The Environment : doing what is necessary, not what is possible
This is the text of a report given to the August 12 and 13, 1995, meeting of the Socialist Party of Australia Central Committee by SPA President Dr Hannah Middleton.
This is the third major SPA document on environmental questions. The previous two are: Good Planets Are Hard To Find, an SPA pamphlet, and The Environmental Crisis: Past the Point of No Return, a report given on October 29, 1994, to the SPA Central Committee by Erna Bennett (available in Australian Marxist Review, No. 33, December 1994 – available online soon).
The Environment: Doing What Is Necessary, Not What Is Possible also draws on the important recent statement issued by the National Environmental Commission of the Communist Party, USA, entitled People and Nature Before Profits.
Capitalism, growth and development
Capitalist economies are based in part on the exploitation of nature. The exploitation of nature is the expropriation of land, natural materials, and energy sources at one end of the production process and the expropriation of the waste-absorbing capacity of the environment at the other end – without paying the cost of maintaining the capability of nature to continue supplying the one or to continue absorbing the other.
This exploitation becomes obvious in the quantity of natural resources, renewable and non-renewable, that capitalists withdraw, and the methods they use to obtain these resources. It shows up in the methods of production, distribution and waste disposal which impact the health of workers and the community, and burden air, land, and water with pollutants.
The power to so use resources, inherent in the private ownership of the means of production, is also the power to dominate governments and limit correction of environmental problems.
That is why we have such inadequate efforts to reduce and repair the effects of pollution at home, and further degradation of the environments of countries subject to imperialist exploitation.
Growth – often measured through GNP and GDP – measures the flow of goods and services and the increase in the amount of commodities and services available. It is a model derived from the needs of capitalist industrialisation.
The impact of growth can be seen in the distribution of world consumption of a variety of resource-intensive products. The more affluent industrialised countries use most of the world's metals and fossil fuels.
Even in the case of food products, a sharp difference exists, particularly in the products that are more resource-intensive.
For example, the developed countries (26 per cent of population) consume 99 grams per day per capita of protein compared to a consumption of 58 grams per day per capita in the under-developed countries (74 per cent of the population).
The developed world's per capita share of paper consumption is 123 kg per year compared to 8 kg per year in the under-developed countries. The developed world consumes 455 kg per year per capita of steel compared with 43 kg per year per capita in the under-developed countries.
The capitalist concept of growth is based on the notion that human progress and human happiness can be measured by the production and consumption of more commodities, by greater industrialisation, by increases in the gross domestic product or similar economic indicators.
Within this concept of development, nature is seen as a commodity, a resource to be exploited by and for the purposes of humankind, above all for the profits of capitalist enterprises.
Associated with this have been ideas of "mastering" or "overcoming" nature and of humankind as something above, separate and qualitatively different from nature.
There is no place in this model for notions of social justice or sustainability, not for what is really valuable to human society.
As a yardstick of progress or of economic and social advances, GNP is a bankrupt indicator.
By measuring flows of goods and services, GNP undervalues qualities a sustainable society strives for, such as durability and resource protection, and overvalues many it does not, such as planned obsolescence and waste.
For the capitalist it is really a matter of indifference whether what is produced is useful or harmful for individuals or society.
They will be produced if a market exists or can be created for them and if they yield an adequate profit. The environmental damage their production may cause is equally a matter of indifference.
Shoddy appliances that need frequent repair and fast replacement raise GNP more than a well-crafted product that lasts, even though the latter is really more valuable.
The pollution caused by a coal burning power plant raises GNP by requiring spending on lung disease treatment and purchase of a scrubber to control emissions.
Yet society would be far better off if power were generated in ways that did not pollute the air in the first place.
Imperialism affects one country after another in Africa, Central and South America and Asia, causing environmental problems on a huge scale.
The under-developed or so-called developing countries cannot aim at capitalist models of development because the capitalist countries have been able to grow in the way they have only because they have preyed upon the resources of their colonies abroad.
