Many countries around the world, including those claiming to be liberal democracies, are drifting toward authoritarianism. Also escalating are extreme weather events contributing to the global climate crisis. The book examines these two interconnected phenomena by focusing on catastrophic wildfires in Brazil, Australia and the United States. The introductory chapter lays out the overall arguments and explains the global impacts of wildfires. It urges the reader to think with and through fire to overcome the human-nature divide and blur boundaries between nations, continents, seas and atmospheres. Wildfires are treated as an omen of what is to come as the planet warms. They link the erosion of democratic principles with the corrosion of the environment and earth systems. And they challenge conventional governing logics of nation-states, urging us to reimagine how to act in the world politically, socially and spatially if we are to avert the looming ecological crisis.
The chapter focuses on the relationship between climate change and capitalism. Today, many political leaders – both in the global north and global south – are working explicitly and unashamedly on behalf of corporations including the enormously powerful agribusiness and fossil fuel industries. This collusion between politicians and corporations is linked to a recent surge in land grabbing, deforestation, and largely unregulated mining practices and extractive industries, all of which have contributed to the conditions in which catastrophic wildfires have blazed. Relatedly, many of today's antidemocratic leaders deny climate science and the responsibility of either governments or corporations in furthering environmental degradation. The cumulative result is the capture by corporations of governmental processes, laws and policies that are increasingly hostile toward the sustainability of environments and the human and nonhuman biological life that inhabit them.
The chapter argues that it is not coincidental that catastrophic wildfires – and climate change in general – is accompanied by a global rise in antidemocratic governance. I call this trend "free-market authoritarianism" to explicitly connect the history of neoliberalism and its promotion of inequality with antidemocratic practices such as defunding public education, censoring a free press, militarizing the police and suppressing voting rights. Not all of today's free-market authoritarian regimes look the same, with each country reflecting unique histories, values and ideologies. Despite these variations, I argue that common to authoritarian leaders is their promotion of ultranationalism, international isolationism and anti-environmental laws and policies. Anti-environmentalism appeals to businesses and the populist right that together shore up a leader's political support while also ensuring corporate financial backing. This chapter explores how anti-environmentalism has become a signature political weapon and strategy of the extreme right.
The chapter reveals the interconnections between two phenomena that are typically not discussed together. The first is authoritarian leaders' use of militarized police force against their own citizens to secure the economic profits of extractive capitalism, often justified by a call for "law and order". The second phenomenon is accelerating climate change, extreme weather conditions, and the number and intensity of catastrophic wildfires that disproportionately impact racialized and minority communities including immigrants. It is vital to see these two phenomena as integrally connected to better understand how environmental racism is implemented and manifested. The increasing deployment of state military force is key in monitoring these processes emerging in many countries around the world including Australia, the United States and Brazil. What unites far-right leaders is their disregard for democratic principles that include defending their citizens against environmental exploitation, degradation, suffering and long-term public health impacts.
Fire disrupts normal living. Be it California, Brazil or Australia the catastrophic wildfires of 2018-2020 have changed the landscape for generations, eviscerated fragile ecosystems, and caused the extinction of species that will never return. They also point to a "new normal" with communities poised to flee as outdoor annual temperatures rise exponentially. The next round of catastrophic fires is not a matter of if but when. This chapter discusses a future in which out-of-control fires will be a part of everyday life. Out of the blackened abyss, how can we imagine new ways of being in the world that nurtures humans and nonhumans in some sort of balanced coexistence? I conclude with a discussion of disruption and revolution in times of rising authoritarianism that points to a need to radically rethink our worldviews if we wish to turn the tide on climate change and make any measurable difference.