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The Vulnerable Planet Fifteen Years Later

This is the preface to the Bangla edition of The Vulnerable Planet, translated by Farooque Chowdhury, to be published by Shahitya Prakash in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and by Bangla Monthly Review in Kolkata, India.

The original intent of The Vulnerable Planet,when it was first published fifteen years ago, was to provide a brief historical materialist analysis of the development of the global ecological crisis, beginning with the early civilizations and leading up to the monopoly capitalist society of the late twentieth century. Looking back now at the book as it was originally written — and at the second edition published five years later, incorporating a few minor changes plus an afterword — I see no major point on which the analysis has proven to be substantially wrong or where it needs significant revision. Nevertheless, the last decade and a half has witnessed an acceleration of history with respect to the human relation to the environment, adding force to the concerns that the book expressed.

At the time of its first appearance, The Vulnerable Planet was criticized by some on the left as alarmist.1 But, if anything, its argument on the dire nature of the planetary ecological crisis, viewed from today’s perspective, understated the severity of the problem. Thus, the 1994 edition stated in the very first paragraph: “According to the prestigious Worldwatch Institute, we have only four decades left in which to gain control over our major environmental problems if we are to avoid irreversible ecological decline [changed to “socio-ecological decline” in the second edition], and the 1990s are the critical decade in which the necessary changes must begin to occur.” Yet, today this timeline appears to have been too optimistic. Available evidence suggests that we could be facing an irrevocable tipping point within a decade with respect to our ability to protect the climate and the earth as we know it — although the full socio-ecological cost of the continuation of current trends will not be felt for generations. The simultaneous rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic, the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, the frozen tundra of the north, and the glaciers in mountainous regions marks a massive climatic shift, which, if not stopped, will have unthinkable repercussions for life on earth.2

The future is especially ominous for those living in South Asia, where numerous environmental catastrophes threaten. Chief among these are: melting Himalayan glaciers; rising sea levels; the negative effect of heightened temperatures on crop yields; potential alterations in monsoon patterns; growing floods and droughts; loss of forests; expanding hunger and disease; and the increase of extreme weather events, such as coastal cyclones and storm surges. In Nepal, vanishing glaciers are leading to glacial lake outburst floods, threatening enormous damage to the people and the environment — with twenty-six of the country’s 2,323 glacial lakes already characterized as dangerous. A 3-4°C increase in temperature could result in the loss of 58-70 percent of the snow and glaciated areas in the country. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently warned that Himalayan glaciers could vanish altogether by 2035 if the current rate of global warming continues. Such glacial melting would lead to a drastic increase in river flow in South Asia, lasting for decades. This would then be followed by a no less drastic decrease in river flow, due to the disappearance of the glaciers. Rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers currently supply water to over half the world’s population, and hence are crucial to the survival of a large portion of humanity. At the same time, a quite different danger looms over the densely populated lower Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. There are signs that constantly rising sea levels have begun to encroach on low-lying coastal areas inhabited by tens of millions. This immense threat pays no heed to borders and the history of division and partition. The peoples of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal alike are at risk. All of this points to the extraordinary vulnerability of South Asia to current climate change trends — the effects of which would be compounded by widespread poverty. Fifteen years ago such catastrophic threats to human and ecological survival were difficult to imagine. Now they seem dangerously close.3

But just as the analysis of The Vulnerable Planet saw the problem as the growth of the global environmental crisis under capitalism, but didn’t foresee just how fast it would accelerate, it likewise saw the solution as the development of a new historical nexus between socialism and ecology, but didn’t foresee the speed with which this was to emerge as a real historical alternative. With revolutions now taking place in areas as distant as South America (e.g., Venezuela and Bolivia) and South Asia (e.g., Nepal) a new socialism of the twenty-first century, inextricably linked to a new, radical ecology, is coming into being. As Evo Morales, the socialist president of Bolivia, observed on November 28, 2008: “As long as we do not change the capitalist system for a system based in complementarity, solidarity and harmony between the people and nature, the measures that we adopt [to save the planet] will be palliatives that will be limited and precarious in character.”4 Today, we are either revolutionaries seeking to build a just and sustainable society — or we are lost.

Eugene, Oregon, July 22, 2009

Notes

  1. For example, see David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1996), 194.
  2. For a detailed explanation of this see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, “Ecology: The Moment of Truth — An Introduction,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008), 1-11.
  3. Ulka Kelkar and Suruchi Badwal, South Asian Regional Study on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation, UN Human Development Report 2007/2008: Occasional Paper, http://hdr.undp.org; Science and Development Network, “Monitoring Climate Change at the Top of the World,” August 16, 2007, http://www.scidev.net.
  4. Evo Morales, “Save the Planet from Capitalism,” November 28, 2008, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/note/769.
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