Editor’s Note: For a long time, natural landscapes have been destroyed in the name of development. “Development” – a vague concept in itself – is the primary driver of destruction and ecocide across the world. Same thing is happening in the beautiful Gozo island of Malta. But it’s not happening without resistance. Some local groups are fighting for their land. This piece is written by a member of resistance against the development. In addition to the brief overview of the “developmental” project, this piece is also a fundraising appeal from the group.
By Corrine Zahra
Malta is an archipelago country made up of five islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. This country is rich in culture and history, with a native language and multiple dialects. Being such a small country with an area of about 316 km², overdevelopment is on the rise.
Residents from a small town called Nadur in Gozo are fighting against a development called PA/00085/21. Located in a one-way countryside road called Qortin Street, this major development was a big deal in the Maltese news since it consisted of 40 apartments and 11 penthouses – over four floors, as well as 61 parking spaces.
Gozo is a beautiful island that forms part of the Maltese Islands which is under threat. Unsustainable overdevelopment is taking place! The residents had created a video two years ago which helped them to collect objections from the public.
This proposal got approved a few months ago anyways, in which the residents as well as the NGOs Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar (Together for Better Environment) and Moviment Graffitti are now trying to take the Maltese Planning Authority to court to reverse this decision.
This development will eat away at precious farmland, causing sewage to run into farmers’ crops and the water table as well as causing massive parking issues, along with posing safety issues.
This development will completely change the landscape of the area. The street consists of small houses with a maximum of three stories each. Next door to the development, there currently exists a block of apartments yet only has 15 apartments in total – very few compared to the amount proposed by the applicant. Once the virgin land is destroyed, the view of Nadur and Qala will be destroyed too.
In the early mornings, while walking in my street, I can smell the freshness and feel the water droplets in the air. This countryside street full of vegetation and raw soil will be destroyed to build apartments which do not belong there. The number is out of proportion to the rest of the developments in the street. Qortin Street is a quiet street with few residents, yet with this new building, there will be a parking problem and a cultural shift as the buyers will not be people from Gozo but mainland Maltesers.
If this development does get built, I do plan to move away from Gozo. I do not want to see the development – I do not want my image of Qortin Street to change. It’s a shame that this development will change Gozitan culture – this is happening all over Gozo. I will gain nothing out of fighting for this land; I do not own any of the land which is going to be destroyed and I will not get any money out of this too. I simply want my street to remain calm and quiet and relaxing – I want to preserve the land and the peace of mind that it gives me.
The residents and NGOs had managed to get 1300+ objections, yet in spite of this, PA/00085/21 was still approved. However, they are still fighting and now they need YOUR help!
The residents created another video to help get local donations yet are now trying to reach out to international organizations to help their cause. Kindly find their crowdfunding video here.
They hope that you can help their cause to stop this monstrosity of a development from being built. Help save Malta and Gozo from overdevelopment. No one wants Malta to turn into a concrete jungle – this has already started and they want to prevent that.
It is imperative that citizens enjoy their right to a good quality of life, preserving the countryside and iconic views for future generations.
Please help the residents appeal through the EPRT and if necessary through the Courts of Appeal, by donating here.
All donations will cover the costs of their legal team who have already done incredible work in fighting this case at the Planning Authority, but now they need your help to continue to fight this case in court.
Editor’s note: Albuquerque is in fact too large. It is a city. It is actually the cities that are the cause of all those problems. This article mentions: “This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature.” The writers’ claim to the origin of the idea of wilderness is a false assumption. The point that we are in as a species demands we protect wilderness areas and any indigenous peoples living sustainably that are a part of it.
By Elizabeth Anker
A very typical response to my writing can be summarized as: “But… cities?!?” How are we going to fit cities into this future world? My feeling is that we can’t. Mostly.
I’ve never explicitly said that cities are not optimal, but I think it’s fairly obvious what my biases are. I will be honest, I don’t like urban environments. I don’t like the noise. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the mess. Just everywhere mess! I’m not fond of the pace or the congestion. In 24-hour places like New York City, I can’t sleep. I am generally uncomfortable (translate: nauseous) in structures that I can feel moving, and I can feel the sway in tall buildings. I absolutely hate elevators. In the city, one can’t have goats. Rarely chickens. There’s no horizon. Few healthy old trees. Utterly insufficient gardens. And there are no stars.
Now, I know there are cities that are not this bad. Or I know one, anyway. Albuquerque is a city of about 750,000 people with maybe a half dozen moderately tall buildings downtown. Yet it’s not too horizontally sprawling, being held in check by mountains and volcanoes and Indigenous lands. And a water supply that is strictly tied to the river valley. But within the city, there are many farms and gardens and a wide wetlands, the bosque, along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chickens and goats and alpacas are everywhere (except in the Rio Rancho suburb, which is also the ugliest, sprawling-est part of New Mexico). The skies are brilliant all day, all night, all through the year. You can go wandering at 2am and feel safe. Nothing is open past 10pm, so apart from a sporadic teen in a loud car, it’s quiet. Sleepy even. There is never a rush. It’s called the land of mañana only somewhat jokingly. It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else; it’s the largest small town in the world. And it smells like chile, rain on parched earth, cedar smoke, and sage brush. With the odd dash of manure…
So cities can be accommodating places. It depends on the people, I suppose. Burqueans are Westerners — laconic and lazy and not terribly interested in your issues. But I haven’t been in many cities like that. And maybe Albuquerque doesn’t actually count as a city. There are horse hitches outside buildings. With hitched horses.
But my preferences are hardly average nor all that important. What is important is that cities make no ecological or biophysical sense. And to get out of this mess we need to bring our living back within the realm of good sense.
I could begin by pointing to the ridiculously fragile locations of many of the largest urban centers. No amount of techno-magical thinking is going to keep Boston above water. Or New York. Or Miami. I could fill pages with that list. Then add on those that might be marginally above water but currently rely upon groundwater or coastal rivers for drinking water — which will be contaminated with seawater long before the streets turn into canals. Ought to toss extreme fire danger onto the list also, taking out much of California, Greece, perhaps most of the Australian continent. And then there’s Phoenix which may quite literally run out of water. Of course, many other US Sunbelt cities — including Albuquerque — are going to discover that a desert location can not, by definition, provide water for millions of people. Once fossil groundwater is pumped dry (in about, oh, ten years…) there won’t be water coming out of the taps. Same goes for most of the cities in the two bands around 25-30° latitude away from the equator that get little moisture because planetary air flow is uncooperative (though this may change… in ways that might be good… maybe). Then there’s just pure heat. Adding a degree or so to the global average — which is inevitable at the current level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere even if we were to miraculously stop emissions today — will turn urban areas that are merely hot now into uninhabitable ovens, with atmospheric heat magnified by urban heating. Just for completeness, there are quite a few places that will simply collapse as ground water is depleted or as permafrost melts. Oh, and then there’s Detroit and other urban disaster zones — places so completely degraded by industrial mess-making that soil, water and air in these locations will be toxic to most life-forms for many human generations. So. Yeah. There are problems.
Let’s give it a different framing. There are large areas — most of which contain large cities — in which property is no longer insurable for at least one type of disaster. You can’t buy flood insurance in broad swaths of New Jersey or Florida. You can’t buy fire insurance in Orange County, California. Some actuary — a person whose job is calculating odds and putting a monetary value on risk — has determined that the odds are not in your favor. Full stop. More precisely the probability of an insurance claim paid by the company being greater than all the money you pay that company to buy the insurance is too high for the company to even begin taking your money. (And they really want to take your money!) There will be a disaster that creates a claim, and it will happen before you can pay much into your policy. Best you open a bank account and start dumping all your paychecks in there because that’s what it will cost to live in these uninsurable areas. (Though for now in this country, taxpayers are serving as the bank account for the most costly uninsurable properties.)
