Arguments for socialism: Capitalism and the ecological crisis

[Green Left Weekly, #272, April 30, 1997]

The ecological crisis is perhaps the strongest argument for socialism. Despite the business-as-usual attitude of the capitalist media, this is not just one more crisis: it is a looming catastrophe that threatens the survival of humanity. It is generated by the most fundamental workings of the system and for that reason cannot be overcome within the framework of capitalism.

The corporations are driven by the struggle for commercial supremacy and profit. They have no in-built incentive to use energy from renewable sources, to adopt ecologically benign production processes or to eliminate polluting wastes. Capitalist firms will adopt such practices only if they result in higher profits. But, in general, such things as redesigning manufacturing processes to meet strict environmental criteria are an additional cost against profits.

Human beings have always impacted on the environment. But with capitalism the magnitude of our “footprint” has increased dramatically. While early capitalism's "dark satanic mills" blighted the 19th century English countryside, in the post-World War II period the environmental impact of the system has intensified to the point of crisis and impending disaster.

This has occurred because the big corporations opted for products and production processes which greatly reduced their costs and increased their profits but which — incidentally — had a massively detrimental effect on the environment.

For instance, due to the chemical industry, the production of plastics, detergents, synthetic fibres, pesticides and herbicides has skyrocketed — as has the resultant pollution, not to mention cancer rates. Another example is aluminium, the production of which has also risen massively in the postwar period, resulting in increased power consumption and worsened waste disposal problems (throwaway cans).

It was also in this period that the automobile became a truly mass phenomenon, with all the malignant consequences for the urban environment that are so evident today.

Those sections of the green movement which contend that "the market" can or will embrace ecology are seriously deluding themselves. It is true that a number of capitalist firms already specialise in environmental services — waste management, clean-up technology and operations, energy-saving systems and so on — and this sector will undoubtedly expand. However, this is not the main game and never will be.

Another view which has quite wide currency blames "overpopulation" for the ecological crisis. A variant blames western "overconsumption". These notions are dead wrong and lead to reactionary political conclusions, blaming the victims of the system for the problem rather than the profit-mad millionaire owners of the corporations.

Consider the example of the United States, which makes a colossally disproportionate contribution to world pollution and whose own environment has deteriorated sharply in the last four decades. But neither US population, per capita production nor consumption has remotely increased to the degree that pollution has. The answer must be sought elsewhere.

Yes, ordinary people use plastics and synthetics, eat fast food, consume soft drink from aluminium cans and drive about in automobiles — but what fundamental choice do we have at present? As little as we do in our work: we have to work and, increasingly, we have to take what we can get. The capitalist "market" moulds the hapless consumer far more than the other way around. "Opting out" is not a real solution for the working class struggling to survive under capitalism.

The dismal record of the former Soviet Union leads many people to think that socialism is just as bad as capitalism in regard to environmental degradation. There are two problems with this view.

Firstly, what the Soviet Union had, after the early revolutionary years, was not socialism but a very bureaucratically distorted form of socialism.

Secondly, the current brutal transformation into capitalism is doing absolutely nothing for the country's truly awful ecological problems (except, perhaps, that they are now talked about more openly). Looking to capitalism to fix Russia's environment is a dangerous fantasy.

The key element in overcoming the ecological crisis can only be a radical transformation of our economic system. The big corporations must be brought under social ownership and democratic control.

This will require a popular revolution, since our society is based on private capitalist ownership of the means of production. But, as pioneer US ecologist Barry Commoner has remarked, the road to soft — i.e., ecologically benign — technologies is going to be a hard political struggle. The first step is to understand this clearly.