Antibody Politics

Razmig Keucheyan, Nature is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology, trans. David Broder (Cambridge: Polity, 2016)

In contrast to Fossil Capital below, I haven’t been able to find any previous reviews of the English edition of this concise intervention by Razmig Keucheyan, even though he’s quite well known for The Left Hemisphere. It seems timely to say something about it, in light of this year’s hurricane season in the Greater Caribbean. The calamity in Puerto Rico is still unfolding as I write, more than a month after Hurricane Maria. The damage caused by the preceding hurricanes Harvey and Irma was estimated at somewhere in the region of $200bn in the United States. Keucheyan asks: can expensive disasters like these, intensified by climate change, come to pose a threat to capitalism? Are they signs that capitalism might be running out of ecological rope, and so destroying itself? Contra Jason Moore (and many others), he answers: no. 

Environmental blowback doesn’t threaten capitalism per se because of “the ‘antibodies’ secreted by the system” (p. 60). Keucheyan identifies two (he doesn’t say, I think, whether they’re necessarily the only two): financialization and militarisation. On the one hand, insurance and reinsurance; on the other, scrambled post-Clausewitzian quasi-wars, counter-insurgency operations, and miscellaneous securitization strategies. Thus Keucheyan:

The capitalist exploitation of nature has reached such a degree, after two centuries [sic], that we could imagine this system leading to its own self-destruction … the environmental crisis getting its own back on the modern world (be it called ‘capitalism’ or otherwise), once and for all. … This catastrophism is mistaken. Capitalism will not die a natural death, for one simple reason: it has the means to adapt to the environmental crisis. … In truth, capitalism is not only capable of adapting to the environmental crisis, but—on top of that—of profiting from it. … The ecological crisis … will perhaps allow capitalism to find lasting solutions to the falling rate of profit, commodifying sectors of social and natural life that have up till now been protected from the logic of capital. (pp. 151–52)

Nothing is inevitable. Only a social effort “to pull apart the triptych of capitalism, nature and the state and to prevent this latter working in the interests of capital,” as Keucheyan sweepingly puts it (p. 153), and not the working-out of contradictions or tendencies already visible or latent within the system, offers alternatives to the capitalist organisation of the nonhuman world.

One obvious way to think about this thesis is to consider the southeastern US—the place where the capitalist core fronts on the lively geography of the tropics. This characteristically pretty National Geographic chart shows how American “weather disasters,” especially hurricanes, have intensified over the last generation, even before Maria hit. (Cp. Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, the most compelling broad account of the spiralling costs of climate-related impacts that I know.) Keucheyan’s aim is to trace the mechanisms whereby the monetary costs of ecological catastrophes can be absorbed by insurance companies in the first instance; thence by the giant reinsurance businesses; and finally—thanks to the development of new financial instruments whereby insurance risks are traded rather like shares—by the financial markets in toto. That matters because the markets have a far larger capacity than even the richest single companies to absorb big losses. And not only to absorb them, but to turn them into opportunities for productive investment.

This is all very plausible. My reservations about Keucheyan’s account have to do with the relative paucity of crunchy empirical detail that he offers about the ins and outs of the process. One of his sources is a long essay from 2007 by Michael Lewis, “In Nature’s Casino.” It’s classic Lewis: a thrillingly readable and funny tale of brilliant outsiders discerning a conceptual blindspot in the finance industry, and taking heroically profitable advantage of it. It’s the story of the creation of “catastrophe bonds” in the 1990s, and their vindication by the experience of hurricane Katrina. The only slightly un-Lewis like thing about the essay is the degree of complacency with which it ends (“Seo” is John Seo, a pioneer of cat bond investment):

Big investors weren’t scared off by Katrina. Just the reverse. It has led many of them to turn to Seo and others like him to make money from catastrophe. And they probably will. But what interests Seo more is what might happen in the bargain, that the financial consequences of catastrophe will be turned into something they have never been: boringly normal.