The risk of a flood happening in New Jersey is so high and immediate that you (and the insurance industry) can count on having a flooded house. And there are many houses that will be flooded. New Jersey is a densely populated region, especially so where risk of flood is greatest. This is not an anomaly. New Jersey is not unusually silly in siting urban areas. The urban areas in New Jersey grew up near water, rather than in a less flood-prone area further inland, just as urban areas grow near water everywhere else in the world — because water makes for easy transport of large volumes of stuff, lowering the costs of trade. There is and always was risk of flooding in these urban areas. But the floods happened infrequently before ocean warming made energetic storms that could throw large volumes of water up on the coast a regular — and predictable — occurrence. The same sort of calculations can be made for fire, for structural damages and I would imagine for sheer uninhabitability — though I doubt actuaries will have much to say about that. There are no insurance policies for putting property where humans simply can’t survive.
Because we’re supposed to be smarter than that. No, we’re supposed to be above all that, able to engineer our way forward in any unfavorable circumstance. (Witness the “let’s move to Mars” idiocy.) And in much urban development it’s not even about overcoming the likely risks. Risk-prone and degraded properties are developed by corporations who have no intention of owning the property long term. They build structures and sell those “improved properties” to others as quickly as they can. If they even bother to investigate the risks of living in that area, they don’t broadcast that information. They often take steps to conceal any qualities in a property that will lower the sale price. This is such a commonplace it’s a clichéd plot point in movies and novels.
Cities are located in the best places to move goods around and in the easiest, cheapest places to develop property for sale. This last is more a feature of former colonies which made wealth through this process of appropriating, “improving” and selling land. In the hearts of former empires, cities existed before wealth extraction turned to development of land. But a good number of them have caught up with their former colonies. Los Angeles has nothing on London sprawl. This method of making money — acquire, build and sell quickly at the highest profit — will necessarily create concentrated development in places that historically were either farmland or empty land. In the latter case, there were reasons that humans had not built things there. Many of those reasons were ecological. It made no sense to put a structure there, let alone a whole city of them. But empty lands are cheapest to develop, so the reasons were ignored. Wetlands were drained. Forests were cleared. Grasslands were paved over. Wells were drilled deep into desert rock to pull up the remnants of the last glacial meltwaters. Homes and businesses were plopped onto newly laid roads with no concern for long term durability. That was the point of building in this way. If the costs of locating structures in ecologically sustainable places were paid, then there would be no profit. So the last few hundred years has seen cities grow in places where they would always be under threat from natural processes and in fact magnify those threats by ignoring them. By cutting those costs.
But then cities have never been great. They’re good for concentrating and controlling the labor pool. That’s it. A city is now and always has been a warehouse for laborers. It is the cheapest warehouse. People are packed into cities with no accommodation for their actual lives. No space for anything. No way to produce anything except through market mechanisms of centralized production. This is by design. Because the laborers are also the market. If they are meeting their own needs, they aren’t buying stuff. Cities are very good at stripping all agency from a large group of humans, making them completely dependent on the market for every need. You can’t sneeze in a city without it profiting someone who is not you. And you can’t even begin to feed or house or clothe yourself. There are no resources for you to do any of this in a city.
Cities may be marginally better at leveraging concentrated capital into cultural institutions than a more dispersed settlement pattern. Maybe. Not that rich folk won’t fund their favorite arts wherever they live. Witness the magnificent theatre, music, and visual arts thriving in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. But cities absolutely suck at meeting our biophysical needs — from food to companionship to a non-toxic environment. Call me what you will, but when the choice is between a secure food supply and cultural attractions, I’m going with food.
Some people have noted this conflict between urban living and actual living. There are efforts to clean up the toxic messes we’ve created (created, again, by design… toxicity happens because business will not pay the full costs of doing things safely and cleanly). There are urban gardens sprouting in empty lots. There are calls for less car traffic and more travel by bike and foot. There is a return to the idea of neighborhood. People are attempting to meet their physical and emotional needs within the structures of a city. I am not sure any of this is going to work. Because that is not how a city works.
A city works by depriving most of its inhabitants of the means to meet their basic needs, forcing them to work for wages so that they can buy those needs and produce profits. That is what cities are designed for and that is what they do best. There is not even the space in a city to allow its citizens to provide for themselves. Everything must be produced elsewhere and shipped into the city. And shipping is increasingly a problem both because we have to stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and because it is increasingly expensive to acquire fossil fuels. All the plans I’ve seen so far do not address this basic problem.
Here is one example: vertical gardens, growing food in a tower to maximize growing area but minimize the horizontal footprint so that a “farm” will fit within the confines of a city. I don’t think these are well conceived. Half a minute’s thought on what actually goes into growing healthy plants reveals several fatal flaws in the design. Attempts to produce food where there is no soil, where water has to be pumped, and where sunlight has to be synthesized with electricity are costly if not futile. And all these tools and raw materials still have to be sourced and produced elsewhere and then shipped in. It may be that we use more resources in building a vertical farm than if we just grew a real farm. And we won’t be producing very much food in this resource-sucking system. We may be able to grow some leafy vegetables, but those vegetables will be lacking in nutrition relative to food grown in a living ecosystem. There isn’t even space for grains and pulses in a vertical garden unless it’s very vertical. Which seems expensive. Not a project we’re going to be able to maintain in a contracting economy that is generally out of resources.
Even if it were not expensive though, vertical farming is not producing food. Synthesizing a growing environment will always fail because we can’t make living systems, and that’s what is needed to grow food. Human attempts to manufacture biology fail because we don’t fully understand how biology works and maybe can’t know being embedded within biology. Further, I suspect most synthesized foods will not meet human nutrition needs even if all the building blocks we know about are included. There are emergent properties and interdependencies and entanglements that we can’t begin to understand, never mind create. The chemical compounds in a berry do not make a berry. A berry is a particular arrangement of its chemical composition along with a large number of microbes and other non-berry materials all of which make up the nutritional content of the berry when you pop the whole living thing in your mouth. And we don’t know what of all that berry and non-berry stuff is essential to our digestive tract to turn that berry into food for our cells. We can’t make a berry because we don’t know what a berry is. What we do know is that it is always more than the sum of its broken down parts. And that is what synthesizing is, a sum of brokenness.
But these ideas keep manifesting because we think rather highly of ourselves. We believe that we can engineer our way over any problem. We really haven’t done that though. We’ve thrown a huge wealth of the planet’s energy and resources into creating this style of living. Our technologies are useless without that resource flow. Just as importantly, our technologies are useless at containing the waste flowing out of that system. And most importantly, our technologies are designed to work within a profit-driven system. When that breaks down, when there is no profit, there is no technology. We aren’t going to put scarce resources and effort into maintaining the tools; we’ll produce what we need directly at scales that don’t require those costly tool systems.
And that’s the main reason I believe that we will be abandoning cities. They will break down. They are a technology that only works while there are abundant resources, while there is capacity for waste absorption, and while there are profits to be made on all those flows. We aren’t going to put effort into maintaining this tool if it no longer serves us. We won’t have the time or the wherewithal. We will need to produce what we need to live.