When the power of the transnational corporations has been challenged, outright war or low intensity conflict have taken their environmental as well as human toll, from Vietnam to Nicaragua to the Gulf.
The Gulf War was waged over who is to own and control Persian Gulf oil. As a result, both the people and the environment in Iraq were decimated, while in Kuwait millions of gallons of oil were burned, polluting air, land and water.
The Communist Party, USA points out:
"The current imperialist assault on the global environment is clothed in the propaganda of the global market and marches under the banners of NAFTA and GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariff). Lowering environmental protection, the global market will raise profits for the corporations, and destroy both people and nature, not only abroad, but at home, too."
The Communist Party, USA says:
"Every environmental struggle – on the job or in the community – comes up against the corporation that owns the mine or the oil wells or the utility, the factory or the forest. This ownership gives the corporation the power to oppose change in the direction of a better environment.
"Every environmental struggle to change state or national policy, comes up against the combined power of national and transnational corporations.... "
Fundamental change is needed to meet the global environmental threats. Fundamental change means economic change, and a new politics built on the new economic base.
All humanity is in danger and the danger comes from activities by humans, not from natural or supernatural forces beyond our control.
We should never forget Marx's warning that the revolutionary struggle can result in the ruin of both the contending classes.
But all humanity is not making the decisions and guiding the operations that are devastating nature and undermining our future. It is the big corporations that are doing so in pursuit of profits.
Difficult choices will have to be made. The only question is, who will make those choices, and how? Will working people be the victims of change, or will we help control that change for the benefit of ourselves and our children?
SOCIALISM AND A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
In an earlier report to the Central Committee, it was pointed out that:
"In some respects, the environmental crisis is the form assumed by the crisis of capitalism in the era of the transnational corporations."
Against capitalist over-production, over-development and consumerism which have brought the world to the verge of disaster we pose socialism and sustainability.
A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without jeopardising the prospects of future generations. Inherent in this definition is the responsibility of each generation to ensure that the next one inherits an undiminished natural and economic endowment.
There are no existing models of sustainability.
Efforts to understand sustainability often focus on what it is not. Obviously an economy that is rapidly changing the climate on which its food-producing capability depends is not sustainable.
But this negative definition leads to a strictly reactive posture, one that has us constantly trying to repair the consequences of our destructive behaviour.
The World Bank tries piecemeal to assess the environmental side effects of projects it funds. But none of its member countries has a coherent plan of action aimed at achieving sustainability which logically should provide the basis for deciding what investments are needed in the first place.
This is a defensive approach, one that attempts only to avert unwanted effects rather than working positively and consistently towards a sustainable economy.
The priorities of sustainable development are environmental protection, meeting the essential needs of the world's poor, and peace and security.
Sustainability cannot be achieved without a massive shift of resources from military endeavours into energy efficiency, soil conservation, tree planting and other necessary development activities, together with their consequent job creation.
The concept of sustainable development recognises that the problems of poverty and under-development cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.
However, this growth must be less material- and energy-intensive, more equitable in its impact and based on alternative, environmentally-friendly production systems and technologies.
A sustainable world economy will not be powered by coal, oil and natural gas.
Direct conversion of solar energy will be the cornerstone of a sustainable world energy system. Not only is sunshine available in great quantity, but it is more widely distributed than any other energy source, renewable or fossil fuel.
Renewable energy sources are direct sunlight, wind, hydropower, geothermal energy, wood and agricultural wastes. In 1990, Norway and Brazil already obtained over half their energy from renewables.
Reducing carbon emissions and cutting energy consumption requires huge improvements in energy efficiency but the technologies to accomplish this are already available.
No technical breakthroughs are needed, for example, to double car fuel economy, triple the efficiency of lighting systems or cut average heating requirements by 75 per cent.
Refrigerators now on the market can reduce electricity use from 1,500 kilowatt-hours per year to 750; other models being developed would bring it down to 240 kilowatt-hours.
