II. Symptoms and causes of the environmental crisis

The rise and spread of capitalism has been accompanied by the greatest increase in population, the greatest advances in humanity's capacity to harness energy and matter to its own ends and the greatest increase in growth rates in human history. Exclusive focus on one or other of these symptoms has led to three false classes of diagnosis of the environmental crisis.

1. Three false diagnoses

a. `Too many people'

Accompanying the development of the environmental crisis has been an explosive growth of the world's human population. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 1.6 billion people, by mid-century there were 2.5 billion, in 1987 the world's population passed five billion and by 2000 it will reach six billion. The increase in the past 40 years has equalled the total increase over the four million years from the first appearance of humankind until 1950. According to United Nations projections, the next 40 years (to 2030) will bring a further increase to 10 billion. Of the additional 5 billion, the UN estimates that 4.75 billion — 95 per cent — will be in the world's poorest countries.69

Unsurprisingly, many Western ecologists blame the environmental crisis on this rapid growth in world population, which by placing increasing demands on scarce resources is degrading the global ecosystem. Professor Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb, is a leading advocate of this "too many people" thesis. In his 1972 book Population, Resources, Environment — Issues in Human Ecology Ehrlich argued that:

The explosive growth of the human population is the most significant terrestrial event of the past million millennia. Three and one-half billion people now inhabit the Earth, and every year this number increases by 70 million. Armed with weapons as diverse as thermonuclear bombs and DDT this mass of humanity now threatens to destroy most of the life on the planet … No geological event in a billion years — not the emergence of mighty mountain ranges, nor the submergence of entire subcontinents, nor the occurrence of periodical glacial ages — has posed a threat to terrestrial life comparable to that of human overpopulation.70

Similar arguments have also been used to explain a wide range of other social problems. Back in 1979, Ehrlich joined with other representatives of US academia and big business including Paul Getty, C.W. Cook (Chairman of General Foods Corporation), Burt Goodman (Vice-Chairman of Heinz & Co), Henry Luce (Vice-President of Time Inc), and Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Carter's National Security Adviser) to place a full-page advertisement in major newspapers and magazines, declaring that: "Exponential population growth is basic to most of our social problems … inflation, unemployment, food and energy shortages, resource scarcities, pollution and social disorder."

This attempt to explain a range of social problems as a result of population growth outstripping limited resources (carrying capacity) has a long tradition within Western thought. The first to formulate such a view was English pastor T. R. Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. According to Malthus, who summarised his findings with this question:

Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind that in every age and in every state in which man has existed or does now exist;

The increase to population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence;

Population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks;

These checks, and the checks which keep the population down to the level of the means of subsistence, are moral restraint, vice, and misery?71

Poverty and social inequality were therefore inevitable according to Malthus, and social reforms to produce an egalitarian society were doomed to failure. In a notorious passage removed from later editions Malthus wrote against the radical democrat Tom Paine:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit comers when her table was already full.72

Malthus wrote his Essay in explicit opposition to the egalitarian aspirations of the French Revolution. He went on to confess that the purpose of his writing was the hope that:

If the great truths on these subjects were more generally circulated … the greatest part of the mischievous declamation on the unjust institutions of society would fall powerless to the ground. The poor are by no means inclined to be visionary. Their distresses are always real, though they are not attributed to the real causes. If these causes were properly explained to them, and they were taught to know how small a part of their present distress was attributable to government, and how great a part to causes totally unconnected with it, discontent and irritation among the lower classes of people would show themselves much less frequently than at present; and when they did show themselves, would be much less to be dreaded. The efforts of turbulent and discontented men in the middle classes of society might safely be disregarded, if the poor were so far enlightened respecting the real nature of their situation, as to be aware that, by aiding them in their schemes of renovation, they would probably be promoting the ambitious views of others without in any respect benefitting themselves.73

Thus the Malthusian theory had a direct political motivation: to justify the continued existence of a miserable and underfed working population in the England of his day. Malthus specifically opposed any measures to alleviate suffering among the poor, aged, or sick. Such measures, he argued, merely perpetuated poverty by permitting the poor to survive and breed!

Malthus's ideas found widespread acceptance among the British propertied classes in the early 1830s, the time of industrial capitalism's first major recession. In particular, they provided ideological justification for the infamous Poor Law Act of 1834. This act established the workhouse system for the poor, under which every able-bodied inmate was "subject to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious". It was designed to cure poverty by relieving the state and the factory owners of its horrific consequences, and by discouraging and even (through the workhouse system) preventing breeding.

In the industrialised countries, Malthus`s claims that population growth would inevitably outstrip food supplies were discredited by the rapid expansion of agricultural production as result of the scientific and technological advances generated by industrialisation. However, Malthusianism was revived in the 1960s to explain the persistence of poverty and hunger in the Third World, and to argue for population control as the solution to these social problems.

Western governments saw rapid population growth as a threat to political stability in the Third World. Neo-Malthusians like Ehrlich argued that food aid to poor nations should be conditional on their adoption of population control policies, and the US government, which saw population control as a substitute for economic aid, enthusiastically took up such views. US President Lyndon Johnson, said: "Let us act on the fact that less than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth."

Garret Hardin, a popular spokesperson for the US ecology movement in the late 1960s, went even further, arguing that the rich countries should resist "uninformed" liberal values and stop providing aid to the hungry masses in the Third World:

It is unlikely that civilisation and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none. Fortunate minorities must act as the trustees of a civilisation that is threatened by uninformed good intentions.74

The "population bomb" argument, based on pseudoscientific conceptions of fixed "carrying capacity", has even found support from ecological economist Herman Daly, who has written in support of "current efforts to gain control of our borders and bring an end to illegal immigration".75

Hunger and malnutrition in the Third World today are no more the result of overpopulation than they were in England in Malthus's day. Since 1945 (and, indeed, as far as can be ascertained from the available data, since the time of Malthus) world food production has grown faster than population. There has never been a year when per capita production of protein or calories has fallen below the minimum levels set by the World Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). For example, while India's population grew on average by 2.1 per cent between 1950 and 1990, its food output grew by 2.7 per cent, such that the country is now a food exporter. A 1984 World Bank report suggested that it would be technically possible to feed a world population of 11.4 billion on a diet that provided 6000 calories daily — twice the typical South Asian diet today.76

According to the FAO, the production of 230 kilograms of cereals a year is required to meet the minimum daily calorie requirement for an average person. In 1997, world production of cereals and root crops, the primary sources of food, amounted to 322 kilograms per head of population — well above the minimum requirement set by the FAO.77 Yet in the 1990s each year more than 840 million people go hungry or face food insecurity,78 180 million children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition and 14 million die before reaching that age.79

In the mid-1970s a study by a group of scientists under the guidance of Professor Hans Linnemann at the Institute of Economics and Social Studies of the Free University of Amsterdam concluded that present levels of world food production were high enough to provide everyone with an adequate diet if food were distributed equally among all people. Hunger and starvation occurred because food is distributed by and large on the basis of income or buying power; hence, levels of food consumption differ widely between countries and between people.

In its 1986 report, Our Common Future, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development reached the same conclusion:

Growth in world cereal production has steadily outstripped world population growth. Yet each year there are more people in the world who do not get enough food. Global agriculture has the potential to grow enough food for all, but food is not available where it is needed … Food security requires attention to distribution, since hunger often arises from lack of purchasing power rather than lack of available food.80

The FAO has published a study81 which forecasts that production increases can accommodate rises in effective demand and rising world population, as well as continuing to reduce malnutrition. This is despite a decline in the growth rate of world grain output in the 1990s. Studies by other food research institutes generally support the FAO position, although they are more pessimistic about improving nutrition.82

What is unclear, however, is how high an environmental price will have to be paid to sustain the necessary growth in grain output. Among the negative factors are urban pressure on existing cropland area, declining irrigation water supplies and increased salinisation as water tables fall, continuing soil erosion, the shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology (and hence the difficulty in maintaining growth rates in yields), as well as the loss of biodiversity, increased carbon dioxide emissions and reduced carbon dioxide absorption capacity that comes with converting existing forest to cropland.

These pressures are further intensified as ocean fisheries and rangelands, supplying the world's animal protein, also reach environmental limits. While meat and fish production continues to rise, an increasing proportion of meat is produced in feedlots while chronic overfishing continues to threaten the productivity and viability of entire marine ecosystems.

These pressures increase the urgency of treating the problem of hunger at its roots — unequal access to resources, and the inability of the poor to purchase them, rather than from overpopulation or insufficient production.

