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14 October 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 5:15pm

Andreas Malm: “The likely future is escalating catastrophe”

The Swedish author on how the climate crisis is dramatically increasing the risk of future pandemics. 

By George Eaton

One of the most disturbing features of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it was entirely predictable. Scientists had long warned that infectious diseases were emerging at an unprecedented rate. But the world paid little attention.

In his book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency – a bracing 224-page polemic written in the wake of Covid-19 – the Swedish academic Andreas Malm elucidates the links between the climate crisis and pandemics. “Zoonotic spill over is a result of the destruction of biodiversity,” Malm, 43, told me when we spoke. In one chilling section, he notes that deforestation in south-east Asia is expected to force 99 per cent of the region’s bats to migrate by 2050 (there are thought to be as many as 3,000 coronaviruses circulating among bat species). The number of “emerging infectious disease events” in the world is forecast to rise by more than five per year.

Malm, a scholar of human ecology who teaches at Lund University, Sweden, poses the question: “Why did the states of the global North act on corona but not on climate?” One explanation, he suggests, is that while the climate crisis is of greatest threat to the global South, Covid-19 spread swiftly throughout the West.

“It’s almost absurd how many politicians, and particularly those on the right, have contracted Covid-19: Boris Johnson, Silvio Berlusconi, Jair Bolsonaro, one of the Vox leaders in Spain. It is a group of people who have never had to bother about the climate crisis personally,” he told me. (Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis was revealed the morning after we spoke.)

Though Malm emphasised that “governments are not doing anything about the drivers of pandemics”, he contrasted the economic interventions prompted by Covid-19 with the West’s relative inaction over the climate crisis.

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“Part of the explanation is that if you were to do something similar on the climate front, you would come up against such massive opposition from the ruling classes that you would face a political crisis of a different magnitude. And all these [Covid-19] measures are advertised and conceived as temporary restrictions that will be removed, not something that will cause a permanent change in our lifestyles.”

Some progressive thinkers, such as the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, herald the opportunities presented by the Covid-19 crisis. But Malm is more sceptical. “Are we in a better position now than back in 2008? I’m not so sure, partly because this crisis put a lid on the fundamental force of the left, which is crowd movements and the assembly of large numbers of people together. The climate movement has been in a coma since this pandemic struck; we’re a long way from the momentum of last year.”

Malm is a long-standing political activist and identifies with the Trotskyist Fourth International (as the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson did). He was raised by his parents in a Christian commune in Gothenburg that was “pretty conservative, morally speaking, not free sex by any means, but shared economies”.

Malm wrote Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency while locked down in Berlin, where he was a research fellow at Humboldt University. Having since returned to Malmö with his partner and two children, he is sympathetic to Sweden’s anti-lockdown policy: “You shouldn’t deprive an entire generation of children of a relatively normal life.” The country’s approach, he emphasised, was not born of neoliberal individualism but of “a particular tradition of public health policy”.

The subtitle of Malm’s book is “War Communism in the Twenty-First Century” – a reference to the mass nationalisation imposed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1921 – a choice he conceded was an “intentional provocation”. But invoking the Bolsheviks in the context of climate change serves an ideological purpose.

“What distinguishes war communism from the Second World War is that it proceeded by defeating the dominant classes.” By referencing the extreme scarcity that Russia faced after the First World War, Malm aims to differentiate his approach from that of incrementalist social democrats, as well as “fully automated luxury communists”.

“The idea that we’re moving into an era of material abundance, endless mastery of nature, we’ll go to the asteroids and mine them… I think we’re facing the opposite: a situation of deepening scarcity of a lot of critical bio-physical resources. Communism has to be thought of in relation to that.”

Malm argues for the nationalisation of oil and gas companies and their conversion “into organisations for carbon dioxide removal” (through air capture technology); a ban on wildlife meat consumption and the phasing out of all meat; and an end to most air travel. After the privations imposed by Covid-19, such restrictions no longer appear unthinkable. “We must say that some forms of consumption are non-essential and outright destructive, and exacerbate the risk of future pandemics, and these forms will have to be regulated.”

How hopeful is he of such change? “I don’t think a good outcome is likely; the likely thing is escalating catastrophe. But you never choose your politics based on a likelihood assessment. And if you think a catastrophic outcome is likely, that’s a reason to go out and fight.”

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?