Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New Prophets of the Proletariat

Historical materialism, in so far as it is a variety of materialism, takes nature, human and non-human, into account. One of the most important factors for social change in this century will be natural disasters, whose intensity and frequency are likely to increase due to climate change.
The business-as-usual scenario yields an increase of about five degrees Fahrenheit of global warming during this century. . . . How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people. (Jim Hansen, "The Threat to the Planet," New York Review of Books 53.12, 13 July 2006)

James Hansen, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, Presentation at Albany Law School, April 18, 2006.

James Hansen, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, Presentation at Albany Law School, April 18, 2006.

The world at the end of the 21st century, if not sooner, may very well look like demographic and environmental nightmares of Mike Davis re-mixed, amplified, and in an endless loop. The impacts of climate change will be especially severe in the global South. Disasters will displace and dispossess untold numbers, and weak states unable or unwilling to provide for the newly displaced and dispossessed will be in for legitimation crisis.

Old priests of capitalism will be challenged by new prophets of the proletariat of global slums. The new prophets, however, are unlikely to speak the language of Marx. "Indeed, for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution, he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world" (Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums," New Left Review 26, March-April 2004). Can the new prophets, unlike the old ones, prevail?

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