Pathfinders – Russian roulette

Socialism would, in a certain sense, be quite boring. Gone would be the constant drama of economic crises, production gluts or shortfalls, and inflating and exploding speculator bubbles (to say nothing of wars, muggings, organised crime, and other sources of popular excitement). Instead it would a comparatively sedate affair, with the practical business of living being mostly a matter of known and predictable factors, managed in a steady and sustainable way. The requirements of society, measured through consumption figures, would be known. Production levels would also be known. The two would never become misaligned by much, and fairly easily recoupled.

But where’s the fun in knowing what we’re doing, when we can use wild stab-in-the-dark guesswork instead? Capitalism moves in mysterious ways, its balls-ups to perform. Instead of a transparent, steady-state production system that reliably delivers what’s required, it’s a secretive casino where almost anything can happen at any moment. The one percent play the tables to make a fast buck, with no regard for what damage they’re doing, or what disasters befall the rest of us as a result.

There’s no need to play roulette over global production, when we could understand and control the process simply by closing the casino and using democratic common ownership instead. What’s worse is that capitalism is gambling with large-scale processes that we don’t understand, namely the world’s climate. This is not just roulette, it’s Russian roulette, with the muzzle pointed at the planet.

The reason scientists don’t understand climate science is that it’s hard, and the reason it’s hard is two-fold. Firstly, it is not part of the mechanistic world of Newtonian dynamics, where everything is theoretically predictable if you know the initial states, trajectories and velocities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the climate as a ‘coupled non-linear chaotic system’, meaning that long-term predictions will never be possible, and probabilities are as good as it gets.

Secondly, there is a critical shortage of data from which to derive models. Accurate measurements don’t exist before recent times, making extrapolations from past historical periods nearly impossible, and consistent and coherent data still don’t exist in many parts of the world, particularly at the poles. Moreover, the IPCC has noted that ‘a serious concern is the decline of observational networks’ (

These difficulties, combined with strong political inertia as well as heavy industry lobbying, have tended to make IPPC forecasts err towards the conservative, in turn attracting criticism from climate scientists themselves, who argue that the IPCC is playing too safe and not putting a strong enough case.

Anecdotally at least, news stories seem to be making the case for them. July was the hottest month ever recorded, though the record was only set in 2019. In August, Morocco broke the heat record with temperatures of 50 degrees. Wild fires also raged in Hawaii last month, killing hundreds, and the military were drafted in to fight fires in Canada. Meanwhile Australia could be facing another ‘Black Summer’ with this year’s bushfire season, which last year emitted the equivalent of 80 percent of the coal-exporting country’s typical annual greenhouse emissions (

Nevertheless, uncertainty remains at the core of the climate problem, as two recent examples illustrate. A new study has warned that the system of heat and density-driven ocean currents known as the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is in danger of collapse by the 2050s and possibly even as early as 2025. Not to be confused with the Gulf Stream, which can’t shut down as it is driven by winds and the Earth’s rotation, AMOC is highly vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature as a result of global warming. It is known to be at its slowest in 1,600 years, and its collapse could mean temperature drops of 5-10 degrees in Europe, with Britain’s climate becoming like that of northern Canada. Meanwhile equatorial regions, unable to dissipate their acquired heat northwards, would become virtually uninhabitable ovens for around 3 billion people. Where previous populations would have coped by migrating, property and nation-obsessed capitalism will of course do its best to fence them in and make migration impossible.

The researchers did not expect their report to be received favourably, even by the IPCC: ‘Obviously, I would have preferred the outcome of our study was less controversial because we are of course being attacked from all sides now. But that’s how science works’ (

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Americas, a huge area of the eastern equatorial Pacific that according to climate models should be warming, has in fact been cooling for 30 years, and nobody knows why, or what it will do next. If this ‘cold tongue’ carries on cooling, it could conceivably reduce global warming by up to 30 percent, which would be a big win. But it could also increase the risk of droughts in the Horn of Africa and the southwest US, already suffering from a twenty-year megadrought. If, conversely, the cold tongue flips and starts to warm, it will desiccate the Amazon, Australia, Indonesia and India, while places like Peru and Ecuador could be inundated by floods and landslides.

Nobody knows which scenario to plan for, even supposing governments can make plans that won’t be foiled by the capitalist market. Scientists call the cold tongue ‘the most important unanswered question in climate science’. But from a socialist perspective, there’s an even bigger unanswered question, which is why we are letting the wealthy capitalist class and their pet governments gamble recklessly with forces nobody understands, with potentially devastating consequences for life on Earth.

There are people who believe that no real revolutionary change can happen unless there is first a global catastrophe and a general collapse of civilisation. Indeed, some even wish it. We think that’s a prescription for barbarism, not socialism. But workers of the world need to get together to put a stop to this capitalist game of hazard, and soon, otherwise the doom-lovers may get their wish.


Next article: Letter – Labour-time ‘money’? ➤

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