By TAYTYN BADGER
Since the 29th of April, the land occupied by Western Canada has witnessed an unprecedented onslaught of wildfires unusually early in our wildfire season. This comes following months of record-breaking temperatures and incredibly low rain and snowfall. As of May 20, these wildfires have claimed over 842,000 hectares of land, largely boreal forest, which is over four times the annual average. By the time this piece is published, it will likely surpass 2019’s 883,441-hectare record.
At their height on May 7, the fires had displaced or forced the evacuation of over 30,000 people. At least 275 buildings, most of them homes, are already known to have been destroyed, and it is likely this number will grow as the extent of the destruction becomes known. While this comes short of the 2016 wildfire, which displaced 90,000 people and destroyed 2400 homes in and around Fort McMurray, a tar-sands boomtown, this is only by virtue of occurring in less densely populated regions.
Effects on Indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples and communities have been disproportionately affected by the fires and their effects. On one hand, Indigenous peoples were and are deliberately displaced onto land deemed of little economic value by settlers, historically via placement of reservations, and both historically and contemporarily by land prices and purchases. At the same time, less displaced peoples make up a larger portion of the population in areas where settlers have found no reason to move in large numbers. Tied to both, the protection of our communities and this land is seen as less important and of lower priority than regions and communities of greater perceived economic value to capital.
Indigenous communities forced to evacuate under immediate threat from wildfires include Little Red River Cree Nation, Sturgeon Lake Cree First Nation, La Loche, Saulteaux First Nation, and East Prairie Metis Settlement. At Little Red River, hundreds lined up on the riverside to evacuate via barge, the only way in and out of the community of 3000, and 80 structures are known to have been destroyed. About 1600 were evacuated from Sturgeon Lake, where 40 structures were burned by the fire. East Prairie Metis Settlement, located only 25 kilometers from my home community of Sucker Creek, has lost at least 24 homes since it was evacuated, while community members condemn the lack of assistance and equipment provided for their volunteer firefighters to defend their homes.
For weeks, my grandparents, along with the rest of my community, have been on official evacuation alert, under which they must be prepared to leave within an hour’s notice. When I call to check up on them and make sure they’re alright, my kokhom talks about how relatives have lost everything, and how terrified she is of losing her home and all the memories and mementos she has of raising two generations of children and the last 30 years of her life. She’s prepared as best she can, but like many others, is forced to confront the possibility that everything she owns may go up in smoke.
Effects of smoke
Beyond the massive destruction of forests and the effect on people and communities immediately in the wildfires’ path, there is the massive pall of smoke that has covered much of Western Canada as well as parts of the United States. Millions of people have been subject to periods during which the Air Quality Index for Fine Particulate Matter was 400 or higher, as well as a massive amount of other particulate matter and pollution.
Exposure to fine and extremely fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM1, respectively), able to travel deep into the lungs, is linked with a number of negative health effects. In the short term, it can cause eye, lung, and throat irritation, trouble with breathing, fatigue, acute bronchitis, and susceptibility to respiratory infections. It poses a particular threat to children, the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with preexisting breathing and pulmonary issues. These groups are not only more likely to experience these symptoms, but are at risk of asthma attack, arrhythmia, and heart attacks. Further, repeated or long-term exposure is linked to a variety of chronic or long-term health issues.
Global warming and environmental racism
While this year’s wildfires are unusual in their severity, they unfortunately reflect an ongoing trend resulting from anthropogenic climate change and are a sign of things to come. Rising temperatures around the world are leading to later winters, which cause reduced snow buildup, earlier spring thaws, and the quick drying of plant litter, creating ideal conditions for wildfires. Western Canada in particular has warmed more quickly than the global average, 1.9 degrees Celsius since the 1950s. Reflecting this, the average amount of forest burned by wildfires per year has doubled since 1970, and five of Alberta’s six largest individual wildfires have occurred in the past 15 years. As warming continues, fires like this will only become more common, while the bare minimum will be spent on addressing them except when capital investment is at risk.
