The economic and ecological crises of capital have long been intertwined. This can be seen not least in the heat-induced mass deaths among poor and vulnerable sections of the population – and not only in the Global South, as Tomasz Konicz argues in his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”
The climate crisis has long been claiming lives on a massive scale. This year, too, hundreds of homeless people are likely to fall victim to the literally deadly heat that strikes large parts of the United States every year. Last year, some 1,500 deaths were recorded across the U.S. that were directly related to heat waves; these continue to reach record levels, particularly in the South and West of the country. About half of these heat deaths were homeless. It is thus precisely the poorest of the poor who are the first to fall victim to the full-blown climate crisis.
But no one actually knows exactly how many homeless people perish in the heat each year, as many cases are simply not registered. Every year during the increasing heat waves, dead people are found in tent camps or outside soup kitchens, and they don’t always make it into statistics as victims of the weather. Pauperized people in cities like Phoenix, in the western desert state of Arizona, are particularly vulnerable – temperatures there can now reach more than 45 degrees Celsius. It’s pretty hard to find a cool place in the summer without being immediately evicted by the police, one homeless man complained to the news agency AP.
In tents on the sidewalks or in blaringly hot parking lots where homeless people in Los Angeles and Phoenix attempt to survive, the heat quickly becomes life-threatening. The increasing periods of heat now result in more deaths in the U.S. than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined. In Arizona alone, whose capital Phoenix is considered one of the most heat-prone major cities in the U.S., 339 heat-related deaths were officially recorded in 2021, 130 of whom were homeless. In the gambling city of Las Vegas, many homeless people take shelter literally underground – dwelling in sewers that offer some protection from the killer heat.
Economic-ecological crisis complex unleashed
The economic and ecological crises of capital have long been intertwined. The pandemic-induced surge in the crisis, along with rising rents on the overheated U.S. housing market, have led to a rapid increase in the number of homeless people, now numbering more than half a million – and facing extreme weather conditions. Thus, as new heat records continue to be set, the number of heat deaths in the United States is also increasing: by 56 percent between 2018 and 2021. A homeless person is 200 times more likely to succumb to heat-related death than a renter or apartment dweller.
The capitalist system is unable to restrict the waste of raw materials and the burning of fossil energy sources due to capital’s compulsion to exploitation, which manifests itself as “economic growth” being fetishized from all sides. That in turn manifests itself in globally increasing CO2 emissions every year. Consequently, even in reacting to the emerging phenomenon of heat death, politics is only laboring away at symptoms rather than fighting the cause of the climate crisis, the burning of humanity’s ecological livelihood caused by capital’s growth compulsion.
In the United States, “cold rooms” are now being set up for the homeless in endangered regions, while volunteers supply their tent camps with water. At the same time, the problem of periods of life-threatening heat is increasingly spreading. Cities and regions that in the past were little affected – such as Boston, Portland and Seattle – are now being forced to take countermeasures to ensure the survival of pauperized urban dwellers, particularly in extreme weather. New York, for example, released a report in mid-June on 370 heat-related deaths last year, noting an increasing number of hot days in recent years (while the number of very hot days remained constant).
Besides these direct deaths, prolonged periods of heat also indirectly lead to higher mortality rates, as sick people with cardiovascular problems are more likely to succumb to their ailments in such extreme weather conditions. In addition, older people over 50 and overweight people are particularly affected; this applies disproportionately often to the pauperized strata of the population, especially in the United States: they simply cannot afford a healthy diet. The infamous 2003 heatwave in Europe, for instance, resulted in a total of 70,000 deaths. Currently, due to the very early onset of the heatwave, authorities in France are seeking to set up “cold rooms” similar to those now being used in the United States.
Ecological unsustainability of capitalist “development”
The homeless and working poor of India or Pakistan can only dream of such measures as cold rooms. A devastating, historically unprecedented heat wave hit the Indian subcontinent this spring that already reached the limits of the affected people’s ability to survive. Temperatures in some particularly hard-hit regions reached up to 45 degrees Celsius in March and 49 degrees Celsius in April. Due to the lack of data collection, there are no reliable figures on the number of heat-related deaths in the region, but estimates put the number of victims in the thousands.
Construction workers in the south Indian city of Chennai told media that performing their work in the heat was nearly impossible. One worker who produces steel frames in 12-hour shifts complained of temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius last March, far above the usual temperature level of around 32 degrees. He was no longer able to assemble the metal frames without burning his fingers, the worker said, complaining of dizziness. A number of construction workers collapsed under the heat, he said. The interviewee complained that he could not afford to take breaks or slacken his concentration because there are now “machines that can do my work.” This summer had tested his endurance to the limit.
The newly industrializing country of India, which strives for high annual economic growth to maintain social stability, is also one of the largest consumers of hard coal – and demand for this climate-damaging energy source rises sharply during hot spells, when all the businesses and citizens who can afford air conditioning systems increase their energy requirements.
The ecological unsustainability of capitalist “development” becomes glaringly obvious in such hot phases: The economic growth on which wage-earners in capitalism are dependent, since they can only survive if their labor power is utilized by capital in commodity production for the purpose of profit maximization, deprives them at the same time of the ecological foundations of life.
The political geography of the cooling limit temperature
In fact, the heat in India is already life-threatening, not only for people in poor health or the working poor, such as in construction. The increasing extreme weather events threaten to make entire regions uninhabitable, as the human body in the manifest climate crisis on the Indian subcontinent is approaching the limit of its ability to function. The so-called cooling limit temperature is the core value that marks the limit of habitability of a region hit by frequent heat waves. In this context: A cooling limit temperature, around 35 degrees Celsius at 100 percent humidity, marks the limit beyond which it is no longer possible for the human body to regulate its own temperature by sweating. Heat death follows after a few hours at 35 degrees and 100 percent humidity.
The lower the humidity, the higher the cooling limit temperature. In the case of high humidity, for example in the tropics, this means lower temperatures than in a desert region, for example. For the Indian subcontinent, which is supplied with moisture from the particularly warm Indian Ocean, this biological limit of habitability is already dramatically being approached, Indian media warned, referring in early June to corresponding studies.
In India’s humid coastal regions in particular, the cooling limit temperature already frequently reaches 32 degrees Celsius, which can impair the normal functioning of the human body over longer periods of time. Four of India’s six largest cities, home to tens of millions of people, have also exceeded this limit at least once in recent years, including the capital New Delhi. In the eastern Indian coastal city of Kolkata, whose catchment area is home to more than 14 million people, the cooling limit temperature of 32 degrees Celsius is now exceeded almost every year. It is therefore foreseeable that parts of India will indeed become uninhabitable in the coming decades.
With air conditioning an unattainable “luxury” for most poor citizens due to India’s existing “wealth disparity,” “millions of Indians face death from heat-related problems” in the future, media in India warned. If the government fails to find “cost-effective ways” to provide air conditioning or cooling zones to the population, the population of 1.7 billion would soon die en masse. That is why “an end to climate change is the only solution.”
Note from the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de