Some are bemoaning the idea of humans dispersing into the countryside. And maybe that’s a problem if those dispersed humans are also bringing along their wasteful, resource-sucking lifestyles. But I’m not sure that will be possible. There won’t be resources to waste or suck. Not only that, but most people are not inclined toward messing up their own homes. Degradation of the land happens when those resources are sucked out of the land to be used by people living elsewhere. Humans have lived in dispersed settlement patterns, integrated within our ecosystems, for a very long time, much longer than we’ve been “civilized”. This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature. That humans uniquely have the potential to transcend nature and invent their way toward meeting biophysical needs independent of nature. None of this is in any way real. Putting a lot of humans in a confined space will not magically rewild the rest of the world. We will still be sucking those resources. More resources than if we lived in a place where we didn’t need to maintain an artificial living environment through transport and tools. More resources than if we lived within the carrying capacity of the lands we fully inhabit — as we have for most of our existence.
And make no mistake, the land is going to see that we do that. This is what is happening. We have exceeded carrying capacity at all scales. There are mechanisms in living systems that prevent this. We are experiencing those mechanisms. We are experiencing the consequences of exceeding carrying capacity for the planet. This will be fixed. And it will be completely out of our hands. Cities will be abandoned because we will be dealing with all the consequences of cities and returning to a way of living that we know works within nature. Lots of smallish towns and settlements surrounded by and interpenetrated with land that can produce our needs.
I suspect our urban centers will be very much like Albuquerque…
Each year while winter is coming, my compatriots, whom have already been told to turn off the tap when brushing their teeth, receive a letter from their electricity supplier urging them to turn down the heat and turn off unnecessary lights in case of a cold snap in order to prevent an overload of the grid and a possible blackout. At the same time the French government, appropriately taking on the role of advertiser for the national car manufacturers in which it holds shares¹, is promoting electric cars more and more actively. Even though electric vehicles (EV) have existed since the end of the 19th century (the very first EV prototype dates back to 1834).
They also plan to ban the sale of internal combustion engine cars as early as 2035, in accordance with European directives. Electric cars will, of course, have to be recharged, especially if you want to be able to turn on a very energy-consuming heater during cold spells.
The electric car, much-vaunted to be the solution to the limitation of CO2 emissions responsible for climate change, usually feeds debate and controversie focusing mainly on its autonomy. It depends on the on-board batteries and their recharging capacity, as well as the origin of the lithium in the batteries and the origin of their manufacture. But curiosity led me to be interested in all of the other aspects largely forgotten, very likely on purpose. Because the major problem, as we will see, is not so much the nature of the energy as it is the vehicle itself.
The technological changes that this change of energy implies are mainly motivated by a drop in conventional oil production which peaked in 2008 according to the IEA². Not by a recent awareness and sensitization to the protection of the environment that would suddenly make decision-makers righteous, altruistic and selfless. A drop that has so far been compensated for by oil from tar sands and hydraulic fracturing (shale oil). Indeed, the greenhouse effect has been known since 1820³, the role of CO2 in its amplification since 1856⁴ and the emission of this gas into the atmosphere by the combustion of petroleum-based fuels since the beginning of the automobile. As is the case with most of the pollutions of the environment, against which the populations have in fact never stopped fighting⁵, the public’s wishes are not often followed by the public authorities. The invention of the catalytic converter dates from 1898, but we had to wait for almost a century before seeing it adopted and generalized.
There are more than one billion private cars in the world (1.41 billion exactly when we include commercial vehicles and corporate SUV⁶), compared to 400 million in 1980. They are replaced after an average of 15 years. As far as electric cars are concerned, batteries still account for 30% of their cost. Battery lifespan, in terms of alteration of their charging capacity, which must not fall below a certain threshold, is on average 10 years⁷. However, this longevity can be severely compromised by intermittent use of the vehicle, systematic use of fast charging, heating, air conditioning and the driving style of the driver. It is therefore likely that at the end of this period owners might choose to replace the entire vehicle, which is at this stage highly depreciated, rather than just the batteries at the end of their life. This could cut the current replacement cycle by a third, much to the delight of manufacturers.
Of course, they are already promising much cheaper batteries with a life expectancy of 20 years or even more, fitted to vehicles designed to travel a million kilometers (actually just like some old models of thermal cars). In other words, the end of obsolescence, whether planned or not. But should we really take the word of these manufacturers, who are often the same ones who did not hesitate to falsify the real emissions of their vehicles as revealed by the dieselgate scandal⁸? One has the right to be seriously skeptical. In any case, the emergence of India and China (28 million new cars sold in 2016 in the Middle Kingdom) is contributing to a steady increase in the number of cars on the road. In Beijing alone, there were 1,500 new registrations per day in 2009. And now with the introduction of quotas the wait for a car registration can be up to eight years.
For the moment, while billions of potential drivers are still waiting impatiently, it is a question of building more than one billion private cars every fifteen years, each weighing between 800 kilos and 2.5 tons. The European average being around 1.4 tons or 2 tons in the United States. This means that at the beginning of the supply chain, about 15 tons of raw materials are needed for each car⁹. Though it is certainly much more if we include the ores needed to extract rare earths. In 2050, at the current rate of increase, we should see more than twice as many cars. These would then be replaced perhaps every ten years, compared with fifteen today. The raw materials must first be extracted before being transformed. Excavators, dumpers (mining trucks weighing more than 600 tons when loaded for the CAT 797F) and other construction equipment, which also had to be built first, run on diesel or even heavy oil (bunker) fuel. Then the ores have to be crushed and purified, using at least 200 m³ of water per ton in the case of rare earths¹⁰. An electric car contains between 9 and 11 kilos of rare earths, depending on the metal and its processing. Between 8 and 1,200 tons of raw ore must be extracted and refined to finally obtain a single kilo¹¹. The various ores, spread around the world by the vagaries of geology, must also be transported to other processing sites. First by trucks running on diesel, then by bulk carriers (cargo ships) running on bunker fuel, step up from coal, which 100% of commercial maritime transport uses, then also include heavy port infrastructures.
A car is an assembly of tens of thousands of parts, including a body and many other metal parts. It is therefore not possible, after the necessary mining, to bypass the steel industry. Steel production requires twice as much coal because part of it is first transformed into coke in furnaces heated from 1,000°C to 1,250°C for 12 to 36 hours, for the ton of iron ore required. The coke is then mixed with a flux (chalk) in blast furnaces heated from 1800 to 2000°C¹². Since car makers use sophisticated alloys it is often not possible to recover the initial qualities and properties after remelting. Nor to separate the constituent elements, except sometimes at the cost of an energy expenditure so prohibitive as to make the operation totally unjustified. For this reason the alloyed steels (a good dozen different alloys) that make up a car are most often recycled into concrete reinforcing bars¹³, rather than into new bodies as we would like to believe, in a virtuous recycling, that would also be energy expenditure free.
To use an analogy, it is not possible to “de-cook” a cake to recover the ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar, butter, milk, etc.) in their original state. Around 1950, “the energy consumption of motorized mobility consumed […] more than half of the world’s oil production and a quarter of that of coal¹⁴”. As for aluminum, if it is much more expensive than steel, it is mainly because it is also much more energy-intensive. The manufacturing process from bauxite, in addition to being infinitely more polluting, requires three times more energy than steel¹⁵. It is therefore a major emitter of CO2. Glass is also energy-intensive, melting at between 1,400°C and 1,600°C and a car contains about 40 kg of it¹⁶.
Top: Coal mine children workers, Pennsylvania, USA, 1911. Photo: Lewis WICKES HINE, CORBIS Middle left to right: Datong coal mine, China, 2015. Photo: Greg BAKER, AFP. Graphite miner, China. Bottom: Benxi steelmaking factory, China.