Nor is poverty in the Third World a product of overpopulation. If anything, rapid population growth is a consequence rather than a cause of poverty. In conditions in which poor sanitation and lack of medical care greatly reduce a child's chances of survival to maturity, and in which welfare provisions are non-existent, a high birth rate is often a family's only guarantee of a minimum standard of living and a moderate level of security in old age.

Experience in the industrialised countries in which population growth rates are less than 0.5 per cent (implying a doubling time of more than 150 years), shows that lower birth rates and a state of equilibrium between births and deaths are results of urbanisation, adequate nutrition, improved heath, education and social services, and higher social status for women, all of which accompany industrialisation. As the 1974 World Population Conference observed, "development is the best contraceptive".

The inability of most Third World countries to achieve such development is a result of the imposition, through colonialism and postwar neocolonialism, of a pattern of development that treats some countries as sources of cheap labour, material resources (minerals and export crops), markets and profits for monopoly corporations of the industrialised capitalist nations.

To take just one example, in Indonesia the population explosion was set off by the introduction of new living conditions by the Dutch colonialists. The latter fostered a decline in death rates and a deliberate rise in birth rates to secure a growing supply of cheap labour for Dutch-owned rubber plantations. At the same time, the extraction of wealth from Indonesia by Dutch capital depended on holding back and distorting Indonesia's own economic and social development.

After Dutch colonial rule ended in the 1940s, indirect United States military involvement, as well as all sorts of indirect political pressure on the part of foreign capital, were deliberately used to frustrate attempts at fundamental structural change that would permit higher living standards and thus remove the conditions making for rapid population growth.

That overpopulation is not the fundamental cause of hunger and environmental degradation is also shown by the fact that both can occur in thinly populated lands such as the wide tropical forest-steppe belt of the African Sahel, to the south of the Sahara. In the 1960s, transnational companies encouraged the governments of this region — one of the poorest in the world — to promote the cultivation of cotton as a means of earning foreign exchange. As a result, the impoverished nomadic cattle raisers of the region were forced into more arid areas, where they cut down large numbers of trees for firewood.

Between 1968 and 1973 there was hardly any rain in the Sahel and the grasslands began to dry out and shrink. The cattle herds first destroyed the remaining grass cover and then died of starvation. Having lost their herds, the nomads themselves began to starve. This tragedy resulted in the loss of 250,000 human lives and the death of 20 million cattle — nearly two-thirds of the herds in Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Upper Volta and Senegal. An immense area of land — 685 million hectares — stretching from Mauritania to Ethiopia was threatened with transformation into desert by the subsequent erosion of the exposed topsoil.

Rapid population growth is, of course, a serious problem for poor countries, since it undermines their ability to maintain, let alone improve, living standards. In the context of an international economic system that consistently drains wealth from the Third World, deepening poverty and rapid population growth leads many Third World peoples to overexploit their natural resources, resulting in environmental degradation that imperils not only their own survival but that of humanity as a whole.

For example, it is in the poor countries that deforestation is occurring most rapidly — at a rate 80 times greater than in the rich, industrialised countries, where net deforestation has practically stopped. If present trends continue, during the first quarter of the 21st century all the physically accessible forests in the Third World will have disappeared. For Third World countries, the impact of this destruction is felt in the form of uncontrolled flooding and drought, soil erosion, loss of river and underground water resources, declining agricultural production and accelerating desertification. As a result of deforestation in the Third World, an area larger than the African continent and inhabited by more than one billion people is at risk of desertification.

However, if the poor nations and humanity as a whole are being brought to the brink of environmental disaster, the responsibility for this cannot be laid at the door of the peoples of the Third World. Rather, the responsibility rests squarely with the ruling classes of the industrialised capitalist countries. The governments and big corporations of the First World have imposed on the Third World an international economic system that takes more out of these countries than it puts in and that forces the latter to deplete their environmental resources at an alarming rate.

The economic exploitation of Third World countries by transnational capital, and the accompanying military-political intervention by Western governments to maintain this exploitation, is the fundamental obstacle to the social and economic changes required to eliminate poverty in those countries, bring about a decline in their population growth and take pressure off their environment.

The populationist argument, which takes food distribution among and within nations as given, directs attention away from the responsibility of the international capitalist system as the root cause of rapid population growth, poverty and environmental degradation in the Third World. This is why populationism is so popular with the representatives of transnational capital and their apologists. It also infects mainstream environmentalism nationally and internationally: biologic pseudoexplanations enjoy strong support in such organisations as the Sierra Club and the Australian Conservation Foundation; the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, while noting the obvious fact that men and women will, under certain conditions, voluntarily limit their own fertility, still regarded "population" as the core environmental problem. The proposed solution — birth control — merely treats a symptom and leaves the fundamental problem untouched. As Barry Commoner has commented, this is "equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load and forcing passengers overboard. One is constrained to ask if there is not something radically wrong with the ship."83

This truth is dramatised by the environmental situation of such developing countries, like China and Thailand, which have practiced successful birth control policies: the achieved decline in population growth rates has had little impact on the burgeoning environmental crisis.

While it is true that the Earth's human population cannot be allowed to continue growing indefinitely at its present rate, and measures must be taken to achieve a stable or even declining population, the populationists skate over the main means of accomplishing this: an environmentally benign economic system that can underpin secure living standards for all.

b. `Overconsumption' and `too much growth'

Under the impact of opposition to the United States war against Vietnam, increasing numbers of people in the industrialised capitalist countries began to recognise that inequitable economic relations between rich and poor nations were the main cause of deepening poverty and rapid population growth in the Third World. Awareness spread of the enormous disparity in the shares of world consumption between the developed and the developing countries. (The former, with only 26 per cent of the world's population, account for 61 per cent of global commercial energy consumption and up to 80 per cent of raw materials use.84)

At the same time, the emergence of the environmental movement in the 1960s began to increase popular awareness that the rich, industrialised countries were the chief polluters of the world's air, water, and land. (For example, the USA, with less than five per cent of the world's population, accounts for 25 per cent of energy consumption and produces 22 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes.85)

Growing awareness of these facts forced the neo-Malthusians to modify their arguments, attributing the ecological crisis to "overconsumption" of resources by the peoples of the industrialised countries. The most widely promoted version of this line of argument is expounded by Anne and Paul Ehrlich in their book The Population Explosion. The problem as the Ehrlichs see it is summarised in the formula I = PAT. Using this formula, by which environmental impact (I) is equal to a function of population (P), by "affluence" (A), by technology (T), the Ehrlichs come to the conclusion that the average impact of an individual in a technologically advanced country is far greater than that of someone in a poor nation.

According to the AT factor a baby born in the United States represents twice the destructive impact on Earth's ecosystems … as one born in Sweden, three times one born in Italy, 13 times one born in Brazil, 35 times one in India, 140 times one in Bangladesh or Kenya and 280 times one in Chad, Rwanda, Haiti or Nepal.86

Refusing to look at the social relations that determine what technologies are used and how consumption is organised in advanced capitalist societies, the Ehrlichs are unable to isolate the primary cause of environmental harm. The environmental impact of an advanced technology therefore becomes a constant for the Ehrlichs, regardless of social context; regardless of the design or intention, technology is bound inherently to be a multiplier of environmental impact.

A variation on this theme is the basis for the economic Malthusianism espoused in a 1972 book, The Limits to Growth,87 written by Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William Behrens — a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their study was part of a larger "Project on the Predicament of Mankind", sponsored by the Club of Rome, a group of prominent business executives and economists from the USA, Western Europe and Japan, brought together by Fiat executive Aurelio Peccei.

The Meadows group argued that increasing consumption produces economic growth, which in turn produces pollution. Their argument rested on the assumption that each unit of economic growth increases pollution by a given amount. Taking current practice in the use of natural resources and extrapolating it automatically into the future, the Meadows group claimed that unless economic growth was halted the world was headed for environmental catastrophe.

The Meadows group bemoaned the fact that the average US citizen consumed seven times the resources used by the average inhabitant of this planet. However, their no-growth proposal would worsen this ratio since almost all industrial production would be concentrated in the already industrialised countries. They argued that the non-industrialised Third World countries should devote their resources to the service of Western industry, maintain their non-industrial methods of agriculture, and halt any further industrialisation of their economies. This would worsen the already unfavorable terms under which these nations trade with the industrialised West, thus setting off a sharp decline in their already backward and distorted economies.

