Capitalism = Extinction?

June 19, 2019

In her Jacobin article 'Socialism or Extinction,' TRNN's climate bureau producer Dharna Noor boils down the UN's IPBES report to help us see what could lie ahead and how it is related to our economic system

In her Jacobin article 'Socialism or Extinction,' TRNN's climate bureau producer Dharna Noor boils down the UN's IPBES report to help us see what could lie ahead and how it is related to our economic system


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Capitalism = Extinction?

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. We’re living in a very dangerous time, as many of you know, when it comes to our environment and our future. There was an article written by one of our colleagues here at Real News for Jacobin called “Socialism or Extinction.” Dharna Noor wrote it. She is one of the leaders of the Climate Bureau here at The Real News and it is a devastating article that makes you wake up. Either you could get totally depressed, or you say, “what do we do to stop this?” Dharna, hi.

DHARNA NOOR Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER So I’m— You know, I read the article. I said, my first reaction was, “oh my God. I’m so depressed. Now what do I do?”

DHARNA NOOR Yeah.

MARC STEINER So, I mean, we’ll talk about some of the things you wrote about in here, but you really were trying to put the dangers we face about the environment and our Earth at the foot of capitalism and the foot where our societies are taking us.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely a bummer and the question of how not to be depressed, I think, is not one to be undermined. I actually think it’s really important and it’s important to, sort of, deal with the scale of this kind of problem, of issues like in this case, mass extinction and the climate crisis. But also, I guess it’s important that we find a way to collectively not let that depression inhibit our ability to act. Something that’s really important for me is to note that there are ways that we can combat the, for instance, the mass extinction crisis, that would also make life for humanity far better in the short-term. In a sense, this article is just a list of ways that we can do that, a list of facts. But there’s ways that, I think, if we make a more just food system, for instance, we could have short-term benefits and of course long-term benefits. In a sense, I think that gives me hope. It means that, you know, at least fighting the greatest crises of our time will not necessarily make life worse for people. In fact, I think in many cases, it will make life better for many people.

MARC STEINER You know, what you put in this article and it was really well-done and really well- written.

DHARNA NOOR Thanks, Marc.

MARC STEINER And for me, it was also overwhelming because you have to wrestle with the reality in your face. You know, when you write about 40 percent of all amphibian species, one-third of all coral reefs, all marine mammal societies are just being devastated, pollinators are gone, 85 percent of our wetlands on the earth have been decimated with development or for whatever other reason— but to stop that onslaught is the question, which is not an easy thing to answer because people keep saying capitalism is the problem. Perhaps capitalism is a problem, but capitalism isn’t going anywhere tomorrow morning, and the earth is slowly dying, rapidly dying. Losing species, as you wrote, is one thousand times faster than ever before.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah, yeah. I mean, I of course do not disagree that capitalism is the problem, but I also don’t think that it’s true that, you know, until we abolish the profit motive, we can’t make any real changes. I do think that it’s important to fight for reforms that could come long before we get to anything like socialism. For instance, we don’t need to dismantle capitalism to change what kinds of crops get subsidized. We could easily, I think I said in the article, feed a billion more people or even billions more people if we just started prioritizing growing food for people instead of food that gets fed to livestock, which is far less efficient in terms of land use and its footprint in terms of energy. We could, kind of, you know, we could subsidize things like oats instead of corn, which is less energy-intensive to grow. So there are things that we could do, I think, in a reformist sense in the meantime, but I think it is important to, sort of, keep the end goal in mind and to see that the thing driving this is really the motive to grow our profits above everything else, above taking care of the planet and people’s health.

MARC STEINER I think part of the subtext that drives your entire article is just what you just said. You know, when I think about what you wrote about in terms of the farming system that we have in this country. Let’s talk about our own country, right? And to change the nature of farming— And I live out in the country now. I’m surrounded by this beautiful rural area and all the corn that I hate to see growing is all chemical corn, as we call it, chemical soy, because that’s where the marketplace is. That’s what the farmers have to grow if they want to make a living and keep their land because they want people buying their stuff. And so, and these are gigantic farms that are growing all of our strawberries and everything else. So the question is, it would take a real struggle for people to begin to understand what we’re facing for this to change. I think people can be complacent because you go to grocery and buy what you want and come home. You don’t know you’re breathing in plastics every other second every time you do— a credit card’s worth a day they say now in terms of size. I mean, this is part of opening minds in a political struggle, and that’s the question of how do you think you can get to that?

DHARNA NOOR Yeah, and I guess I don’t want to make it seem like there won’t be any sacrifices. It’s true that maybe we won’t have as many choices in the grocery store if we do create a more just farming system, but I think it’s pretty clear that the benefits outweigh that. I mean, a million species, a million plant animal species alone at risk of extinction is huge, and that doesn’t even include things like, you know, microscopic organisms that could have huge effects on other kinds of species and on human life. Plus, quite frankly, monoculture is just not the only way to grow good-tasting crops. I mean, we could prioritize eating and cooking and enjoying the taste of things that are indigenous to our country. I don’t think that that would be such a huge loss for people and we could save, quite literally, billions of lives in the process.

MARC STEINER Talk about this Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that you focused your piece on and the stuff that came out of that. So talk a bit about what they are, who they are, what this report really was, and how it came out.

DHARNA NOOR So this is a UN group, a UN group of scientists. It’s, sort of, the leading group in the world on studying ecosystems, studying life on Earth. And this is the most comprehensive report that’s ever been produced on biodiversity in the history of the world. I think that that’s not contested. I mean, it’s an analysis of—

MARC STEINER When did this come out?

DHARNA NOOR This came out about a month ago.

MARC STEINER That’s what I thought.