A car also uses metals for paints (pigments) and varnishes. Which again means mining upstream and chemical industry downstream. Plastics and composites, for which 375 liters of oil are required to manufacture the 250kg incorporated on average in each car, are difficult if not impossible to recycle. Just like wind turbine blades, another production of petrochemicals, which are sometimes simply buried in some countries when they are dismantled¹⁷. Some plastics can only be recycled once, such as PET bottles turned into lawn chairs or sweaters, which are then turned into… nothing¹⁸. Oil is also used for tires. Each of which, including the spare, requires 27 liters for a typical city car, over 100 liters for a truck tire.
Copper is needed for wiring and windings, as an electric car consumes four times as much copper as a combustion engine car. Copper extraction is not only polluting, especially since it is often combined with other toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, arsenic and so on, it is also particularly destructive. It is in terms of mountain top removal mining, for instance, as well as being extremely demanding in terms of water. Chile’s Chuquicamata open-pit mine provided 27.5% of the world’s copper production and consumed 516 million m³ of water for this purpose in 2018¹⁹. Water that had to be pumped, and above all transported, in situ in an incessant traffic of tanker trucks, while the aquifer beneath the Atacama desert is being depleted. The local populations are often deprived of water, which is monopolized by the mining industry (or, in some places, by Coca-Cola). They discharge it, contaminated by the chemicals used during refining operations, to poisoned tailings or to evaporate in settling ponds²⁰. The inhumane conditions of extraction and refining, as in the case of graphite in China²¹, where depletion now causes it to be imported from Mozambique, or of cobalt and coltan in Congo, have been regularly denounced by organizations such as UNICEF and Amnesty International²².
And, of course, lithium is used for the batteries of electric cars, up to 70% of which is concentrated in the Andean highlands (Bolivia, Chile and Argentina), and in Australia and China. The latter produces 90% of the rare earths, thus causing a strategic dependence which limits the possibility of claims concerning human rights. China is now eyeing up the rare earths in Afghanistan, a country not particularly renowned for its rainfall, which favors refining them without impacting the population. China probably doesn’t mind negotiating with the Taliban, who are taking over after the departure of American troops. The issue of battery recycling has already been addressed many times. Not only is it still much cheaper to manufacture new ones, with the price of lithium currently representing less than 1% of the final price of the battery²³, but recycling them can be a new source of pollution, as well as being a major energy consumer²⁴.
This is a broad outline of what is behind the construction of cars. Each of which generates 12-20 tons of CO2 according to various studies, regardless of the energy — oil, electricity, cow dung or even plain water — with which they are supposed to be built. They are dependent on huge mining and oil extraction industries, including oil sands and fracking as well as the steel and chemical industries, countless related secondary industries (i.e. equipment manufacturers) and many unlisted externalities (insurers, bankers, etc.). This requires a continuous international flow of materials via land and sea transport, even air freight for certain semi-finished products, plus all the infrastructures and equipment that this implies and their production. All this is closely interwoven and interdependent, so that they finally take the final form that we know in the factories of car manufacturers, some of whom do not hesitate to relocate this final phase in order to increase their profit margin. It should be remembered here that all these industries are above all “profit-making companies”. We can see this legal and administrative defining of their raison d’être and their motivation. We too often forget that even if they sometimes express ideas that seem to meet the environmental concerns of a part of the general public, the environment is a “promising niche”, into which many startups are also rushing. They only do so if they are in one way or another furthering their economic interests.
Once they leave the factories all these cars, which are supposed to be “clean” electric models, must have roads to drive on. There is no shortage of them in France, a country with one of the densest road networks in the world, with more than one million kilometers of roads covering 1.2% of the country²⁵. This makes it possible to understand why this fragmentation of the territory, a natural habitat for animal species other than our own, is a major contributor to the dramatic drop in biodiversity, which is so much to be deplored.
Top: Construction of a several lanes highway bridge. Bottom left: Los Angeles, USA. Bottom right: Huangjuewan interchange, China.
At the global level, there are 36 million kilometers of roads and nearly 700,000 additional kilometers built every year ²⁶. Roads on which 100 million tons of bitumen (a petroleum product) are spread²⁷, as well as part of the 4.1 billion tons of cement produced annually²⁸. This contributes up to 8% of the carbon dioxide emitted, at a rate of one ton of this gas per ton of cement produced in the world on average²⁹, even if some people in France pride themselves on making “clean” cement³⁰, which is mixed with sand in order to make concrete. Michèle Constantini, from the magazine Le Point, reminds us in an article dated September 16, 2019, that 40-50 billion tons of marine and river sand (i.e. a cube of about 3 km on a side for an average density of 1.6 tons/m3) are extracted each year³¹.
This material is becoming increasingly scarce, as land-based sand eroded by winds is unsuitable for this purpose. A far from negligible part of these billions of tons of concrete, a destructive material if ever there was one³², is used not only for the construction of roads and freeways, but also for all other related infrastructures: bridges, tunnels, interchanges, freeway service areas, parking lots, garages, technical control centers, service stations and car washes, and all those more or less directly linked to motorized mobility. In France, this means that the surface area covered by the road network as a whole soars to 3%, or 16,500 km². The current pace of development, all uses combined, is equivalent to the surface area of one and a half departments per decade. While metropolitan France is already artificialized at between 5.6% and 9.3% depending on the methodologies used (the European CORINE Land Cover (CLC), or the French Teruti-Lucas 2014)³³, i.e. between 30,800 km² and 51,150 km², respectively, the latter figure which can be represented on this map of France by a square with a side of 226 km. Producing a sterilized soil surface making it very difficult to return it later to other uses. Land from which the wild fauna is of course irremediably driven out and the flora destroyed.
In terms of micro-particle pollution, the electric car also does much less well than the internal combustion engine car because, as we have seen, it is much heavier. This puts even more strain on the brake pads and increases tire wear. Here again, the supporters of the electric car will invoke the undeniable efficiency of its engine brake. Whereas city driving, the preferred domain of the electric car in view of its limited autonomy which makes it shun the main roads for long distances, hardly favors the necessary anticipation of its use. An engine brake could be widely used for thermal vehicles, especially diesel, but this is obviously not the case except for some rare drivers.
A recent study published in March 2020 by Emissions Analytics³⁴ shows that micro-particle pollution is up to a thousand times worse than the one caused by exhaust gases, which is now much better controlled. This wear and tear, combined with the wear and tear of the road surface itself, generates 850,000 tons of micro-particles, many of which end up in the oceans³⁵. This quantity will rise to 1.3 million tons by 2030 if traffic continues to increase³⁶. The false good idea of the hybrid car, which is supposed to ensure the transition from thermal to electric power by combining the two engines, is making vehicles even heavier. A weight reaching two tons or more in Europe, and the craze for SUVs will further aggravate the problem.
When we talk about motorized mobility, we need to talk about the energy that makes it possible, on which everyone focuses almost exclusively. A comparison between the two sources of energy, fossil fuels and electricity, is necessary. French electricity production was 537 TWh in 2018³⁷. And it can be compared to the amount that would be needed to run all the vehicles on the road in 2050. By then, the last combustion engine car sold at the end of 2034 will have exhaled its last CO2-laden breath. Once we convert the amount of road fuels consumed annually, a little over 50 billion liters in 2018, into their electrical energy equivalent (each liter of fuel is able to produce 10 kWh), we realize that road fuels have about the same energy potential as that provided by our current electrical production. It is higher than national consumption, with the 12% surplus being exported to neighboring countries. This means a priori that it would be necessary to double this production (in reality to increase it “only” by 50%) to substitute electricity for oil in the entire road fleet… while claiming to reduce by 50% the electricity provided by nuclear power plants³⁸.
