The adaptation framework has been used to privatize public services, extract resources, and muster new reserve armies of labor. People, not capital, should determine how to reconfigure their lives in the face of climate change.
The Great Adaptation: Climate, Capitalism and Catastrophe
by Romain Felli, trans. David Broder
Verso, 2021, 192 pp.
Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh
by Kasia Paprocki
Cornell University Press, 2021, 270 pp.
In the early 1980s, the World Bank approached Bangladesh with an offer. The bank would loan the government millions of dollars to turn rice fields along the country’s coast into saltwater ponds for raising shrimp to export. Typical of the structural adjustment programs pushed by the bank at the time, the “Shrimp Culture Project” made a few landowners fabulously rich, while robbing small farmers of their land and leaving farmworkers with little means of subsistence. Dispossession was both overt and insidious. Where land wasn’t stolen through force or deceit, shrimp ponds blocked irrigation canals, destroying the food and water sources that had sustained rural life for centuries. Small farmers were forced to sell their plots and seek work in Dickensian cities.
Today Bangladesh is better known for staring down climate catastrophe than for exporting shrimp—experts say the low-lying country could lose 17 percent of its land to rising sea levels by 2050. As the government scrambles to respond, shrimp aquaculture is being rebranded as “climate adaptation.” Turning more rice paddies into shrimp farms, the thinking goes, may be a way to minimize or even capitalize on the damaging effects of encroaching seas.
Beyond Bangladesh, the stunning inadequacy of state decarbonization commitments and the resulting routine disaster means that adaptation is well on its way to becoming the centerpiece of international climate policy. Yet it receives relatively little scrutiny. Once a year at the UN’s climate summit, activists and negotiators from vulnerable regions demand that the United States and Europe meet their obligation to provide $100 billion a year in “climate finance.” But these occasional showdowns over dollars sidestep questions about what those dollars do. Over 80 percent of climate finance is disbursed in the form of loans, many of them non-concessional, which risk snaring recipients in a debt trap. And the programs funded are often used to support economic development projects whose efficacy for actually building resilience against the social effects of climate change is questionable.
Two recent books launch a fierce attack against the dominant climate adaptation regime. Kasia Paprocki’s Threatening Dystopias analyzes more than two centuries of agrarian transformation in Bangladesh. Her work shows how recent adaptation projects resemble the colonial extraction that helped make the country so vulnerable to climate change in the first place. In The Great Adaptation, Romain Felli cites David Harvey to argue that “accumulation by dispossession” has been a defining feature of climate adaptation from the beginning. Written for non-experts, the book follows work by Naomi Klein and McKenzie Funk, but with an important distinction—the “disaster capitalism” Felli describes is advanced not by hedge funds or oil companies but by the Rockefeller Foundation, Swiss re-insurers, the UN Environment Programme, and other seemingly more innocuous players. But what most distinguishes Felli’s account, which was first published in French in 2016 and is now available in English, is his focus on labor. In his telling, capital is using climate change not only to privatize public services and extract resources, but also to muster new reserve armies of labor. “To put it bluntly, the shock of global warming is being used to extend market mechanisms and to increase the integration of marginal populations into the global market,” Felli writes. “Adaptation to climate change is thus part of the extension of the market and—on that basis—of the primitive accumulation of capital.”
Adaptation has become synonymous with capitalist development, but our future depends on winning something better. Together, these books are part of a renewed effort on the part of scholars and activists to politicize climate adaptation—to demand answers about what, exactly, adaptation looks like, why it is considered necessary, how it is carried out, and for whose benefit. In defiance of climate despair, Felli and Paprocki both argue that a more humane form of adaptation is possible, but only if ordinary people have the material power to decide what it looks like.
