by Manny Thain (March/03)
CAPITALISM IS LEADING humanity to disaster. This profit-driven system is using natural resources at a faster rate than they are being replenished. Our atmosphere, land and water are being filled with poisons that are choking the lifeblood out of the planet and its peoples.
Does that mean that we are all doomed? Maybe. But not necessarily. This pamphlet is, after all, published by the Committee for a Workers’ International, which puts forward a coherent global alternative to ‘free market’ mayhem. The point is that it is not enough to understand the world, we have also to change it.
In Planning Green Growth, Pete Dickenson, a long-standing Socialist Party member and contributor Socialism Today, outlines a socialist alternative to this environmental devastation.
After explaining the scale of the problem, Pete lists three widely-accepted ways to reduce ‘environmental intensity’ – the amount of pollution produced per unit of consumption. A case could be made for simplifying some of the terms used. For example, "changing the composition of output" includes promoting an integrated public transport system, thus cutting down on pollution. And the other two ways of reducing environmental intensity – switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources in the production of energy and commodities, and the development of new, environmentally-friendly technology – merge into one another.
Pete attempts to quantify the immensity of the problem: "It has been calculated that the impact on the environment resulting from all sources of pollution must be reduced by 50% to ensure sustainable growth. This means that environmental intensity must be reduced by more than ten times if it [is] assumed that consumption and population increase significantly". The calculations to support this are provided in the back of the pamphlet. They are unavoidably based on assumptions. Nonetheless, they act as a sobering reminder that even a dynamic, democratic socialist society, employing the best, most environmentally-friendly techniques, will have to strive might and main to turn the situation around.
Pete goes through some of the measures being implemented today, explaining the rationale and shortcomings of property rights, the tradable permits promoted at Kyoto in 1997, and eco-taxes such as congestion charges, amongst others.
Throughout the pamphlet runs Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism. This theory, worked out around 150 years ago, is still the best guide to the workings of capitalism. It explains how it is a system based on profit-driven production. That capitalists are compelled to seek out new markets in their search for profits. How this leads to international competition between corporations, and fierce rivalry and conflict between the nation states in which they are based. It explains how periods of worldwide economic expansion are intersected by times of retrenchment and protectionism, cycles of boom and bust.
Under these shifting conditions, international agreements – whether they be trading pacts, single currency deals or environmental controls – are temporary, limited to the boom times when there is plenty to share around.
Pete takes up some of the main alternatives put forward by environmentalists, while warning that there are many shades of opinion in the ‘green movement’. As with many ‘green ideas’ they contain a superficial attractiveness: if production was limited to what people needed there would be less waste, resources could be shared more evenly, and we could all live simpler, sustainable lives.
It is not adequate for socialists to dismiss these ideas out of hand. They can be presented attractively, not least to those involved in anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist campaigns. We have to explain why we do not believe that they can solve humanity’s problems.
To varying degrees, all ‘market-based’ approaches attempt to impose controls on the capitalist system. These include restrictions on international transactions, such as the Tobin tax which has featured prominently in anti-globalisation debates. But the multi-national corporations, which wield immense economic power, are backed by the military might of the capitalist states they are based in. So how could they be enforced?
It is ironic that many Greens have a genuinely internationalist outlook and yet espouse measures which would result in a siege economy, a boost to nationalism. Ultimately, they would cut across sustainable production and leave the neo-colonial world stranded and destitute.
There has to be an anti-capitalist solution. Eco-socialists reject ‘the market’ and believe that economic planning is essential – a point of view shared by the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Taking the ‘steady-state’ (or a drastically-reduced) economy to its logical conclusion, however, leads some eco-socialists to the horrifying conclusion that a totalitarian police-state would be required. How else to coerce people to give up a high standard of living or force corporations into small-scale production? Pete correctly characterises this approach as ‘eco-Stalinism’ and explains the strict limits of this pessimistic post-apocalyptic vision: "Ironically, this nightmare regime would probably not even have sufficient resources to operate the apparatus of the police state necessary to maintain itself in power".
Eco-socialists often denounce Marx, claiming that he did not factor in environmental destruction. Yet Marx did explain capitalism’s need for permanent growth in the inexorable drive for profit. This implies an ecological crisis at some point. And Marx wrote that societies do not own the earth, "they are only its occupants, its beneficiaries, and… have to leave it in an improved condition for succeeding generations". He also forewarned of the clash between agribusiness and people’s needs: "The whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed towards the immediate gain of money, contradicts agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by a network of human generations". (Capital, Volume III)
Clearly, this was a lot less obvious in the 19th century – at the beginning of the modern global economy – than it is today. In any case, Marxism is not dogmatic. It must be applied to existing conditions. The need for humanity to deal with the ecological destruction wrought by capitalism is one of the foremost challenges facing us. This issue actually reinforces the validity of a Marxist approach. Environmental destruction is an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system.
In the second half of the pamphlet Pete outlines a socialist programme for the environment: "Most greens argue that any growth is unsustainable, never mind the amount needed to completely remove scarcity and want throughout the world. Marxists put the argument round the other way: that it is impossible to tackle environmental problems without effective international planning, a prerequisite for which is eliminating the conflict that results from scarcity".
Marxists aim to raise the living standards of the poorest workers in the world to those of the rich nations. That does not mean rampant growth that pays no attention to environmental and other considerations. Firstly, it is not true that people would always clamour for more. We want a decent, stimulating life for ourselves and the generations after us. Consumption would tend to stabilise once a certain level had been reached. The same is true for population growth. It is poverty which promotes large families: to overcome high infant mortality rates and to provide a level of support where social services are practically non-existent. A frequently hidden logic of many green alternatives, in fact, is some form of compulsory population control, which we totally reject.
Pete’s ‘fourth way’ of reducing environmental intensity goes to the heart of planning green growth: the transformation of capitalism, which is based on private property, to a democratic, socialist system based on common ownership.
From the local to national and international levels, democratic and accountable bodies would discuss and plan production. Advanced production techniques and aspects of planning already employed by multi-national corporations, market research and internet communication would all help develop a modern socialist society. Production would respond to the needs of society and resources would be allocated accordingly. Sustainable development would be a top priority.
In response to the destruction of our planet by a voracious, marauding capitalist system, this pamphlet puts the case for socialism. It is a timely contribution to a debate of global importance. Recommended reading.