Six Feet of the Climate

December 21, 2011

Africa has been the foundation of the capitalist world system. The stone that the builders refused, it has been consistently excluded from the wealth built with its resources, but not in its image. But this tragedy of biblical proportions is not over. The imperial countries have returned to Africa once more, armed with the same power plundered from its lands and peoples. This time they come not only to dig up but to bury.

The economic and political logic behind burying Africa was famously articulated by one of the chief architects of global economic and ecological apartheid, Larry Summers. In a famous leaked memo, Summers opined: “I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low.” According to his “impeccable logic,” colonialism (and its inheritors, neo and post) has not gone far enough in looting the continent – it has other uses, after all. The next step, the logic rules, is to bury it.

Africa is being buried now not only by a subordinate position in the global economics of unequal exchange, but by carbon. The Third World as a whole provides an annual subsidy of $75 billion to the First World, purely in the function of a trash can for pollution, or what economists call a “carbon sink”. (Bond p160) As the rich burn the oil extracted from beneath the feet of the poor, through legal and financial chicanery, they dump this pollution back onto the people who never tasted its consumption. But the mountains of toxic trash dumped on Third World shores is only the beginning. Africans are being buried not only with the waste from products they never consumed, but with the climate they are forced to live to breathe.

Six Feet“Fact is a very inferior form of fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote, not only in its ability to inspire, but in its capacity to make the truth sink in. In her short story, “Six Feet of the Country”, Nadine Gordimer illustrated a portrait of rural life under apartheid in South Africa: Told from the perspective of a white couple in the countryside, the white narrator reflects that “our relationships with the blacks is almost feudal. Wrong, I suppose, obsolete, but more comfortable all around.” This was the prevailing attitude at COP17, an attitude that will bury Africa in carbon and scorched earth, but one that remains in the hegemonic consensus more comfortable than any alternative. Today we can retell and reread Gordimer’s story as an allegory to illustrate what happened in Durban, and what this portends for the African continent and its people.

In Gordimer’s story, a conservative husband and a liberal wife retire from the city to a country farm. In their tenuous marriage, Gordimer’s narrator tells, “so much rattles around.” At times the conservative husband is astounded at the resemblance that his liberal wife takes to the blacks who work for them. At “moments they looked exactly alike, though it sounds impossible,” he writes. One of these blacks is Petrus, the man who looks after the chickens. He works for the whites, but his sympathies are divided. Tensions appear when Petrus’ brother, an illegal immigrant from Rhodesia, dies of pneumonia on the farm. When the owners find out, they notify the authorities and have the body taken to a hospital for an autopsy. Meanwhile, Petrus mobilizes his community to pay the expenses for a funeral. This is difficult, not only because it is beyond their meager wages, but because the couple didn’t imagine that their servants would even desire a funeral. “It was difficult to make a pauper’s grave sound like a privilege,” the husband narrates, but goes through the motions anyway. But he doesn’t take it seriously — while the funeral procession goes by, he is practicing approach shots with his 8 iron, and pauses awkwardly for it to pass.

Petrus’ father travels from afar to attend the funeral. While carrying the coffin in the procession, the father becomes incensed and drops the coffin, insisting that it couldn’t be his son inside, because his son didn’t weigh that much. They open the coffin and find out that it isn’t the son after all, but a different corpse. The father lets loose a tirade, which to the conservative narrator is “like a wave of heat along the air, or one of those sudden cold currents catching at your legs in a placid stream.” The father’s fiery oratory “shocked the assembly; they thought he was mad, but they had to listen to him.” The couple is subsequently forced to try to find the real body, but they are unable to. It has been either buried anonymously or donated to a medical school for experiments; there is no way to find out. Once this reality has sunk in, Petrus asks for the money back. But the money was spent on the funeral, not the corpse, so the husband does not deem it fit to pay them back. Instead the liberal wife offers some recompense, and the story concludes: “The old man from Rhodesia was about Lerice’s father’s size, so she gave him one of her father’s old suits, and he went back home rather better off, for the winter, than he had come.”

Gordimer’s story can be reread and retold here in Durban as “Six Feet of the Climate,” to tell the story of not just COP17, but the whole UNFCCC. The marriage of husband and wife is illustrative of the UNFCCC, who went to the country of South Africa as if on holiday. Liberals and conservatives are united in their defense of capitalism, but opposed in how to go about it, and much “rattles around” Inside the convention center. To the conservatives, the liberals at times appear to resemble the feudal subjects in whose name they at times advocate. These liberals even go outside the convention center sometimes to commune with the masses. But of course the alliance, as the narrator knows, is ultimately impossible.

African civil society is represented by the character of Petrus. His ultimate sympathies lie with his people but in the meantime his livelihood is with the whites, and he remains deferential and courteous throughout the proceedings. The death of Petrus’ brother is global climate change, and its consequences for Africa. It takes conservatives and liberals by surprise, but they are forced to acknowledge the death and take a role in the proceedings, though it is “difficult to make a pauper’s funeral sound like a privilege.” Nonetheless the UNFCCC does its utmost, with the best PR the world can muster. A funeral – the Conference of Parties — is arranged to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of deaths every year due to climate change, and to plot a course of action

Petrus’ father arrives, representing the African governments, and carries the coffin, while the First World, not taking it too seriously, looks on awkwardly while practicing golf. But as the funeral, the UNFCCC, proceeds, one of the African representatives drops the coffin, realizing that it does not contain what was hoped. Inside is not climate justice, but climate apartheid. In this case the father can be thought of as Lumumba Di-Aping, the man who dared to speak the truth Copenhagen. His speech was like “a wave of heat along the air,” or a chilling touch of “sudden cold currents” in an otherwise “placid stream.” The other delegates “thought he was mad, but had to listen to him,” as he called the Copenhagen accord a “suicide pact,” and “certain death for Africa.”

After this revelation, Petrus; African civil society, subsequently asks for reparations. They want money for the ruin that awaits them due to climate change. Realizing that climate justice; the recovery of the dead, is impossible, they at least want something out of the COP system. Africa and the global South make a final ditch effort to get the First World to pay for the damage it has caused. But the First World refuses to pay real reparations. Instead, the liberals come up with the Green Climate Fund, which is totally inadequate given the catastrophe at hand. But in the mind of the feudal lords of the globe, this is an altruistic act for which African governments should be grateful. In liberal and conservative eyes, the Third World leaves the meetings “rather better off” than before.

Gordimer’s story illustrates perfectly what culminated in Durban. Despite every technical possibility of preventing catastrophic climate change, and all the resources necessary to begin a transition to an economy based on renewable energy, the First World has collectively declined, and only offered a tentative promise of insubstantial crumbs in an indeterminate future. The message for the people of Africa is also in Gordimer’s story: “white men have everything, can do anything; if they don’t it is because they won’t.”

The moral of the story is that Africa has been buried six feet under the climate, and that the UNFCCC, liberal and conservative, is worse than useless — it can but it won’t. But the Third World has surprised its colonizers before. While the funeral is over, the coffin has been opened and the truth has been revealed. There is still a genuine possibility of challenging the feudal consensus of the ruling system. “Where danger threatens,” Friedrich Holderin promised, “that which saves us from it also grows.” Stay tuned!

Looting Africa, The economics of exploitation, by Patrick Bond, University of KwaZulu Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, and Zed Books, London and New York, 2006

COP 17 South AfricaThis post is part of a series. A delegation from Ecosocialist Horizons is in Durban, South Africa, bringing you reports from the United Nations conference on climate change, known as COP 17.