Originally written for Spectre Journal.
Though it is but one manifestation of a global intensification of the climate crisis, this year’s utterly unprecedented wildfire season in Canada is a particularly compelling indication of the dire results that flow from capitalism’s fundamental inability to create a sustainable relationship with the natural world.
As I write this article, major urban areas are at risk of destruction and tens of thousands of people face evacuation from their homes and communities. Some 20,000 people, comprising half the population of the Northwest Territories, live in the city of Yellowknife, where a massive wildfire has led to an evacuation order for all residents.
Thousands of people are being airlifted out of Yellowknife, but even larger numbers have left by road, “driving hundreds of kilometres to safety, as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing.”1 Al Jazeera interviewed one resident of the city, Tebbia Teoncey, who stated that “nobody envisioned an event of this scale. It’s still really stressful. There are a lot of people still left in Yellowknife that are freaking out.”2
The federal government could offer only vague expressions of sympathy and a dubious assurance that “we will do whatever it takes to make sure you can return to your communities and livelihoods as quickly as possible.”3 The premier of the Northwest Territories was reduced to acknowledging that “we’re all tired of the word unprecedented, yet there is no other way to describe this situation in the Northwest Territories.”4
As this unfolds, the province of British Columbia has declared a state of emergency, as the “worst wildfire season in modern history tears through swaths of the western province, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.”5 On August 19, CBC News reported “the loss of multiple homes and structures in West Kelowna and parts of the Shuswap.”6
Travel to British Columbia’s southern interior has been restricted, with all temporary accommodation facilities that would normally be used by tourists reserved for the evacuees. Some “30,000 people have been told to leave their homes, and a further 36,000 have been told to get ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”7
More than 10,000 of those who have been evacuated were in the Kelowna region and, as I write this, that city of nearly 150,000 continues to be threatened by the fires. The situation in British Columbia has reached the point where the federal government has decided to deploy troops to assist the evacuation process.
By June, the absolutely unprecedented scale and severity of this year’s Canadian wildfire season was already being felt across North America. Under the impact of a prevailing weather pattern, “the US experienced its worst toxic air pollution from wildfire smoke in its recent recorded history…with people in New York exposed to levels of pollution more than five times above the national air quality standard.”8
Marshall Burke, an environmental scientist at Stanford University who helped monitor the spread of the smoke, told the Guardian: “It’s hard to believe to be honest, we had to quadruple check it to see if it was right. We have not seen events like this, or even close to this, on the east coast before. This is a historic event.”9 He noted that “the levels yesterday were quite dangerous, particularly if you are in a vulnerable group.… I expect we will see an uptick in respiratory hospitalizations, pre-term births and, sadly, mortalities.”10
There is, indeed, absolutely no doubt that we are experiencing a huge climate driven escalation of the wildfire phenomenon:
Federal data reveals just how devastating this wildfire season has already been with more than 5,500 fires reported so far—events that have burned approximately 13.4 million hectares. That stunning figure is significantly more than the 10-year average of 2.2 million hectares burned in any given year. It also easily dwarfs the previous record of 7.6 million hectares reported in 1989—and the season isn’t even over yet.11
The present catastrophe shows the web of causality that marks the onset of climate change. High levels of combustibility have been generated by warmer temperatures and dry conditions that have greatly facilitated the spread of fire. Once this got underway, however, the wildfires went from being an effect of climate change to a cause of its intensification.
In July, “Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service found that accumulated carbon emissions from Canadian wildfires had soared to 290 megatons in just the first seven months of 2023.… That is already more than double Canada’s previous whole-year record and accounts for over 25 percent of the global total year-to-date.”12
Wildfires, like other climate impacts, play out along the fault lines of social and racial inequality that mark this society. The legacy of colonial dispossession is especially telling in the present situation. In July, it was reported that, while Indigenous people make up only about 5 percent of the population in Canada, “42 percent of wildfire evacuations have been from communities that are more than half Indigenous.”13
In this situation, “106 wildfires have affected 93 First Nations communities this year, and there have been 64 evacuations involving almost 25,000 people, according to Indigenous Services Canada.”14 Moreover, “it’s not uncommon for Indigenous communities to evacuate repeatedly.… Evacuation database found that 16 communities were evacuated five or more times from 1980–2021—all but two of them First Nations reserves.”15 Indigenous people in Canada are, quite literally, in the line of fire.
