The world as we know it—the world of plastics, of cheap consumer goods, of the Internet—exists on a floated loan from the primordial past: a loan that has been silently accumulating interest. Our creditor, however, has not yet come to collect, and our deferments stretch on for lifetimes. We are paying for our lives in carbon, from ash to ash, dust to dust.
Between 360 and 300 million years ago, during a period known as the Carboniferous, the world was a wild and unrecognizable landscape, peppered with species existing at colossal scales. Because increased oxygen content in the atmosphere allowed their primitive respiratory systems to work more efficiently, monsters such as 8-foot centipedes, 2-foot dragonflies, and sea scorpions known as eurypterids over 9 feet long thrived in this period. These creatures came and went, as species do. But there was one biological innovation in this period that not only came to define the ecosystem of the era, but also permanently altered the physical makeup of the planet in ways which have had direct consequences for human development.
Plants today have diversified into many different groups, but the species of the Carboniferous were relatively simple in comparison, as many of the modern, recognizable structures of trees and grasses were still in development. This was also the period wherein land plants began to take a more prominent role in shaping the ecosystem’s structure.
Carbon dioxide levels dropped as a new kind of plant—trees—began taking up carbon from the atmosphere en masse, trapping it in their tissues, and releasing oxygen into the air. The early Carboniferous period was characterized by the proliferation of massive swamps, allowing water to run relatively freely across the surface. Small, creeping plants thrived in the wet environment, which was not unlike a modern river delta. Eventually, these biomes were colonized by newer, more massive plants. Rainforests formed that fixed rivers in their beds, controlled the floodplains by reducing erosion, and began a massive shift in the physical makeup of the planet’s biological landscape.
These early trees possessed one key feature that created the carboniferous coal beds we have today: complex biopolymers that protected their tissues from losing water. As a side effect, these polymers, most importantly lignin, could not be digested by microorganisms. As lignin broke down, it produced toxic byproducts that killed decomposers. This development meant that when a tree died, it would fall to the ground and lie undisturbed, inedible to microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. This effectively removed these trees from the carbon cycle; whatever carbon they had accumulated in their lives was now inaccessible to decomposers. These trees ended up piling up on top of each other in these rainforests, creating enormous piles of woody tissue that, over time, became more and more compressed, resulting in modern-day coal deposits.
Eventually, the rainforests vanished during a climate-related extinction known as the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, and bacteria and fungi caught up to the trees and evolved mechanisms to digest lignin. But the coal deposits remained, buried, their carbon trapped forever, limiting the total amount of carbon available to the atmosphere.
In the near future, we will be denied the privilege of an apocalypse.
Human-driven climate change comes from somewhere more essential than our careless burning of coal or natural gas. We are unleashing into the world this primordial reserve of carbon, whose absence has defined the last 300 million years of geological history. Our ability to do so is finite, and the consequences of the irresponsible expenditure of our debts are written into the stones of the Earth, which tell a story of climatic instability and collapse.
It is difficult to place humans into geological narratives. The scales of a human lifetime and the geological record are so mind-numbingly distant from each other that we compartmentalize our decision making and day-to-day lives as categorically different from these geological processes. But in a very real sense, anthropogenic climate change is a nightmarish combination of these two scales: the concentration of millions of years of development into instantaneous moments of consumption. The paralyzing effect of discussing this leads some to conceive of climate change as Armageddon, the end of the world as we know it. But this too is inaccurate.
In the near future, we will be denied the privilege of an apocalypse. There will be no point at which external forces will summarily and magnificently end human enterprise, because there will be no recognizable end. Like an engine starting to wheeze, sputter, and break down, the expanding growth of our economy will begin to be undercut by the intractable difficulties of adapting to these new conditions.
In this death by a thousand cuts, disaster compounds upon disaster, inconvenience upon inconvenience. The stresses of international trade and commerce will become more and more intolerable to governments and their citizens as conditions become increasingly hostile to existing infrastructure. Instability, war, and resource shortages will escalate, but gradually, and in disconnected ways. Crop failures will become a bit more frequent, floods a bit more powerful, wildfires a bit more deadly. But we already know this, because this process has already started. Our debt is due, and the payments have begun.
Carbon provided industry with an easy catalyst for rapid development, but the inherent tendencies of markets towards excess growth predated the use of this fuel. Our economy is living on borrowed time now, trying to keep up the inertia of the many vast infrastructural uses of carbon fuel sources, even as it becomes clear that it is in our best long-term interest to establish alternatives. Part of this is due to technical issues with the storage and flexibility of use of these alternatives, and the technological limits of renewable and nuclear energy production. But these are surmountable issues. The short-sighted accumulation of capital is not so short-sighted at all.
While no one will escape unscathed, the punishment will be far from evenly distributed. Advancing shorelines will surely encroach on the strongholds of international capital, the products of global pillage. The cruel machine of our economy will ensure that climate effects will consume great swathes of the world, condemning those unhappy masses to unimaginable misery.
Climate change inspires an almost religious fury in many people, an anger against unseen evil forces of enormous power and all-consuming breadth. But it is not enough to be furious. It is not even enough to demand change or concessions, because fighting the effects of climate change is not a fight against “carbon,” but the continuation of an existing war. This is class war on the grandest scale—the massive, simultaneous dissolution of power and productivity in large parts of the globe, as resources are arranged in increasingly unequal ways within the capitalist imperial core. Those responsible do not expect to be held accountable.
The human species will likely survive in spite of itself, though in a world warped by the bitter cruelties of our ruling classes.
We must overcome the inability to imagine the future that is brought about by imagining an impending apocalypse. There will be hard times, but there will be no end to life. Every day, millions of people will wake up with more limited resources than they had the day before. Every night, there will be cadres of predatory agents seeking to carve out the greatest possible portion of what is left for themselves. There is no end to this fight until a true resolution to exploitation is found: the abolition of the fundamentally contradictory system of capitalism.
Imagining a world beyond capitalism begins with a restructuring of the foundational base of our economy. The disruption of capitalism by only external means, such as climate change, is not enough to bring about meaningful change. Capitalism hasn’t been able to address massive external issues for as long as it has been in existence; this hasn’t stopped it from wreaking havoc, nor has it slowed its expansion. There must also be organized resistance to capital—an organized resistance that comes from the deliberate proclamation of a world that continues, not ends, once capitalism is demolished.
After all, experience shows that life is exceptionally hard to kill. Following the Carboniferous rainforest collapse, the earth experienced mass extinctions, glaciations, firestorms, volcanic eruptions, and a whole host of other massive disruptions to the the ecosystem. Some, like the Permian-Triassic extinction event, came close to being the end of the line for life on this planet.
The human species will likely survive in spite of itself, though in a world warped by the bitter cruelties of our ruling classes. We may in fact go on surviving quite a bit longer than some prognosticators may imagine. There will doubtless be consequences for the effects we have on the environment, but no species before us has has the ability to engineer around these consequences. No creatures but humans have ever had the resources to create a peaceful world amidst the chaos of natural history. We must rise to the occasion and build a world for the masses who live on it. ♦
Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley. He lives on a steady diet of political theory and Amtrak tickets, which he uses to attend conferences to speak about marine snails.