Burning injustice: why the California wildfires are a class crisis
The rich paid for protection while the poor burned – is the world facing a similar fate?
Fifty four degrees centigrade is the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth. Registered in California’s Death Valley only two months ago, it signalled what was to come. The next day fires erupted in the north of the state that eventually snowballed into the largest single fire in its history. Among the shocking scenes of red skies and destroyed homes, we might forget that it was only as little as two years ago that the last fire season records in California were broken. The smoke from those flames clouded the skies as far away as New York City. Yet, the vision it presented of our future could not have been clearer.
Whether it is the flames of the wet Amazon or the fires of the frozen Arctic, wildfires have become the canary in the gold mine. The urgency of a fire is a far cry from the dry scientific language of global warming. They represent everything that is terrifying about climate change. Fire rips through the natural and physical world, leaving behind a blackened and uninhabitable landscape, like watching the next century play out on fast forward. All that is left is a wasteland, showing us, in the words of T.S. Elliot’s poem, “fear in a handful of dust”.
Of the 295,000 people that were evacuated in the 2018 California inferno, two names in particular hit the news. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were forced to abandon their $60 million mansion in the serene gated community just outside of Los Angeles, known as the Hidden Hills. The Hills are home to several Hollywood stars and celebrities, including Kylie Jenner (the world’s youngest billionaire), Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.
When the fire finally started to die down, the couple found themselves having to put out the flames of their own publicity crisis. Reports started to enfold that the couple had hired a private fire team to protect their mansion, a decision they were publicly burned for as critics raged that they should not be able to pay for protection. In an attempt to stem the crisis, Kim Kardashian appeared on ‘The Ellen Show’ to present a $100,000 donation to a firefighter and his wife who had lost their homes in the fire, in a declaration of their devotion to the public Californian firefighting service.
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Whether Kim and Kanye were wrong for going private is not really the issue here. But it does raise the question – why couldn’t they rely on the public fire service to protect their home? In answering this question, we will see that the climate crisis is a class crisis. As the world warms and becomes ever increasingly hostile to human life, class divides will be sharpened. This is not inevitable. But there are many features of the 2018 Californian wildfires that show the path we are on, an allegory for a century which will be defined by its relationship to the elements.
Fire services run by insurers
During the fires, the Californian fire service was stretched well beyond capacity, having to call in backup from seventeen other states. This was in part due to the gutting of the public service in the era of privatisation. Starting in the 1980s, the US began to promote more and more private actors in the fire industry, under the neoliberal idea that going private would improve efficiency. By 2018, the National Wildfire Suppression Association – the main lobby group representing over 250 private fire-fighting companies – claimed that 40% of the country’s fire service has been privatised.
If there was one company that would be responsible for pioneering the private fire service it would be the American Insurance Group (AIG) – the world’s largest insurance company. In 2005, the AIG kickstarted the business model of getting rich people to pay a massive premium in exchange for a bespoke team. According to the group’s press release, the ‘Wildfire Defence Service’ serves thousands of homes across California and has been taken up by nearly half of the Forbes 400 richest Americans. That AIG was behind these developments is telling. Alongside its bespoke service, the company was also developing a financial product that would help to ultimately set the global economy on fire.
Insurance companies may sound like boring places of little importance, but they played a major part in bringing about the 2008 financial crisis. In the lead up to the crisis, AIG was making billions from reckless financial speculation. When things turned sour, AIG had to turn to the US government for a bailout, with taxpayers forking out $182.3 billion of public money to save the insurance giant. Many of the dodgy deals that led to AIG’s problems trace back to a division in their London office, run by a man called Joseph Cassano, or as the papers call him, “the man who crashed the world”. Despite losing billions, he left AIG without being held to account for his actions and with a massive financial payout: $280 million in cash and an additional $34 million in bonuses.
Nearly 40% of Californian firefighters are inmates. They are paid $1 an hour and if they die on the job their families are given no compensation.
The story of the Californian wildfires is not just the usual story of privilege paying for protection. To fill the void left by 40 years of privatisation, the government had to rely on its bulging prison population to put out the flames. To this day prisoners make up a vast chunk of the Californian fire service and these prisoners are not just a token part of the force – nearly 40% of Californian firefighters are inmates. That is over 4,000 people. For their services, they are paid a token $1 an hour; receive no benefits; and if they die on the job, their families are given no compensation. Employing prisoners for barely a wage saves the US government $100 million a year.
California is infamous for its dramatically oversized and inflated prison population, having grown by 750% since the mid-1970s. According to academic Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the cause of this growth has nothing to do with rising crime rates, which actually fell during this period. The prison population increased because the government built new prisons, in an incarceration construction frenzy that developers proudly called “the biggest in the history of the world”.
The new prisons, paid for largely out of public debt which was never intended to be repaid, provided a new meaning for a state bureaucracy that was under the threat of privatisation. We can see the legacy of this today: California spends six times the amount to put a person behind bars than it does to put them through school. There are now more women in prison in California alone than there were in the United States as a whole in 1970.
From flooding to rising sea levels, fires are not the only ecological threat facing us and science tells us that the damaging effects of climate change will intensify over the coming years. How we respond to these crises will depend on the economic and political institutions that now govern us. What we are witnessing in California is a particularly dystopian vision of the relationship between climate change and class. There, a millionaire class is protected for a steep fee by a multinational corporation that crashed the global economy but was bailed out regardless by taxpayers – who, in turn, have to rely on crumbling state protection. Meanwhile, growing numbers of the poor are locked up and risk their lives fighting the problem for just $1 an hour.
