The environmental crisis: past the point of no return
by Erna Bennett
This is the text of a report and subsequent question and answer session at the meeting of the Socialist Party of Australia's Central Committee on October 29 and 30, 1994.
A recent report of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research that global environmental degradation has now passed the point of no return – that is, the point beyond which at least some permanent damage to the earth's atmosphere caused by human activity can now no longer be avoided – signals a new phase in the world's environmental crisis.
It confirms warnings by environmentalists and researchers that the environmental effects of human activity are not any longer merely local phenomena, but have assumed global dimensions and have global – and permanent – consequences.
This situation qualitatively transforms the task of searching for solutions to the environmental crisis and poses difficult political and social questions. And we can say without fear of exaggeration that mankind's future existence depends on the answers we find to these questions.
The CSIRO report confirms earlier reports of the 300-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The news therefore is bad but not unexpected, and reveals the global environmental crisis as the greatest single danger confronting human society today.
It also brings other more insidious dangers. One of these is the emergence and acceptance of attitudes and arguments, even on the left, even among progressives, that the present environmental crisis is so serious that it transcends politics and class. It has been called "a common crisis", affecting all equally, and thus, it is said, calling for a submerging of social divisions in the interests of the "common good".
I think we should make no mistake about it that nothing could be more dangerously misleading or farther from the truth.
The crisis is certainly common to all who live on earth, but it does not affect all equally, nor can it be solved by "common action", if for the two simple reasons that those whose actions have caused it possess political power and show little inclination to change their present course towards disaster, and that the majority of the human population who are aware of the danger and wish to oppose the dangers are politically unempowered to take the necessary actions.
The environmental crisis is created by a ruling class and by its rapacious exploitation of earth's common resources for its private ends.
Ignoring present warnings, it continues to aggravate the crisis by a callous and reckless disregard for the predictable consequences of its activities.
Its power to act in this way is defended by the policies of governments which facilitate the interests of the ruling class, even to the extent of concealing the gravity of the global crisis from electors to whom they are responsible and answerable.
This is frequently done behind declarations that environmental protection measures will not be allowed to adversely affect the economic interests of the country – meaning, of course, the economic interests of the ruling class.
Even at this late stage, in face of the now inevitable danger of permanent environmental damage, many northern governments have failed to sign some of the conventions passed at the Rio Earth Summit more than two years ago.
Nothing indicates more clearly than this the truth of the old definition of governments as the executive committee of the ruling class.
It also shows us that to resolve the environmental crisis it is not enough to talk about ecology – resolving the crisis caused by capitalism's profit-seeking onslaught on world resources demands a confrontation with powerful vested interests.
The aggravation of the environmental crisis calls for greater not less awareness of class conflict, and urgently underlines the great need for a rigorously class-based analysis of the nature of that global crisis and how to resolve it. The world's tree- huggers must be armed with class-political as well as ecological weapons – enthusiasm, devotion and self-sacrifice are not any longer enough.
The entire earth has become an ecological timebomb. Day by day the human environment deteriorates dramatically, and newspaper headlines daily report situations and events which a mere two decades ago would have been considered as fanciful and unreal.
This deterioration has always been, and still remains a direct consequence of actions furthering the interests of the private sector – even at the cost of environmental damage which puts in doubt the certainty of human survival on this planet.
The historical phases of the environmental crisis
Let's look at the historical phases of the environmental crisis to understand how we reached this situation.
Mankind's impact on the environment dates from the industrial revolution of the 1700s. We should say mankind's negative impact because obviously until that time agriculture, which has lasted for 10,000 to 15,000 years, has left an enormous impact.
The first of these stages caused severe local environmental effects in the shape of unsanitary mills and slums in which workers worked and lived out a wretched existence, yet in spite of its degrading impact on the living conditions of its working class victims, it might also be claimed that this early industrialisation did – eventually – bring counter-balancing benefits. It was, nevertheless, a stage that for more than one hundred years was marked by "dark, satanic mills" and the deadly slums of early capitalism.
Following World War II, capitalism underwent a considerable transformation and became based on transnational corporations and with much greater impact on the environment.
A surge of post-war industrialisation was marked by increasingly severe levels of pollution from the products of sophisticated chemical industries and to this was added the new problem of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
There was also the rapidly growing problem of the widespread chemical pollution caused by the fertilisers and pesticides of an agriculture that had assumed industrial dimensions – and was best described as agro-industry.
This was as a component of the so-called "green revolution" which in the early 1970s rapidly became a major cause of severe environmental damage on a world-wide scale and which wreaked enormous havoc on the agricultural biosphere with the death of agriculturally useful fauna and micro-fauna (the "silent spring" effect) and by converting the soil – which those of us who have worked with it know was always a living thing – into a sterile medium.
With this stage, though environmental pollutants were applied locally, it was done on such a scale as to cause generalised, regional pollution of agricultural land and non-agricultural environments by the widespread leaching of agro-chemicals into rivers, lakes and other waterways, leaving vast tracts of land sterile and waters poisoned both to mankind and other species.
During this second stage widespread damage to agricultural eco- systems first awakened concern about possible cumulative effects of global scale and significance.
Finally, the latest stage, which had a rather diffuse beginning because most of us did not see the beginning happening, most of us were not even aware at the beginning what kind of road we were embarking on.