Unlike Malthus, who regarded poverty and starvation as natural methods of population control, the Meadows group drew back from the grim consequences that would flow from ending economic growth. They suggested that their no-growth or "steady state" policy be accompanied by a redistribution of income adequate to "maintain everyone on (at least) a subsistence level". They proposed a world per capita income of US$1800 per year — about half the average income in the United States at that time. Unsurprisingly, they provided no indication as to how this redistribution would be carried out in a world pervaded by economic inequality.

The Meadows group did not envisage any need to change the socioeconomic system in order to achieve their steady state economy. Indeed, in their no-growth economy "corporations could expand or fail," the laws of the market would still reign, and the anarchic capitalist pursuit of private profit would continue.

The no-growth advocates gravely misunderstand the driving forces of the capitalist economic system. Previous economic systems, such as the agrarian economies of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and feudal Europe, existed for long periods without substantial growth. Capitalism, based on industrial (machine) production with its inherent potential for rapid expansion, is forced into its own mode of growth by the competition of different owners of capital for available markets. No corporation dares to remain satisfied with a given share of the market or a static level of industrial technique for fear that its rivals — domestic or international — will improve their technique or expand their sales and drive them out of business. Thus the expansion of production and the introduction of labour-saving machines is not a matter of choice for the capitalist corporation but an elementary law of economic survival. Under capitalism, no-growth periods are produced by the inherent tendency of capitalist production to outstrip the market. During such crises (commonly called recessions) the owners of industry show no inclination to distribute the necessities of life to workers thrown on the scrapheap by production cutbacks. Capitalism is not capable of deliberately freezing production at any particular level. Such a policy would bar profitable reinvestment of capital and would quickly culminate in economic collapse.

Nor is capitalism capable of carrying out the Meadows scheme for equalising incomes. Periods of low growth, such as occurred between the two world wars or such as world capitalism has experienced since the early 1970s, are accompanied by constant intensification of inequality and stagnation and decline in the living conditions of the mass of working people. It is an idle fantasy to believe that the capitalist powers would freely hand out thousands of dollars per head to the world's population and then accept this sum in payment for some fixed portion of the industrial output of the USA, Western Europe, and Japan.

The no-growth proposal rests upon two false assumptions:

  • That the "average consumer" in the West is the cause of these countries' overconsumption of global resources;
  • That economic growth per se leads to uncontrollable destruction of the environment.

The first assumption also ignores the great income disparities within the Western industrialised countries. Large numbers of people in these countries have extremely meagre living standards. In the USA, for example, 40 million people — including one third of the black population — live in poverty, 20 million suffer from malnutrition, and three million are homeless. More than 26 per cent of US housing is regarded as inadequate or unfit for habitation. In Australia, some three million people live in poverty.

Stagnant real wages, cutbacks in education, welfare and health services and growing household consumer debt — these realities, which are the common experience of the great majority of people in the Western countries, belie the image of the supposedly average consumer suffering only from excessive consumption of food, housing, clothing, and conveniences. The elimination of poverty and the provision of adequate diet, medical care, housing and education for all are tasks that remain to be completed in the industrialised capitalist countries as well as in the underdeveloped world.

Consumption does play a part in the destruction of the environment, but this is not due to the supposed affluence of the great majority of consumers in the industrialised capitalist countries. Rather, it is due to the irrational and wasteful ways in which the system forces consumers to meet their needs. Capitalism commodifies social necessities and services, leading to unnecessary packaging, planned obsolescence, use-and-discard products, and other forms of waste.

The rule of the automobile is the prime example of the irrational, wasteful and ecologically destructive consumption patterns capitalism imposes on consumers. As a system capitalism deliberately promotes use of private motor vehicles rather than public transport. Professor Nathan Keyfitz, head of the Population Program at the Austrian-based International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, notes that the ordinary working American

… eats somewhat more than an Asian peasant, owns more clothes and has more varied entertainment, but none of these advantages requires extravagant amounts of resources. From an ecological perspective, it is the amount of and mode of movement that principally distinguishes the American town dweller from the Asian peasant.88

Automobiles lead all other means of transportation in polluting the environment. Automobile exhausts account for 67 per cent of the 78 million tonnes of carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere of OECD countries every year.89 Motor vehicle exhausts are the principal factor in the poisoning of the air basins over the world's major cities. A special commission of the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that air pollution by automobiles is responsible for a quarter of all illnesses in North America's large cities, and directly or indirectly accounts for thousands of deaths each year. In addition, tens of thousands of Americans are killed every year in automobile accidents. A petrol-fueled automobile driven over a distance of 950 kilometres will consume the same amount of oxygen as a person in a year. Already, in the USA some 170 million motor vehicles consume twice as much oxygen as is generated by the country's plant life.

Reliance on private motor vehicles rather than electrically operated public transport systems is also a major drain on the world's energy resources. Today there are over 500 million registered motor vehicles, which consume one third of the world's oil production. The US transportation system alone consumes enough oil to provide for all of Japan's annual energy needs.

A 1971 study by Barry Commoner and two other researchers, Michael Corr and Paul Stamler, refuted the assumption that increased consumption by increasing numbers of average Western consumers is responsible for the growth of pollution. They examined the factors that had led to the growth of pollution in the US in the postwar period. Commoner has summarised the results of this research in his books The Closing Circle and Making Peace with the Planet:

In general, the growth in the United States economy since 1946 has had a surprisingly small effect on the degree to which individual needs for basic consumer goods have been met. That statistical fiction, the average American, now consumes, each year, about as many calories, protein, and other foods (although somewhat less of vitamins); uses about the same of clothes and cleaners; occupies about the same amount of newly constructed housing; requires about as much freight; and drinks about the same amount of beer (twenty-six gallons per capita!) as he did in 1946. However, his food is now grown on less land with much more fertiliser and pesticides than before; his clothes are much more likely to be made of synthetic fibers than of cotton and wool; he launders with synthetic detergents rather than soap; he lives and works in buildings that depend more heavily on aluminium, concrete, and plastic than on steel and lumber; the goods he uses are increasingly shipped by truck rather than rail; he drinks beer out of non-returnable bottles or cans rather than out of returnable bottles or at the tavern bar. He is more likely to live and work in air-conditioned surroundings than before. He also drives about twice as far as he did in 1946, in a heavier car, on synthetic rather than natural rubber tyres, using more gasoline per mile, containing more tetraethyl lead, fed into an engine of increased horsepower and compression ratio.

These primary changes have led to others. To provide the raw materials needed for the new synthetic fibres, pesticides, detergents, plastics, and rubber, the production of synthetic organic chemicals has also grown.90

Commoner, Corr and Stamler found that while US population had grown by 43 per cent and Gross National Product by 126 per cent, per capita consumption had increased only 6 per cent in the period from 1946 to 1970. Yet pollution over the same period had increased about 1000 per cent, or seven times over per person!

Their findings also refute the idea that economic growth as such is responsible for the growing pollution problem. Instead, they found that there was a correlation between pollution and a small number of specific industries and chemical processes. In the period studied, production of plastics increased 1024 per cent; use of mercury in industry increased 2150 per cent; production of synthetic organic chemicals, 495 per cent; production of nitrogen fertiliser, 534 per cent; use of detergents, 300 per cent; production of electric power, 276 per cent.

Presenting their findings in the April 1971 issue of Environment magazine, the three scientists concluded:

The predominant factor in our industrial society's increased environmental degradation is neither population nor affluence, but the increased environmental impact per unit of production due to technological changes … Thus in seeking public policies to alleviate environmental degradation, it must be recognised that a stable population with stable consumption patterns would still face increasing environmental problems if the environmental impact of production continues to increase. Hence, social choices with regard to productive technology are inescapable in resolving the environmental crisis.

c. `Technological development'

All explanations of the ecological crisis contain some reference to technology. This is understandable as humanity interacts with nature through the technical means of production. But it is wrong to regard technological development as the main enemy of the environment. It is true that many technological processes and new types of production have sharply intensified pollution in the industrialised countries. On the other hand, the same technological progress creates many opportunities to prevent environmental pollution through efficient waste treatment processes and more efficient use of inputs.

However, it is equally wrong to believe that technological developments alone can solve the ecological crisis. The use of technology is determined by society. And it is the social system that decides whether resources are allocated to limit the harmful effects of any technological process. Commoner has shown that the rapid increase in pollution in the industrialised countries since the 1940s is due to changes in productive technology, that is, the replacement of low-pollution technologies by ecologically destructive technologies in many industries. He has also demonstrated that the motor force of these changes has been the drive by the big corporations to maximise immediate profits, a blind necessity of the capitalist system that does not take account of the impact of such changes on the environment.

