Connecting the dots: Covid, climate and capitalism.
Jacklyn Cock | Amandla 75 | March 2021
The climate crisis and the Covid–19 pandemic are connected through the violation of ecological limits.The worst affected, the “shock absorbers” of both crises, are the African working class women who live close to polluting coal plants, and who also lack access to the means of protecting themselves and their families from Covid – clean water, protective masks, sanitisers, nutritious food and relevant information about the pandemic and the climate crisis. This calls for an eco-feminist response which involves challenging all forms of inequality and exclusion, redefining our relationship to nature and questioning neoliberal capitalism.
Both the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are forms of what has been termed “slow violence” – violence which is relatively invisible, often unrecognised and in this case involves different forms of pollution. In the case of the pandemic, pollution of bodies; with climate change, pollution of water and air through carbon emissions. Both are lethal processes:
- The US Bureau for Economic Research has suggested that “the growing but largely unrecognised death toll from rising global temperatures will come close to eclipsing the current number of deaths from all the infectious diseases combined if planet-heating emissions are not constrained.
- It is estimated that Eskom’s air pollution is responsible for 2,400 premature deaths per year and over time excess carbon emissions will result in 23,000 premature deaths.
- At the time of writing, with over 50,000 registered deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa is leading the continent with its rate of infections.
The destruction of eco-systems
Both the pandemic and carbon emissions are violating ecological limits: in the case of climate change through the pollution of air and water and the degradation of soils; with the Covid-19 pandemic through the destruction of wildlife habitat and large-scale industrial animal husbandry. This “factory farming” involves operations that house thousands of animals (such as chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows), under appalling conditions, designed to maximise production while minimising costs.
Various creatures from pangolins to bats have been blamed for the Covid pandemic but the destruction of their habitats is the real issue. So it is suggested that deforestation in the Amazon may unleash pandemics: According to one expert source, “the current surge in deforestation and fires in the Amazon can lead to new meetings between species on the move – each a chance for an existing pathogen to transform or jump species”.
Such deforestation is an example of the ecological destruction which is a characteristic of neoliberal capitalism.
Capital’s response to the climate crisis is that the system can continue to expand by creating a new “green” or sustainable capitalism based on technological innovation. Underlying this is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations subordinated to the logic of the market and the imperatives of profit. The extreme version provides capital with incentives to change by arguing that the crisis could be a source of accumulation. This formulation includes the financialisation of nature, in the form of costing “ecosystem services”, biodiversity and carbon offsets, reducing nature to “natural” capital.
This approach also reduces people to “human capital” and relates to another characteristic of neoliberal capitalism – increasing inequality and exclusion.
African working class women the shock absorbers of multiple crises
African working class women carry the burden of multiple crises and specifically the burden of the interlinked crises of the climate and the pandemic. They do this through their role in social reproduction – the unpaid care-work of the daily tasks performed in their households and communities. Furthermore, these women constitute the majority of community health workers who expose themselves to contamination, and of nurses who work with Covid-19 patients in poor conditions, often without the necessary protective equipment themselves.
African working-class women living near coal plants are the most vulnerable to the shocks of the climate crisis in the form of increasing extreme weather events and air pollution. These mean they have to work harder to perform their tasks –walk further to obtain clean water; grow food on degraded land; make meagre amounts of money stretch further to buy necessities; deal with increased domestic-based violence and care for those ill from exposure to toxic pollution or the virus.
The state response to the pandemic disregarded the situation of the millions of poor, black South Africans, especially those in informal settlements and rural areas. Their lack of housing, access to clean water, proper sanitation and electricity made it impossible for them to protect themselves. This disregard was exacerbated for the many people living close to the operative coal-fired power stations and open-pit working or abandoned mines. They were already experiencing the direct loss of their health due to air pollution, forced removals, social dislocation and dispossession, loss of their land-based livelihoods, such as cattle, goats and chickens, threats to food security, limited access to clean water, violation of their ancestral graves and inadequate consultation on the awarding of mining licences. In the communities around Eskom’s Mpumalanga coal fired power stations, many women have reported hunger in their households as spaza shops were closed during the first stage of lockdown. Price hiking, even of staple foods, was common in supermarkets. Many did not receive food parcels or the R350 relief grant. Gender–based violence increased.
However, these women are not passive victims. They form the majority of environmental justice activists in their communities. The lived experiences and activities of many African working class women in mining-affected areas suggests that an embryonic eco-feminism is emerging.
The eco-feminist response
Radical feminism challenges all forms of inequality and oppression and is often anti-capitalist. Buteco-feminism adds a focus on our relation to nature. It is a contested approach, sometimes dismissed as essentialist or promoted as representing a “third wave feminism”. Greta Gaard claims that “Ecofeminism has become a theory and movement largely articulated by the activities themselves”.
In South Africa these activities take place in a context of multiple crises of accelerating climate change, especially drought, and the Covid pandemic. These women are challenging social and environmental injustice, though much of that challenge is not framed as eco-feminism. But their struggle to survive in mining-affected communities is an expression of an eco-feminism as a set of practices rather than as an identity.
Not only does this work involve protecting nature from the pollution and destruction driven by the expansionist logic of the capitalist system. It is also promoting a new narrative about our relationship with nature; a re-valuing of nature which respects ecological limits, as something more than a store of natural resources for economic activity to be utilised for short–term gain for the few, without concern for the long-term survival of the many. Naomi Klein has decried the “expansionist extractive mindset which has so long governed our relationship to nature…we need a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature, but in respect for natural cycles of renewal and acutely sensitive to natural limits”. This already exists in the “traditional” African understanding of nature as not separate from the world of people
What this article is claiming is that African working-class women in mining-affected areas are doing important eco-feminist work in their actions in relation to the climate crisis and the pandemic in at least four respects:
- An ethic of reciprocity, sharing and mutual support with other women is evident in their daily lives. This is an ethic which is central to all forms of feminism.
- The spirit of solidarity which informs this work involves collective rather than individualised practices.
- There is a connection with nature which involves a respect for ecological limits.
- There is an ethic of care and of tending to the sick, particularly in relation to Covid-19 and pollution victims.
Two organisations – Women in Mining (WoMin) and the Rural Womens Assembly (RWA) – are promoting eco-feminism and operate feminist schools in mining-affected areas. They both define the notion of a just transition from carbon capitalism in eco-feminist terms. This is significant as the notion is being stripped of its original transformative content and reduced to meaning simply a shift to a privatised renewable energy regime.
From fear to anger
Without such frameworks as eco-feminism we are all in danger, not only of infection by the Covid-19 virus or experiencing health problems from coal polluted air, but of losing our humanity. Apart from a few initiatives, the solidarity we developed fighting apartheid is eroding and social ties are weakening as we retreat into private worlds. We are distancing from other people as possible sources of contamination rather coming closer as comrades in struggle. Our lives are filled with fear, but anger would be a more appropriate response to what is happening to us – anger at the system which has created the pandemic, the climate crisis, increasing inequality and environmental degradation.
Fear paralyses us, but as Biko and Fanon understood, anger can stir us to action.
Jacklyn Cock is an activist academic at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) Wits University.