The term tipping point is usually employed to describe decisive and irreversible developments that occur as the process of climate change unfolds. We may think of the shutting down of an ocean current or the collapse of a polar ice sheet. The present wildfires suggest, however, that there are also tipping points when it comes to impacts on human populations. Vast conflagrations are forcing the evacuation of urban populations and choking cities hundreds of miles from any fire activity. The destruction and dislocation that climate change brings with it is impacting our lives in ways we hadn’t considered, and this will only intensify in the period ahead.
Profits vs. Life
In this dire situation, it is horribly instructive to note the ghoulish work of the fossil fuel lobby. The Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), “an Alberta provincial government corporation formed to promote the province’s fossil fuel industry, in part by fighting what it has described as ‘domestic and foreign-funded campaigns against Canada’s oil and gas industry,’” is particularly worth considering.16
On July 20, as the wildfires spread out of control, the CEC put out an article with a headline crowing “Canada’s oil and gas sector barrels ahead with record annual exports.”17 The subheading proclaims proudly that “every Canadian should be aware that our largest industry continues to thrive.” The article even celebrates the proliferation of the production of ‘dirty oil,’ noting that “Canada’s oil production has doubled since 2010–mostly due to oil sands investment.”18
The CEC cynically insists that massive oil and gas exports are needed “to fund key Canadian priorities like hospitals, schools and social programs.”19 It also deplores timid efforts by the federal government to address climate change on the grounds that they would “obviously take away our leading source of growth.”20
The government of Alberta is an outstandingly shameless enabler of capitalism’s worst instincts. Premier Danielle Smith, her long and dismal record of climate denial notwithstanding, is politically unable to completely dismiss the significance of climate change at the present time. She has, however, done everything possible to divert attention from the issue, even going so far as to ostentatiously bring in arson investigators in a preposterous effort to divert attention.
The right-wing premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, has gone even further than Smith by adamantly refusing to acknowledge a connection between the fires and the climate emergency. In response to a suggestion by the leader of the opposition that he should draw such a connection, Ford condemned her for “politicizing wildfires.”21 Outdoing his Alberta counterpart in absurdity, he suggested that careless campers, rather than arsonists, were the source of the problem.22
Prime minister Justin Trudeau would never be caught peddling such crudities. Acknowledging the reality of climate change is a key part of his “progressive” credentials. He declares that “Canada understands that if you don’t have a plan to tackle climate change, then you don’t have a plan to create jobs and economic growth. Canada is a committed partner in the global fight against climate change, and together we will build a cleaner and more prosperous future for all.”23
Yet, for all his rhetoric, Trudeau’s government loyally serves fossil fuel interests. As Todd Gordon and Geoffrey McCormack point out in Briarpatch Magazine, a “key pillar of the state and capitalists’ response to Canadian capitalism’s crisis is to realize profits abroad through the expansion of oil and gas exports. Canada has one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, and the investments already sunk into the sector are greater than those of any other in the Canadian economy.”24
In 2017, Trudeau received a standing ovation from a gathering of oil industry representatives in Texas, when he declared that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”25 That statement is a much better indication of the motivations of Trudeau’s Liberal government than any of his earnest statements on the need to address climate change.