As an example of the ecologically harmful use of new technologies in a major industry, Commoner cites the replacement of soap by synthetic detergents, despite the adequacy of soap for virtually all uses to which detergents are now put. One outcome of this shift is the flow of 120,000 tonnes of phosphate per year into Lake Erie, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in North America. This flow of phosphate has been a prime factor in the exhaustion of the lake's aquatic oxygen to the point that it will no longer support marine life. In 1947, when soap was still the dominant cleaning product, profits represented 30 per cent of sales. By the late 1960s, profits had increased to 52 per cent of sales. This increase was made possible by a 25 per cent reduction in labour costs accomplished by the switchover from soap to detergent production.

Automobiles are the major source of air pollution. It is clear that well-planned, electric, mass urban transit systems would not only eliminate much automobile exhaust pollution, but would cost society as a whole less and would be more efficient than the present proliferation of private cars. But for the motor vehicle companies and a host of other firms that supply them with components and raw materials, the production of millions of cars each year is vastly more profitable than the one-off construction of public transit systems.

Although the internal combustion engine is an important source of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon emissions, among the most deadly pollutants are sulphur oxides, which have their primary source in coal-fueled electric power plants. In his 1970 book Vanishing Air John Esposito revealed how US electric power companies have maximised profits by using poor quality coal (which produces sulphur oxides during combustion), and had opposed the installation of pollution-control equipment.

Capitalist companies have found it cheaper and therefore more profitable to pollute the air, water and land with industrial wastes than to invest in pollution control technology. Esposito cites a graphic example:

The Monsanto Corporation claims to have an invention that will clean sulphur oxides out of waste gases, and is even willing to guarantee its operation … Monsanto itself, whose sulphur dioxide emissions are considerable, refuses to install its own device … The reason is clear. Despite the fact that it sells control devices, Monsanto has made the calculation that it is cheaper to continue to pollute than to expend money for control.91

The specific purpose of pollution control technology is not primarily to increase the output of saleable goods per unit of labour (the driving force in the introduction of new technology under capitalism) but to protect the natural environment and the health of workers and the community as a whole.

However, as Commoner notes:

The technology required for pollution controls, unlike ordinary technology, does not add to the value of saleable goods … Since continued increase in productivity is closely linked to profitability, it is essential to the health of a private enterprise economy. Therefore, there appears to be a basic conflict between pollution control and what is often regarded as a fundamental requirement of the private enterprise system — the continued maximisation of productivity.92

To prevent the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere, rivers and ocean, efficient waste-treatment systems have been designed, but because their installation would cut into corporate profits they have not been widely used. For example, for more than two decades highly efficient methods have existed for cleansing air of sulphur dioxide, providing purity levels up to 95 per cent, yet thermal power stations, steel and non-ferrous metal industries continue to release millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air every year in the developing world, almost offsetting whatever gains have been achieved in the advanced capitalist countries through increased energy efficiency, cleaner technologies and the switch to cleaner fuels, such as natural gas.

Purification is not the only, nor even the most effective means of preventing pollution. Technical progress has long since made it possible to use all substances involved in any technological process, thus mimicking nature's ecosystems in which the waste produced by one organism serves as a source of energy or body-building material for other species. The development of such waste-recycling technologies would not only safeguard the environment, but would increase the efficiency of production. For example, a new method of obtaining sulphuric acid through the trickle-phase oxidation of sulphur dioxide at high temperatures not only stops the emission of this dangerous gas into the atmosphere but is hundreds of times more efficient per unit of volume of the basic reaction equipment than the old method of producing sulphuric acid.

Commoner cites a further example of this kind of technological development, the recycling of human wastes:

Suppose … that the sewage, instead of being introduced into surface waters as it is now, whether directly or following treatment, is instead transported from urban collection systems by pipeline to agricultural areas, where — after appropriate sterilisation procedures — it is incorporated into the soil. Such a pipeline would literally reincorporate the urban population into the soil's ecological cycle. This would restore the integrity of that cycle and incidentally end the need for inorganic fertiliser, which puts a stress on the aquatic cycle. The urban population is then no longer external to the soil cycle and is therefore incapable either of generating a negative biological stress upon it or of exerting a positive biological stress on the aquatic ecosystem. But note that this state of zero environmental impact is not achieved by a return to primitive conditions; it is not the people who are returned to the land but the sewage. This requires a new technological advance: the construction of a sewage pipeline system.

Ecological survival does not mean the abandonment of technology. Rather, it requires that technology be derived from a scientific analysis that is appropriate to the natural world on which technology intrudes.93

In their 1998 book Factor Four: Doubling Wealth — Halving Resource Use, Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins list 50 examples of technologies that would quadruple resource productivity, ranging from "hypercars" that cross the US on one tank of fuel, various forms of super-insulation, low energy refrigeration and air conditioning, drip irrigation and various energy-efficient transport systems. These examples confirm that the technological preconditions for sustainability already exist.94

An experiment at Penn State University by Louis Kardos indicated that piping sewage into agricultural areas would not only produce a qualitative reduction in phosphate and nitrate pollution of the water, but would also produce per hectare yields twice as large as those obtained with chemical fertilisers.

Of course, the introduction of a sewage recycling system would threaten the profits of the chemical and agribusiness monopolies. Indeed, it can be expected that the owners of industry will mount intensive resistance to the adoption of thorough recycling of key resources since they find it less expensive and thus more profitable to utilise primary raw materials and to dump the waste products into the environment. Rather than expending money on ways to prevent pollution, the big corporations, with their profits still overwhelmingly dependent on a massively polluting capital stock, prefer antipollution programs that aim to reverse some of the damage after it has been done. Such programs can be carried out at a pace that protects profits, at taxpayers' expense, and can even become another source of profit for the polluters.

Under capitalism, the very path of scientific research, the eventual application of scientific discoveries in new products and techniques and the methods of mass reproduction of these products is overwhelmingly conditioned by the need for capital to make an adequate return on its investments. This reality alone can explain: the universalisation of the automobile-freeway complex and the enforced destruction of public transport systems; agricultural biotechnology that makes crops increasingly dependent on the application of the products of the agrochemical companies; and the fact that nuclear power continues to receive far larger government subsidies than all renewables.

2. Society, technology and nature

a. No `return to nature'

The power and environmental impact of modern technology is so intense and wide-ranging that its shortsighted application to nature can have, and is having, catastrophic results. This has led some environmentalists to urge the abandonment of industrial technology and a return to a pre-industrial, self-sufficient, agrarian, village-based economy as the only way to preserve the natural equilibrium of the biosphere. Such a proposal is not only reactionary in the most literal sense of the term, but also totally untenable.

Firstly, it would mean the death, through starvation alone, of much of the world's current population. Modern industrialised agriculture produces cereal crop yields of 6000-8000 kilograms per hectare. Using such industrial farming techniques, each hectare of cultivated land can support 25-35 people at the minimum level of 230 kilograms per capita. Non-industrial farming techniques produce only enough to support about one person per hectare.

Using currently cultivated land, pre-industrial methods of cereal production would be sufficient to provide the minimum daily calorie requirements for about 1400 million people, that is, less than one-third of the world's present population. Indeed, prior to industrialisation, the world's population reached a maximum of 600 million, one-eighth its present number.

Secondly, the great majority of the world's population would not voluntarily submit to death by starvation. Nor is it likely that the few hundred millions who would be able to survive would be content to eat just enough to appease their hunger, let alone willingly forego the general quality of life that modern industry, science and technology makes possible. Deindustrialisation would therefore require the global imposition of a permanent totalitarian regime so malevolently inhuman it would make Pol Pot's genocidal tyranny in Cambodia appear benign by comparison. In the face of massive popular resistance, including from the highly skilled and organised workers of the industrialised countries, such a regime could only come to power and maintain itself by using the fiendish weapons and technical instruments of social control that industrial production and technology make possible, thus defeating the very rationale for its own existence.

Lastly, a return to a pre-industrial, agrarian society would not even provide an automatic guarantee against environmental destruction. The advocates of this solution often have a romanticised view of pre-industrial societies as simple, natural and harmoniously integrated with nature. But pre-industrial societies often caused severe environmental problems. For example, hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa, North America and Australia destroyed vast areas of woodland through repeated burning in order to increase pasture for the animals they hunted. Burning was also one of their techniques of hunting.

Primitive pastoral communities inflicted even greater damage. Not possessing any means of transportation, afraid of wild animals preying on their herds from the shelter of forests, the primitive pastoralists tried to keep domesticated animals as close as possible to their settlements. In addition, these patriarchal societies measured a man's social status by the size of his herds. As a consequence of these two factors, pastures were overgrazed, forests were cut down to create new pasture and to provide firewood. The degradation and even desertification of the vast open spaces of Central Asia and the Middle East is to a considerable extent the result of the activities of herdsmen over thousands of years. It is justifiably said that the nomad is not so much the son of the desert as its father.

