This number of Monthly Review is a special issue guest edited by Manolo De Los Santos and Vijay Prashad on The Cuban Revolution Today: Experiments in the Grip of Challenges. Although it covers the major internal struggles of the ongoing Cuban Revolution, along with the external attacks on it by Washington, one unaddressed area of critical importance, which deserves mention, is Cuba’s world leadership in sustainable human development. After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s agriculture, which, due to the U.S. blockade, had been dependent on the Soviet bloc for industrial agricultural inputs, including petroleum, fertilizers, pesticides, and farm machinery, was suddenly cut off from these basic fossil fuel-based materials. Agricultural production plummeted along with the overall economy, with vegetable production dropping by 65 percent and bean production by 77 percent. In response, Cuba initiated its Special Period, rapidly carrying out an agroecological revolution. It revitalized small farms while relying on ecologically regenerative methods, organic farming, and urban agriculture. It reintegrated elements of Indigenous knowledge and traditional peasant practices, and coupled these with advanced microbiological methods (the product of Cuban science).
As a result of these and other related developments, Cuba has become what both the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report and the Sustainable Development Index (introduced in 2000 by Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics) have characterized as the most “sustainably developed” nation in the world (“Cuba Found to Be the Most Sustainably Developed Country in the World,” teleSUR, October 27, 2016; Matt Trinder, “Cuba Found to Be the Most Sustainably Developed Country in the World,” Green Left, January 10, 2020). The leading scientific assessment in this area—written by Mauricio Betancourt, a doctoral student in environmental sociology at the University of Oregon, entitled “The Effect of Cuban Agroecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift: A Quantitative Approach to Latin American Food Production,” and published in Global Environmental Change (2020)—concluded that “only in Cuba, has [agricultural] productivity unequivocally increased to unprecedented levels” together with the decoupling of synthetic “fertilizer use and yield.” This has made Cuba the leader in Latin America (and undoubtedly the world) in agroecology. Since Cuba’s Special Period was the product of a need to create an economy no longer critically dependent on fossil fuels, it stands as a symbol of the kind of ecological transformation now needed in the world as a whole.
For more than three decades, we have been insisting in Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press that an ecological and social revolution is required to address the present Earth System crisis. This is due to capitalism’s crossing of critical planetary boundaries, of which climate change is the most pressing. (Others include ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of groundcover [including forests], freshwater losses, chemical and radioactive pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, aerosol loading, and the incidence of global pandemics.) The continuing failure to prevent the crossing of critical Earth System thresholds, which define the planet as a safe home for humanity, would mean the demise of industrial civilization and the eventual extinction of the human species (along with innumerable other species with which we share the planet). Yet, capitalism, as an accumulative society, is inexorably headed down this path of planetary destruction. Thus, where the Earth System crisis as a whole is concerned, the absolute transcendence of the regime of capital and the creation of a new society devoted to substantive equality and ecological sustainability is absolutely essential—on the grounds of mere survival.
But while the planetary emergency as a whole means that humanity must eventually transcend the regime of capital in its entirety, it is important to understand that this does not apply to the same extent to the much more limited, clearly defined, and immediate goal of avoiding, in the next several decades, the climate tipping point of a 1.5°C (or at most 2°C) increase in global average temperature. Put differently, the current war against fossil capital does not necessitate, in order to meet its objectives, the immediate overcoming by mid–century of the capital system as a whole. It does, however, require the rise of a revolutionary-scale movement going against the logic of capital accumulation, limiting its field of operation, which would also at the same time commence a long revolution aimed at eventually superseding capital altogether and the creation of an ecological civilization rooted in socialism.
A Great Climacteric of this sort could only be effected through the emergence of a powerful political force emanating from the base of global society—what might be called an environmental proletariat. To use the language of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, such a global civilizational transition would have to emanate both from the “internal proletariat,” or the working class in the center of the system, and, more importantly, the “external proletariat” of the colonized world, including all those who have been excluded altogether in the process of Western expansion, such as Indigenous people, the racially oppressed, peasant populations, and those subjugated on the basis of gender and sexuality. It is the external environmental proletariat, in this sense, that is today carrying out the fiercest, most determined struggles in locations all over the earth, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, in defiance of a system that has become exterminist in its relation to the earth and its inhabitants.
Still, at present, global monopoly-finance capital continues to dominate the entire Earth agenda, as can be seen from the COP26 (Twenty-Sixth Conference of the Parties) climate talks in Glasgow in early November 2021. The results of the COP26 talks represented a victory for capital and a defeat for the inhabitants of the earth. Nearly two years into the decisive decade—during which climate emissions have to be cut in half globally if there is to be any real hope of staying below 1.5°C this century—the representatives of the assembled countries came to a dead stop in the battle against fossil capital. The additional promises on climate change mitigation emanating from the world’s nations would at most shave off one tenth of a degree from the expected global warming, with their collective pledges now pointing to an increase in global average temperature of 2.4°C—assuming these promises, much of which are based on unrealistic carbon offset proposals, are kept (“Glasgow’s 2020 Credibility Gap,” Climate Action Tracker, November 2021). The political delegates from the various countries were courted by more than five hundred lobbyists of the fossil fuel industry who were allowed to attend the climate talks, outnumbering the delegates of every single country.