In The Great Adaptation, Felli traces the origins of climate adaptation as a concept, theory, and policy regime back to the early days of neoliberalism. By the middle of the 1970s, early evidence of global warming was calling capitalism’s long-term viability into question. In light of the greenhouse effect, it seemed reasonable to ask, was a fossil-fueled, growth-based economy compatible with a livable planet? Conventional scientific wisdom at the time held that tackling global warming would, at a minimum, mean regulating greenhouse gas emissions—if not more radical constraints on industry. Neoliberal economists then rising to prominence, like Thomas Schelling and William Nordhaus, sought to quash this line of thinking with a different solution: through a mix of market liberalization, technological innovation, and population control, they argued, capitalism could “adapt” to climate change’s effects while proving the superiority of free markets over Soviet-style state intervention. Their early proposals became a blueprint for future climate policy. The prioritization of adaptation over decarbonization not only gave capitalists an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels, but also helped bolster an idealized picture of the market as the source of solutions.
In their interventions, advocates for adaptation often downplayed the social causes of climate crises. Felli cites the brutal 1968–1974 famine in the Sahel, which quickly became a go-to case study for researchers studying how climate change might contribute to food shortages. The famine, one of several mid-century mass starvations, was caused principally by grain price hikes driven by “agriculture aimed at export rather than feeding the population,” Felli writes, citing climatologist Rolando García’s three-part report for the Aspen Institute and the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, published in the 1980s. The scientists who commissioned the report buried its findings and blamed the famine on other forces: climatic variability and overbreeding. Explaining famine in this way opened the door to measures designed to submit nature to rational control, including neo-Malthusian population control (including sterilization in exchange for food) and programs designed to replace peasant agriculture with industrialized farming.
For Felli, this example shows how focusing on climate change can blind us to other factors that contribute to a crisis, and thereby warp our response. The “immediate causes—wars, violence, dispossession, the processes of exclusion and marginalisation—disappear behind the grand narrative of global warming, to which is attributed an omnipotent role in determining human affairs.” It also creates new opportunities for capital expansion, as policymakers present the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy as the best way to adapt to variable weather. Felli cites numerous recent examples, including a “microinsurance” scheme in Ethiopia that compensates peasant farmers for climate-related losses while pulling them into global financial markets, and a “community-based” adaptation project in Turkey designed by UN Development Programme and Turkey’s Ministry of Environment in part to maintain low wages for Kurdish and Arab migrant workers. In these and other cases, climate adaptation provides an alibi for a development model that equates progress with the expansion of markets.
The neoliberal adaptation regime is on full display in Bangladesh today. But in Paprocki’s account, the relevant history begins in the eighteenth century when the East India Company colonized the Bengal Delta. In a familiar drama of enclosure, the British rulers condemned the region’s dense forests and shifting alluvial landscape as a wasteland—a “sluttish, careless, rotting abundance”—to be dredged, bushwhacked, and plowed into private property. For centuries after, however, the region’s most striking natural feature, the Sundarbans mangrove forest, continued to haunt the colonial, and later postcolonial, imagination as a place of dangerous uncertainty. Successive ruling classes experimented with different forms of landscape management, including embankments and Dutch-style “polders” in the mid-twentieth century. They transformed the landscape: one geographer estimated the Sundarbans shrank by half, as millions of acres were opened to cultivation.
The embankments fell into disrepair, cutting off water to some areas and waterlogging others. The World Bank’s Shrimp Culture Project emerged partly in response to these previous failed attempts to rationalize the delta. If shoddy infrastructure was making the soil too salty to farm, the thinking went, fields could become shrimp factories. Smallholders resisted the shift from rice to shrimp at every stage. But in the southwestern district of Khulna, where Paprocki conducted ethnographic research over several years, large landowners eventually seized the water flows, giving them “de facto control over production decisions in the entire area.” Soil salinity increased and the landscape transformed: fruit trees died, gardens stopped growing, and water could no longer be drawn from wells. The shrimp industry obliterated agrarian life and robbed people of the land, resources, and political power required to respond to environmental changes on their own terms.