The development of cultivation brought with it even more drastic changes to the natural environment. It created the need for new land, and this accelerated the burning of forests. Primitive farming methods quickly exhausted the soil, forcing early agriculturalists to move on, leaving deforested areas and burning new ones. In ancient Egypt, such practices turned fertile land into desert, finally confining agriculture to the banks of the Nile.

In North Africa, the clearing of woodlands and the use of intensive cultivation methods by the Romans led to a deterioration of soil fertility, with cultivation becoming more intensive to compensate. Removal of the forests reduced the soil's ability to retain water. Wind blew away the dried topsoil exposing bare rock and sand. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, the arrival of central African tribes with cattle and goats completed the destruction of what had once been rich lands.

Similar practices impoverished other areas around the Mediterranean. Before the introduction of agriculture and livestock raising, 65 per cent of Greece was covered by forest. Large-scale deforestation and intensive cultivation degraded much of the land to such an extent that it became suitable only for goat herding. Able to exist on about half as much as a calf, the goat has the ability to pull up grass by the roots and its sharp hooves reduce the topsoil to dust, which even a gentle wind immediately carries away. Long before the arrival of the industrial age, Greece became a devastated land, with only two per cent of its ancient arable land remaining.

While the environmentally destructive effects of human economic activities in pre-industrial societies often took a long time to manifest themselves, because of the long period in which they were practiced their impact on the Earth has been considerable. Of the 45 million square kilometres of deserts on the Earth's surface, ill-considered human activities in the pre-industrial era created about 9 million square kilometres — an area equivalent in size to continental Europe!

It is utopian to appeal for the abandonment of modern technology in order to preserve or restore the natural equilibrium of the biosphere. All human activities inevitably disrupt this equilibrium. Indeed, every form of life alters the natural environment by its activity. The present state of our planet (the oxygenous atmosphere, sedimentary rock, etc) was created largely by the existence of plant life.

b. Nature, humanity and labour

Of course, plants and animals change the natural environment unintentionally while human beings alter it deliberately through labour directed toward the satisfaction of their preconceived needs. Human beings, Karl Marx wrote, only "begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence".95

At the same time, while labour separated humans from the world of unconscious nature, it also reunited them with it, because labour is a "process in which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature," and because it is "the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence".96

The contradiction between humans and nature is constantly removed and constantly arises anew in the labour process, developing with this process. This contradiction is primarily manifested in the fact that the development of the labour process on the one hand increasingly frees society from control by nature`s elemental forces and on the other brings closer unity with nature through discovery of new substances and sources of energy and application of them.

Because labour involves cooperation between human beings, human activity in the transformation of nature is always social.

In order to produce, [people] enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on Nature, does production, take place.97

Thus labour is a process of perpetual reproduction of social life by means of a continuous transformation of the environment. As such it also determines the development of society and the individuals composing it. As Marx and Engels observed:

This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather, it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite form of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.98

In the development of society and in its changing interaction with nature, the determining factor has been changes in the material means of production, in the tools and techniques of production. Their development from the first primitive implements to the complex machines of the present day has enormously amplified humanity's power over nature. But, as Frederick Engels warned in his unfinished 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people, who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference in the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise and hence to control even the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities.99

The advances in science and technology that have accompanied industrialisation have not only increased human power to transform nature in a way unimaginable to pre-industrial societies, they have also made it possible for the first time to understand our interaction with nature and regulate it so that the vital needs of both are harmonised. But, scientific knowledge about the biosphere and the effects of our activities on it is not sufficient to protect us from environmental catastrophe. As Engels explained:

It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order …

All hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediately and directly useful effect of labour. The further consequences, which appear only later and become effective through gradual repetition and accumulation, were totally neglected. The original common ownership of land corresponded, on the one hand, to a level of development of human beings in which their horizon was restricted in general to what lay immediately available, and presupposed, on the other hand, a certain superfluity of land that would allow some latitude for correcting the possible bad results of this primeval type of economy. When this surplus land was exhausted, common ownership also declined. All higher forms of production, however, led to the division of the population into different classes and thereby to the antagonism of ruling and oppressed classes. Thus the interests of the ruling class became the driving factor of production, since production was no longer restricted to providing the barest means of subsistence for the oppressed people. This has been put into effect most completely in the capitalist mode of production …

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees — what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.100

Marx made the same point in 1867 in relation to the detrimental effects of capitalist production on soil fertility:

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between Man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by Man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the external natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker. But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and spontaneous fashion, it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race. In agriculture as in manufacture, the capitalist transformation of the process of production also appears as a martyrology for the producer; the instrument of labour appears as a means of enslaving, exploiting and impoverishing the worker; the social combination of labour processes appears as an organised suppression of his individual vitality, freedom and autonomy … Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.101

3. Capitalist production and the environmental crisis

Thus, the capitalist private profit system is the root cause of the environmental crisis. With its inherently anarchic exploitation of both human labour and natural resources for short-term profits, capitalism is incapable of utilising natural resources in a way that meets not only the current needs of all members of society but those of future generations as well:

  • If resources in capitalism are "freely" available, like water, air and soil, then they are treated as "external inputs" whose cost of reproduction is ignored. If, however, they are incorporated into the costs of production of capitalist firms (for example through government taxes and charges on the use of these resources) the burden of these extra costs is simply passed on to the consumer. Moreover, no capitalist government will impose taxes and charges on the use of natural resources that the major corporations deem "excessive" to their ability to maximise profits.
  • The compartmentalisation of production under capitalism (in which each particular natural resource is the independent object of profit-making) and the self-centered rationality of each individual capitalist firm make it "cheaper" to throw away or incinerate industrial by-products than to recycle them. Thus mountains of waste and toxic waste are the inevitable result of the capitalist version of the "affluent society".
  • Capitalism's need to maximise short-term profits also leads it to impose irrational patterns of consumption on the mass of consumers through the commodification of rational needs (for example, substitution of private automotive transport for mass public transport systems) and through manipulative advertising. To this extent, the behavior of individual consumers is a factor contributing to the ecological crisis. Capitalist ideology plays directly on this factor with its credo that "people are responsible for the crisis" or with the claim that it is caused by "excessive consumption" on the part of ordinary working people in the imperialist countries. Such arguments are a convenient means of diverting attention from the fundamentally anti-environmental nature of the capitalist mode of production — and the patterns of consumption it forces working people to adopt.
  • Today's capitalism, with its entrenched exploitation of the "South" by the advanced capitalist "North" also places an unequal burden of pollution and environmental degradation on those economies which are newly industrialising. In a world marked by excess capacity in most major branches of industry even palliative environmental protection measures can make struggling industries uncompetitive. The economic "miracle" countries of South East Asia have also been those most blighted by environmental degradation and natural resource depletion. Uncontrolled "development" of the remaining frontier in countries like Brazil, Thailand and Burma shows no sign of differing from the destructive historical model of "slash and burn". Indeed, the rules applied by international trade organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation and the North American Free Trade Association, are invoked to undermine traditional agricultural biodiversity and systems of land management.

Such is the historical environmental result of an international division of labour that has concentrated industrialisation in the advanced capitalist countries and the production of raw materials and export crops in the "periphery". This "environmental imperialism" has seen the decimation of entire species (such as bison, seals, whales and beavers), the global expansion of industrial agriculture (with its high price in "genetic erosion" and cornering of plant genetic resources by multinational firms); and even direct aggression against the environment (as with the use of Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnam and depleted uranium weaponry in the 1991 Gulf War). Falling export prices fuel an intensifying attack on the environment of the majority of countries and their peoples — caught in the vicious cycle of dependency.

The prevention of environmental degradation requires extensive social planning and regulation, which is incompatible with the utilisation of natural resources for private profit. Capitalist governments are therefore condemned to a policy of containment and repair of the effects of pollution, which can only have limited successes.

At bottom, capitalist production enters into fundamental conflict with nature and its cyclical processes of development and reproduction. Driven by the compulsion to organise matter in forms and through methods that produce profit-yielding commodities as cheaply as possible, production for private profit accelerates the tendency to a universal and random distribution of energy and matter (the law of entropy) to an unprecedented degree. Over the last 150 years, the capitalist system has produced enormous changes in soil and water quality and distribution as the rate of entropy increase climbs towards levels incompatible with the continued existence of the biosphere and human communities.