New compact fluorescent globes use 18 watts rather than 75 to produce the same amount of light.
RE-USE AND RECYCLING
Most materials used today are discarded after one use – about two-thirds of all aluminium, three quarters of all steel and paper and an even higher share of plastic.
Recycling reduces energy consumption and helps cut land, air and water pollution down.
For example, newsprint from recycled paper takes 25 or more per cent less energy to make than that from wood pulp.
Paper from recycled material reduces pollutants entering the air by 74 per cent and the water by 35 per cent as well as reducing pressures on forests in direct proportion to the amount recycled.
An energy saving of almost two-thirds is achieved when steel is produced entirely from scrap. Steel produced from scrap reduces air pollution by 85 per cent, water pollution by 76 per cent and eliminates mining wastes altogether.
Union and academic studies have shown conclusively that jobs increase with pollution control. Conversion to a more sustainable economy will bring a healthier economy as well as a healthier environment.
Changes necessary for more sustainable production would require more workers, not fewer. Some of the technologically advanced but environmentally destructive methods in both mining and logging have been developed specifically because they use fewer workers.
"Losses in coal mining, auto production, road construction, and metals prospecting will be offset by gains in the manufacture and sale of photovoltaic solar cells, wind turbines, bicycles, mass transit equipment, and a host of materials recycling technologies. In land-rich countries and those with an abundance of agricultural wastes, alcohol-fuel plants will replace oil refineries. Since planned obsolescence will itself be obsolete in a sustainable society, a far greater share of workers will be employed in repair, maintenance, and recycling activities than in the extraction of virgin materials and production of new goods.
"Wind prospectors, energy efficiency auditors and solar architects will be among the booming professions stemming from the shift to a highly efficient, renewable energy economy." (State of the World 1990)
Workers, however, are understandably sceptical when it comes to a change that affects their own industry.
They know only too well that economic changes tend to impact most heavily and most negatively on the workers.
The promise of a generalised increase in jobs is small comfort if they see an immediate loss of their own jobs, especially at a time of high unemployment.
High employment is needed to make the transition to a sustainable economy without a high cost to workers.
We have to find ways to develop jobs programs that will create environmentally sound jobs everywhere, and specific jobs programs that will be implemented in tandem with environmental changes, plus public works jobs to clean up the problems left behind by past assaults on nature.
Antagonisms between workers and environmentalists must be overcome. The question is not one of jobs versus environment but jobs and the environment.
Trade unions, workers in the timber industry, defence industry and elsewhere should be won over to alternative policies that guarantee jobs that are consistent with sustainable development. Alliances need to be built between small farmers, workers, environmentalists, peace activists and other groups.
Some people claim that the principal environmental problem is too many people. Blaming population growth for all our problems deflects attention from the real culprits and the real solutions, and too often becomes not merely anti-population growth, but anti-people.
The most extreme advocates of zero population growth are willing to abandon whole countries to starvation because they have failed to balance people and resources. Never mind that the resources may well have been decimated by generations of imperialist exploitation.
Linking population and development is a strategy of blaming the victim. It tends to lay the blame for growing poverty, hunger and environmental degradation on the poor and hungry rather than those who consume far more than their share.
Unfair global economic policies and not the growing world population are the primary cause of the spiralling human and environmental crises.
Increasingly, development aid is being tied to strong pressures for "family planning" (i.e. population control). But the best approach to combat poverty, world hunger and ecological degradation is not through heavy-handed population policy but through more equitable socio-economic policies and fairer distribution of wealth and resources.
According to a Rockefeller Foundation study some years ago, Kerala had achieved child survival and life expectancy rates close to those of much richer "developed" countries.
Kerala's lower fertility rate than neighbouring Indian states, in spite of less aggressive family planning campaigns, was attributed to its policies of development based on equity.
During the Batista regime, Cuba had one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America. After the revolution, the government introduced one of the world's most equitable systems.