In this latest stage intensive urbanisation, intensive industrialisation, intensive concentration on private transport, on road transport, on fossil fuels led to a degree of atmospheric pollution which became evident first as pollution in cities, making living conditions extremely difficult, making premature death a much more common thing, but this time having other effects which we had not foreseen at the beginning.
The stage was marked by a mounting, accelerating damage to the earth's atmosphere by industrial and other gas emissions as part of a process of degradation in which the rate of destruction is greater than the rate of repair.
Two processes are at work. First the release into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halogen gasses (used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration equipment) destroys the ozone layer which normally provides protection against damaging radiations from space, in particular ultra-violet radiation.
UV rays are high-energy radiation with carcinogenic effect. The loss of ozone renders exposure to daylight dangerous both to the skin and to the eyes. In the UK, where the ozone layer has suffered less damage than in Australia, the incidence of lethal skin cancers has almost doubled in the last 15 years.
In the second process at work, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (and methane) has increased massively, produced from fossil fuels mostly but produced also from the land that would normally have carried forests, which would have absorbed the carbon dioxide before its release into the atmosphere. The consequences of this is that the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content has increased by a quarter since the industrial revolution, but fully half of this increase has occurred in the last 40 years.
This carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere leads to increase infra-red absorption, leading to what is known as the "greenhouse effect" – it traps heat rays coming from the earth and reflects them back to earth, heating up the earth's surface.
Reliable estimates at the moment seem to indicate that this effect will raise world average temperatures by one or two degrees by 2050 – but by the year 2300 by 10 to 18 degrees centigrade.
Now just in case you think one to two degrees is not very much, it is worth bearing in mind that the last Ice Age saw average temperatures on earth roughly only five degrees lower than they are today.
Temperatures in the south Pacific have already risen by 0.4 to 0.8 degrees between 1951 and 1993. In Australia, temperatures have risen since the turn of the century by 0.1 to 1.0 degrees and are still rising.
In some respects, serious as the problems created by them may be, industrial and toxic wastes appear to be the least of the environmental hazards we face today. Their effect remains, so far, local rather than global, and in theory at least they are amenable to management.
But the toxic waste problem vividly illustrates the extent of the social irresponsibility behind the environmental crisis. For example, capitalist-inspired "solutions" speak of the need for "management" of waste, and rarely of limiting, much less of prohibiting production of toxic waste, regarding it as the least of our environmental problems.
Let us look first, then, at this "least" of our problems.
In a modern capitalist society where more is spent on advertising than is spent on medical and agricultural research combined, it is not at all surprising that consumerism leads to waste on an enormous scale.
Solid wastes produced annually in the USA are enough to build a wall 75 feet wide and 20 feet high along the frontier with Canada each year. It costs $5 billion a year to dispose of this waste.
Australia is second only to the USA in the production of solid waste. Every Australian discards, on average, a ton of solid domestic waste every year, reflecting the consumerist pressure of modern Australian society, as does Australia's energy consumption which is three times higher than the world average.
In the US, 300 million tons of toxic materials are discarded annually in more than 50,000 dumps. A study by the US General Accounting Office reported that in 1983 three quarters of all hazardous waste landfills in the southern states are sited in minority communities.
In Australia, evidence of a similar policy with uncontrolled dumping of toxic waste in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and other states has been exposed by The Guardian and the Socialist Party on many occasions. Many of these cases reveal a cynical disregard for public health when residential areas have been constructed on former dumps. Toxic landfills – legal as well as illegal – have been linked to the increased incidence of leukemia and other cancers.
With the same disregard for consequences, the industrialised countries export 20 million tons of toxic wastes annually to the underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa for dumping there. As opposition to toxic dumping grows in the rich countries, many "agreements" have been signed which are little other than bribes to the elites of former colonies to accept these socially dangerous substances.
Dioxin wastes have been dumped by the USA in Haiti and Guinea. Australia has signed agreements with several South-east Asian countries to dump toxic wastes there that cannot be dumped at home. Italy, Denmark and Britain have traded thousands of tons of similar wastes with Nigeria and other countries in Africa.
Denmark, I ought to say, is often portrayed as one of the excellent examples of waste management – paid for mostly by the taxpayers and not by the producers – where waste is collected in a very systematic way, classified in a very systematic way and stored in a very systematic way – to be, eventually, loaded onto ships and dumped in Africa. This is, in fact, the capitalist answer.
Some of the ships carrying these wastes spent months at sea as they were referred from one Third World port to another, as country after country refused them entry. The Zanoobia, the Karin B and the Deep Sea Carrier, to quote three infamous examples, were forced, in the end, to return to Italy where the wastes they carried had to be destroyed where they were created.
It is worth taking note at this point that we are speaking of substances which, because difficult to destroy, neutralise or otherwise convert to harmless or degradable materials, demand costly operations and significant investment.
Such costs naturally cut into profit margins in a competitive capitalist world where loss of competitive advantage may mean going to the wall in a cut-throat battle for survival at the top. No corporation is therefore likely to view proposals for such solutions as valid.
It is worth noting that the wastes that have been treated in the countries of their production have often been destroyed at public expense. Matters are frequently organised in such a way that waste disposal is conducted in this way at public expense even though waste production is not in any way being curbed.
