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Water Crises Portend Socialism or Barbarism

Catastrophic floods, droughts, and infrastructure failures highlight the ecological dangers of capitalism, and the urgent need for socialism.

Signý A.

October 1, 2022
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Two men wading through floodwaters with an inundated house in the background.
(Photo by ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s 2022 and the climate has changed. Around the world, the new climate is making itself felt via droughts, heatwaves, floods, and storms. Many of these events are record breakers, and their effects go beyond local areas to affect global supply chains and the lives of millions of working-class people. These are more than just “natural” disasters, though: these multiple water crises are driven, sometimes even created, by a capitalist society organized to put short-term profit above long-term sustainability. Our untenable management of water illustrates the impossibility of addressing climate change under capitalism, and shows how only socialism can produce a sustainable and equitable civilization.

Floods and Droughts: A Global Problem

Catastrophic climate events that have not been seen in centuries, if ever before, are happening in many places around the world, from droughts and heatwaves to severe flooding and water shortages. These wide-reaching, interconnected disasters show the true nature of the changing climate. It is not a single, apocalyptic moment, but a complex process involving many physical systems and ecosystems with multiple “tipping points.” Some of those have already been reached. Others lie ahead. Climate disruptions wrought by capitalist production don’t only affect the regions in which they occur, but also global food and shipping networks, and the lives of many billions of people who rely on those networks.

One-third of Pakistan is underwater after epic monsoons, exacerbated by melting glaciers, and a rapidly warming Indian Ocean. Flooding has killed over 1,500 people and displaced millions more. It is worsening the shortage of food and healthcare in Pakistan, and increasing the risk of disease outbreaks (on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic). Vast areas of farmland have been flooded, destroying large swaths of crops and killing livestock. Pakistan produces a significant fraction of the world’s wheat and cotton, both of which have now suffered severe losses. The flooding also hampers distribution of the aid from China, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Puerto Rico was just devastated by Hurricane Fiona, which triggered massive flooding, mudslides, and a power outage across the entire island. Two-thirds of Puerto Rico lacks safe running water. This comes as the island is still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria five years ago. The water and power systems in Puerto Rico have long suffered U.S. colonial austerity and have been under the control of private business interests that have failed to fortify them against the changing climate.

In San Francisco a massive algae bloom this summer was triggered by the dumping of large amounts of treated sewage into the bay by the city wastewater system, thriving on the wastewater’s excess nitrogen. It can both deplete the oxygen in the water and release toxins as it grows. At least 10,000 fish have been killed, leaving parts of the area reeking of rotting fish. The problem isn’t limited to the Bay Area. Nitrogen from fertilizer enters the water via agricultural runoff and ends up in large bodies of water, where it feeds algae blooms. This has long been a problem for Lake Erie.

Jackson, Mississippi, is going through its own water crisis. Frequent contamination and boil-water notices have plagued the city for years because the old, crumbling public water infrastructure has long been ignored by a state government dominated by white conservatives. Recent rainstorms and flooding overloaded the water treatment capacity, leading to a complete shutdown of the system. Most of the city population is Black, leading many to rightly identify the situation as a form of environmental racism.

In Florida, unchecked private development is causing increased salt water intrusion into freshwater aquifers. Because of its proximity to the ocean and the specific local geology, sea water seeps inland underground. Normally, since salt water is more dense than freshwater, it stays at the bottom, away from wells, but as greater amounts of water are drawn from the aquifer, salinity increases. Extensive construction and pavement has reduced how much of the Florida rains can soak into the ground to replenish the aquifers. The result is a rapidly dwindling supply of available fresh water.

The Colorado River in the western U.S. has reached alarmingly low levels. Colorado’s Lake Mead reservoir is down to 25 percent of its capacity. States that draw water from the river have been ordered by the federal government to significantly reduce how much they take, but exactly how that will happen has not been figured out. Much of the water is used for agriculture, including high-water-demand crops like almonds and wine grapes, and by crops like alfalfa, which are primarily used as livestock feed. Some of the reduction might be made up for with additional groundwater use, but groundwater is not unlimited. Parts of California are now as much as 28 feet lower than in the past due to groundwater removal. With most of U.S. domestic fruit, vegetable, and nut production coming from California, the western drought poses a problem for the entire country’s food supply.

Europe has been experiencing its own drought, quite likely the worst in 500 years. Many rivers are running so low that old stones in the river beds have surfaced, bearing inscriptions like “if you see me, then weep.” These Hunger Stones were placed centuries ago, when a great famine resulted from similarly low water levels. WW II–era vehicles and weapons have also emerged, including an unexploded 1,000-pound bomb (3,000 people were evacuated before it was safely detonated). Low river levels also threaten shipping barge operations, which move everything from industrial products and food to freight containers. More difficult shipping can increase prices and reduce supply of a wide range of necessities, adding to the stresses already put on fragile post-pandemic global supply chains. 

The Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana was once home to many of the Native American Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. Today, the island is 98 percent underwater. Most of its farm and pasture land is gone. For decades, oil and gas digging in the Mississippi River Delta has amplified erosion, and the network of dams and levees throughout the Mississippi River system has greatly reduced how much sediment gets moved downstream. Sediment transport disruptions are a problem common to many other rivers that have been extensively modified with dams and similar infrastructure. Now, sea level rise from climate change is taking what’s left of Isle de Jean Charles. The state is attempting to build a new neighborhood elsewhere, but the new plans have excluded the tribe’s interests. 

