses. In fact, Malm paints the picture of them as flying virus hotels (my image, not his). The bats have a unique immunity to the viruses and so close contact between humans and bats in, say, for example, a wild animal market in a densely-populated city, can have devastating consequences.

Malm reserves a special place for aviation in linking climate change and the pandemic. We should already be familiar with the arguments about aviation’s contribution to global emissions – not the highest but a significant contributor. The warming leads animals and birds to migrate further north, taking their pathogens with them. Fauna not used to mixing, goes Malm’s argument, do so and the pathogens take the opportunity to jump – so-called zoonotic spillover. Furthermore “[M]ost of the tens of thousands of novel pathogen exchanges anticipated along these routes will take place between one species of wild animal and another, but it will be a moving laboratory of genetic recombination, in which parasites may learn to make longer jumps: And their hosts will bump into, or skirt past humans. Viral sharing events are likely to be most common in places with fairly dense human populations, such as the Ethiopian highlands , Indonesia and – crossroads again – eastern China.” (p87)

The extent to which this is fact or hypothesis, I’m not sure. Malm’s extensive endnotes are detailed and derived from valid academic and informed sources. The causality of zoonotic transmission from animals to humans is not yet clear. Writing in the Conversation and reproduced in the Guardian, Dominic Dwyer who was on the recent World Health Organisation mission/investigation to Wuhan can only confirm that the likelihood of the virus being manufactured in a lab is very small indeed. The probability that the source is bats is very high, but the transmission route remains unclear. The Wuhan “wet market” is a viable option, but there remains no evidence that the transmission to took place there, despite the presence of bats, civits, pangolins, bamboo rats and ferret badgers, all viable carriers of corona viruses.

Whatever the particular circumstances surrounding the particular case of Covid-19, Malm’s argument is a wider one, the more humans encroach on territories of wild animals, destroy their habit and force migrations north and into the human world, the greater is the likelihood of zoonotic transmission. Deadly though Covid-19 is, the next one could be a lot worse, and it will come sooner rather than later.

Back to aviation. Aviation is a contributor to a warming planet – becoming like Venus, as he puts it. It was also a transmission bridge or mechanism for spreading the human Covid-19 around the world in a remarkably short space of time. This book is full of linkages of this kind, one almost makes a list as he reveals like participating in a treasure hunt.

What is to be done?

I remember as a student this translation of Lenin’s question relating to the October Revolution. Malm draws on Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Rosa Luxemberg; though interestingly, not Gramsci. He does this because he believes that “the time for gradualism is over” (p121). It is time for the state to reassert itself (he having flirted with anarchism as a younger man). But more than that, for us to take control of the state. That by my reading is revolution, not a reassertion, at least in the first instance.

Drawing on Lenin again, Malm reminds us of Lenin’s other major text from 1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It. The catastrophe was different, but of the same magnitude for the people of Russia. The people were engaged in combatting the catastrophe and the state took control of the means of production, food supplies and land, essentially declaring war on need. By contrast, of course, humanity (capitalists, more precisely) has declared war on the planet. Those of us who want either to survive, or pass something liveable on to those who come after us, need to declare war on capital.

Capitalism has to go because it cannot be a solution to the warming planet. First he suggests that if we leave it to capitalists to solve, carbon capture will have to be marketised – turned into a product that has commercial value. This is not possible because of the scale of carbon capture needed and the price that can be levied on, and for, carbon. The state has to have carbon capture as a function, not as a market opportunity. Indeed, as Jason Hickel reminds us, carbon capture is factored into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Carbon neutrality is contingent on carbon capture! Second, left to the capitalists, geoengineering will be imposed upon us. This means sulphate aerosol injection – what he calls a pseudo-solution – that will pay handsomely for suppliers, but have unanticipated – and predictably negative – consequences for the planet’s inhabitants. It is a shield from the heat needing regular topping up, as it were.

A state following a doctrine of Economic Leninism then, is one that [takes] “control of trade flows, chased down wildlife traffickers, nationalised fossil fuel companies, organised direct air capture, planned the economy to cut nearly 10 per cent of emissions per year and did all other necessary things…” (p166).

And so back to the link between Covid-19 and climate change. The link is real, even if direct causality is difficult to establish. Plundering of the earth in pursuit of growth and human gratification must end. States have reasserted themselves in tackling Covid-19, albeit imperfectly. To do it “perfectly”, the state needs to be much more robust and undertake a paradigm shift either leading its people or, even better, the people leading it. Finally, “[m]ore precisely, zoonotic spillover of this earth-shattering magnitude should make it clear that defending wild nature against parasitic capital is now human self-defence. But the conscious organisation of such defence is solely up to humans” (p173).

I have nothing more to add.

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