It has been known since the beginning of the present century that radioactive radiation is carcinogenic. In the last few decades, radiation-induced leukemia has been found to cluster near to, and to spread down-wind from nuclear sites in Europe and the USA. In such areas the incidence of cancers in the unsuspecting general population is high.
The incidence of leukemia along Ireland's east coast, washed by the Irish Sea into which Britain's somewhat notorious Sellafield nuclear plant discharges its cooling water, is three times higher than Ireland's national average.
At Mururoa Atoll, where French nuclear testing has been carried out for 20 years, there is now indisputable evidence from a number of investigations that – in contrast with official declarations – the radioactive materials generated by nuclear weapons testing there, equal to 100 Hiroshima bombs, is now leaking into the environment.
In Micronesia, whole populations have been affected by cancers and genetic damage caused by 40 years of nuclear tests. In one group of islands, almost every child has suffered from thyroid cancer. The frequency of stomach cancers is many times higher than found in unaffected populations.
Whether caused by military or civilian nuclear activity, the evidence of serious medical effects arising from irresponsible disregard for the environment is overwhelming, but it is with non-nuclear processes that capitalism's negative impact on the environment is at its most devastating.
When we turn from our lesser problems with local effects and come to the question of our negative activities with global effects, the situation in fact becomes extremely worrying.
The rape of natural resources, be they minerals, timber or fossil fuels, by economies driven by the imperatives of modern capitalism, has converted enormous tracts of every country, and very notably this country, into semi-deserts.
The rate of loss of forests is something which is quite staggering. In the Amazonian forests, some single years have registered something like between seven and ten million hectares of forest destroyed.
This, in turn, creates major problems because of loss of control of the water table and water flow. Natural plant cover regulates water flow. Deprived of climate normally maintained in equilibrium by forests, the environment lurches uncontrollably from one extreme of destructive floods to another of equally destructive drought.
Even more important, however, are the less obvious, global effects of such misuse of the land. Without the carbon-dioxide absorbing forest cover, vast tracts of de-forested land are raising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, leading to atmospheric warming in the "greenhouse effect" we've already referred to.
This effect is enhanced by the conversion of cities into vast concentrations of carbon dioxide production that – along with other chemicals – aggravate the warming effect. This effect signals a turning point in human history, marking the point at which human social activities produce an environmental impact on a global scale.
More than five billion tons of carbon derived from fossil fuels are deposited in the atmosphere each year. To this we must add about one to two billion tons that would otherwise have been absorbed by the forests destroyed by deforestation.
The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased by 25 per cent since the industrial revolution – from 275 parts per million (ppm) in the late 1700s to 315 ppm in 1960, and to 350 ppm in 1988. Thus half of this rise has occurred in the past 20 to 30 years alone.
In many parts of the earth, but particularly in those parts which are ecologically fragile – that is, in the former colonies where totally inappropriate agricultural systems have been employed – environmental damage from de-forestation, the effect of fertilisers, pesticides and inappropriate irrigation practices, and over-grazing driven by poverty has already permanently destroyed something like 11 million hectares of land. Another 1.5 billion hectares are seriously degraded, and recovery is likely to be prohibitively expensive.
Add the global warming effect to such a picture – drawn, be it noted, by colonialism – and we begin to appreciate the sheer scale of the emergency we now face.
The IPCC – no revolutionary body – warns that their studies show a sharp drop in the snow cover of many mountain ranges, a reduction of glaciers and sea ice, and a rise in Pacific Ocean levels of about two millimeters every year.
Global warming is releasing even greater quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas, from thawing permafrost, thus accelerating atmospheric re-heating.
As I have already mentioned, it is calculated that by 2050 average world temperatures will be some two degrees higher than today, but other studies suggest that mean temperatures could increase by a possible minimum of ten degrees or more by 2300.
When we talk in terms of small fluctuations in average world temperatures, we are talking about very major climatic effects. To put the figures in context: a rise of four degrees in mean temperatures would create conditions on earth warmer than for 40 million years and, as I said earlier, even during the latest Ice Age, mean world temperatures dropped to a level only five degrees lower than today.
Climatological studies at Oxford University indicate that crop production in Third World countries – already marginally sufficient for needs – could fall by 2060 by 9 to 11 per cent, driving grain prices beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of people.
Entire regions of Africa and Asia will face desertification, and many of Europe and North America's traditional crops will fail. Hundreds of millions of people will face displacement as rising sea levels threaten major cities in most countries.
Ozone layer depletion
Without going further into these predictions, which are dealt with in the official Rio Earth Summit documents on climate change, let us look instead at some effects on health of one aspect of atmospheric pollution – the depletion of the ozone layer.
A ten per cent reduction in the ozone layer causes rapid aging in human skin; suppresses the immune responses leading to an increase in infectious diseases; and increases eye cataracts. Forest trees and crops show stunting; more than 300,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers have been reported world-wide.
A 50 per cent reduction reduces plankton production by about ten per cent, with a corresponding effect on fish populations which feed on the plankton and a subsequent effect of humans and other land animals who feed on fish; it causes blindness in fish and other land animals, including man; and an increased incidence of lethal skin cancers.
And yet, depletion levels in the ozone hole have exceeded 60 per cent in recent years – that is, greater than the values known to cause blindness and deformed plant growth.
Over whole regions, exposure to life-giving sunlight is now not beneficial, but dangerous. Ultra-violet-induced eye defects are rapidly increasing, and the incidence of lethal skin cancers in Australia linked to ozone depletion has reached epidemic levels.