DHARNA NOOR Right. Interestingly, very soon after the IPCC’s Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Report, just six months ago or something, which was similarly devastating but also had a similar message. Which is, you know, it’s not too late to change our future. Just, it will take radical, transformative change in, sort of, every sector of the economy, of social life, of political life.

MARC STEINER So when this comes out like this and it—My biggest interest is when you take stuff like this, when you learn that nearly three quarters of the world’s freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production, and the amount of methane that comes out of that livestock production pollutes the air, that our industrial farming, as you wrote about, is the second biggest polluter on the planet earth after the energy industry itself. So the question is, people aren’t just going to be moved by that polar bear behind us, right?

DHARNA NOOR Agreed.

MARC STEINER [laughs] Unfortunately, so it’s how you popularize the discussion for people to understand what it means for the future, for their children’s future.

DHARNA NOOR I agree, and I do want to say that I think there have been some takes on this report, and on other environmental reports before it, that seemed to assert that it’s elitist or wrong to be sad about nonhuman life being threatened.

MARC STEINER Yes, right.

DHARNA NOOR I don’t really agree. I don’t think that it’s elitist to be concerned about tigers being absent from 96 percent of their natural territory. I don’t think that that’s wrong. I think that it’s human to be concerned about nonhuman life and I don’t think that’s wrong. However, I will say that I think that there’s no question that it’s important that we are honest about the way that this crisis, the mass extinction crisis specifically, impacts human life. You know, it’s not just that mass extinction itself could threaten human life because we depend so much on the ecosystems of the rest of the world. We depend on, you know, a fair climate, we depend on biodiversity for food and for a climate that we can live in. But also, the drivers of this biodiversity crisis are actually the drivers of much, much human suffering themselves. So it’s not just that biodiversity loss is bad for human life. It’s also that, you know, industrial agriculture has been devastating for farmers. Farmers have lost many, many profits, as these four companies that control the majority of the world’s industrial agriculture actually are growing. So it’s not just that eventually these systems will be bad for people. I think right now there are millions of people suffering because of these systems that are driving this crisis.

MARC STEINER And we covered the Monsanto-Bayer merger and all the rest that are happening that are devastating the food industry. You know, when you write about two-thirds of the people of Asia go hungry. One out of six children starve in the developing world and die from starvation. In a country like ours, which is apoplectic on some sectors over immigration and people coming into America, this was driving people to leave. This was driving people to move because they have no choice. They’ve got to move. You know, I interviewed Baba Aye earlier today about what’s going on in Mali and the war going on Mali, and that’s all being fueled by the climate crisis and by the urge to get more minerals out of West Africa.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah and Africa is—Of course, it’s always the countries populated by people of color, poorer countries, that are suffering the worst effects of all of this. I know that that’s at this point kind of obvious, but I think it bears repeating. And that’s not just true of the climate crisis. It’s true of biodiversity loss, as well.

MARC STEINER So I’m curious in this article—And you said you didn’t make up the title, you didn’t come up with the title “Socialism or Extinction.” Jacobin did, [laughs] which is cool.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. Shout out to Ella Mahony [laughs] who came up with that title.

MARC STEINER Right. But so, I’m curious how this kind of research in putting this article together about this report, how does it affect your work? What has it taught you about what needs to happen, and what kind of stories you need to talk about, and how you need to do that?

DHARNA NOOR I mean, it’s a hard question. On the one hand, this was a—To be perfectly honest, I was writing this at, sort of, a difficult time anyway. I was writing most of this article on my laptop, sitting in the hospital, as my grandfather was threatened with his own mortality. So it was, you know—

MARC STEINER He’s okay now, right?

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. Yeah. He’s living now. Yeah. I should say that. But, I mean, it was an emotional time anyway. I mean, I felt like I was potentially grieving the life of somebody so close to me, who’s nearing the end of their life, and then also grieving, in a sense, the future of so many other people’s lives— human and nonhuman alike. And it’s not easy, obviously, to reckon with a crisis of this scale. I mean, I already find it really difficult to recon with something as huge as the climate crisis, and then this report argues that the biodiversity crisis, which is separate. I mean, it’s inextricable from the climate crisis, but it is a separate crisis in and of itself, is on the same scale of the climate crisis. That’s huge and devastating, but in a sense, that makes it kind of easier to write about.

I mean, you don’t need to develop some incredible narrative to show that. The statistics speak for themselves. I heard David Wallace-Wells, the acclaimed climate journalist, David Wallace-Wells— much has been made of his newest work— say in an interview, these statistics have all of the poetry that you need in them. You don’t need to prove to somebody that a million species facing extinction is bad. I mean, that’s just—The scale of that problem is obvious if you encounter these kinds of statistics. The question is, I think, as you’re saying, how to make this relevant to human beings. I think actually the IPBES Report does that really, really well. It makes a strong case that shows that humanity will be affected by this crisis. I just think it’s important to again show that it’s already affecting human life.

MARC STEINER Well, I think it’s very important for the viewers here, people on YouTube, to know that you have taken the Climate Bureau seriously in helping push that here at The Real News. This article is just, kind of, the heart of why this heart beats so strong and what you have to do. So I just want to say that I really do appreciate the article you wrote—

DHARNA NOOR Thanks, Marc.

MARC STEINER In Jacobin, “Socialism or Extinction,” about what we face, and we look forward to a great deal many reports come out from you and the other folks at the Climate Bureau here.

DHARNA NOOR Thanks so much for having me, Marc.

MARC STEINER Dharna, this is great. And that was Dharna Noor and I’m Marc Steiner here of The Real News. We both are. So we’ll be both talking to you again soon about many things. Take care.