In his book, Forces of Production, Climate Change and Canadian Fossil Fuel Capitalism, Nicolas Graham provides a “concrete-complex analysis of fossil capitalism in action” and an “analysis of the infrastructures that surround, process and move mined carbon in Canada.” It all rings entirely true when we consider the unfolding wildfire catastrophe.26
Graham notes that “Canada is currently the fourth largest producer and third largest exporter of oil (and natural gas) in the world,” with a particular emphasis on the production of some of the most highly polluting products on the market.27 He draws out the scale of capital investment in fossil fuel production and the vast infrastructure that has been created around it. There is, as he puts it, a “contradiction between the quest to valorize massive, fixed capital investments and the requirement to decarbonize energy in a rapid and socially just manner.”28
In order to safeguard investments and preserve the flow of profits, fossil fuel companies in Canada have developed a highly sophisticated strategy of delaying effective action on climate, while simultaneously promoting notions of “clean growth” and “tech fix.” Graham points out that “such an approach simply does not square with the scientific consensus on the scale and time frame for transition beyond carbon.”29 However, an elaborate network of corporate interests, governments, and private agencies has developed to aggressively advance this very approach, with all its deadly consequences.
The enormity of the wildfire crisis across Canada, along with other shattering impacts on an international scale, gives us a glimpse into how climate change is advancing with a terrible speed and unimaginable consequences for human populations. I’m far from suggesting that there has been no serious action on climate or denying the inspiring movements that have emerged. However, this qualitative change in the situation does generate the need to consider the forms and methods of resistance that must now develop.
First, it must surely be clear that any hopes of modifying capitalism in ways that render it environmentally friendly need to be laid to rest. The liberal NGOs may hope they can rub shoulders at international summits with world leaders and fossil fuel lobbyists and instill in them a responsible sense of climate justice. Yet, the utter failure to act as the climate crisis spins out of control is proof that such polite pressure tactics can only fail.
In his Capitalism in the Anthropocene, John Bellamy Foster correctly concludes that capitalism is an “irrational system of artificially stimulated growth, economic waste, financialized wealth, and extreme inequality that needs to be overturned if we are to create a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality.” The system, he asserts, is now “ecological rifts and disruptions, both within each and every ecosystem and on the level of the planet as a whole.”30
The present wildfire crisis in Canada is the most powerful confirmation of Foster’s contentions and we are long past the point where any basis for accepting notions of green capitalism can be entertained. The need for a clear anticapitalist perspective within climate movements is a pressing one and we are living at a time when the ideas of ecosocialism have come into their own.
Second, the need to advance mass action strategies, including the strike weapon, in order to stay the hand of the climate criminals, has taken on the greatest urgency imaginable. We must build upon the present levels of mobilization regarding the climate and compel vital measures to curtail carbon emissions. We must shut down the reckless round of oil and gas exploration and production that is now underway. We must target and bring to a halt destructive fossil fuel projects that are in the works or under consideration. We must also win all possible measures of transition to renewable energy sources.
Third, we must appreciate that the escalating impacts of climate change will deeply impact the nature of the class struggle in society. As we confront wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, floods, and devastating storms, the deep inequalities of this society will pose the question of who is left in harm’s way and who is provided the means to recover from climate events.
Without fighting for our demands with powerful struggles, healthcare systems and public services will collapse in the face of disaster, while those whose homes and jobs have been destroyed will be left without support and the shattering impacts of the worsening situation will be marked by outright social abandonment.
This article focuses on a climate event unfolding in Canada, but we must, of course, recognize that the broader crisis is impacting a world that has been shaped by a system of imperialism. The climate struggle will have to be based on an unwavering commitment to international solidarity.
Countries that have been impoverished by imperialist powers must have the resources to protect their populations. The issue of debt cancellation takes on a renewed urgency as climate impacts intensify. Systems of racist exclusion must be dismantled as climate refugees seek the means to survive.
Last week, I saw a photo of people in Kelowna, British Columbia, gathered together at night on the shore of a lake. Across the water, the trees and buildings were being consumed by a vast fire that was giving off massive columns of smoke. They were aware that their lives have drastically changed and they could only have been wondering what comes next.
Canada’s unprecedented wildfires drive home the harsh realities of climate change, in all their enormity. We are fighting an incorrigibly destructive social and economic system, but we are also, at the same time, engaged in a struggle for survival.