Contemporary adaptation boosters invoke Bangladesh’s uncertain but catastrophic future (a quarter of the country underwater!) to push development projects that further integrate rural Bangladeshis into capitalist labor markets—skimming pond scum, beheading shrimp, or, more likely, stitching T-shirts in an urban garment factory. Paprocki’s field site in Khulna is “considered widely to be the most vulnerable region of the world’s most vulnerable country.” This rhetoric inherits the colonial view of Bengal: a dangerous landscape both promising riches and threatening ruin.
For Paprocki, it is precisely this sense of inevitable catastrophe that licenses the dispossession of “landless and land-poor” populations in the name of climate adaptation. Presenting southwestern Bangladesh as a hopeless region on the verge of collapse depoliticizes struggles over what the future ought to look like. This is perhaps Paprocki’s most important observation: dystopian climate predictions create a crisis atmosphere in which policies that benefit capital, not people, can be rammed through in the name of averting certain disaster.
There is an uncomfortable lesson here for the climate movement. From mainstream figures like Bill McKibben to leftists like Andreas Malm, climate activists often play up the cataclysmic danger of runaway warming to demand rapid emissions cuts. Doing so is entirely understandable. Rising global temperatures are already wreaking havoc, as supercharged storms, droughts, and wildfires devastate the places and people least responsible for climate change. The risk, however, is that casting climate change as an approaching apocalypse creates a situation in which anything might be done because something must be done immediately, to paraphrase E.P. Thompson. And when something must be done immediately, those with the most social power usually get to decide what it is. For this reason, demanding action by issuing doomsday predictions risks giving ideological cover to capitalist expansion, seen as the most realistic answer to a crisis demanding urgent action. By the same logic, socialist, and even social democratic, climate proposals appear too big, complicated, and far-sighted to take seriously.
Climate migration provides a stark example. There is little question that climate change will displace people. But overstating its role in causing migration obscures more immediate causes of displacement—neocolonial resource grabbing, neoliberal trade policy, and militarism. Compared to these problems, climate migration feels manageable—and even presents opportunities for the capitalist class. Felli notes that the World Bank and International Organization for Migration have begun to support migration as an adaptation strategy, not least because migrant workers make good neoliberal subjects. As one World Bank report put it, “The entrepreneurial endeavor of refugees . . . makes them a potentially important resource that can enhance the capacity of the hosting community to adapt to climate change.” In the United States and Europe, casting migrants as both a resource and a threat supports a simultaneously liberal and nativist border regime that keeps some migrants out and welcomes others as super-exploitable laborers.
Beyond migration, the threat of climate emergency allows capitalists to present exploitative projects as urgent and good for humanity. Elon Musk is free to treat workers like dirt because he’s producing electric cars; multinational mining corporations are allowed to trample on indigenous sovereignty to mine the lithium we need to produce the cars’ batteries; and banks can use references to green energy to push for the privatization of utilities in places like South Africa. This is not to say climate change is not shaping up to be catastrophic. It is just to say that emergency talk, especially talk that writes off a timely end to fossil capitalism as a fantasy, can easily provide rhetorical cover for new rounds of plunder.
In her book, Paprocki offers a glimpse of one alternative. Before beginning her research, Paprocki spent years working with collectives of landless people in Bangladesh, together known as Nijera Kori (“we do it ourselves” in Bengali). Their struggle against dispossession rests on a vision of the future that differs sharply from what is offered by the dominant climate adaptation regime: a return to the rice farming and equitable land ownership that once defined the region’s agrarian economy. The idea that a post-capitalist future might look like an agrarian past has long come under fire from Marxists—for some good reasons (modernization promises to relieve a lot of drudgery) and some less convincing reasons (the path to communism is necessarily a two-stage process that requires peasants first to become proletarians). But land reform has always been central to the socialist project, especially in postcolonial contexts, and Nijera Kori stresses that land reclamation is about creating a better future, not just returning to the past. Paprocki doesn’t argue that everyone ought to return to the land, which is neither possible nor desirable for the vast majority of people in our mostly urban world. But in Khulna, smallholders have successfully taken back plots for rice farming and express optimism about larger-scale land reclamation.
