The Burning Question

For British Columbia's forests, threatened by the worst wildfire season on record, it's either socialism or extinction.

A firefighter in British Columbia, Canada. Province of British Columbia / Flickr

British Columbia is in the midst of its worst wildfire season on record. With nearly nine hundred thousand hectares (or nine thousand square kilometers) burned since April 1st, the province has declared a state of emergency, calling on funding from the federal Liberals and resources from neighboring provinces and countries. Over one hundred fires are still burning, including the largest single wildfire in BC history, west of Quesnel. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes as cities like Williams Lake, Clinton and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District have been put under evacuation alerts and orders. Firefighters are working overtime to contain the over 120 fires blazing in the subalpine and boreal forest near towns and valuable timber. The province has spent over $315 million to date combating the onslaught.

BC isn’t the only region experiencing record wildfires. The Pacific Northwest is on fire, including Washington and Oregon State. California, itself ripe for wildfire after years of drought or near-drought conditions, is currently experiencing nineteen wildfires, including the largest ever fire in Los Angeles. A local emergency has been declared, and firefighters are hoping for moisture from Tropical Storm Lidia to help subdue the blaze.

The chaotic situation evokes the sentiment of summer 2016, when Fort McMurray, Alberta, home of the Tar Sands and formerly Canada’s foremost cash cow, was nearly laid to waste. Over 1,800 families lost their homes, with lost labor and oilsands production totaling nearly $1.5 billion. Then as now, the federal Liberals were themselves under fire for failing to deliver an adequate response.

Such a backlash is as natural as wildfires themselves, as a reaction to government inaction in times of crisis. But even when politicians respond well, they shouldn’t be exonerated from the politics of natural disasters. The political and economic climate of capitalism plays a key role in producing more natural disasters, with greater frequency. Politicians and politics that play by the rules of the market have to answer for the ecological crises they create.

British Columbia Burning

A number of factors can help us position the current wildfire crisis in BC in relation to global warming. For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on a single factor: the mountain pine beetle. The mountain pine beetle infects multiple species of conifer, mainly Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine, common to BC forests. The insect has infected close to sixteen million of BC’s fifty-five million hectares of forest. Trees killed by pine beetle are left dead standing, with the beetles eating only around the outermost nutrition-carrying layer of the tree, the cambium. In infected areas, these dead trees create vast patches of dry, standing fuel, easily ignited by wildfires.

The mountain pine infestation might be the greatest forest insect plague ever seen in the history of the continent. But if the mountain pine beetle has been around for nearly ten thousand years, then why has it only recently become such a scourge? Pine beetles contain a natural anti-freeze, known as glycerol, which builds in their blood over the fall. It takes several consecutive days of temperatures below – 35°C or – 40°C in midwinter to kill the beetles. Through the 1970s and 80s and before, it was normal to get this many freezing days in a row in the northern parts of the province. Now it is less common, leaving one less bulwark in the battle to keep beetle populations in check. With less annual die-off and greater opportunity for breeding, beetle populations have increased exponentially along with global warming. And BC’s forests are struggling to cope.

Industry also helped create the conditions for the crisis. Early resource logging and wildfire management in the postwar era helped create huge swaths of forest with trees of similar species and age-range grouped together, making them less naturally resistant to pestilence. Younger conifers produce more sap than older ones, and sap acts as a natural antibody trees have against pests — for instance, healthy trees attempt to force beetles out of the cavities they dig by flowing sap at them. Huge clear-cuts were common practice in early logging, with replantation focused on the most profitable timber. Wildfires were typically suppressed rather than managed, with old timber thought too valuable to lose.

But forest fires are part of a healthy forest ecosystem. Dead and burnt trees build atop the forest surface and decompose into organic material that can be used by other organisms. And as a variance of older and younger trees makes forests more resistant to disease, such die-offs are a necessary part of ecosystem stability.

The fact that lumber was a major source of government revenue made such practices common. Although largely government owned, Canadian lumber is still a commodity on the global capitalist market. Since the 1980s, softwood lumber has been a source of major trade disputes between Canada and the United States. The heart of the dispute is that the US thinks that Canadian government ownership and administration of the lumber trade puts US companies at a competitive disadvantage, and that Canadian lumber would be better off loosely regulated and owned by private companies in a free-market system.

The US view is that Canada is too socialistic in sanctioning government ownership of industry. While government involvement was and is a necessity to ensure the ongoing sustainability of BC’s forests, it would be brash to say that this makes its approach to forestry management socialist. The recently ousted BC Liberals prioritized timber profits, hence, investing in active fire suppression instead of off-season wildfire management techniques such as thinning, brushing and pruning.

Unless ownership and control is held by the working class and for the working class, the government functions as a private owner in any capitalist firm. Keeping this in check is that its stakeholders are ostensibly the voting public. But this can bend or break in the face of the international pressures of global capitalism. There is hope that the recently elected NDP-Green coalition government in BC will take strong action in support of sustainable forestry in the softwood lumber portfolio of renegotiations with Trump over NAFTA. But the agenda will be set by the federal Liberals, whose tone echoes BC’s former provincial Liberals with their staunchly corporate focus.

Increased understanding of forestry ecology and the value of wildlife trees has led to a greater focus on ecosystem sustainability in BC since the 1990s. Modern forestry management represents a progressive shift away from the militarized postwar approach to industrial logging. Partly advances in forestry science and partly progressive social democratic reforms have helped soften the aggressive environmental impact of forestry in BC.

But it could go further. A radically democratic approach would mean nationalizing the forest industry and putting it under direct workers’ management. Fulfilling this goal would require workers in the natural resource sector to start organizing themselves.

Worker control wouldn’t be a silver bullet. Like the Canadian government is now, they would still face pressure from global commodity markets. But it would be a step in the right direction, and put us in a better position to resist the markets’ demands.

The Capitalocene

Scientists trace geological epochs by zoning in on the mass extinction events that separate climactically stable periods. The last one was the Holocene, beginning approximately 11,500 years ago. The Holocene borders on a major extinction of megafauna, hunted down by us, and allowing for highly adaptable, intelligent bipeds like us to thrive. Many climate scientists today subscribe to the view that the Holocene is ending, as of the dawn of the pre-industrial era and the first experimental application of a steam combustion engine (in Britain, 1712); and that the geological epoch we are stepping into today, called the Anthropocene, is characterized by the human species’ central causal agency as a climatological force.

Today, climate scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal are becoming extinct every twenty-four hours. The main force driving these extinctions is rapidly changing global climate resulting in habitat loss, and the main force driving rapidly changing global climate is us. For the billions of humans not sheltered by power and privilege from the worst effects of changing global climate, they might wonder whether their species is next.

But the Industrial Revolution, the key to the Anthropocene, did not itself create the increasingly unstable climate conditions we are currently living in. Why the Industrial Revolution was ushered in in Britain, not in any other country — China, for instance, with its high level of technological advancement — is a question that bedevils certain speculative historians.

The answer lies with Britain’s advanced early modern capitalist economy, in which private property relations provided more propitious conditions for innovation within a competitive industrial economy. As Marx analyses in Capital, these conditions allowed early industrialists to rapidly increase the rate of exploitation, both of labour and of nature. In many ways, the Industrial Revolution serves as a stand-in for the real driver of the Anthropocene — capitalism.

Today, the same deeply entrenched private property regime puts people and the planet under extreme pressures on a global scale, with the gluttons all the while running their gluts dry. Many youth and workers have at least some awareness of the problem: the worst climate offenders are not those who drive petrol-powered cars to work and microwave their lunches, but megalithic resource and energy companies, oil multinationals and their ilk. “Anthropocene” is at best a misnomer, at worst, a dishonest and deceptive assessment. Dishonest, because not all humans contribute evenly to climate crisis. Theorists like Jason Moore and Donna Haraway, who instead refer to the current geological era as the “Capitalocene,” should help orient our revolutionary agitation.