Contraceptive methods were available but the government for many years had no policy of promoting family planning. Yet during the first decade of the revolution, the birth rate plummeted dramatically – far more than in those Latin American countries with strong family planning campaigns but few social guarantees for their impoverished masses.
Population growth cannot be substantially reduced through family programs alone.
The only way to bring about substantial and sustainable reduction of fertility rates is through far-reaching social change.
Such change entails more equitable systems, with policies to guarantee that the basic needs of all persons are met. Only under conditions of social justice can most people afford to have few children.
But many of the world's high level planners have little commitment to sustainable development. They are committed to the dominant development model with its so-called "free market" policies that place higher priority on economic growth for the few than on the well-being of the many.
They are unwilling to see how the globalisation of the market economy – with its massive debt burdens, impoverishing structural adjustment policies, increasing net flow of wealth from poor persons and poor countries to rich ones, and authoritarian puppet governments armed by imperialist powers to keep such inequities in place – is the root cause of today's global crises.
CAN SOCIALISM ACHIEVE SUSTAINABILITY?
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 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.
We should remember that the Soviet Union had environmental successes, totally lost in the current media flood of stories about the failures.
For example, the Communist Party, USA points out:
"... the planless suburban sprawl and vehicular air pollution that characterise US cities were avoided by city planning for people, not for cars. Without the power of the auto companies which has held back mass transportation in US cities, Soviet cities were able to move ahead on mass transportation. Without rapacious real estate developers they were able to plan green belts around Soviet cities.
"The indigenous people of northern Siberia, and the reindeer on which they depended, had a very different history from that of their counterparts in northern Canada."
In our earlier pamphlet, Good Planets Are Hard To Find, we looked at some of the reasons why the socialist community made errors which caused major environmental damage.
Five and ten year planning periods may have hindered recognition of environmental problems since they frequently take a long time to develop.
The errors sprang from the drive to meet people's needs, to rebuild after World War II, to defend socialism, from ignorance and from organisational stagnation.
Socialist failures to protect the environment are not inherent within the socialist system as they are in the capitalist system.
A planned economy which has eliminated the profit motive is a prerequisite for finding and implementing solutions to environmental problems.
"Under socialism, people can regulate their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature."
With a socialist understanding of the need to maintain sustainable ecosystems as a base for a sustainable economic system, the struggle against the exploitation of workers– the core of the struggle for socialism – can now be enriched and strengthened by the struggles against the exploitation of nature.
The achievement of sustainable development requires significant political changes.
Despite all the reforms which can be achieved, the struggle for sustainable development is in essence a struggle to restrain and restrict capitalist corporations, to compel disarmament, to compel an end to environmentally damaging production processes and to compel an end to imperialism's exploitation and distortion of Third World economies.
The capitalist ruling class is the enemy of both workers and the environment.
Without the working class, whose very existence forces it into opposition first to the corporations and then to the capitalist system, environmentalists will never succeed in shaking the system.
The inclusion of environmental concerns in the working class struggle today ensures that they will become foundation stones of a socialist tomorrow.
The pressure of the capitalist system on nature is so ingrained, so pervasive, and so severe, that it is not too much to say that it is an unnatural as well as an inhumane system.
Those who have a class interest in exploiting both workers and the environment cannot be allowed to put that interest above humanity's interest any longer.
They cannot be allowed to stand in the way of all of us who depend for our future on putting people and nature before profits.
The need for a sustainable environment is overpowering, but within this system, impossible.
However, environmental struggle within the system is necessary. Measures to keep the situation from worsening are urgent. Limited gains are important.
Moreover, people have to be organised around the issues as they see them and feel them, which is within the political and economic system they know.
Only by learning through experience the limitations of this struggle are they prepared to press the system to its limits and to recognise that it must be changed.
The more environmental movements develop this basic understanding, the more effective will be campaigns for immediate goals.
When people believe the present system is forever, they craft their programs for what seems possible within it.
Keeping our eyes on what is necessary, rather than what is possible, is more effective even in the short run.