High-Mortality Events

In one of his many odd historical-philosophical riffs, Lakeith Stanfield’s character Darius in Atlanta claims that Genghis Khan’s armies killed so many people that afterwards the planet’s temperature dropped. “Look it up,” he tells Donald Glover’s character Earn. So I did, and it turns out that in 2011 the Carnegie Institution for Science trumpeted the results of a study it funded that examined changes in carbon dioxide levels after events in which tens of millions of people were killed.

During high-mortality events, such as wars and plagues, large areas of croplands and pastures have been abandoned and forests have re-grown, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. …[Researcher Julia] Pongratz decided to see how much effect these events could have had on the overall trend of rising carbon dioxide levels…

“We found that during the short events such as the Black Death and the Ming Dynasty collapse, the forest re-growth wasn’t enough to overcome the emissions from decaying material in the soil,” says Pongratz. “But during the longer-lasting ones like the Mongol invasion and the conquest of the Americas there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon.”

The global impact of forest re-growth in even the long-lasting events was diminished by the continued clearing of forests elsewhere in the world. But in the case of the Mongol invasions, which had the biggest impact of the four events studied, re-growth on depopulated lands stockpiled nearly 700 million tons of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. This is equivalent to the world’s total annual demand for gasoline today.

The story was picked up widely in the media at the time, often playfully. But in our current context of climate change and COVID-19, it is hard not to read a signficant danger into this approach to “research.” Anti-immigrant xenophobia, anti-Black racism, and false notions of scarcity could easily combine to justify not only the acceptance but the active pursuit of the sacrifice of anyone deemed expendible. The matter-of-fact logic of the Carnegie press release would likely resonate with white supremacists’ growing embrace of eco-fascism, a development that Sam Adler-Bell wrote about last year:

Contemporary eco-fascists see the border as the dividing line between those who deserve protection and those who deserve nothing. … In a 1974 essay on “lifeboat ethics,” the ecologist Garrett Hardin argued that the lucky few aboard the “lifeboat”—a wealthy country in a world with dwindling resources—will only survive if the many drowning in the water are denied entry. Pentti Linkola, a Finnish deep ecologist whose theories are increasingly popular with contemporary eco-fascists, puts this point starkly: “When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”

…These groups perversely lay the blame for climate catastrophe at the feet of the global poor. But liberal environmentalists often make a similar mistake; they blame “humankind” for the impending disaster. In reality, multibillion-dollar extractive industries—and the carbon-spewing corporations of the Global North—bear far more blame than most individuals. 

In her contribution to the 2017 compendium Futures of Black Radicalism, political scientist Françoise Vergès delivers theoretical critiques in a similar vein about the concept of the “anthropocene” that has arisen and blamed climate change on “humanity,” as opposed to the actual power structures at work in the world that are more directly responsible for the acceleration of carbon emissions (which she indicts in the title of her chapter: “Racial Capitalocene”). Vergès outlines two typical views that “have been dominating the media and politics shaping the public debate: apocalyptic (humans are responsible for ecological destruction) and optimistic (scientists and engineers will find solutions).”

On the former, she points to a popular book from 1991 that focused on “a human predisposition for destruction… [and offered] a paradigm for the whole environmental history of the world that both frightened and pacified: if there was nothing to do, there was nothing to do.” Vergès is also skeptical of the optimistic view, whose solutions for climate change will largely depend on the whim of markets (which, as we know from the pharmaceutical industry’s lack of interest in unprofitable vaccine development, did not prepare us for the world in which we now live.)

To borrow her frame, our developing politics must reject the inevitability of an all-out apocalypse of climate or contagion, demanding immediate relief to deal with the hunger and housing crises that have been compounded by the current pandemic. We must also take a stance of “critical support” of scientific advances, insisting that they be made to serve everyone rather than only those who live in hemispheres or zip codes deemed profitable enough and/or racially worthy of survival. Such an approach could emulate the tradition of Jonas Salk, who developed the vaccine for polio in the 1950s but refused to follow capitalist market logic and profit from it.

When a journalist asked him who owned the patent on the vaccine, Salk famously replied: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Elon Musk has tried — maybe Darius already knows if he did? — humanity deserves so much better.

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