In short, capitalist over-production, over-development and consumerism have brought the world to the verge of disaster on a scale that challenges the imagination.
Concern about this danger has given birth to "Green" politics and political movements and parties which have enjoyed growing success in many countries.
But the failure of the Greens to link the environmental crisis with the logic of the capitalist system, or to understand the close link between the capitalist drive for accumulation and the ruthless exploitation of the environment, deprives the Green movement of an effective tool for the analysis of cause and effect.
Their failure to understand that it is the profit imperative of free-market capitalism and the competitive struggles it generates has encouraged calls for actions that "transcend class" but fail to point out that environmental degradation is the consequence of the rapaciousness of a class that is still disinclined, even in the face of mounting global danger, to stop at nothing in the drive to maximise corporate profits.
No discussion of the environment can have meaning if it fails to face up such questions of a social and political character. The failure to do so is the crucial weakness of the green and other ecological movements, in spite of the leading role they have played in exposing the environmental dangers
It is not enough to talk about or even explain environmental problems – it is brutally clear that resolving environmental issues will demand confrontation with powerful and ruthless vested, class interests.
What can be done
The question is, what can be done? But first it might be best to begin with the question, what should not be done, and what cannot be done?
These questions bring us to a consideration of what we mean when we say certain things. It is painfully clear that if the future for the industrialised countries is bleak, that for the countries of the Third World is even bleaker.
Now I have spent 25 years in the United Nations where it is the accepted custom in diplomatic double-speak to speak of these two groups of countries as "developed" countries and "developing" countries.
It is abundantly clear, however, to the most casual observer that the problem of the so-called developing countries is that they are not developing. Whether their condition is measured in absolute or relative terms, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the gap between rich and poor countries is widening, not narrowing, and this for two reasons – the rich countries are getting richer, and the poor countries are getting poorer.
Clearly, we must re-consider our definitions.
For a start, can the poor countries aim at the condition that has been attained by the rich countries? Should they? Is this condition a desirable objective? Must development necessarily be measured in terms of constantly expanding production and consumption, leading to runaway waste and consumerism? Should every family in Africa, Asia and Latin America have a car?
Should we not ask, rather, in the presence of an environmental crisis and the critical problem of global warming, whether it is right for every family in Europe or America or Australia to have a car? It is there, after all, that the global warming problem has its origins.
Fidel Castro, in his unequalled study on The World Economic and Social Crisis, provides data that indicate the unreality of continuing on such a course of consumerist development.
In a famous interview since published in book form, he notes that the motor car is a characteristic of developed capitalist society.
"Let's not think of Belgium, or Sweden;" he says, "let's think about China with more than a billion inhabitants. Just imagine what it would be like if every family in China had one or two cars! How long would the raw materials for that industry last?.... Just imagine if every family in India had a car, or if all the African and other Third World countries set out on such a development program. The pollution that now exists in the world resources would be exhausted much more rapidly."
He concludes saying, "Actually, I don't see any real objective possibilities for a Third World country seeking those models." And for two reasons – first, they must avoid capitalist models and second, they cannot attain capitalist models.
They cannot aim at capitalist models of development because the capitalist countries have been able to do so only because they have preyed upon the resources of their colonies abroad. As a result they are not "developed countries", as conformist definitions would have them, but rather are "over-developed countries". The countries on which they have parasitically enriched themselves have suffered "under-development" in the process.
We must therefore speak not of "developed" and "developing" but by "over-developed" and "under-developed" countries, and just in case you might think this is merely a play with words, let me say that in the search for the development model that Castro speaks of it is just as important to be able to define what development as an objective should not be, as it is to say what it should be.
We need to be aware of the nature and the errors of over- development.
What, then, should be the model? Castro does not hesitate. It should be a socialist model.
Clearly, since the environmental crisis has been caused by the capitalist model of development, the only model which permits avoidance of over-consumption, and which aims at rational use of resources for the public good, is the socialist one.
Socialist production is not slave to the mechanisms of market economics that lead into the frenetic cycle, the vicious circle of competition, advertising, consumerism, and waste. Socialist production aims at satisfying needs, not over-producing commodities many of which have little relevance to real needs, and which lead to the grotesque over-use of energy.
But this had to do with political choices for the future. What about the existing crisis? What choices can we make to resolve that?
One thing is clear. Ecological options are political options. We owe it to the green movements that ecological problems have been brought to the top of the political agenda. But we must not allow the political, and above all, the class content of these problems to be ignored.
In some respects, the environmental crisis is the form assumed by the crisis of capitalism in the era of the transnational corporations. Capitalism is very evidently an unsustainable system. We are probably witnessing capitalism's final crisis. We must be sure, however, that it is not also the final crisis of human society on this planet.
This demands that we strengthen our links with ecological and environmental movements, but also that we inject into them the political content and class analysis without which they cannot understand or explain the processes of degradation that remain the major danger of our age.
But we must also look again at our own patterns of energy and resources consumption. As I said, capitalist society is "over- developed". We must confront the politically sensitive problem of reducing consumption – in spite of consumerist pressures – to levels that correspond to reality.