China is going through its worst heatwave on record while already facing a drought, dropping many lakes and rivers to dangerously low levels. With much of the electricity coming from hydroelectric plants on these rivers, this has also led to a major power shortage. Some factories have been temporarily closed to save electricity for residential use.

What may seem like unconnected freak weather events are, in fact, all symptoms of the damage caused by an economic system that demands endless profit growth regardless of the human and environmental consequences.

Water Crises, Social Crises

These droughts and floods are already reducing the food supply, and in the capitalist global economy this leads to higher prices, and to more people going hungry. Compared to before the floods, tomatoes are now five times as expensive in Pakistan. Corn plants, rice plants, and fish are drying out and dying in Italy. In most places, agriculture is managed for profit instead of sustainability, making it even more vulnerable to weather and climate disruptions. Growing crops that are profitable but ill suited to the area worsens the water problems driven by climate change. If water and farm management isn’t immediately and substantially improved, the ominous prophecy of the hunger stones may come true.

Higher prices and lower supply are the obvious consequences of the climate and water crisis, but the impacts go much deeper. When farms can no longer produce enough to stay in business, the workers will be forced to move to find work. Many millions will become climate refugees, both within and across national borders. For the U.S. that may mean an exodus of people from the Southwest to the Northwest and Northeast, areas which are already experiencing acute housing crises. Moving has its own costs, both financially and personally, and locals in destination areas do not always welcome newcomers. Anti-immigrant sentiment is already on the rise. Those who can’t move, often including elderly and disabled people, will suffer from the increasing lack of access to essential services like grocery stores and hospitals.

Food shortages will fall hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable, as we see with the thousands of homeless and displaced Pakistani flood victims, and the colonized population of Puerto Rico. Even in rich countries, the consequences of environmental crises are born heaviest by poor people, and those with needs deemed non-normative by capitalist social organization. Many Americans with specific dietary needs, food allergies, and chronic health issues already find it difficult to access what they need. They will be hardest-hit when their staples are out of stock and no usable alternatives remain. Medicines for prescription and hospital use may also be less available when climate change disrupts supply lines, as has already happened repeatedly during the pandemic.

Such worsening conditions can lead to increased public outrage. Properly organized, this outrage can drive the revolutionary proletarian mobilization that is critical to replacing capitalism with a socialist economy. Only this can mitigate the climate crisis — the steam in the piston box, to use Trotsky’s analogy. Yet the masses’ energy can also be co-opted by the Far Right, as infamously took place in 1930s Germany, or it can be crushed by militarized police forces, which the U.S. has in alarming abundance. And during such times, it’s poor, nonwhite, LGBT+, and disabled people who suffer most from  bourgeois reaction. This is why it is necessary to expose capitalist propaganda and greenwashing to advance a socialist program of action, one that tells the truth about how humans interact with the climate.

Only Socialism Can Manage the Climate Crisis

We’re well past the point of stopping climate change completely, but immediate and decisive action is needed to reduce its future impacts, as well as to equitably and sustainably manage earth’s resources. But that cannot happen under capitalism. Production for profit disrupted the climate, and in particular the water cycle, resulting in historic hurricanes, contaminations, droughts and floods. The exploitative capitalist use of water and land created the conditions that triggered climate change, and socialist planning is necessary to repair and mitigate these harms.

Sustainable management will require making sure everyone’s needs are met in ways suited both to local ecosystems and to a stable global climate. This will mean collectively planning our food, water, and energy systems instead of private corporations producing whatever they think will make the most money. Market-based solutions to the climate crisis cannot work because the market requires both competition among organizations and constant profit growth for owners. Each of these results in overproduction, degradation of natural resources, and ridiculously unsustainable amounts of waste and pollution. The rich owning class seldom allows work that does not soon result in sellable products. Thus, important research and development that may lead to clean energy technologies, more durable and reusable products, and sustainable resource use, are simply not done on the necessary scale. Capitalist proposed “solutions” to the climate crisis are invariably constrained by the profit motive, making them incapable of prioritizing the overall health of people and the planet.

A new way of sustainably managing earth’s water resources must be cooperative, democratic, and international. Water itself knows no borders, and attempts to control it based on political lines on a map are doomed to fail. Global coordination must be built in a bottom-up way to make decisions based on science, human rights, and respect for nature. This may look like smaller, local, worker- and community-owned farms that work with the local ecosystem to determine which crops and livestock are raised, what fertilizers and pest control methods are used, and where the water comes from. These principles must also be applied to drinking and wastewater systems. They need to be controlled by the people actually working them, such as city sewer workers, civil engineers, and hydrologists, and operated to serve the needs of their users, not according to the priorities of corporate boards or rich investors.

We are running up against planetary limits on capitalism’s unsustainable demand for constantly increasing profit and consumption. As water, land, and everything that depends on them change with the climate, so too must social and economic systems change. Climate disruptions and dwindling resources will necessarily lead to either a struggle over what little is left, or cooperatively building a new, more equitable system. In short, socialism or barbarism, as Rosa Luxemburg explained. “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity.” She wrote those words just before World War I, and while many prominent socialists of that time only imagined that capitalism might one day threaten to consume the entire planet, those of us today are faced with precisely that. We must advocate a clear alternative to business-as-usual capitalism, one based on stewardship of Earth’s ecosystems rather than their exploitation. This program should include international coordination with local implementation, and value human and environmental rights instead of monetary gain. This is the only hope for a sustainable and equitable society.

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