As a result, many Western scientists, and even some business leaders, have begun to recognise that the capitalist system is the key obstacle to solutions to the ecological crisis. Commoner, for example, locates the causes of the environmental crisis in the private ownership of modern technology and its blind application to nature for immediate profit:

In effect then, we now know that modern technology which is privately owned cannot survive if it destroys the social good on which it depends — the ecosphere. Hence an economic system, which is fundamentally based on private transactions rather than social ones, is no longer appropriate and is increasingly ineffective in managing this vital social good. The system is therefore in need of change.102

Even Italian Fiat executive and Club of Rome founder Dr Aurelio Peccei stated in 1974 that he did not think that "the present neocapitalist structure and philosophy" were capable of responding to the needs of our time.

Discussing the problem of increasing food production to feed a world population of 10 billion in an environmentally sustainable way, US researchers Pierre Crosson and Norman Rosenberg conclude that this is technologically possible. However, they acknowledge that "developing new technology is not the most difficult problem facing the world's agriculture; society is.

In order for new, less damaging techniques to have an effect, they must be used. For them to be introduced at the level of the individual farm, they must benefit the farmer. In a market system, such benefit generally takes the form of profit. Yet markets are not well equipped to protect resources such as water and genetic diversity, in which it is difficult to establish property rights.103

In its 1986 report Our Common Future the UN World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledges that "problems of resource depletion and environmental stress arise from disparities in economic and political power" and that these are problems "which current national and international political and economic institutions have not and perhaps cannot overcome." The ecological crisis, it notes, can only be solved when individuals "act in the common interest," but with "the spread of commerce and production for the market, the responsibilities for decision making are being taken away from both groups and individuals."104

Jim MacNeill, former Canadian deputy minister for urban affairs and principal architect of Our Common Future, points out that the "most important condition for sustainable development is that environment and economics be merged in decision making." The capitalist market economy, however:

… cannot take into account the external environmental costs associated with producing, consuming and disposing of goods and services. The market treats the resources of the atmosphere, the oceans and the other commons as free goods. It "externalises", or transfers to the broader community, the costs of air, water, land and noise pollution and of resource depletion. The broader community shoulders the costs in the form of damage to health, property and ecosystems.105

MacNeill's only answer to this problem is to propose taxes on resources and pollution. But since the corporations have no intention of absorbing such taxes into their costs and thus cutting their profits, the outcome of that proposal would simply be an increase in prices passed on by the corporations to consumers. Where charges have been imposed the decline in pollution has generally been trivial, due to the fact that taxes that would make severe inroads into the problem have met entrenched resistance from corporations with billions invested in polluting capital stock.

William Ruckelshaus, a member of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development and chief executive officer of Browning Ferris Inc, argues that the achievement of an ecologically sustainable economy will require:

… a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the agricultural revolution of the late Neolithic age and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries … Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation, guided by the best foresight that science can provide.106

Ruckelshaus notes that while the US has "environmental statutes second to none in their stringency", the USA continues to pollute the environment at an alarming rate. Why?

The difficulties of moving from stated values to actual motivations and institutions stem from the basic characteristics of the major industrialised nations — the nations that must, because of their economic strength, pre-eminence as polluters and dominant share of the world's resources, take the lead in any changing of the present order. These nations are market-system democracies. The difficulties, ironically, are inherent in the free-market economic system on the one hand and in democracy on the other.107

Like MacNeill, he locates the inherent difficulty of effective environment protection under the capitalist "free-market" economy in the fact that "market prices of commodities typically do not reflect the environmental costs of extracting and replacing them, nor do the prices of energy from fossil fuels reflect the risks of climatic change."

While he notes that when "the government owns a resource, or supplies it directly, the price charged can be made to reflect the true cost of the product," Ruckelshaus fails to draw the obvious conclusion — the need for a publicly owned system of production. Instead, he proposes to "modify the market to reflect environmental costs". Ruckelshaus attributes the failure of past attempts to do this through legislation to "the problem of action in a democracy". At the same time, he notes that "for the past 15 years poll after poll has recorded the American people's desire for increased environmental protection". If the majority wants action to be taken to protect the environment, why is democracy — which by definition means majority rule — an obstacle to achieving such action? The explanation, as Ruckelshaus is forced to acknowledge, is that "market-system democracies" are not really democratic:

Modifying the market to reflect environmental costs is necessarily a function of government. Those adversely affected by such modifications, although a tiny minority of the population, often have disproportionate influence on public policy. In general, the much injured minority proves to be a more formidable lobbyist than the slightly benefitted majority.108

As an example, Ruckelshaus cites the US Clean Air Act of 1970, "arguably the most expensive and far reaching environmental legislation". This required privately owned electric power utilities to install air pollution devices to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions by 1975.

The generalised national interest in reducing the environmental damage attributable to this long-range pollution had to overcome the resistance of both high-sulphur-coal mining interests and the Midwestern utilities that would incur major expenses if they were forced to control sulphur emissions.109

Faced with this resistance, the Nixon administration assured the mining and power companies that voluntary cooperation was all that was being proposed. The corporations certainly had no need to fear serious enforcement of the anti-pollution statutes, which provided for fines of up to $US25,000 for violations — a trifling amount to the multibillion dollar power monopolies.

As a result, the 1970 Clean Air Act became a dead letter. In 1982, under pressure of big business warnings that the costs of pollution control would price US products out of the world market, the Reagan administration and Congress allowed the act to expire.

The failure of "market system democracies" to take action on environmental protection, even when this is supported by the overwhelming majority of their populations, is due not simply to the lobbying power (money) that the "injured minority" (big business) is able to mobilise. A more fundamental obstacle is the fact that the officials who head Western governments are either direct representatives or close allies of the corporate polluters. The political and administrative institutions of "market system democracies" are structured and function in such a way as to ensure that their leading personnel either have a personal interest in, or are ideologically committed to, maximising the big corporations' profits regardless of the social cost.

4. The environmental crisis in the former `socialist' countries

While many Western ecologists and environmental activists now recognise the necessity of social planning, they often reject the need for socialism, pointing to the appearance of major environmental problems in the Soviet Union and other "socialist" countries. Indeed, the environmental catastrophes that continue to afflict the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are taken as compelling evidence that environmental degradation is not due to capitalism or socialism but to features common to both worlds — "technology", "urban sprawl", "industrialisation" and the "dominant paradigm of production at all costs".

The environmental devastation in the former "socialist camp" confirms the judgement of Professor Marshal Goldman in his 1972 book The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union:

Based on the Soviet experience, there is no room to believe that state ownership of the means of production will necessarily guarantee the elimination of environmental disruption. (Emphasis added.)110

Yet it remains to be seen whether state (or rather, social) ownership of the means of production is necessary to solve the environmental crisis and, if it is, what other factors must be included with it. An analysis of the Soviet and Eastern European failures on the environment helps uncover the answer to this question.

The catalogue of environmental disasters in the former Soviet Union is long but it can best be summed up in three cases — the Aral Sea, Lake Baikal and the Soviet nuclear industry:

  • In the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet agricultural authorities constructed large-scale irrigation works on the Amu Dar'ya and Syr Dar'ya rivers, which feed the Aral Sea. Some 60 per cent of the Aral's water has been lost to these schemes: between 1960 and 1989 the level of the lake fell 13 metres and its area shrank from 69,000 to 39,000 square kilometres. Over the same time the lake's salinity has tripled and each year between 40 million and 70 million tonnes of salt are blown from the exposed seabed onto the 200,000 square kilometres of land surrounding the lake. The fertilisers and pesticides used on the cotton have leached back into the rivers and lake, producing an increase in infant mortality, liver disorders, typhoid and cancer in the nearby population. According to Sandra Postel:

    The population of Muynak, a former fishing town, is down from 40,000 several decades ago to just 12,000 today. The 28,000 people who have fled are "ecological refugees" in the truest sense.111

  • Lake Baikal is the most voluminous and deepest freshwater lake in the world, of major scientific and human interest because of its diversity. Indiscriminate logging around the lake in the 1950s and 1960s led to soil erosion and a vast build-up in lost logs in the rivers feeding the lake. As these logs began to decay oxygen depletion set in and, combined with siltation and other pollution, led to a serious loss of fish stocks. While tree planting programs and a ban on using tributaries to transport logs have helped restore the lake, the Baikalsk paper mill was still pumping 230,000 cubic metres of effluent into the lake a day as of late 1991.112
  • The Soviet nuclear industry has been responsible for some of the greatest environmental disasters to befall the planet. In addition to the near meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 and the explosions in nuclear waste dumps in the Urals in the 1960s the Soviet navy has scuttled decommissioned nuclear submarines in the open sea, with unforeseeable effects on marine life and the food chain. On land nuclear waste has been pumped directly into the earth with the threat that this waste may eventually leach into the water table.

