The Guardian • Issue #1995

Socialism and capitalism: a tale of two approaches to enforcing environmental laws

It is no secret that in some societies, certain harmful activities go unpunished. For example, in the framework of a capitalist society, white-collar crimes are often either legal or punishable only by superficial means. As a result, it is not unusual to see examples of mass wage theft punished with insignificant fines, such as the infamous restaurant scandals of 2020, or dangerous policies made in the name of maximising profits which can cause a stunning number of defects, health problems, and deaths.

Confronting capitalist exploitation within the legal system is a mammoth task. For example, the Youth Verdict case and Katta O’Donnell’s legal challenge to the Australian government are only a couple of the slew of legal cases targeting powerful Australian institutions over their negligence of the future in the wake of the existential threat of climate change over the past two years. There have been attempts to work within this framework that have been slow and often frustrating for activists worried about the future. The role of the capitalist state is firmly established to protecting the interests of big business, fighting tooth and nail against the interests of the majority and their future. Progress is only scantly made by high-risk activism which is more illegal than the pollution and mass destruction from the oppressive classes.

In the context of environmentalism, The Guardian reports that the coalmining transnational Peabody was caught underreporting carbon emissions from their Australian mines and delivering these figures to official environmental bodies. This was met with absolutely no repercussions for the officials involved and a PR statement from the company about the importance of accuracy in their data, despite the Clean Energy Regulator finding that Peabody has “a history of filing inaccurate reports required under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act due to calculation errors, poor record-keeping and inconsistent data collection and analysis.” This is part of Australia’s long history of such cases, with repeated exposure to this sort of activity and little-to-no penalty for the perpetrators. Australia is a global mining hub, and much of the work done in this industry is damaging to the environment both in the short term and the long term. While measures are in place to regulate and eventually change the environmental destruction were scant to begin with, the large conglomerates routinely flaunt even the current regulations. The bar is set quite low, with the expectation that data is reported accurately and companies adhere to certain scientific standards. The disregarding of this is twofold, on one hand being dangerous as a grounds for underreporting harmful pollutant data, but also setting a precedent for demonstrating where the power truly lies in this country. A capitalist society places power in the hands of powerful corporations like Peabody, who suffer no consequences whatsoever for their blatantly dishonest activity.

One could be forgiven for losing hope. Climate change affects agriculture and water supply, as well as the catastrophic effects on the ecosystem and an influx in natural disasters, give it the potential to kill a staggering number of people in the future; a certain analysis of excess morbidity shows its effects are already starting to be felt in this regard. In capitalist society, there is no systemic solution to this problem.

However, all hope is not lost. Not every society is built on the same foundation. By stark contrast, China has been showing a pattern of employing state power to enforce environmental policies and deliver real repercussions to the white-collar criminals who try to place profits first. Most recently, officials from four steel mills in Tangshan were caught lying about emissions and air pollution data. Forty-seven of them are being imprisoned for disregarding the environmental law in addition to heavy fines on each company. This news is welcoming, as it shows genuine consequences for those who flaunt environmental laws in China. Rather than a slap on the wrist, they are fined and given prison sentences. Rather than rhetoric and PR statements, they are swiftly dealt justice for their crimes. While China has a complex relationship with environmental law and pollution due to its rapid industrialisation and development over the past forty years, there are signs of progress that favour a move towards sustainability.

This is part of a trend over the past few years. For example, three more steel mills in Tangshan were fined heavily for not reducing their production quotas or emissions in 2021. China has explicit and defined goals for environmentalism and is starting to use state power to enforce them on a larger scale than any other country is capable of doing. China is built on a different foundation than Australia: as a country where workers wield considerably more political power, and where state-led planning leads the way towards environmentalism, there is no need to convince people that their actions as individuals will be the sole solution, a solution that has been repeatedly disproven. This is an example and a call to action for people globally: it is both possible and favourable to alter the direction of society if its foundations are changed.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More