Obviously, proponents of the electric car, at this stage still supposed to be clean if they have not paid attention while reading the above, will be indignant by recalling, with good reason, that its theoretical efficiency, i.e. the part of consumed energy actually transformed into mechanical energy driving the wheels, is much higher than that of a car with a combustion engine: 70% (once we have subtracted, from the 90% generally claimed, the losses, far from negligible, caused by charging the batteries and upstream all along the network between the power station that produces the electricity and the recharging station) against 40%. But this is forgetting a little too quickly that the energy required that the mass of a car loaded with batteries, which weigh 300-800 kg depending on the model, is at equal performance and comfort, a good third higher than that of a thermal car.
Let’s go back to our calculator with the firm intention of not violating with impunity the laws of physics which state that the more massive an object is and the faster we want it to move, the more energy we will have to provide to reach this objective. Let’s apply the kinetic energy formula³⁹ to compare a 1200 kg vehicle with a combustion engine and a 1600 kg electric vehicle, both moving at 80km/h. Once the respective efficiencies of the two engines are applied to the results previously obtained by this formula, we see that the final gain in terms of initial energy would be only about 24%, since some of it is dissipated to move the extra weight. Since cars have become increasingly overweight over the decades⁴⁰ (+47% in 40 years for European cars), we can also apply this calculation by comparing the kinetic energy of a Citroën 2CV weighing 480 kg travelling at 80km/h with a Renault ZOE electric car weighing 1,500 kg travelling on the freeway at 130km/h.
The judgment is without appeal since in terms of raw energy, and before any other consideration (such as the respective efficiency of the two engines, inertia, aerodynamics, friction reduction, etc.) and polemics that would aim at drowning the fish to cling to one’s conviction even if it violates the physical laws (in other words, a cognitive dissonance), the kinetic energy of the ZOE is eight times higher than the 2CV! This tends first of all to confirm that the Deuche (nickname for 2CV standing for deux-chevaux, two fiscal horse-power), as much for its construction, its maintenance, its longevity as for its consumption, was probably, as some people claim, the most “ecological” car in history⁴¹.
But above all more ecological as far as energy saving is concerned, all the while failing to promote walking, cycling, public transport, and above all, sobriety in one’s travels. And losing this deplorable habit of sometimes driving up to several hundred kilometers just to go for a stroll or to kill time, therefore promoting antigrowth (an abominable obscenity for our politicians, and most of the classical economists they listen to so religiously). So it would be necessary to go back to making the lightest possible models and to limit their maximum speed. Because even if the formula for calculating kinetic energy is a crude physical constant, that obviously cannot be used as it is to calculate the real consumption of a vehicle. For the initial energy needed to reach the desired velocity, it nevertheless serves as a reliable marker to establish a comparison. To confirm to those for whom it did not seem so obvious until now that the heavier you are, the faster you go the more energy you consume, whatever the nature of that energy is. The pilots of the Rafale, the French fighter aircraft which consumes up to 8,000 liters of kerosene per hour at full power, know this very well.
Having made this brief comparison, we must now look a little more closely at the source of the electricity, because it is an energy perceived as clean. Almost dematerialized, because it simply comes out of the wall (the initial magic of “the electric fairy” has been somewhat eroded over time). Its generation is not necessarily so clean, far from it. In my country, which can thus boast of limiting its carbon footprint, 71% of electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. When it comes to the worldwide average, 64-70% of electricity is generated by fossil fuels – 38 -42% by coal-fired power plants⁴² (nearly half of which are in China that turns a new one on each week). Apart from Donald Trump, few people would dare to assert, with the aplomb that he is known for, that coal is clean. 22-25% is generated by gas-fired power plants and 3-5% by oil-fired plants. Moreover, electricity generation is responsible for 41% (14.94 GT) of CO2 emissions⁴³ from fossil fuel burning, ahead of transport. And our leaders are often inclined to forget that when it comes to air pollution and greenhouse gases, what goes out the door, or the curtain of the voting booth, has the unfortunate tendency to systematically come back in through the window. We can therefore conclude that the French who drive electric cars are in fact driving a “nuke car” for two-thirds of their consumption. And across the world, drivers of electric cars are actually driving two-thirds of their cars on fossil fuels, while often unaware of this.
[Part II will be published tomorrow]
1 The French Government is the primary shareholder for Renault, with 15%, and a major one for PSA (Citroën and other car makers), with 6.2%.
3 First described by the French physicist Joseph Fourier.
5 Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Apocalypse joyeuse. Une histoire du risque technologique, Seuil, 2012 & François Jarrige et Thomas Le Roux, La contamination du monde Seuil, 2017 (The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age, The MIT Press).
By Matt Rendell
This story weaves the indigenous cultural revival of the Muysca people of Suba in Colombia, together with the transition to more sustainable living. It is contributed by award-winning author Matt Rendell who spoke with Muysca social activists and grew to know the community through his work as a cycling journalist in the riding obsessed country, and the elite cyclist, Nairo Quintana, who is probably the best known international Muysca advocate.
As the climate emergency bites, sustainable new social and cultural practices are urgently needed. Lasting change may require not just temporary good intentions, but permanently reconfigured identities. Around the world, groups are already working hard on such a project. On a steep hillside in an area called Suba above Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a new group of Colombians are claiming ancestry from the ancient Muysca people – indigenous people whose land this was when the Spanish invaded in the 1530s – and proposing a complete regeneration of their culture. They intend to restore the language and return the landscape to its previous mystical role, bringing what remains from history alive with new myths and rituals. The group believes it has much to teach the rest of the world about understanding how we are all indigenous people with a need to connect to shared places, traditions, and rituals.
The Cabildo Indígena Muysca de Suba – the local organisation spearheading the Muysca revival – has its centre in the town square, where traditional crafts such as weaving are taught, and the beautiful fabrics produced are used to raise money for the project. This small but ambitious organisation is trying to reverse the identity loss caused by urbanisation through restoring the Muysca collective memory. Its leader, anthropologist Jorge Yopasa, explains how much of the knowledge is still available:
“We read what the anthropologists say, and the historians and archaeologists, but we also talk to our grandparents. Oral history yields surprising results. What the anthropologists say they were doing in 1680, our grandparents remember doing in 1960 or 1970.”
Numerous small vegetable plots form urban gardens across the slopes, alongside traditional round houses with conical roofs, traditionally made with wood, clay and reed, but now often made from recycled materials. These houses face East in memory of how, in pre-Columbian times, such dwellings might be arranged in large enclosures in the form of a vast cosmological clock. The East and West-facing doors turned the buildings themselves into a three-dimensional calendar detecting equinoxes and solstices. The people who live here are researching their own indigenous history, re-planting their traditional foods – such as quinoa – and reclaiming and cleaning up what they see as their land. This is an environmental, social, and spiritual effort. They wish to reverse what they see as the erosion of the spiritual dimension that came with urbanisation. They hope to undo the negative, impoverishing impact of science and Enlightenment thinking that the sociologist Max Weber described in his famous expression, “the disenchantment of the world.”
The Muysca have already been under attack for hundreds of years. But Muysca quinoa and the Muysca language are on their way back, and linguists are using old, colonial dictionaries, and surviving, closely-related languages, to revive the old tongue. Nearly five centuries after the Spanish conquest, the Muysca revival is real.
Protecting the world’s indigenous inhabitants has been shown to be an effective way of safeguarding the natural world – particularly if knowledge held by the older generations can be saved in time to be passed on. Awareness of this is growing slowly and there are currently active campaigns by indigenous peoples to support elders whose intimate knowledge of the Amazon is threatened by Covid-19. But there is another indigenous group that are often forgotten: the original dwellers in the spaces now occupied by the world’s cities, dispossessed by modern development of their land and culture, and only now rediscovering and reviving their cultural specificity as a spiritual, environmental, anti-consumerist cultural force for good.