Everything discussed by the article this far serves to tie these wildfires into the environmental racism faced by Indigenous peoples across the land occupied by Canada. Already, the exploitation of the tar sands and ever-expanding network of pipelines serve to poison the land, the air, and our people for settler-capitalist profits. Then, as the production and burning of these fossil fuels accelerate global warming, we are left to deal with its disastrous effects on the environment and the destruction of our homes.
Capitalism unable to respond
Capitalism’s underlying logic ensures that it is fundamentally unable to respond to growing environmental crises. Under capitalism, the only value that matters is exchange-value, the amount for which something can be exchanged on the market. In order to maximize profits or attempt to stave off the tendency for profits to fall, capital must constantly expand and extend its exploitation not just of peoples, but the land. The environment on which we all depend to survive is treated as a “free gift” to capital, to be ravaged and looted as needed. In fact, capital has little choice in the matter, as refusal to maximize profit dooms companies that don’t to fall behind and be absorbed by those that do. The result is the growth of a “metabolic rift” between what human, currently capitalist, society takes from the environment, and what it returns, with myriad disastrous effects on both.
On the political level, this reality can be seen in the complete refusal of capitalist states to respond to environmental crises in any meaningful way. Canada’s current Liberal federal government was elected on a platform of fighting environmental destruction and reducing carbon emissions. On election, it promptly threw its weight behind the construction of several massive fossil-fuel and tar-sand pipelines, as well as fossil-fuel extraction in general, in the interest of fossil capitalists. This is particularly unsurprising, as fossil fuels make up 17.5% of Canada’s exports, and 7.5% of its GDP, and thus, are a key investment for its capitalists.
In Alberta itself, the subject of climate change, environmental protection, and the growing severity of wildfires is completely absent from the platforms of the two largest parties, despite the wildfires raging throughout the province and the upcoming May 29th election. On the website for the Alberta NDP, our nominal social-democratic party, the most they offer is forcing businesses to clean up abandoned wells and expanding the Alberta Petrochemical Incentive Program to include plastic recycling.
During the May 18 debates, as the current wave of wildfires ravaged the province, the only discussion of these issues was the Conservative candidate accusing the NDP of wishing to institute a carbon tax. Firefighting has even been cut for cost savings, the most notable example being the dissolution of Rapattack, a rapid response airmobile firefighting force for suppressing wildfires in remote areas before they grew out of control.
This is despite 62% of Albertans believing that “more should be done to address climate change,” and 59% that a transition from fossil fuel will be better in the long run. However, fossil fuels have been central to the Albertan economy for over a century and provide 27.9% of the province’s GDP. On one hand, this makes it completely indispensable to capital invested in the province, the foremost reason for the government’s silence on environmental issues. On the other, many Albertans, unable to see an alternative and afraid of loss of employment, cling to and support the oil industry for fear of the loss of livelihood should production slow without alternative work.
The need for eco-socialism
The only way forward is the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a system in which production is carried out under worker and community control to meet real social needs within ecological limits. The bureaucratized Stalinist states of the 20th century show that the destruction of capitalism alone is not enough to ensure that society maintains a healthy metabolism with the environment. However, separated from capitalism’s constant breakneck race for profits, and managed democratically by those who are actually affected by environmental crises, it finally becomes possible for humanity to provide an adequate response to the ongoing climate catastrophe.
This will require, at the very least, mass conversion to clean and renewable energy alongside large-scale efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of environmental crises and warming already set in motion. In Marx’s words, we must “govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their own collective control rather than being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”
To get there, we will need to work to build an ecologically conscious and independent mass movement, uniting the working class and oppressed groups, which can demand from the capitalist system what it will never freely give. Now more than ever, in line with the observation that was voiced by Rosa Luxemburg over a century ago, we stand “at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”