The Year Without a Winter

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom-upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.” – Karl Marx, Capital, “Afterward to the Second German Edition

In 1815 a series of successive volcanic eruptions, culminating in the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia – the largest eruption in recorded history (that is in the past 1300 years) – filled the atmosphere with volcanic ash. Those alive in 1816 reported brilliant sunsets and sunrises. It also disrupted the climate. Temperatures were cooler. Intense and persistent fogs were reported. Late frosts disseminated crops as late as May in some areas. Food prices skyrocketed. There were famines worse than anyone could remember. There were intense storms as well as persistent rainfall. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus that summer, and Polidori wrote The Vampyre. It was termed “The Year Without a Summer”, as well as such names as the “Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”.

Things aren’t quite like that. At least not yet. But we are getting a taste of what our future will be. Unless things change in New York, 2011 and 2012 will go down in history as The Year Without a Winter.

I can’t recall a winter I’ve ever had my window open during early January. As I’m writing this piece its the evening of  6 January 2012 and its 45 degrees (F) outside. Earlier today it was 53-5 degrees today in the sun. My brother took my grandma to Scranton, PA nearby where she used to live to see a friend. It used to be horrible up there nearly anytime between October and May. They could have a snow storm at any time. It was 50 degrees there today.

We’ve  haven’t had any snow this winter. We had one snowstorm during the fall – in October. It was the warmest fall in New York since the National Weather Service moved its instruments to Syracuse 61 years ago. Meaning, in all likelihood its been the warmest Fall and Winter in New York for much, much longer – perhaps the warmest ever.

Even if this quickly changes, and we have the most hellish of winters from now until April, this will only contribute further to the trend. Climate change can also be described as global climate destabilisation. There is certainly an overall trend towards a warmer climate. But there are intense ups and downs, worse droughts and worse floods.

Take this past summer: we had an insane summer too!

There was the worst hurricane to hit New York that I’ve seen in my life time – a quarter of a century. New York is utterly incapable of handling these types of storms. Police and firefighters have NO emergency plans capable of responding to these type of disasters. We were extremely, extremely lucky. What if the storm had hit Indian Point nuclear power facility? We would have had a Fukushima on the Hudson. As it was, my brother and I had to go into the town where my old high school is located, swim across a half mile of flooded streets – yes swim – to help friends and elderly residents get out of their flooded mobile home community, because firefighters were under orders to do nothing (they were sitting in their trucks and ambulances around town) and the police were using force to prevent anyone from entering.

It wasn’t ‘accidental’ that our friends’ mobile home community turned into a death trap – oh no, don’t let them convince of you things like that for a second. Many homes throughout the town – and area – had flooding and water damage. But this community suffered the worst in the town. Why? Well, the community was build in the middle of a river bend. Under market capitalism mobile home parks are built on cheaper land. When prices aren’t fixed to prevent disparities in price, when communities aren’t intentionally and democratically planned and designed by the people themselves, these are the type of things that come as a result. FEMA, it should be pointed out, said areas like these didn’t quality as “disaster zones” – and as a result received no aid. Many people without flood insurance would have lost everything had FEMA not, I think, modified their declaration. But it took them a month. And the local elementary school was only opened as a shelter for a few days – and didn’t allow rescued pets inside. In other words, the response was a disaster.

As an aside, you see both the best and the worst of our species reveal itself during natural disasters. The water was only between 5 and 7 feet where we had to swim (over previously dry land). My brother made a remark that stuck with me: “I can’t even imagine Katrina”. Yes, I couldn’t either. I’m a strong swimmer. I was trained as a lifeguard. But the sheer power of the river was so overwhelming that no one should ever have to face this kind of thing. Two local mechanics who went to high school within a few years of us were nice enough to help us evacuate with their motor boat and dinghy. But even their boat could barely move against the current.

And New York wasn’t the worst hit! I go to school in upstate Vermont. The devastation was infinitely more devastating up there. Entire roads and buildings were washed away. I uploaded one picture from my last trip, which happened two months after the storm, and the devastation was still crazy. New York City Mayor 1% decided that Rikers Island prisoners and detainees would not be evacuated. This could have been a death sentence for many people had things been worse, had the storm hit more directly, or had the storm been stronger. It is both true that we are not prepared for the type of weather and climate changes that are happening around us, just as it is true that these ‘disasters’ will also largely affect the working poor and oppressed who already face the brunt of this system’s terror.

Remember what I said above: firefighters were under orders not to evacuate anyone, and police were enforcing those orders through force. I was lucky that I was able to sneak back into the flooded community to help out more. I could have just as easily have failed in this attempt. While the community was under evacuation orders, many people had no place to go, many low-income older people didn’t want to ‘burden’ people (think about that for a second, what a perverse fucking society that teaches people that type of morality), and some of the elderly folks couldn’t leave their homes easily (some had pets for example, which we had to help get out on this little dinghy since the town government didn’t have a plan in place to rescue people.

The cause of all this is blatantly obvious: capitalist climate change. While people all around the world have been experiencing the effects of global warming for years, its increasingly starting to effect even places like New York.

None of us can afford to ignore climate change – nor to believe for a second that nuclear power is a solution.

My brother was right. I can’t even begin to fathom what it must have been like in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina. Nor can I imagine Fukushima or the Earthquake in Haiti. Capitalism is driving this world both to the brink of destruction, as well as forcing people around the world who could otherwise live in relative safety to instead live in horrible conditions that put them in mortal danger.

We can’t afford to live like this for much longer. As it is, 30,000 children die every day from hunger, thirst, and preventable diseases. Over 13 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation and death from disease because of famine – in a world that produces enough food to feed everyone.

The solution to all of these problems is socialism – a society where working people democratically plan the economy to meet human needs, instead of filling the pockets of a tiny minority class – the capitalists, the 1% – with profits to live in luxury. A world without bosses, without famine, without preventable disease, without thirst, without dying children, and without natural disasters that kill millions is possible. We just have to bring it into existence.

For further reading:

Chris Williams’ Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, June 2010).

Chris Williams. “Christmas in the Radiation Zone“. 28 December 2011.

Chris Williams. “Fighting Nuclear Power in Japan“. 24 December 2011.

Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (The New Press, 1 September 2007).

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