Modern urban sprawl has taken over indigenous territories all over the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Only now are they beginning to reconstruct their identities, and build, as they do so, a new way of working-class urban existence that encompasses and absorbs youth culture, environmentalism, the rejection of consumerism, and the re-spiritualisation of the cosmos. The modern Muysca call this “el proceso” – the process.
Of course, the Muysca are a small group who are unlikely to be able to shift national policy. But openness to their culture could bring with it an understanding of other ways of being in the world. For example, the pre-Columbian system worked on gift-exchange rather than currency. And before the arrival of the European invaders, gold was not used as currency of exchange, but as a means of communicating with the gods. It was mixed with copper, moulded into shining religious figurines called tunjos and, within hours of production by the Muysca metalworkers, buried in the earth or dropped into lakes in a passion play of the visible and the invisible. The urban Muysca today are not rich in gold as their ancestors were. In fact, they lie right at the base of Colombia’s social pyramid. But their decision to take an active role in retelling their own history is interesting. Today, the Muysca elaborate new stories of their ancestral past, integrating, revising, and occasionally forgetting ‘official’ versions imposed by representatives of the State.
Context and background
After years of urban expansion, during which Bogotá engulfed the remaining of the Muysca people, it finally annexed Suba in 1954. By then, much of their identity had been forgotten. But, according to the academic Pablo Felipe Gómez, who has spent twenty years studying the urban Muysca movement, “Most of these elders never recognised that they were Muysca. Their identity lay dormant in the memory because of the historical processes that had overwhelmed them. No one ever told them that they were indigenous!”
When Carlos Caita, the first governor of the Suba cabildo or indigenous council, began studying land titles in the 1980s, he realised that they went back as far as the abolition of indigenous reserves and collective indigenous property in 1875, when the land had been distributed among five resident Muysca families. After its annexation by Bogotá, the families who had not sold their lands were dispossessed by unscrupulous surveyors and lawyers, and the Muysca, bereft of both language and traditions, disappeared into a historical dead-end as manual labourers or caretakers of other people’s property.
In 1990 descendants of the five families resident on the nineteenth-century Muysca reservation began legal proceedings to recover their lost estates. In 1991 Colombia adopted a new Constitution that undertook to recognise and protect its ethnic and cultural diversity. Under the framework established by this new Constitution, the Ministry of the Interior gave the group of five families its blessing, thereby transforming it into the first urban Muysca community. Before long, the descendants of peoples expunged from history centuries before began to assert their indigenous identity. Between 1991 and 2006, four Muysca councils were given state recognition and Muysca was one of 101 ethnic identities listed in the 2005 national census. However, since 2006, the State has refused to certify further groups, perhaps seeing that the community in Suba had tripled its membership in a decade, and that new organisations were emerging. The rebuilding of their cultures proposed by these groups, reviving ancient myths, rituals and elaborating new ones, also meant bringing back their language, which was forbidden in 1770 by royal decree, when Spanish became the dominant language for social, religious, economic, and political reasons.
Leaders who are inquisitive about the past and about culture – in this case anthropologists – undoubtedly helped the transition, along with some favourable legislation in the form of a Constitution that was trying to renew itself in order to include formerly excluded people. This interest in the past includes the chronicles of the Conquest, which contain accounts of Muysca legends taken down by the priests who accompanied the Conquistadors. These have been scoured to identify possible sources from which to shape a modern Muysca culture. However, to renew a culture and reconnect it with the land, detailed knowledge from the past plus a generous dose of imagination to fill in the missing gaps has enabled the Muysca people to rebuild – and to regenerate when rebuilding is no longer possible.
The local food illustrates this process. The area’s name Suba means “quinoa seed.” The Conquistadors long ago replaced quinoa, a Muysca staple, with wheat. But the old ways, once outmoded, have a way of coming back, and local people are beginning to grow vegetables and medicinal plants of spiritual significance to the Muysca. These include sweetcorn, potatoes, coriander, uchuva – known in the UK as physalis and in North America as golden berry – and, of course, quinoa, which has taken the better part of five hundred years to become the latest superfood. There are other examples of how modern life rejects the past, stigmatises it, then rediscovers it with a premium price tag attached. For example, the crop hemp, once enormously important in Europe for making rope, clothing and a huge range of materials, has returned after decades in the wastebin as an alternative, more sustainable crop for making designer clothing and as an insulator in eco-builds.
Perhaps the extreme poverty of Colombian urban life for many has turned people elsewhere to look for a better kind of life – particularly with the knowledge that it was not always this way. Young Muysca talk about how their grandparents used to eat trout from the Bogotá River. To do so today would be unthinkable: millions of gallons of industrial chemicals, farm run-off, household detergents and human waste drain unfiltered into it, while it has become a sewer to Bogotá’s 8 million inhabitants, and for hundreds of thousands more along its basin. The river has become so toxic that inspectors require oxygen masks and special clothing. The Muyscas are part of the environmental movement pressing for a clean-up. Many are active in public and development policy, fighting to save the environment. These people recognise how urban life separates economic life from nature and separates people from their spiritual selves; they want to create a new way of urban living that will not destroy the planet. This is something we have seen in other places, from London’s National Park City movement to efforts to pedestrianise cities and grow food in cities.
Update: On March 23, Duterte put to Congress the erroneously titled “Bayanihan Act of 2020”. The word ‘bayanihan’ means community assistance or ‘communitarian’ and the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ means assistance given voluntarily and without any monetary consideration by a member of the community. The title itself is fake, a lie. Nowhere in the bill does the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ prevail. The doctors, nurses, health workers, grocery employees, transport workers and all the frontliners who are heading the fight against COVID19 are not empowered in this bill — instead it extends more power to Duterte, the bureaucracy and his minions. This bill is sinister in many ways, as it aims to give wide powers to a president who’s proven to being incompetent in dealing with the pandemic.
March 23, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the Philippines we have a combination of the worst features of the state under the current conditions of global capitalism. The capacity of the Philippine state to provide even the modicum of public services, systems and related infrastructure, such as health, water, power, housing, public transport, public education, etc., has been gutted after decades of structural adjustment programs, debt and the dictates of neoliberal economic policies imposed by international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, ADB, bilateral and multilateral agreements with imperialist countries, enthusiastically embraced by the country’s technocrats and successive elite governments. This ailing public sector, co-exists with ‘the strong arm’ of a state that has maintained and even increased its capacity to mobilise the military and the police to impose a range of authoritarian measures, from a war against the urban poor resulting in the death of tens of thousands, mainly youth, in the guise of a campaign against drugs, to martial law in the Southern island of Mindanao. Today, this dual character of both a weak and strong armed state, is starkly demonstrated in the Duterte regime’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of March 22, the Department of Health reports 380 cases of COVID-19, with 17 recoveries and 25 deaths – a high mortality rate of approximately 7%. With no mass testing undertaken these figures are unreliable. Meanwhile health services are starting to flounder and health workers are falling ill though the anticipated exponential rise of the disease is still ahead of us.
Eleven hospitals and medical centres have issued an “urgent appeal” that an “alarming number” of their personnel were under the 14-day mandatory quarantine for individuals exposed to COVID-19 patients, as persons under investigation “continue to flock” to their emergency rooms every day. These hospitals and medical centres report that most of their “regular rooms have been turned into COVID-19 isolation areas,” leaving less healthcare resources for non- coronavirus patients who also have life-threatening conditions.
