Review: Global Warming and the Political Ecology of Health , By Hans Baer and Merrill Singer
Left coast press, $49.95
This book traces the likely effects of climate change on human health—from extreme weather events, to pressures on food and water supplies, to heat stress, to the spread of disease and infection.
It is a thorough if gloomy snapshot of what humanity faces if we fail to prevent runaway climate change.
The introduction squarely puts the blame for climate change and the failure to cut emissions on capitalism as a system of production for profit. The authors recognise that “global capitalism has been around for about 500 years, but has come to embody so many inherent contradictions that it must be transcended to ensure the survival of humanity and animal and plant life on a sustained basis”.
There is a useful section on the connection between war and global warming, which points out that “global warming and war are … mutually reinforcing, with war and war production fuelling global warming and global warming pushing countries to war”.
The middle section on human health is very detailed—maybe even tediously so for non-experts. It discusses the many diseases and pathogens that are likely to be increased by global warming, including the pathogen Cryptosporidium, spread by storms, and dengue fever, spread by A. aegypti mosquitoes.
The authors usefully point out that the spread of disease is also influenced by how society is organised—so the risk of dengue fever increases where there is lack of infrastructure such as piped water and adequate waste disposal, and decreases where there are enclosed spaces and air-conditioning.
In other words, the poor will suffer most.
The last section, where the authors look at solutions to global warming, is the least clear. It contains a useful review of proposed neo-liberal solutions and their weaknesses, including carbon trading and international agreements.
But it is less effective when proposing alternatives. The authors seem to support a carbon tax, which would suffer from many of the same problems as carbon trading, because both rely on price signals and the market to achieve change. It is sometimes difficult to tell which solutions the authors support and which they are merely listing, giving the overall impression that the authors aren’t confident to point a real way forward.
They write, “there is no escaping the difficult fact that the majority of people in developed countries will need to scale back their consumption”. They also confusingly refer to renewable energy at one point as a neo-liberal technological fix (though elsewhere they support renewable energy).
But after years of workers sacrificing their wages for bosses’ profits, many will be rightly frightened or angry about the call for more sacrifice, especially in a time of economic crisis.
Changing energy resources and means of transportation through renewables could provide both solutions and jobs—without sacrifice. To get these solutions we will have to fight the neo-liberals who see them as “interference in the market”.
The authors raise the concept from Andre Gorz of “non-reformist reforms”, a clumsy phrase that seems to be pointing at what the revolutionary Leon Trotsky called transitional demands—that is immediate demands that show the need for, and have the potential to develop into, struggle against the system itself.
However, they then mention that “non-reformist reforms” could mean amongst other things “lobbying …governments to…implement strong mitigation plans; [and] voluntary personal lifestyle changes”. But personal lifestyle changes have been pushed by government and corporations precisely because they avoid challenging the powers that be. So this isn’t exactly a demand that “seek[s] to pave the way for transcending [the system]”.
In spite of calling for democratic ecosocialism to replace capitalism, behind the book’s failure to grapple with the real solutions is their failure to recognise the working class as a force for change in society. It is the proud history of political strikes—from the green bans in the 1970s to the movement against uranium mining—that we need to look to in building a movement against climate change.
Despite this problem, it is refreshing to have academics that clearly see themselves not simply as analysts but as part of the movement against climate change.
As they write: “some would even argue that environmentally engaged anthropologists need to be passionate and even boldly outrageous given that we live in outrageous times”.
By Chris Breen