A 1987 estimate of Soviet health costs attributable to environmental damage came to 190 billion rubles, fully 11 per cent of gross national product.113

The environmental picture is no better in the formerly "socialist" countries of Eastern Europe. The main areas of environmental devastation are:

  • Agricultural pollution: The rapid expansion in fertiliser application in the 1970s and 1980s has led to a high nitrate content in the water supply. In Czechoslovakia this is so high that water is unsuitable for babies and children in some areas and on present trends 50 per cent of water will be unfit for human consumption by 2000.
  • Air pollution: Because of the emphasis on heavy industry and the relative inefficiency of energy use in Eastern Europe (two and a half times as much oil is used per unit of output compared to the economies of Western Europe), air pollution has been very high in the European countries of the former Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania). Sulphur dioxide emissions per unit of GDP are roughly twice those of Western Europe, with the use of low quality, high-sulphur brown coal the main source of the problem.
  • Forests: The high sulphur dioxide content in air over Eastern Europe has led to a rapid increase in damage to forests. In 1986 57 per cent of forests in the Czech Socialist Republic and 16 per cent of those in the Slovak Socialist Republic had been damaged by air pollution. In Poland the area of forest affected by air pollution has risen from 1800 square kilometres (1967) to 7000 (1987) and is projected to reach 40,000 square kilometres in 2000, equal to about half of all Poland's forests.

Similar problems affect China, whose economy depends heavily on coal for its energy. Air pollution in northern China frequently violates Chinese and World Health Organisation standards for air quality with, for example, suspended particulates in the air at 525 micrograms per cubic metre compared to the WHO standard of 60-90 micrograms. In China 26 per cent of all deaths are linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, due directly to excessive dust and particles in the air. In addition, some 27 billion tonnes of industrial wastewater is discharged each year and less than 30 per cent receives any sort of treatment. Untreated wastewater is used to irrigate land, with the result that 1.4 million hectares are now contaminated with metals and toxins. Some 86 million hectares of land has been degraded due to overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture into marginal lands. Soil erosion extends to around one-sixth of China's total land area.

However, despite this very bad environmental record, it has to recognised that "socialist" pollution was of a particular type. It was not, for example, "high-tech" pollution typical of the advanced capitalist countries. At the time of its collapse the former socialist bloc was contributing only 10 per cent of world output of ozone-depleting CFCs (as against 25 per cent of GDP). The output of polystyrene foam and plastic packaging was also much lower than in the advanced capitalist economies.

A 1981 comparative study of air quality in the USSR and the US found that, despite very high levels of pollution in many Soviet industrial towns, on average Soviet levels of benzene, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury, nitrogen oxides, ozone and hydrocarbons were between three-fifths and one-fifth the US level. This was overwhelmingly due to the much higher use of public transport in the Soviet Union.114

Notwithstanding these differences, the case for sheeting home the environmental crisis to industrialisation per se would seem to be overwhelming. However, the flaw in this line of reasoning is that it conceives of the traditional "socialist" model of industrialisation via Five Year Plans that privilege heavy industry as the only possible road for non-capitalist development. To come to grips with this question it is critical to avoid the tendency, so engrained in academia and the mainstream media, of viewing capitalism and "socialism" as models that exist independently of each other, as if in separate test tubes. Rather, in the words of James O'Connor, editor of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism:

Really existing socialism and capitalism have been formed in interaction, often violent, within and between each other in the twentieth century. The primary cause of environmental destruction in this century is war, and the most serious wars (World Wars I and II) have been initiated by capitalist nations, or between imperial powers and Third World liberation movements or fledgling states … Socialist revolution has proven to be far less ecologically harmful than capitalist counter-revolution.115

Even where the capitalist world didn't wreak environmental havoc on revolutionary states there have been other massive pressures from capitalism on the post-capitalist societies. The fact that socialist revolutions have taken place in the backward sectors of the world economy has placed a permanent, unrelenting pressure on these states to "catch up" with capitalism's metropolitan centres. Inevitably, therefore, the emergence of the Soviet Union from industrial backwardness was accompanied by many of the symptoms of environmental degradation that prevail in the industrialised capitalist countries. For example, the centrally planned economies provided massive subsidies to their energy systems. As late as 1991, of the estimated $230 billion in global fossil fuel subsidies, fully $172 billion were incurred in the Soviet Union, $14 billion in China and $9.5 billion in Poland.116 Such practices signalled to managers that energy was virtually free. In Hungary immediately after the "end of communism" 70 per cent of energy was used to process raw materials, which provided only 15 per cent of national output.117

One of the key reasons for such an approach was outlined by Soviet ecologist Igor Laptev in his 1973 book The Planet of Reason:

There is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have had much greater success in conserving the environment if the construction of socialism had begun in a more favorable international climate … The Soviet people had to win their present position among the peoples of the world through enormous deprivation and huge expense. This included the expenditure of natural resources, which would have been far less if the USSR had not been compelled to develop and master independently not only the design but also the technological process of production of all the machinery and all the commodities it needed.118

That is, denied the possibility of economic and technical cooperation with the industrialised Western countries the Soviet state was forced to rely on its own limited resources to industrialise and modernise the backward, semi-feudal society it had inherited from tsarism. In addition, the Soviet Union had to overcome the legacy of two devastating wars — the 1918-21 Civil War in which more than 100,000 foreign troops occupied part of its territory, and the 1941-45 anti-Nazi war in which 20 million Soviet citizens died and one third of the country's accumulated wealth was destroyed. Altogether, war and postwar economic recovery took up nearly 20 years of the history of the Soviet state.

Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union was denied any economic aid by its former Western allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany and was soon ringed by bases for US bombers armed with hundreds of nuclear bombs. In the face of continuous military threats from the major capitalist powers, the Soviet leaders prioritised rapid development of basic industries that could arm and equip a modern military force.

The original backwardness of the country, the need to quickly develop a heavy industrial base and divert large resources to military defence, combined to deny the Soviet Union the possibility of developing alternative, non-polluting technologies. Instead, like many poor Third World countries today, it was forced to utilise cheap, but ecologically damaging, productive technologies similar to those in the industrialised capitalist countries.

However, environmental degradation due to these factors would not, of itself, have produced the environmental disasters typical of the former Soviet Union. The environmental crisis in that country was vastly compounded by the specific model of development and planning implemented under the bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Joseph Stalin. Due to the isolation of the first socialist revolution in a relatively backward country ravaged by civil war and foreign military intervention and economic blockade, political power was usurped by the bureaucracy of the Soviet state in 1923-24. Under Stalin's leadership, this stratum of administrators and functionaries consolidated itself into a ruling caste, which appropriated a considerable part of the social surplus product for its own personal consumption.

Under the bureaucratic dictatorship the emphasis on the extensive growth of heavy industry to the detriment not only of the environment, but also of the consumption needs of the Soviet people, continued long after the Soviet Union had become a modern industrial power. Although the existence of a planned economy gave the USSR the necessary condition for beginning to tackle both these problems, bureaucratic control of political and economic institutions deprived the mass of Soviet citizens of any direct means of determining the allocation of social resources and thus their quality of life.

In the system of bureaucratic planning imposed by the Stalinist regimes the multiplicity of social, cultural, economic and environmental needs of the people were unified by force in a central plan dictated from above. The fundamental features of this plan had to consist of purely quantitative indices and growth rates, since all the qualitative aspects (including protection of resources and the environment) had been buried along with democracy.

Furthermore, while the Stalinist bureaucracies gave lip-service to the ideals of socialism, their conception of building "socialism" — by "catching up and overtaking" the advanced capitalist countries in purely quantitative indices of production — ideologically rehabilitated capitalism's ecologically devastating consumption and modernisation patterns, which consequently became the determinants of the bureaucratic central plan.