Can Wall Street really incorporate, normalise and absorb within itself the financial risks of extreme weather in the way Lewis then imagined? There are… problems with that hypothesis. A year later, of course, the limits to the financial markets’ powers of self-correction in general would be radically exposed, as Lewis himself chronicled brilliantly in The Big Short, my favourite book about the 2008 crash.

More fundamentally: (1) “In Nature’s Casino” says almost nothing about climate change (just that “The rise in hurricane size and frequency [of the early 2000s] was no longer ignorable. … The root cause might be global warming or merely the routine ups and downs of temperatures in the North Atlantic Basin”—as if those two options didn’t have exactly opposite implications for cat bond traders).* (2) It focuses almost entirely on Atlantic hurricanes, not Pacific typhoons; to acknowledge the latter is immediately to recognise the unspoken reliance of John Seo’s models on the active upkeep of a geopolitical order that ensures potential losses are far lower when a cyclone threatens Manila than Miami. And (3) it says nothing about the part played by the US state as insurer of last resort—even though that’s a factor that could change much more rapidly than the relative fortunes of Floridians and Luzonese.

To say this is to turn to the notorious craziness of the US’s National Flood Insurance Program, which provides subsidies for the rebuilding of flooded properties—including some 30,000 “severe repetitive loss properties” that flood constantly, and so gradually absorb more federal money than the properties themselves were ever worth. The economic rationality of Wall Street’s cat bonds rests upon a foundation of economically “irrational” but socially mandated investment like this. As is always the case, the supposed natural free play of capitalist self-interest (which proclaims its autonomous power to manage and normalise ecological disasters) scarcely conceals the underlying communal, political mechanisms that in fact determine the parameters of the “free market.”

In short, what Keucheyan’s account of the financialization of catastrophe could have become was a critical revision of Lewis’s account: one that zoomed outward from “Nature’s Casino” to the streets outside. That would mean detailed analysis of the ties both between Wall Street and state power, and between weather events and climate—as well as the politics of disaster reconstruction classically analysed by Naomi Klein. But although the critical dimension is present and correct in Nature is a Battlefield, the book lacks Lewis’s intimacy with the processes of capitalist investment. That’s why (for instance) the NFIP never even gets a mention. “The central question for any ecological movement worthy of the name is the question of the state,” Keucheyan writes (p. 102), and Nature is a Battlefield points in all the right directions. But some future writer is going to have to go further in tracing a critical political ecology of the relations between weather disasters, markets, and the state.

(One last general point about all this. Does the unreason of the NFIP actually expose a fundamental point of weakness in the capitalist management of climate change? Probably not. It looks more like a bug than a feature, a local symptom of bureaucratic and electoral inertia in the US; there’s no UK equivalent, for one thing. In other words, at some point the US government will presumably stop paying to rebuild houses that flood every five minutes, and homeowners and insurers will have to take on the losses themselves. But that’s not to prejudge the enormous question of what will happen as sea level rise increasingly overruns the vast share of the world’s infrastructure that’s built along vulnerable coasts. The NFIP might at least be a telling symptom of the bravado that has become both essential to keeping the global economy ticking over in the face of climate risks, and a fundamental obstacle to mitigating those risks.)

Something similar to all of this applies to Nature is a Battlefield’s third chapter, on militarisation. (The first chapter, on environmental justice politics and “the intersection of class, race and gender” with ecology (p. 28), is a different beast, a clear, more or less standalone discussion of the topic that you could easily put on a student reading list.) Keucheyan makes the intriguing claim that foundational Marxists from Engels to Gramsci were all scholars of military strategy, and that Western Marxism’s lack of attention to the art of war has been a significant theoretical blindspot (p. 149). That could well be true, but the chapter is in truth a bit of a miscellaneous one, albeit full of material that takes on ever more depressing global resonance—like India’s attempt to fence in Bangladesh.


*Vox has published a thoughtful, cautious discussion of the possible influence of climate change on the 2017 hurricane season: “The more volatile the phenomenon, the harder it is to detect trends,” it notes. And hurricanes are an extremely volatile phenomenon.