Who is responsible?
If there was one year that the Global North woke up to the scale of the environmental crisis, it was 1988. Time magazine enshrined the “Endangered Earth” as their person of the year; the UN set up the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and NASA Scientist James Hansen told the US Congress that they were 99% sure that global heating was being caused by humans.
Yet, more than three decades on, despite thousands of scientific studies, countless programs, protests, conferences, and annual meetings with leaders from across the globe, the achievements look bleak. As the writer David Wallace Wells argues, we have emitted more carbon since 1988 than in all the centuries and millennia before it. As he writes, “we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance”.
Almost three quarters of global emissions have been caused by just 100 companies.
Who is responsible for these emissions? The West? Adults? The US? China? The capitalist class? In 2017, a widely cited report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) called the Carbon Majors Report was published, found that between 1988 and 2015, 71% of global emissions have been caused by just 100 fossil fuel companies.
The concentration of power in such a tiny group of organisations shows the clear class divide when it comes to who is actively creating this crisis. The future of the world rests in the hands of the tiny number of elite, privileged, predominantly male managers who run these organisations. What is worrying is that we can safely assume those who make it to the top of a major fossil fuel company care a lot about the survival of their company and much less about the survival of the ecological system. The solution to tackling ecological breakdown is therefore as much about tackling this concentration of power as about technological fixes.
You might be thinking – but surely these companies produce the things we all need to live and survive? It is not really fair to say that responsibility lies with those who produce the energy, when it is us – the consumers – who are really driving demand. Shifting responsibility onto consumers is a policy and ethic that we understand well when it comes to climate change. In response to ecological destruction, we have focused a lot on changing the small things: banning plastic bags and straws, recycling, eating less meat, flying less. While individual action is important, it is pointless without a wider political program of transformative change.
Some have argued that placing responsibility for the crisis on corporations lets consumers off the hook, but there are several issues with this claim. Firstly, we do not all consume equally. The highest earning 10% of the global population are responsible for half of consumption emissions. If this 10% reduced their consumption to the level of just the average European, global emissions would drop by 30%. When it comes to responsibility – some consumers are more accountable than others.
If 1988 was the year that the world woke up to the climate crisis, then 2019 was when the coffee kicked in. On 20 September that year, millions of people in hundreds of countries across the world walked out of schools and workplaces in the largest mass protest against climate change in history. This global climate strike was the latest in the international youth movement calling for urgent and lasting action to radically decarbonise the economy. In London, where over 300,000 people marched through the streets, one of the groups that addressed the crowd that day was a collective of indigenous, black, brown and diaspora activists from countries in the Global South called Wretched of the Earth. They started their rallying cry with the following words:
You’ve all heard that “our house is on fire”. But for many of us, our house has been on fire for over 500 years. And it did not set itself on fire. We did not get here by a sequence of small missteps and mistakes. We were thrust here by powerful forces that drove the unequal distribution of resources and the rigged structure of our societies. The economic system that dominates us was brought about by colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit.
The global ecological crisis did not come from nowhere – it is the result of a long history of colonial expansion and capitalist exploitation. The inequalities that started 500 years ago live on today. The rich, industrialised countries in the Global North are, according to one estimate, responsible for emitting around 70% of historical global emissions – but will be last to suffer.
It is poor countries that historically have contributed very little to the crisis – sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, India and others in the Global South – that will be most affected. In part this is due to a cruel twist of fate, that the poorest countries are situated in the hottest and most exposed parts of the world. But their exposure is not just the result of a natural coincidence. The legacy of colonialism and the inequalities it produced have left the rich countries with more technology, resources and wealth to adapt to the changing world. They can, just like Kanye West and Kim Khardashian, pay for protection (albeit only up to a point).
The words of the Wretched of the Earth reminds us that these inequalities cannot be understood as a natural disaster. They are man-made and relate to the deep racial and class-based inequalities that are legacies of colonisation. The fact that it is predominantly the most marginalised, poorest, people of colour who have been most affected by this crisis goes a long way to answering why so little action has been taken. In the words of Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, “the suffering of the many pays for the luxury of the few”.
The sinking ship
When it comes to a problem as big and overwhelming as climate change, breaking the problem down into digestible chunks can be helpful. All of the top chief executives and board members of the 100 companies would all be able to fit into a boat the size of the Titanic – a tiny group of people, with the power to transform the history of humanity. It’s a point that has been emphasised by climate activists by a slogan commonly seen at demonstrations: “The world isn’t dying. It is being killed. And the people killing it have names and addresses”.
In the blockbuster film, as the Titanic went down and the water started to rise, the third-class passengers were kept locked down in the hull while the first and second-class passengers took first dibs in the lifeboat. As ecological breakdown becomes impossible to ignore, we see an increasing dilemma played out in our politics as to how to tackle the issue. There is a fear that we are heading down the Californian way – the entrenching of class inequality along every line as the rich scramble to protect their worth. If we are to avoid this, we must understand that the climate crisis arises from the same system that produces our class system. In order to break out of the lower cabins and stop the ship from sinking, the concentrated power of the rich needs to be tackled.
As C.S. Lewis, the author of ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, once said, “Man’s power over Nature, turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” From climate change to class inequality, the destruction of the world is tied up with our destruction of each other.
This article is an edited extract from 'Split: Class Divides Uncovered' published on Pluto Books.
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