It is somewhat grotesque when you think of it that we are threatened at this particular time with a particularly serious incidence of radiation from space which affects our health negatively, yet that same radiation from space could supply a very great part of the energy that could supplant fossil fuels, if we were so inclined and so organised socially as to respond to it.
There are pressures, essentially market pressures, the pressures of profit-taking which determine the character of our energy generating-industries and this has its negative effect also on solar energy utilisation.
However, it is nonsense to speak – as the Montreal Protocol does – of limiting gas-emissions to 1990 levels. At 1980, even at 1970 levels, atmospheric damage was already far advanced.
Choosing 1990 as a benchmark year is a sop to industrial interests, and cannot be defended on any realistic interpretation of present dangers. What we need is not a halt to increases in pollution levels but a clear and unequivocal reversal of present trends.
Similarly, increasing production of waste must not merely be halted – it must be reversed.
And parties on the left must face the task of defining how the consumption patterns of society can be reversed, something which I think is extremely sensitive. It is hard to persuade many to do this at the present time, because it points to unpopular options.
There are some telling examples of this.
Many years ago, I was on the Science Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (as an Irish woman, that word "Great" always stumbles on my lips). The Buchanan Report on traffic in cities had just been published and the Party wanted it examined by the Science Committee in order to come out with a policy statement.
The Buchanan Report starts off with the sentence: "By the year "X, there will be "Y" million vehicles on the streets of the cities of Britain. Therefore ..." and along followed several hundred pages of closely argued reasoning to show how we should deal with these "Y" million vehicles that by the year "X" would be on the streets.
And I thought, there's something wrong here, its the first sentence that's wrong. If you do not accept that first sentence, the rest of that report is nonsense – and I said so.
But unfortunately the Chairman of the Science Committee at that time was Bill W. and Bill had just bought himself a car, for the first time in his life, and Bill says: "You wouldn't deprive us of the pleasure of the motor car, would you?" And you know, Bill's view prevailed over mine and unfortunately we did accept that Buchanan Report with its premise carried in the first sentence and we came out with a big policy statement that I think was a bit of a disaster.
Of course, it wasn't just Bill, it was also that the whole bulk of our membership in the Communist Party worked in the motor industry, Coventry and Birmingham, and what were they going to do if we said we were against car production?
You see, this is why I say that this is a very sensitive issue and a measure also of how sensitive it is is this other, rather important example.
In the early 1970s, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, Belinguer, the General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, made an extremely important statement which more or less summarised a series of conclusions along the lines that we in the industrialised countries must learn to live with austerity, we must plan to live in austerity, we must plan to cut consumption, we must plan to cut services, we must plan to cut waste, and we must plan to cut energy consumption.
It was an extremely good statement, it appeared in l'Unita, but the following day there was no reference to it, nor was there any Party document referring to it and in fact, I regret to say, the Party hushed it up. It was much too sensitive an issue at that time and yet it was an act, I think, it was the statement of a far-seeing man who said it and perhaps was then more or less caught in the difficult situation of deciding how does one present an unpopular policy.
How can we tell the Australian people that they are consuming too much water, too much light, too much heat, too much this or that? How can we? This is going to require a lot of very serious thinking, because without thinking and policy on these matters we are going to betray our profound ideological commitment to the environmental question.
One the things that I ought to close with is this: One of the surprising findings of the CSIRO report is that it amply confirms some suspicions nurtured by environmentalists in recent years on the serious negative environmental impact of logging and de-forestation.
De-forestation's impact on watershed and water table management is already clear. What is now clear is that fully a quarter of the gases leading to global warming are attributable to forest destruction. This lends a new edge to struggles to defend the forests.
Tree-hugging is now just as much a part of the class struggle as is the struggle in defence of the dispossessed and landless poor whose retreat into the forests has sometimes been, in the past, among the first causes of forest degradation – for it needs to be remembered that behind the sophisticated causes of our present global disasters lies capitalism's greatest crime – poverty in a world of plenty, and brazen wealth in a world of poverty.
The global emergency also throws our political agenda against some serious deadlines. Either we defeat capitalism soon, or it will destroy mankind with all its hopes for any sort of a tomorrow.
Comrade Erna Bennett then answered questions from comrades at the Central Committee meeting.
Q. What part do genetic engineering and the patenting of seeds, plants and so forth play in the current environmental crisis?
A. Patenting of genetic life forms is one of the consequences of the intensification of agro-industry and the usurpation of plant breeding by private corporations.
Up till not all that long ago, 30 or 40 years ago, it was the rule for plant breeding to be done by government institutions and the exception for it to be done by private institutions. Now it is quite the other way around.
The government plant breeding institutions provide basic research which benefits the big plant breeding organisations which are all run by not just corporations but by petrochemical corporations who produce the pesticides and the fertilisers that these varieties need. So we facing a kind of two or three prong attack on the genetic diversity which is public property.
A part of that attack is the usurpation of market rights – the patenting – which gives them complete domination of the market for a specified number of years (it varies from country to country) but it also means that farmers are forced to buy uniform varieties which are much, much less responsive to environmental stress than the varieties that they have grown in the past.
As far as genetic engineering is concerned, there is a lot of slightly exaggerated panic sown around about this, panic which I think is directed in the wrong direction. The danger is not the genetic engineering. The danger is who are the genetic engineers.
It's a bit like a knife. A knife can be a killer or it can be a creator, it can operate in the hands of a murderer or a surgeon. It's exactly the same with genetic engineering.