The Nijera Kori activists rarely mention climate change, Paprocki notes. But the group’s vision of agrarian justice is nonetheless a vision of what we might call a “just adaptation” to climate change. Even if shrimp is mostly to blame for salinization so far, sea levels are rising. This and other climate change effects, like intensified cyclones, will further transform the landscape of southern Bangladesh, forcing people to make difficult choices about whether to stay or leave. Paprocki argues that the current adaptation regime has made smallholders more vulnerable to these changes, not less, because it preserves an unequal system of capitalist land ownership. Nijera Kori’s wager is that reclaiming land for non-capitalist agriculture will give smallholders the resources and power to respond to climate shocks in ways that protect their interests. There are no guarantees, of course, nor do local adaptation projects, however just, do much to end the fossil fuel economy. But the general claim is worth taking seriously: adaptation is more likely to be fair when working people have the material power to determine what it looks like.
What might just adaptation look like outside rural Bangladesh? Some kind of adaptation will be necessary almost everywhere, after all, and making our new environment livable for ordinary people will require organizing and planning. In the United States, official adaptation has generally taken the form of infrastructure projects. Some of these, like coastal restoration in Louisiana, are good and necessary. Others less so—like a plan to conserve water in Arizona to ensure the Army can continue to test its drones in an increasingly water-stressed world. Unofficially, for the rich, adaptation looks like finding ways to wall themselves off from disaster: private fire-fighting brigades in California, prohibitively expensive flood insurance in New York, generator backups in the swankier neighborhoods of New Orleans. For ordinary people, adapting mostly just looks like getting by: loitering in air-conditioned grocery stores during heat waves, masking up during wildfires, crashing with family after a hurricane. Where larger-scale adaptations have been proposed for the working class, they often boil down to relocation. After Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana in August, not one but two New York Times op-eds proposed “managed retreat”—a euphemism for moving people to places far from home.
Against this, working-class struggles offer models for a more just adaptation. For instance, the fight for social ownership of energy production, or “public power,” is a fight for just adaptation, insofar as it aims to guarantee a reliable and affordable supply of electricity as cold snaps and heat waves intensify. In terms of land, a recent report argues that returning lands to indigenous North Americans would go a long way toward reducing their climate vulnerability. Meanwhile, movements like Cooperation Jackson envision a “survival communism” that views collective ownership of the means of survival (land as well as various industries) as key to any humane response to climate change.
Even if these plans succeed, climate change will make parts of Earth unlivable. To challenge the root cause of climate change—or, more modestly, to develop humane relocation programs sensitive to people’s material and cultural attachments to particular places—organizers will have to win state power. As a part of that fight, social democratic policies that decommodify essential goods—universal healthcare, clean water, public transportation, free electricity—are steps on the path toward just adaptation, as they make people less reliant on markets (and thus waged work) to cope with environmental change. Pro-worker adaptation might also look like unions fighting for contracts that force bosses to end work when temperatures rise or fall below certain thresholds, while guaranteeing compensation for lost hours—something a Swiss trade union managed to do.
These and other examples highlight the importance of politicizing climate adaptation in the ways Paprocki and Felli encourage. Adaptation does not have to mask the social causes of ecological destruction, nor does it have to provide cover for burning coal and oil. When you think about climate change in the terms laid out in their accounts—not as inevitable catastrophe, but as an intensification of uneven and long-standing patterns—adaptation starts to look a lot like bread-and-butter socialist politics. Whether our response involves agricultural communes or nationalized industries, the aim is to give people, rather than capital, final say over how to reconfigure their lives in the face of climatic shifts.
Casey Williams writes about climate, energy, and labor politics around the world. He holds a PhD from Duke University and is a former Visiting Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh.