Heatwaves, drought, wildfires: natural disasters worsened by the destructive logic of capitalism

Lutte Ouvrière workplace newsletter
August 15, 2022

Recurring heatwaves, massive wildfires, sunburnt fields and meadows scorched by the drought, dried-up rivers and whole villages and towns with no water at all... It’s one natural disaster after the other. The Loire, one of France’s main rivers, can even be crossed on foot. These natural phenomena have of always existed but they are getting worse and becoming more frequent, spurred on by the laws of capitalism.

Governments are incapable of putting an end to global warming. Officials keep telling us to do “small things on a daily basis” to help preserve the environment like cycling rather than driving to pick up a loaf of bread or turning wifi off at night, etc. But these small actions don’t make much of a difference when major companies like Total and ArcelorMittal are allowed to emit incredible amounts of greenhouse gases to increase their shareholders’ wealth. Sixty-three French billionaires emit as much CO2 as the poorest 50% of the French population. In just one month, Bernard Arnault’s1 private jet – which he sometimes uses to go between East and West London – emits as much CO2 as the average French person does in 15 to 20 years and apparently his yacht is said to emit even more! The sacrosanct freedom to do business and to pollute is clearly incompatible with the urgency of combatting climate change.

The massive forest fires are of course a result of the drought and intense heat but the lack of means to prevent and fight them makes them even worse. 90% of the forests in the Landes region2 belong to private landowners, some of whom are quite powerful. These private landowners are often opposed to having firebreaks installed because they would encroach on their plots, even though they are highly recommended. Brush clearing is often poorly done and firefighters complain that many areas are difficult to access. When it comes to public forests, the government is planning to cut another 500 jobs at the National Forest Office, the agency that manages them.

Professional firefighters who are being praised for their work, and rightfully so, have been fighting both against job reductions and for more funding for years. When they went on strike in 2019, the government sent out the riot police rather than compliments and their demands to hire more recruits and increase wages were never met. And voluntary firefighters only make 8 euros an hour. France has over 1,000 military aircraft but only 21 water bombers to fight forest fires. Not all of them are in working order and those that are can only be used 8 hours a day because there aren’t enough pilots to fly them. So France has needed 6 planes from Greece, Italy and Sweden and the help of German, Romanian and Polish firefighters... Just like hospital and education workers, firefighters suffer as services that are useful to the population deteriorate.

There have of course always been droughts but rich countries have the technology and scientific knowledge to limit the consequences. And yet, animals graze in burnt pastures, crops wither and the inhabitants of a hundred or so villages and towns no longer have any water. It’s forbidden to wash cars, water plants in public parks and sports fields but an exception has been made for golf courses. The average golf course uses about as much water as a town of 7,000 people. But the worst waste, which represents 20% of all water distributed – comes from all the leaks in the water systems which are owned and operated by Veolia, Suez and SAUR, multinational corporations which have pocketed colossal amounts of money without doing the necessary work on the pipes.

In reality, the consequences of climate change are always paid for by the working class, especially by the poorest, while the rich and major corporations remain unaffected. The prices of electricity, fuel, gas, cooking oil and pasta have all gone up and more price hikes are to come, for example on milk. In 1976, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing imposed a drought tax. This time round we may be in for higher bills to pay.

So, if the workers don’t want to pay the price of climate change, if we want to be able to control our economy, we must manage and organize it so that Canadairs come before private jets and warplanes, people’s safety comes before individual profits; so that the protection of the environment comes before shareholders’ dividends and the future of our planet comes before the future of stock exchange prices.

Nathalie Arthaud

1 Bernard Arnault is the founder, chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company. He is one of the richest men in France and even in the world.

2 The Landes (Les Landes) region in the South West of France is mainly pine forest.