As long as genetic engineering is in the hands of the privileged powerful, then it will not serve the interests of the unprivileged poor. That's obvious and that is the danger.
Q. Do you think that the question of environmental pollution in socialist countries is significant?
A. Yes, I think it is something we should be prepared to examine and discuss.
To begin with; let's be very clear about one thing. We only became aware of environmental dangers of global dimensions arising from human activity, we began to be suspicious that something was about to happen something like 30 years ago, maybe 40 if you were very imaginative and pessimistic. So that in fact no people made any serious attempts to stem developments in the wrong directions.
When we talk about these socialist countries – East Germany, Poland, China is a very good example – we have to bear in mind that they were attempting to create conditions where social development was extremely accelerated compared to the rates in the capitalist countries. They were trying to do in a couple of decades what most of the big capitalist countries had done in a couple of centuries.
And so industrialisation was a big, big factor. And not only was industrialisation a factor but home produced energy sources was a big factor. They couldn't import clean fuels – nobody knew about clean fuels at that time anyway – so they used coal, a dirty fuel. Their idea was: this is an awful mess but at least we're raising the living standards of our people.
By the time it became common knowledge that this was already an extremely dangerous thing environmentally in a permanent sense and a global sense, or a regional sense at least, they were already in it up to the ears and there was very little that they could do.
Very, very little indeed, bearing in mind one other factor which was that all the socialist countries were caught in a cleft stick because industrialisation and military spending for defence against the threat of the cold war gave them no options.
When we're talking about the environmental pollution produced by the socialist countries we must bear in mind: a) that the only model that existed was a capitalist model; b) the objectives could only be met in a certain way by using the energy sources there were; and c) nobody was aware until it was very late in the day of what the global and permanent damage might be.
But a point is worth bearing in mind. Here is a report from the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1991 which describes the level o f pollution in China as "terrifying" and it describes some terrifying effects – desertification, 79 million hectares of forest disappeared in the last 40 years, and it goes on and on about how absolutely dreadful it is.
But there's a little note at the bottom to say that the developed world pollutes much more heavily than China. In other words, it is terrifying in China, it's terrifying everywhere, but the developed world – which knows a damn sight more and has a damned sight many more options open to it – is much more heavily polluted than China.
And just how much more heavily, I'll tell you. The production of pollution that affects the ozone layer, for example, in the United States is 520,000 million tons – shaving stuff and hair fixing lotions and all these things that are designed for capitalist consumers who have lost the energies of their little fingers and can't squeeze toothpaste tubes any more. All that amounts to 37.7 per cent of the world's production of CFCs. China and the underdeveloped countries produce 2.9 per cent. You find these kind of figures and comparisons everywhere you look.
Q. Working to clean up the Cook River, what we're picking out of the river is mostly indestructible stuff that comes from MacDonalds, Cadburys and similar companies. But nothing is ever done about the companies that produce this indestructible stuff. I would like to hear your comments on the implications of waste "management" strategies and the "Clean Up Australia" campaign.
A. My feeling is one of shock. Coming from Europe to Australia four or so years ago, I was astounded when I went into Sydney sometimes to get my lunch to discover that everybody in Sydney eats their lunch out of a plastic box with a plastic fork and a plastic cup.
And I thought, well now how many people work in Sydney? Is it a million or half a million or whatever? How many plastic boxes a day are produced for this outrageously defiant use of environmentally harmful material?
Mind you, it's not so much harmful in the sense that it's not, as far as we know, poisonous, but in sheer quantity and in sheer permanence and when we think in terms of the sheer non–necessity of it, the thing becomes grotesque. And it should simply not be permitted.
I'll tell you, most places in Europe people wouldn't eat out of a plastic box and if you offered them food out of a plastic box, I think they would probably refuse to buy it.
My attitude to the "Clean Up Australia” campaign very much compares to my attitude to the elimination of these or minimisation of pollution damages after the act. I think it is an extremely expensive operation. There is not enough done to enlighten people on the nature of the polluting, what is it that is causing this.
I have a couple of Italian newspapers here, and I regret to say, the Communist Party paper. "Wherever man passes, the grass doesn't grow any more" – "Man". Not capitalism but "man". "The earth is sick, it needs a new man". The implication is that mankind is just a nasty species altogether and what the hell can you do about it.
This, in a communist newspaper, to me is something that we should not be prepared to accept. It's not mankind. Unfortunately I believe that one of the inevitable side effects of this kind of cleaning up campaign is some nice people are making up for the vast majority of not nice human beings. And I don't think this is the right way to look at the problem.
The campaign against waste is a campaign against the production of waste by a capitalist society out of its mind for profit in any conceivable way, in the easiest and most rapid possible way imaginable. And that simply is not any longer on.
There might have been a time when you could say – OK, that's your belief, mine is not that belief. But now they don't even have any way of defending themselves in front of the damage they are doing.
Q. Pressure on farmers to farm intensively, using large amounts of fertiliser, pesticides and so on has led to a range of problems including desertification, soil erosion, salination, blue green algae contamination of waterways and so on. Some farmers beginning to farm without all these chemicals. Do you know the extent of this movement?
A. It's very rapidly growing. It's slightly "eco–nuttish", if you'll forgive the expression. They are people, many of them, who have bees in their bonnets but they've got the right end of the stick basically which is this – they are arguing that once upon a time farmers grew their crops without all these intensive applications of fertiliser and they grew them quite well, thank you very much.