The most widely acclaimed “achievement” of COP26 was the inclusion—for the first time in over a quarter-century of global climate negotiations—of the words fossil fuels in the final text. In another similarly celebrated accomplishment, the Glasgow Pact proposed an actual “phasedown” of “unabated coal,” coal-fired plants lacking carbon sequestration and storage (oil and natural gas were both notably excluded from this proposed phasedown). Yet, this wording replaced earlier drafts that had proposed the complete “phase-out” of “unabated coal.” The crowning achievement of the talks from an environmental standpoint consisted of a vague statement in the Glasgow Pact encouraging the assembled nations to consider “strengthening” their voluntary climate pledges by some unspecified amount at the COP27 meeting to be held in a year (“Key Outcomes Agreed at the U.S. Climate Talks at Glasgow,” Carbon Brief, November 15, 2021).
But it would be wrong to say that no one won at COP26. By far the biggest impacts associated with the Glasgow climate talks had to do with finance, and there the leading capitalist powers walked off with all the prizes. Although the rich nations apologized for not providing the full $100 billion in climate finance to aid developing countries in mitigating climate change as set out in the Paris Agreement, nothing concrete was proposed to fix the problem, which was shoved off into the future. Meanwhile, the core capitalist states strongly opposed and succeeded in neutralizing a proposal introduced by China and the Group of 77 countries, which called on developed nations to provide financial assistance to compensate for “loss and damage” that climate catastrophes have inflicted on developing countries. The rich nations based their objections to this proposal on the “moral” grounds that this could lead to demands for reparations, which would then naturally fall on the nations with the highest historic emissions, and that were also the leading colonizers, namely the triad of the United States, Europe, and Japan.
However, the key development in the entire Glasgow COP26 was the launching of the U.S.-dominated Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), initiated by the imperial foursome of: (1) John Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate change, (2) Janet Yellen, U.S. secretary of the treasury and former U.S. Federal Reserve chair, (3) Mark Carney, UN special envoy for climate action and finance and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s finance advisor for COP26, and (4) Michael Bloomberg, U.S. billionaire, former mayor of New York, and UN special envoy for climate ambition and solutions. In the initial press release, GFANZ advertised bringing capital worth over $130 trillion to the climate-change mitigation table. But this in fact simply represented the total assets (everything from home mortgages to fossil fuel reserves) of the wealth funds and private and multilateral development banks involved in the alliance, and not capital flows actually committed to combating climate change, which, in conformity with neoliberal principles, remained unspecified and conditional. GFANZ declared that its role was to restructure the entire international financial architecture to make it more open to private investment. The clear intention is to buy up the world’s “natural assets,” based on preliminary rules for an international carbon trading mechanism introduced in COP26, coupled with the recent listing of “natural asset companies” (owning rights to environmental services) on the New York Stock Exchange—all under the cover of promoting a “net zero economy.” The growing need for external funds on the part of countries threatened by climate change is considered a new lever of imperial finance. Not surprisingly, global finance institutions, many of which are part of GFANZ and thus supposedly dedicated to a net zero economy, including JPMorgan, HSBC, and Bank of America, have extended $119 billion in funding to agribusiness corporations engaged in deforestation (a major contributor to climate change) in the five years since the Paris Agreement came into force (Whitney Webb, “UN-Backed Banker Alliance Announces “Green” Plan to Transform Global Financial System,” Mint Press, November 8, 2021; Camilla Hodgson and Stephen Morris, “Global Finance Industry Sinks $119bn into Companies Linked to Deforestation,” Financial Times, October 20, 2021; Ellen Kennedy, “Natural Asset Companies (NACs): A New Type of ESG Investment,” Kiplinger, September 16, 2021).
One ghostly issue avoided at Glasgow was the question of military carbon emissions. Almost a quarter-century ago, the United States requested an exemption from reporting military emissions as part of the Kyoto process, and all other countries naturally jumped on board. The U.S. military emits more carbon than 140 of the world’s individual countries, with the Pentagon as the single largest institutional consumer of crude oil on the planet. Together, the United States and the United Kingdom have around nine hundred military bases in foreign countries, the carbon footprints of which are invisible in the international accounting. The increased military spending associated with the New Cold War will only accelerate capitalism’s rapid exhaustion of the world’s carbon budget (Jonathan Cook, “COP26: Military Pollution Is the Skeleton in the West’s Climate Closet,” Middle East Eye, November 8, 2021).
What all of this tells us is that capitalism is a juggernaut rolling over the inhabitants of the globe in its race toward an exterminist future. Only a Great Revolt against the system of capital accumulation will save humanity. There is no doubt that such a revolt is already beginning to emerge in locations throughout the planet and will bring unprecedented waves of people onto the historical stage, creating a whole new historical moment. The future is still to be determined.
In the December 2021 Review of the Month blurb, the title of the Irish Marxist Review article from which the interview was adapted was given as “The Planetary Energy.” It should read “The Planetary Emergency.”