“The panic is escalating, mortality is increasing, our supplies of personal protective equipment are running short, our frontline staff are increasingly getting depleted as more of them are quarantined or physically and emotionally exhausted, and a number of our medical colleagues are already hooked to respirators fighting for their lives in various ICUs [intensive care units] … Even our ICUs are getting full. Soon we will have a shortage of respirators. We have every reason to be scared; we are, indeed very scared because we feel that we are on our own to face our countrymen in dire need of help.”
Despite the number of DOH-confirmed cases that is comparably lower to infections in other countries, the appeal points out that they are dealing with COVID-19 patients with “increasing mortality“, which in turn exposes their attending medical staff to more danger than usual. The country has no comprehensive universal health care program and one of the most expensive health services in the region.
Instead of addressing the weakness in the health system and infrastructure as its main priority, the Duterte regime’s strategy has been to declare a lockdown of the entire capital region around Metro Manila – the National Capital Region – from March 15 to April 14, which it describes as “imposing stringent social distancing measures”, with land, domestic air and sea travel to and from Metro Manila suspended, mass gatherings prohibited, community quarantine imposed, government work suspended (except for a skeletal workforce) and the suspension of classes. The announcement was made by President Duterte at a press conference ringed with the chiefs of the PNP and AFP, and police and troops immediately deployed at checkpoints to prevent people from travelling in and out of the NCR. No attempt was made during subsequent press conferences given by the President to explain the public health measures to be undertaken, such as testing programs, for which there is now a rising clamour. This was followed by an announcement on March 17 of the entire island of Luzon placed on lockdown described by government officials as an “enhanced community quarantine,” which limits the movement of people going in and out of the island region, home to at least 57 million.
We are currently under “enhanced community quarantine,” which is strict home quarantine for all households, with transportation suspended, provision for food and “essential health services” regulated, and with a heightened presence of uniformed personnel to enforce quarantine measures. This has been enforced with Barangay checkpoints (local checkpoints within Local Government Units), for which a pass is needed to pass through, with very limited movement which includes only the driver of the vehicle on the main highways such as Edsa or the driver and one assistant. These checkpoints, visible outside my bedroom window, now cordon off and isolate barangays around Metro Manila. Except for groceries and drug stores, all shops have been closed. Some barangays have even imposed 24-hour curfews.
Unlike in South Korea where the military and police carried out temperature checks, testing, clean up and disinfecting, the armed personnel at the checkpoints here are doing none of this. In the first few days they weren’t even provided with basic safety equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer.
The most immediate impact has been on workers and the army of the unemployed who make their livelihoods in the ‘informal sector’, who have been prevented from making a living. On the first day of the lockdown this led to tense scenes at the checkpoints ringing the borders of the NCR, with commuters venting both their anger and despair at the checkpoints. The impact on the livelihoods and lives of working people and the poor has been immediate and devastating. Our organisers are unable to provide assistance to the communities that they work in, such as providing food, masks, etc., in meaningful numbers, at most being only able to assist a couple of hundred households at any one time.
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has announced a one-time financial assistance of P5,000 for every worker who could not work during the one-month lockdown. This is already a very measly amount (USD 3 per day for 30 days), and yet the assistance can only be procured if the employer sends the required documents to the DOLE. Workers are not allowed to do it themselves. Many are also complaining that their employers do not want to avail of this, as they still want workers to report to work during the lockdown. And for those who are locked down outside Metro Manila, they could not even petition their employer to follow up the assistance. Contractual workers are practically blocked from availing of the assistance as their ‘employer’ is a third party agent which may not even be registered in the corporation list of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Workers in the informal sector receive no assistance, and the government merely advise them to contact the local government units for work related to anti-COVID19 campaign in the communities.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development has temporarily suspended its poverty alleviation cash grants for the social pension and unconditional cash transfer (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps) as well as the distribution of 4Ps cash cards to the country’s poorest families to supposedly “minimize the exposure of the beneficiaries and DSWD employees to the threats of COVID-19”.
The situation in the Philippines stands in stark contrast to other countries in the region, such as Vietnam and South Korea, which are being looked upon as examples of how to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam, bordering China, with a population of around 97 million, has managed to contain the spread of the disease, successfully keeping the number of cases at 76 (as of March 19), with no deaths, over two months after the first cases were reported. A key part of the containment strategy was to develop a fast and affordable test kit in one month, which according to the WHO should have taken four years to develop. The test, developed by a group of Vietnamese researchers from the Institute of Biotechnology under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, costs about $15, and is capable of returning results within 80 minutes, with a specificity of 100% and sensitivity of five copies per reaction.
South Korea, with a population of around 51 million, as of March 19, has conducted more than 307,000 tests, the highest per capita in the world, with 633 testing sites nationwide. Results are swift, too, coming by text within 24 hours. Korean healthcare, a highly regulated, efficient single payer system, is also prepared to face epidemics. Broad government powers acquired during the MERS crisis has given South Korea one of the most ambitious tracking apparatuses in Asia. Health authorities can sift through credit-card records, CCTV footage, mobile-phone location services, public-transport cards and immigration records to pin down the travel histories of those infected or at risk. Admittedly, a double-edged sword, this tracking system proved to be effective in curbing the recent COVID19 crisis in the country.
Philippines, with a population of 109 million, has only six testing sites across the entire country — three hospitals in the NCR, and one each in Baguio, Cebu and Davao. There’s now a rising clamour for mass testing. A petition by Scientists Unite Against COVID-19, an alliance of more than 1,000 biologists, health experts, and other individuals, as well as 336 organizations, has called for widespread testing to be conducted, as mitigation strategies such as social distancing and community quarantine are not enough and for expanded, decentralized, testing facilities across the country.
According to March 10 media reports, only 2000 kits were available. Duterte’s family members and other Duterte cronies have been given preferential treatment, even though they don’t meet the Department of Health criteria that only the elderly, those with underlying conditions and those whose ailments have progressed to severe or critical would be tested for the virus. People have commented angrily on social media, with some labelling it a “test kits crisis”, describing the preferential treatment given to the President’s family and cronies as “shameless, obscene and disgusting”. On March 21 media reports said that 100,000 new test kits have arrived, donations from China, South Korea and Brunei, but this will only be for testing of severe or vulnerable persons under investigation and not for mass testing.
A test kit was quickly developed by scientists from the University of the Philippines and is capable of fast detection of the novel coronavirus, but it will only be available for use only after two to three weeks, the time it will take the Department of Health to validate the tests.
Some local government units (LGUs) are taking the initiative. The Pasig City Mayor ordered thelimited mobilization of tricycles in the city to bring health workers and patients with immediate medical needs to hospitals. His appeal to the national government to allow the use of tricycles for public health and safety, since a maximum of only two passengers are allowed in the vehicle, was rejected. All Pasig City Hall employees will be paid full salaries with hazard pay and overtime for those employees in the frontlines. The City of Marikina is another LGU taking positive steps, with the initiative to set up local testing units using the University of the Philippines test kits. The regime has responded by threatening mayors with criminal charges, saying they would “closely monitor the compliance of LGUs in the directives of the Office and to file the necessary cases against the wayward officials.”
Duterte has announced a ₱25.1 billion ‘war chest’ to fight COVID-19, but only ₱3.1 billion has been allocated to actually combat COVID-19, including the purchase of test kits and drugs, while the ₱14 billion boost to the tourism budget will, we suspect, be used to “bail out” the anticipated losses of airlines, hotels, casinos, resorts, and tourism-related capitalists. Only ₱2 billion has been allocated to compensate workers affected by the crisis.