Along came the green revolution varieties – the so–called high yielding varieties which are in fact not high yielding unless you feed them highly, but are really high response varieties. But the high response varieties are great if you cover them with pesticides and fertilisers. They yield like nobody's business and you seem to be making an awful lot of money.
But a lot of that money goes back into the petrochemicals' pocket for the fertilisers and pesticides you had to buy along with your seed. Basically what's happened is that farmers have become debt peons to the corporations with this use of high inputs.
Now the farmers are beginning to think, well, if I spend less on fertiliser I won't grow so much but I won't have to pay so much either. And they are beginning to discover that the yields, yes, are less, the crops generally are healthier and they are in fact not so much out of pocket.
I ought in this connection to mention one of the most outrageous trends that illustrates very well a lot of the thinking and feeling behind the activities that have created the environmental crisis and that is this:
When I was a plant breeder many, many years ago, one of the great things we liked to do or liked to think of was breeding disease resistance into our crops. And that was one of the normal things a plant breeder did – to breed for yield, for disease resistance, for adaptability to this or that particular climatic or soil condition. Disease resistance was a normal objective in plant breeding.
Not now. Do you know what they're doing now? Pests are becoming used to pesticides, they're becoming resistant so you have to apply more. But you have to apply it to crops that are already on the edge and are beginning to wilt in the face of this pesticide onslaught. Even the crops are failing.
So the petrochemical corporations that also sell the seed have come to the conclusion that the best way to get over this crisis is to breed pesticide resistance. So that in fact all the major petrochemical seed producing corporations at this particular time have on the market or are about to release on the market within this year or next highly pesticide resistant crops.
In a world already choking with poisons, to do this and to invite farmers to double and quadruple and quintuple the pesticides that they put on their crops is an act of the grossest social irresponsibility, historical irresponsibility.
But this is what is happening. And even died in the wool conservative agronomists in the United States are beginning to say: but where's the sense in this"? Well, the sense is there, the sense is profit because the market is a captive market.
One thing we should say about farming in Australia is this – Australia is the driest continent in the world, Europe is one of the wettest. Isn't there something illogical in transferring the agricultural system of the wettest continent in the world to the driest continent in the world without even attempting to change it?
Cotton, wheat, sheep, grass ... . There is something very, very wrong in the initial thinking there which was of course the old colonial thinking. But that colonial thinking has left an agricultural pattern which still needs to be changed and some farmers are trying to change it by growing drought resistant crops and growing pest resistant crops.
But here's where another snag comes in. Because of this onslaught by the seeds corporations, the new seeds have virtually wiped out the old seeds so finding drought resistant crops or finding pest resistant crops to breed from is becoming increasingly difficult. Its a bit like building your house on the quarry from which you take the stone to build the house. At a certain point, you reach a no–no situation.
Q. Could you comment on what appears to be the OECD approach of taxing companies that are polluting.
A. My approach to the carbon tax is that it is amazing, I find it almost impossible to believe that serious people can accept it as a serious way of tackling the problem.
This is because it simply means that the rich, who can afford to pay the tax, can pollute to their hearts content and pay for it whereas the poor, who can't, will be forced to either cut down on their energy production or trade their carbon tax for advantageous trade exchanges. There is even talk of using carbon tax as a trade off with those countries that are too poor to be able to pay it.
In other words, not only are we allowing the rich to buy their right to pollute, but we are giving those same rich certain trade advantages by being able to buy certain things in return for paying the carbon tax of countries that cannot afford to pay it themselves.
I think the carbon tax is a wildly off course, non–attempt at a solution.
Q. In a coal producing, overdeveloped country like Australia, have you any suggestions about how we start to go about dealing with the problems?
A. Coal, fossils fuels, are very dirty, but dirt, as any housewife knows, can always be swept up and put away. The same goes for carbon and soot. The real problem for capitalism is that it eats into your profits to do so.
Let's face it – practically every industry, even the industries which produce toxic chemicals, can be clean industries but it is costly to do it and capitalists are not interested in the outlay.
Very often what happens is that industries that are dirty are made clean by public investment so that Tom and Dick and Harriet pay their taxes to help the coal miners or the car plant operators keep their operations clean. That's the way capitalism would like it.
But essentially there is really no reason at all why we can't use even the dirtiest of fuels, provided we treat the process in a sensible way. This doesn't mean that we can continue to think in terms of profligate energy use. That has got to be cut out.
There's another thing and that is that for a long time capitalism, consumerism has concentrated on what you might call linear processes – you produce something which does this, which provides that and at the end, it does nothing.
Like the packaging that you get around biscuits. You put a package round some biscuits, you put a package around the package, you pack half a dozen of these together in a bigger package, you pack all the bigger packages in a big carton, and that all goes into a big box which then goes by transport. All these layers of useless material have nothing to do at the end of the run.
But if you look at natural process, they're cyclical – the end product of one process is the raw material of another.
Now when waste burning from energy production is indulged in, this is part of a cyclical process – you are reproducing energy from the products that would otherwise be wasted, but its an extremely primitive and inefficient way of doing it.
