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Cops, Climate, COVID: Why There Is Only One Crisis

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are both provoked by natural phenomena, the dangers they present are just as political as the crisis of police violence.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images

Cops, Climate, COVID: Why There Is Only One Crisis

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are both provoked by natural phenomena, the dangers they present are just as political as the crisis of police violence.


This piece is a commentary that originally published at APA Blog and has been adapted for republication.

In the United States, protests against a recent spate of police killings and controversies, including the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville Kentucky and of George Floyd in Minneapolis, set off protests across the nation, which then spread across the globe. All 54 states on the African continent united in response to demand urgent debate in the United Nations’ Human Rights Council over police brutality. State violence and anti-Black racism are facing a global crisis of legitimacy.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are both provoked by natural phenomena, the dangers they present are just as political as the crisis of police violence. Moreover, these crises overlap and compound each other in important ways. The size, scope, and longevity of the suffering they trigger will be largely decided by the institutional responses to challenges and the power dynamics that structure them. A historic debate about the relationship of famine to colonialism and democracy helps show why. 

A starting point: the much discussed distinction between two different approaches to explaining famines. The first approach appeals to food scarcity: Famine involves starvation, and starvation is lack of food. The “food availability approach” has been assumed in classic works of economics and philosophy, perhaps most famously by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population. It focuses on phenomena in the natural world that could plausibly explain contractions in food supply, such as droughts, temperature variations, and pest infestations.

It’s hard to dispute the plausibility of this approach. Other things being equal, surely anything disrupting food production in a region would make famine more likely. Prominent multinational institutions like the World Bank and large tech companies like Google and Amazon are right to include measures of rainfall patterns and crop health in their AI famine prediction tools.

Carly A. Phillips, et al., “Compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nature Climate Change, May 15, 2020.

Other things, however, often aren’t equal. Amartya Sen gives two examples from colonial history, both involving the British empire, in “Famines,” the inaugural annual lecture of the Development Studies Association he gave in 1979. The first: a famine in Ireland following a potato crop failure in 1822, when people starved to death even during a glut of corn supply. Here, the food availability decline approach fails entirely. The second concerns the Bengal famine of 1943, in which 3 million people starved to death even though food production had actually increased relative to 1941, when there was no famine at all.

So, food availability isn’t what went wrong. What did? Sen calls his alternative the “entitlement approach.” Here’s how it works: we have direct causal powers on ourselves and our environment. If we were all subsistence farmers, then maybe it would be enough to focus on these to explain our eating or starving. But part of the reason we don’t all have to be subsistence farmers are the indirect powers we have, via our access to a global system of production and distribution. People get resources (like food) from that distribution system by being politically positioned in the right sort of way—that is, being able to make claims on that distribution system that are effective in moving resources into their community or household. 

In a system of production and distribution that functions like ours, such claims are mediated by money. In the formal economy, people sell their labor power to employers, who compensate them with wages. In the informal economy, people exchange these claim rights in different ways, often more directly. Whatever way you get the dollars, getting food requires handing dollars to someone who has food—that is, making effective claims on the food distribution network usually involves dollars.

This way of framing things, unlike the food availability approach, does succeed in explaining the suffering and death in Ireland and Bengal. Sen’s lecture recounts legendary economist David Ricardo’s address to Parliament in 1822, explaining that the potato failure led to starvation despite an abundance of corn because Irish workers’ wages were tied to potato revenue. The potato crop failure didn’t lead to an inadequate supply of food—it led to an inadequate supply of wages, which serve as the default basis for claim rights over food in a capitalist system. 

In both Bengal and Ireland, people starved to death despite an abundance of food. The legal structure acted to protect the food supply from the people dying of hunger, rather than to protect hungry people from starvation. Economic, agricultural, and military problems created these crises, but were not in and of themselves decisive. The crucial famine-making ingredient was their toxic combination with a capitalist economy as a backdrop, the indifference of colonial elites to the evaporation of the claim rights of colonized people (thus, functionally, to their slow and horrific death), and their dogged determination to protect property, financial, and military interests.

But once you frame the problem in terms of effective claim rights (“entitlements” for Sen), its political dimension becomes clearer. In Bengal, famine deaths were unequally distributed. The city of Kolkata (then Calcutta) was spared the worst thanks to heavy subsidies in its food market, which enabled residents to survive wage fluctuations. By contrast, rural Bengal did not enjoy such market protections. The British colonial authorities closed alternatives by expropriating rice stocks and destroyed large boats (which could have been used for fishing) in order to prevent a Japanese invasion.

Famines are not merely conceptually helpful for learning about the political dimensions and stakes of the rapidly combining COVID-19 and climate crises. Famines are the stakes of the crises. Even before the pandemic broke out, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) warned that 135 million people faced “crisis levels of hunger or worse,” owing to political conditions that climate-related shocks had contributed to. After the onset of the pandemic, this number doubled. Add to this some 821 million people who are “chronically hungry.” Throw in, for good measure, a casual glance at the image provided above, taken from the appropriately titled commentary “Compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic.” Without the proper political systems in place, we can expect these stressors to provoke crises of “entitlement”—i.e., famine conditions, on Sen’s view. The executive director of the WFP is not being hyperbolic, then, when he suggests that we are on the brink of a famine of “Biblical proportions.” 

The lesson Sen takes from his political approach to thinking about famine is the importance of democracy. He points out that India, in particular, has not a comparable famine since political independence from the British empire, despite droughts and other variation in ecological conditions. He attributes this positive trajectory to the transition from authoritarian colonial rule to independent democracy, which, he argues, sets up the political incentives by which claim rights on “entitlements” for basic things like food are likely to be effective—presumably, whether or not wages decline, and whether or not capitalism obtains.

Sen’s point has some empirical backing: Famine, after all, used to be much more common. Alex de Waal, conflict and peacebuilding researcher and current executive director of the World Peace Foundation, estimates that upwards of 100 million people died in the many famines in the 140 years from 1870 to 2010 in his book Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Almost all of these deaths occurred between 1870-1980, which closely overlaps the years in which most of the world was formally governed by colonial powers. But democracy is not in and of itself a panacea: Nigeria and Haiti, which the WFP lists among the countries most at risk for current and future famine, are at least nominally democratic.

Throughout the world, people’s access to claim rights on the distribution system are collapsing. The United Kingdom and the United States are on pace to face record levels of joblessness; in much of the Global South, the policies instituted to control the spread of the virus are wreaking havoc in their gargantuan informal economies. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and are poised to snatch even more political control. And, just as with famine, the potentially impending collapse in the ability to claim food, goods, and even housing has a political explanation. Though the lockdown has been hazardous for every economy, the United States is expected to have unemployment rates reach 25 or even 30 percent while other countries like Germany expect numbers in the single digits. One thing that sets these two countries apart: the legal labor protections that constrain employers’ firing decisions. Such protections are robust in parts of Europe, China, and Argentina, but weak in the United States and nearly nonexistent on the African continent and in much of the Middle East. Where strong legal labor protections exist, they do not represent the special favor of elites but instead the terrain of political power constructed by the accumulation of centuries of successful, militant organizing by working people and communities.

The political dimensions of our current crisis are particularly exposed in the United States, whose long history of racial domination looms decisively over its distributions of political power – a social order maintained and cemented by a long history of policing. 

As in other countries whose political structure makes use of regular police violence, like Brazil and Kenya, the COVID-19 lockdowns have not stopped police from using lethal force. The call to police resulting in the death George Floyd was based on the caller’s allegation that he attempted to pay for items with a counterfeit bill – that is, in protection of the distribution system from supposedly illegitimate claims. In response, President Donald Trump tweeted an assurance that military support was on its way, and insinuated that they were or would be authorized to use lethal force saying: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. 

The message from the ruling class is clear. When times get hard – and they will, as climate and COVID compound each other – the state will act to defend the interests it has chosen to defend.  The rich will get secret unaccountable bailouts and the poor will get a stimulus package of tear gas and rubber bullets. If the military fires upon civilians to prevent “looting” in the protests that are sure to continue –  as the President insinuated that he was prepared to order –  then protestors risk death in front of stocked shelves protected by the police, just like the colonial Irish subjects before them.

As the chart demonstrates, the climate and COVID-19 crises are combining and compounding each other. How they interact is, primarily, a question of whom and what the political system chooses to protect: and their continued defense of violent police demonstrates their answer. As the impacts accelerate, locusts will swarm, floods will come, and winds will blow. Our only hope of surviving the wrath of the natural world is wrestling back control of our political one.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.