The left and progressive movement here has been campaigning against Duterte’s military response to a public health crisis and has been put forward a platform of demands that include: Mass testing for all citizens; Free hospitalization of victims, persons under investigation (PUI), and person under monitoring (PUM) for COVID-19; Mass disinfection in all communities; Food and water rationing for workers and the poor; Distribution of face masks, hygiene kits, vitamins, and contraception; Assistance to farmers, drivers, and other affected workers; Release of 4Ps for beneficiaries; Paid emergency leave to uninsured workers; Refund tuition to students due to class suspension; Price control of commodities; Electricity, water, and communications to be provided 24/7; Allowing vehicles and tricycles to provide transport to medical workers and people with medical needs; Suspension of rent, water, electricity, communications, and other fees; Disarming the large numbers of military and police forces deployed so as not to cause terror to the people; and a debt moratorium.
Internationally, authoritarian trends are also being inflamed, corporate profits prioritised and public health measures relegated to an afterthought at best. According to March 21 media reports, the US Justice Department has asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the coronavirus spreads through the United States. The move has tapped into a broader fear among civil liberties advocates and Donald Trump’s critics — that the president will use a moment of crisis to push for controversial policy changes. And even without policy changes, Trump has vast emergency powers that he could legally deploy right now to try and slow the coronavirus outbreak. British government statements on ‘herd-immunity’ have more than a hint of eugenics.
As of March 23, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 14,655 people worldwide. More than 77% of these deaths are outside China, where it started. In less than three months it has gone from being an outbreak in Hubei Province, to a global medical, economic and social crisis. Data from China suggests many countries are at the beginning of an exponential rise in infections. Comparisons of death tolls and number of cases in different countries show large differences in the death rate between countries. These do not follow a simple, linear pattern of rich countries fairing better than poor countries, although this is one trend (Italy’s GDP per capita is more than three times that of China’s and South Korea’s GDP per capita is slightly lower than that of Italy, for example). They reflect differences between countries in wealth, priority given to healthcare, willingness and ability of governments and states to take control of the economy, social solidarity and trust between society and authorities responsible for the response to the pandemic. Overall, capitalist society is proving unable to respond rationally to the pandemic, which will massively increase the death toll and the social and economic impacts.
The COVID-19 crisis needs to be considered as part of the environmental crisis created by capitalism that is threatening humanity with extinction. Scientists for some time have been warning of increasing frequency and severity of epidemics caused by novel pathogens, with recent pandemics including SARS, MERS and Swine Flu providing warning. Climate change itself increases the spread of pandemics. Moreover, the causes of pandemics such as COVID-19 include many factors also fuelling climate change as well reflecting the more general breakdown in the world’s ecosystems, and their ability to sustain life, as a result of the capitalist mode of production. Factors include industrialised agriculture, wilderness and ecosystem destruction, concentration and movement of people, and pollution. Unless the global environmental crisis is addressed, there will be an in increase in the frequency and severity of novel pandemics. In this regard pandemics are no different to the typhoons, fires, droughts, etc, whose increased frequency and severity is associated with the looming Anthropocene apocalypse.
Imperialism has exacerbated the crisis in many ways. Decades of structural adjustment and imposed debt have left the countries of the Global South without the health and social welfare infrastructure needed for normal times, let alone during a lethal pandemic. The international division of labour that creates unprecedented wealth for the Western capitalist ruling class involves massive labour migration of workers with little or no access to healthcare, while absurd degrees of international travel — for “business” and leisure — are part of elite lifestyles. Imperialist war further degrades the ability of societies to provide healthcare, while horrifically increasing the need for it. War also creates massive population displacement. War, poverty and racist immigration policies have created a large population of highly mobile, undocumented people with no access to healthcare and well beyond the reach of any screening or tracking. The European and US capitalist economies are dependent on the labour of undocumented refugees and migrants.
The use of crippling economic blockades by the Western imperialists, the US in particular, further exacerbates the crisis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared, Venezuela and Iran were both already struggling with severe shortages of medicine and medical equipment due to US sanctions. In Iran this has meant the impact of the pandemic has been particularly devastating. The chaos created by major imperialist wars on Iran’s eastern and western borders means that this devastation is rapidly spreading to neighbouring countries. The six decade-long blockade of Cuba is threatening a particularly perverse impact on the global COVID-19 pandemic. Confirming that the blockade is a response to the positive example set by Cuba’s socialist revolution, the impoverished, blockaded island has prioritised healthcare to such an extent that the US elite cannot hide from its own population the fact that Cubans have significantly better healthcare than working class Americans! Moreover, Cuba has pioneered “medical solidarity” with more doctors and health workers serving poor communities throughout the world than the World Health Organisation. The BBC reported on March 22, that the pandemic-traumatised population of Italy (a rich imperialist country) were enthusiastically welcoming the arrival of Cuban medical personnel while European Union officials fretted over the “bad optics” of Italians seeing aid arrive from Cuba, China and Russian, but not the EU. The Western countries could provide finance and technology to enable Cuba to increase its worldwide medical solidarity. Instead the US is working on tightening anti-Cuban sanctions to prevent countries from receiving Cuban medical aid.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated many normally invisible social and economic relationships of capitalist society and has exposed much of its exploitative and irrational nature. Paradoxically — because people are its agent of transmission — the pandemic is both anti-social and social. It is anti-social because the fear of contagion from other people can exacerbate the social divisions, individualism and alienation inherent in capitalist society (and ruling class entities are enthusiastically using the pandemic to fuel these, for example US leaders calling it “the Chinese Virus”). But it is social because combating the virus is dependent on recognising that the overall health outcomes for everyone (included society’s most privileged) is dependent on the outcomes of the whole of society, including the most exploited and marginalised. This is true for both within and between nations.
Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote on March 20: “The economic and social impacts are filtered through “customary” discriminations that are everywhere in evidence … the workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick is typically highly gendered, racialized and ethnicized in most parts of the world. It mirrors the class-based work forces to be found in, for example, airports and other logistical sectors. This ‘new working class’ is in the forefront and bears the brunt of either being the workforce most at risk from contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off with no resources because of the economic retrenchment enforced by the virus. There is, for example, the question of who can work at home and who cannot. This sharpens the societal divide as does the question of who can afford to isolate or quarantine themselves (with or without pay) in the event of contact or infection.”
COVID-19 has also illustrated that the ineffectiveness of military/police/border security responses in protecting the elites from some aspects of ecological collapse (including pandemics) does not stop these being the default responses. The neoliberal capitalist state is unable to deal with crises even when it would benefit capitalist society to do so. Social solidarity is a necessity for surviving catastrophe but in capitalist society social solidarity is a challenge to the existing order. The responses of Vietnam and Cuba reflect the merits of socialism both in terms of rational organisation of society (and use of infrastructure and resources) and in terms of social cohesion.
The inability of capitalism to respond to this pandemic that threatens the whole of global capitalist society — including its elites — is reflective of capitalism’s genocidal and suicidal response to broader environmental apocalypse. The demands that the movement has campaigned for now re-emerge with a deadly relevance and urgency. Let’s put them up again, adapted to the current context. All of the above demands show the necessity of our campaigns and of socialism.
How a culture behaves during a time of crisis is directly related to how it used to behave before the crisis. The capitalist authoritarion nature of the Duterte regime seen now is no more than an extension of the capitalist authoritarion nature of the Duterte regime before the pandemic hit. In the book “Deep Green Resistance“, Aric McBay uses a few potential scenarios to describe how the conditions during a collapse will differ based on what the conditions were before the collapse.