Their anti-environmental complicity with Western capitalist models was sometimes more direct, with leaking toxic dumps in Eastern Europe part of a lucrative trade in Western wastes.119

The Stalinist bureaucrats thus made a major contribution to extending the influence of capitalist production way beyond what was objectively necessary. Their model of society combined pre-capitalist, "feudal" elements of privilege and despotism with promises to be more successful than capitalism in meeting the consumption patterns created by capitalism. The Stalinist model of development thus made its own contribution to the environmental degradation of the former Soviet Union. This came about in the following ways:

  • Through "giantism": Because there was no accounting for environmental costs the Soviet industrialisation model tended towards giant projects aimed at achieving maximum economies of scale, as in the White Canal, Dnieper Dam, the Uzbekhistan irrigation schemes and the massive nickel smelters of Norilsk. (These last have killed 350,000 hectares of forest and emit 2.3 million metric tonnes of sulphur dioxide annually — five times total Swedish emissions.)120 Such schemes, enormous in their environmental impact, were also driven by the interests of the bureaucrats in charge — the bigger the project the greater their prestige. These gargantuan feats were also celebrated as proof of socialism's capacity to triumph over nature, propaganda backed up with selective quotation from the writings of Marx and Engels.
    At times these projects turned out to be disastrous in narrowly economic terms. This was the case with Nikita Krushchev's plan to convert the Soviet Union's Virgin Lands to farmland, which not only led to vast soil erosion but also squandered huge quantities of investment funds.
  • Through the suppression of all environmental debate and criticism: In the 1920s the sciences flourished in the young, post-revolutionary Soviet state. This included ecology which, in the hands of Vladimir Vernadsky, author of the term "biosphere" in his 1924 book of the same name, Vladimir Stanchinskii and Daniil Kashkarov, arguably led the world at the time. Stanchinskii's presentation to the First All-Russian Congress for the Conservation of Nature, held in September 1929, resulted in the adoption of a resolution which said:

    The economic activity of man is always one form or another of the exploitation of natural resources … The distinction and tempo of economic growth can be correctly determined only after the detailed study of the environment and the evaluation of its production capacities with the aim of its conservation, developments and enrichment. This is what conservation is all about. (Emphasis in original.)121

However, given the rise to power of Stalin's bureaucratic faction and the crushing of independent scientific investigation, it proved impossible for such thinkers to influence the stamp of socialist development. They opposed the damming of rivers without due care as well as the collectivisation and uniform mechanisation of agriculture. This provoked immediate retaliation by the Stalin faction who condemned the conservationists as "organically alien to active youth and especially Soviet youth". Stanchinskii lost his job, his research station was closed down and he was arrested in 1934. As a result, the incipient ecological trend in Soviet science was extinguished for two decades.

When ecological science began to revive in the 1960s, the basic shape of development was already fixed and the Soviet Union's very progressive environmental scientists found themselves permanently at loggerheads with the agricultural, energy and military wings of the bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, even during the "stagnation period" under Leonid Brezhnev Soviet ecology and environmental science made considerable progress, culminating in the adoption of very stringent laws and regulations against pollution: environmental rights were even enshrined in the 1977 Constitution.

However, this commitment proved to be largely formal. Without a working people schooled in ecological consciousness and without any real rights for workers and managers to act on environmental problems, the laws mostly remained a dead letter. Where some results were achieved, as with the protest movements to save Lake Baikal from destruction and to prevent the Ministry of Water Resources from rerouting Russia's northward-flowing rivers southwards, the impetus mainly came from Soviet writers.

Given, too, that the overall economic model hadn't changed markedly from Stalin's time, the basic mode of operation of the economy tended to put the environment last. The pressure to meet production targets and the dependence of workers' bonuses on plan fulfilment meant that there was a powerful incentive to keep enterprises going at all costs. Under these conditions workers, technicians and managements were basically "enterprise conscious" and not "society conscious" — that is, they worked under permanent pressure to pollute and waste resources. Combined with the low level of technological renewal in the system, this state of affairs produced the common practice of driving increasingly aging and polluting equipment well past its limit: continuing productivity gains, essential to fund conversion to environmentally benign technologies, proved impossible to attain.

Soviet economist M. Lemechev described this dynamic in the iron and steel industry:

With modern technology consuming large amounts of natural resources, production works more and more for itself. The example of iron ore alone is sufficient proof of this. In our country, 250 million tonnes … are extracted by the "progressive" method of strip-mining, thousands of hectares of fertile lands are destroyed, and the hydrological cycle of vast regions is disturbed … Then the steel industry causes pollution of the air and the water. The metal thus obtained is used to build giant steel rollers that manufacture sheet metal, which, in turn, is used to build new giant excavators for the mining of iron ore. The productivity of these excavators, the subject of pride for most engineers, is in reality a monstrous destructive force. A vicious cycle is thus created: a new technological cycle begins with disastrously minute results in terms of usefulness for human beings and tragically large results for nature.122

However, despite this generally negative picture, the capacity for a planned economy to solve environmental problems was visible even in the Soviet case: the state that could win a war against Nazi Germany could also mobilise against pollution. Commoner recognised the potential of the Soviet economy to deal decisively with pollution:

Nationwide, all-encompassing plans for industrial and agricultural development — indeed, for nearly every aspect of economic life — are an intrinsic feature of the Soviet system. The advantage of such planning in any effort to alleviate environmental problems hardly needs to be demonstrated to anyone familiar with the chaotic environmental situation in the United States — where AEC atomic safety regulations have been challenged by several states; where government officials are engaged in a long, frustrating battle with the auto industry over pollution standards; where the need for ecologically sound agriculture comes in conflict with the economic interests of the producers of fertilisers and synthetic pesticides.123

Thus, even during the Brezhnev years, pollution of Lake Baikal was reduced by closing down some industries in the region. By 1989 Moscow had managed to move 174 factories outside the city limits, with the aim of moving another 446 by 2000.

Environmental degradation began to be tackled seriously during the later years of perestroika, especially after the Chernobyl disaster. From 1987 to 1988 total expenditure on environmental protection rose by 29 per cent, spending on "protecting the atmosphere" rose by 30 per cent.

As if to provide negative confirmation, the present drive of the Yeltsin leadership to return Russia to capitalism is deepening the environmental crisis. With factories being privatised and state subsidies progressively withdrawn, plants have to cut costs or go bankrupt, with the result that anti-pollution expenditure is being seen as an expendable luxury. The disastrous 1994 Siberian oil slick, the result of a newly privatised energy company's poorly maintained pipeline, is a grave warning sign as are the atrociously dangerous stockpiles of atomic waste from the former Red navy's submarines.

Indeed, the environmental balance to date of the "end of communism" drawn by Roger Manser is that:

In spite of curbing some of the excesses of communism's pollution economy, the nascent market economy has so far failed to bring fundamental improvements and in the future is likely to reinforce old threats as well as create new ones.124

Among the daunting problems are: the size of the clean-up bill (estimated by the Polish Ministry of Environmental Protection at between four and five per cent of Polish national income for 20 years and for East Germany by Greenpeace at $125 billion); the gutting of environmental legislation; the explosion in consumerism; the profitability of the ongoing toxic waste trade with the West; the potential revival of nuclear power using "safe" Western technology;125 and the enormous threat from Western timber multinationals to Russia's pristine Siberian and Far Eastern forests.

Underlying all these problems is the loss of social control involved in the ongoing privatisation of the economy. For example, energy policy in the former German Democratic Republic was largely in the hands of local authorities, but when three of West Germany's largest electricity generating companies were granted a 75 per cent stake in the East German electricity supply industry, the local authorities took the issue to court. When a final out-of-court settlement was reached the West German utilities were guaranteed 70 per cent of the electricity market for the next 20 years. Manser concludes:

With hindsight it might be said that the court case and its settlement meant that Germany missed a major opportunity to experiment with a locally controlled (and potentially environmentally friendly) supply and conservation of energy.126

In summary, experience in the Soviet Union and other bureaucratically ruled socialist states has conclusively shown that planning without the democratic participation of the mass of producers-consumers is extremely wasteful and can fail to meet the needs of society, including the need for a healthy environment. Moreover, those who make wrong decisions about the allocation of resources are rarely the ones who pay directly for their mistakes, and are never those who pay the heaviest price. It is the ordinary workers and consumers who are the victims. Without freedom to organise and agitate around environmental issues, without full public information about pollution levels, with bureaucratic concealment of the likely ecological impact of new investments, it is impossible to establish the social costs of different projects, and impossible therefore to make an informed choice among them.

But once these conditions no longer obtain, once planning takes place in a social context of full information and full democratic rights, then there is nothing inherent in planned economy that makes pollution on a massive scale inevitable. Unlike capitalism, where competition drives private producers to offload ("externalise") their costs, under democratic socialist planning society will be free to choose the least polluting model of development practicable at each stage of development. The early Soviet experience provided a glimpse of this possibility, which lives on in Cuban environment policy and is further developed in Chapter Six.

Submitted by DSPAdmin on Mon, 2006-08-07 06:01. printer-friendly version | Array