Socialism or Extinction

In BC, over twenty-five evacuation orders have displaced over seven thousand, with forty-two evacuation alerts impacting nearly twenty-five thousand people. Globally, there were 24.2 million new displacements created by disasters in 2016, up nearly five million from the previous year. Habitats, human and otherwise, are being lost to more extreme droughts and floods.

And mass displacement is not strictly a human problem, either. Some migratory birds are experiencing reduced breeding populations due to global warming, especially the over eighty-five species that breed in the global Arctic. Bird populations are expected to shift poleward or toward higher elevations as temperatures increase, disrupting entire ecoregions. In Yellowstone National Park, loss of Whitebark Pine due to Mountain Pine Beetle has dragged down the local grizzly population, with the cones of Whitebarks normally a reliable fatty food source for grizzlies. Black bear sightings have increased across some Canadian cities, as drought and wildfire drives more wildlife species into urban areas. Rapidly changing global climate throws habitats — human and otherwise — into upheaval and disorder.

And global warming is only one vector of capitalist displacement: add this to the 40.3 million people living in internal displacement as a result of violence and conflict at the end of 2016, and the many millions of refugees fleeing countries war-torn countries like Syria and Libya and Somalia and South Sudan, to name a few. Capitalism is changing the face of the planet by reorganizing the masses living on it. And this threatens to push us even deeper into unsustainable extremes and crisis.

Neoliberal politicians love to incant that it’s wrong to score political points off natural disasters. But such incantations are a dodgy evasion of reality, serving political inaction in the interests of the worst polluters. The manners and morality of high politics serve as an instrument to defer and blunt the outrage, and suffering, of the larger population.

Natural disasters should magnify the human cost of the natural resource economy, and the political demand of mending the planet should begin with the demand to transform the global political and economic system, centered in resource extraction industries. Since the mid-twentieth century, lumber worker and industrial resource unions have lost their militancy. Long gone are the days of the Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union (LWIU), a strongly militant US-Canadian timber union and affiliate of the IWW. Millwrights and fallers and wildland firefighters today should be engaged in agitation. Militant students, youth, and workers should make it their effort to discuss with workers how capitalism is threatening life on earth by degrading our environment, and what can be done about it. An ideal summer job for some, many wildland firefighters are also university students. Progressives on university campuses should endeavor to extend their hands towards those employed in natural resource industries by nurturing these channels.

But that doesn’t mean we should be uniformly hostile to any form of resource extraction, as is the impulse among much of the Left. Eco-austerity is not the answer to the global, existential crises we are facing today. The root of the problem is not energy production and resource extraction as a whole, but the rate of extraction under an economic system that prizes profits over persons, luxury for the few over the lives of the many. The many multinationals deeply invested in oil production continue to extract the hot commodity using increasingly destructive methods for more meager gains.

The global economy is too unstable to handle significant innovations in key industries like energy without coming to a crash, and capitalist investors know this. Hence, oil continues to be a safer investment than renewables such as solar and wind. The crucial demand is not to scale back energy production, but to change the relations of production to place people as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to making a profit.

The end of exploitation for all is a condition for the end of exploitation of the planet as a whole. Until resource extraction is placed solely on the scale of human needs, people and the planet will continue to suffer. The end goal is global energy managed by the people, for the people. This begins with the transitional demands of resource workers struggling for democratic control over their industries, wresting them from the hands of private profits. For Canadian firefighters, these demands should include not only improved environmental protections and more sustainable fire suppression and logging practices, but improved camp and work safety conditions, collective bargaining rights for private-sector firefighters, increased autonomy for First Nations groups to steer fire suppression efforts on their unceded traditional territories, and more.

Forestry management practices, and the natural resource sector more broadly, must be deeply informed by changing global climate. The best way to accomplish this is to ensure that the workers are conversant about the complex of issues caused by global warming, and to mitigate the destabilizing climatological effects of private profits in the resource sector by placing these industries under direct democratic control and ownership by the workers.