We ought perhaps to be thinking more specifically in terms of cyclical processes rather than linear processes and if we do, then there are in fact a number of chemical processes in coal, in energy production from coal which can be operated reasonably cleanly and still provide levels of energy production that would satisfy reasonable social demands.
Q. Can you comment on the environment–employment relationship. It's not just a question of workers fearing they will lose their jobs but also the problem that new, environmentally damaging projects, often win support because it is claimed they will provide new jobs.
A. Did you see that film on the TV about a month ago about Harry Bridges? Harry Bridges was a Melbourne man who went to the west coast of the United States and organised the longshoremen into a union.
He described how, fairly well on in the day, when the union was well established and he was attempting to establish some kind of an agreement with the employers, the employers kept on saying to him, listen, if it wasn't for us, you guys wouldn't have jobs.
He kept negating this. He said, look, I cannot talk to you as long as you think that you're there to give me and my union men a job. You're there to make money, we're here to earn a living. When you can think of things that way, maybe we'll have something to talk about.
And in the end they did see things his way, and they did have something to talk about, and they did establish union agreements.
The same thing applies here. Capitalists are not interested in the business of giving you or anybody jobs. But it happens to be a damn good line and they're sticking to it.
Now there isn't any doubt about it, that there are certain social divisions of operations and activities and production processes that produce more jobs and others that produce less. This is understood, everybody knows this, this is the way things are.
Our job as workers and as people interested in the problems of the working class is to see that the divisioning, the dividing up of social processes is done in such a way as to be of an advantage to the majority of the people. After all, that's what social responsibility and socialism are about.
If the employers decide to do it differently, then I consider they are being obstructive, not us, in insisting on it being done that way.
In other words, here I think we are dealing with something that certainly, yes, has some effect at a local level on the number of jobs in that area, and we've got to be able, to maneuvers in such a way that we can arrive at agreements that minimise damage to the working class.
But we cannot allow them to pretend that they're to give us jobs or that they are opposed to certain policies because those policies would cut down the number of jobs that we can have.
I think it’s an ideological question as well as an organisational question – but certainly the employing classes are not there for our benefit but for their own.
Q. I have heard it suggested that the crisis is leading to a qualitative change in the earth's atmosphere. Do you think that is a valid proposition and, if so, what sort of qualitative change?
Secondly, a practical question on the drought here at the moment. How do you think we should present this? The government is just throwing money at the problem and, in effect, saying carry on as you did before but it seems to me that certain parts of Australia must be evacuated from farming altogether if they are ever going to regenerate.
A. To look at the drought problem first. I think frankly we are looking at the cumulative effect of the wrong kind of agriculture for very very much longer than it should have been applied.
It's possible, just possible, that wheat farming could have succeeded in Australia had they not gone in to the high yielding varieties with their very high demands for fertiliser and water.
It's a question of what kinds of crops to grow in certain kinds of conditions. I have pictures of wheat crops in many of the wheat producing areas of central Asia in which, on an area the size of a table, I suppose you might have 50 plants, 30 plants, sparsely growing so that the actual yield is very, very low. And when I say that is a wheat crop, people are surprised.
That kind of intensity of production is perfectly possible in many of the drought stricken areas of Australia provided you have drought resistant varieties and provided you have a minimum – not a maximum – of inputs so that the actual expenses that the farmer must dig out of his pocket are minimum.
In terms of livestock production, sheep production for wool is a luxury that simply doesn't fit in with the kind of climate that many of these sheep are being reared in.
One could conceivably think of other animals that are, in fact, much more resistant to drought conditions and do produce a kind of fleece, but a much coarser fleece which instead of going into clothing, as Australia likes her wool to go, goes into carpets and things like that. This is a much less remunerative market and therefore much less satisfying for the big industrial–scale producers.
And here is the second factor. The vast majority of Australian farmers in wheat and wool are industrial–scale producers.
The ones we hear about, who are being driven with their backs to the wall and selling the farm, the ones who fill the pages of tragedy about the drought, are of course the small producers and this is always the way it is.
I think there is a lot to be said for re–dimensioning agriculture in those areas. There are conceivably also areas that should not be farmed at all.
On the other hand, I do not think that there is any point in contemplating such a step because there are so many other alternatives that could produce a solution before going that far back in the line of reasoning. There are also other crops besides wheat and sheep and this also raises enormous numbers of possibilities.
As far as the question of qualitative change goes, I may have emphasised the health aspect more than others because in fact we're actually in that situation, we're in the middle of a series of health effects of atmospheric origin.
But in fact the health aspect is possibly less worrying than the long–term climatic aspect which is that very large parts that are now productive on the earth's surface will become unproductive and real problems of producing enough food are going to arise.
In terms of the qualitative change in the earth's atmosphere – yes and no. If by qualitative change you mean a different mix of different gasses, the answer is no, not for at least half a millennium or so.
But there isn't any doubt about it, that if the carbon dioxide emissions are allowed to continue at the rate they are now entering the atmosphere, then by the year 2200 I imagine there will be a serious possibility of qualitative changes in the atmosphere.
But by that time I think it will be an academic question because if it does continue that long, our continuing existence is very very much in doubt. That's what "point of no return" actually means.
Up until this decision that we have now passed the point of no return, there was something we could do. Now there are serious doubts that there is anything we can do to stop permanent damage. In those circumstances, all we can aim at now is to work as hard as we can, as best we can to minimise what damage is done.