The pollution in China is caused by the extraction of surplus value from cheap local labor.
The pollution in China is caused by the extraction of surplus value from cheap "local labor." Hung Chung Chih/ Shutterstock

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin imagined humanity as being on a train that's rushing toward a disaster. He also saw revolution as not so much a change in course than pulling the emergency brake (PDF). What Benjamin had in mind when composing this horrific vision was Europe's then-approaching Second World War. Our moment finds itself in a similarly desperate situation, but we are now on a plane, and what we are flying into is the hyperobject global warming. But the doomed flight we are on looks not so much like the terrorist action of 9/11 than the tragedy of Germanwings flight 9525. The pilot locked out of the cockpit is democracy and the pilot who has locked himself in is capitalism. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil:
“My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do..."

These words, the words of a madman, are in a new Jacobin post, The Anthropocene Myth, by Andreas Malm. And what they highlight is that climate change is not caused by humans as a whole but by a small group of humans who are in the business of making money at all costs (social, natural, cultural, mental). The popular theory of the Anthropocene is correctly seen by Malm as misleading because it makes it sound as if the destruction of the world as we know it is an inevitable process of progress: Humans climbed down from the trees, discovered fire, then coal, then oil, and then transformed the atmosphere into a massive and floating sewer. Humans are the bad, bad animal. But we are not in the Anthropocene, but instead in a geological epoch that's being shaped by the pressure to make interest payments on debts.

Rich capitalist societies are at the heart of this problem. They consume nonrenewable energy like there is no tomorrow. Malm:

The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa... A single average US citizen emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi; how much an average US millionaire emits—and how much more than an average US or Cambodian worker — remains to be counted.
The concept of Anthropocene has its match in the West's obsession with overpopulation, which is often blamed on the baby-producing/pumping countries of the Global South. But as the British geographer Danny Dorling explains in his 2013 book Population 10 Billion, this Malthusian eschatology has no ground in reality. It's not about the number of people on the planet, but the behavior of some of its people. And so it is much more a matter of changing behavior rather than reducing the population. But the politics of social change has been hijacked, and planes do not have emergency anything for passengers. The only revolution left is breaking down the door of the cockpit.