III. The environmental movement

The modern environmental movement contains many different views of the relationship between human society and nature, and many different projects for changing that relationship. More particularly, it covers a wide spread of answers to the vital issue of whether decent living standards and social justice for all human beings can be compatible with a flourishing environment.

1. Sources of modern environmentalism

While all religions and philosophies have expressed a viewpoint on the humanity-nature relationship, in modern environmentalism this relation, however conceived, forms the central, organising theme. Moreover, environmentalism could only arise when the conditions for transforming that relation had begun to materialise in human history. More specifically, the prerequisite for present-day environmental consciousness was the rise of capitalist industrial civilisation in the early 19th century, making possible for the first time the destruction of nature and resource depletion but also, by the same token, a choice of the terms on which humanity might live in nature. Like socialism, its cousin, ecological consciousness emerges first in those countries where capitalist industrialisation is most advanced.

However, the impact of capitalist industrialisation on nature was so many-sided that the component parts of the modern ecological outlook could only develop in relative isolation from one another. This was also the case because the natural and social sciences, while developing rapidly, were not yet sufficiently advanced for an understanding of their overall interrelatedness to have become clear. In the words of Frederick Engels:

The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and natural objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature which have been made during the last four hundred years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and natural processes in their isolation, detached from the whole vast interconnection of things; and therefore not in their motion, but in their repose; not as essentially changing, but as fixed constants; not in their life, but in their death.127

Thus modern environmentalism draws together a number of tributary streams, each arising from a specific point of conflict or investigation between society and the natural world and each supplying a particular element to the all-round ecological outlook. These streams, which intermingled in many ways, are summarised below.

a. Ecological concerns in natural and social science

Much of the overall field of investigation of modern environmental science is to be found in embryo in the rapidly developing social and natural sciences of the nineteenth century. Thus, while the term ecosystem wasn't coined until 1935, the analysis of ecosystems as a living interactive system conditioned by physical, chemical and biological factors (the "web of life") makes its first appearance in Darwin's The Origin of the Species.

The work of agrarian chemists Boussingault and Liebig on soil chemistry, based on the idea of restoring minerals to the soil, prefigures the concerns of sustainable agriculture (although in the short run its effect was to stimulate the spoliation of Peru's guano deposits in order to fertilise European fields).

Most importantly, the "population debate", begun by Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population, stimulated research in many fields as to the "carrying capacity" of the Earth. Factors affecting this equation were investigated in the developing sciences of:

  • Human geography and agronomy: What was the "carrying capacity" of regions with differing soil fertility, energy availability, and climate?
  • Physics, "energetics" and mechanical engineering: What "energy stocks" were available in nature? What was their rate of depletion? How could they be utilised more efficiently? What was the meaning of the Law of Entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) for human society?
  • Economics: At what rate should scarce resources, especially coal, be depleted? What did this mean for possible growth rates? Would the rate of technological advancement offset that of resource depletion?
  • Urban planning and development: What level of urbanisation could a given agriculture sustain? What was the optimal layout of a city, at given levels of food and energy stocks?

In a society riven by class conflicts each and every scientific (or pseudo-scientific) hypothesis on these issues also provided support for conflicting ideologies about the humanity-nature relationship. Thus, as well as foreshadowing the concerns and research procedures of contemporary environmental science, debates in 19th century science also prefigure the controversies of the contemporary environmental movement.

  • What is a sustainable level of population? At one extreme Malthus, on the false assumption of a more or less fixed level of agricultural productivity, set strict limits to population growth and human wellbeing. At the other, Franz Oppenheimer, on the basis of productivity achieved in greenhouse farming and without accounting for energy costs and waste, set an upper limit in 1901 of 200 billion for the world's population.
  • Resource depletion: In 1885 physicist Rudolf Clausius wrote, facing the prospect of long-run decline in coal supplies: "The most civilised nations should act in concert in order to control the extraction of coal in a manner alike to the control of forest exploitation in well organised states."128 This already posed the question of what rate of resource depletion to allow to cater for the needs of future generations, anticipating the contemporary debate over sustainable development.
  • The applicability of the laws of animal life to the human world: Charles Darwin himself saw his thesis about the "struggle for existence" as "the doctrine of Malthus applied in manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom". Such a doctrine is the forbear of the "lifeboat ethic" of such latter-day Malthusians as Garret Hardin and Paul and Anne Erhlich.
    Critics of Malthusianism, first and foremost Marx and Engels, stressed that the laws of human life are different from those of animal life. In the words of Engels:

    The interaction of … living bodies [includes] conscious and unconscious cooperation as well as conscious and unconscious struggle … The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to organic nature of Hobbes's theory of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois economic theory of competition, as well as the Malthusian theory of population.129

  • Entropic versus exotropic tendencies in life systems: Which is the fundamental tendency of life systems? Entropy? That toward dispersal and disorganisation (as expressed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics), or that towards ever-higher forms of life organisation? In the 19th century this discussion had an inevitabilist character. (Was there an "iron law of existence"? Or an inevitable "heat death of the universe"?) Today it revives in the perception that simple uniform ecosystems (monocultures in agriculture, standardised human communities) are unstable in the long run and that for artificial systems to be ecologically sustainable they must mimic the characteristics of mature ecosystems.
    An important role in the development of an ecological outlook in economics came in the work of Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. Unlike neo-classical economics which basically views the economy as a perpetual motion machine fueled by money and private individual interests and "endowments" (land, labour and capital), Georgescu-Roegen's ecological economics viewed the economy as an open system which drew on solar energy and resources and produced by converting them into dissipated heat and waste materials. These could, via recycling, be reused to a certain degree but the proper, ecologically benign, functioning of the economy depended on being able to monitor and control the pace and scale of this throughput.
  • Property forms and the environment: In the 19th century harmonious human and natural development was seen to depend on private property (Malthus), communal property (Utopian socialists) and social property (Marxists). The same debate continues today with the "tragedy of the commons" only solvable for some (Garrett Hardin) through the assignment of private property rights over resources, while for others (Barry Commoner) private property is the root cause of environmental degradation and the threat to human survival.

b. Resource management

The resource management movement arose in the "frontier" capitalist states (United States, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) where the threat to overall economic development from rampantly predatory private capitalists reached crisis point in the late 19th century (by 1870 commercial hunting of bison had reached three million head a year). The movement focussed first of all on forest management, seeking to establish some sustainable (or at least slower) rate of depletion and built on the Romantic reaction to a savagely exploitative capitalism.

The main figure in the resource conservation movement was Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service, whose book The Fight for Conservation was in part a reply to the criticism that conservationism was "hoarding" resources for future generations. The resource conservation movement, with its ethic of planned, efficient exploitation of natural resources from the point of view of the overall good of the economy, represented the first restriction on private capital's laissez faire "right" to untrammelled exploitation of nature.

c. Conservation and animal rights

The aim of the wilderness movement, represented by such organisations as the Sierra Club in the US and the national parks movement in Australia, was to preserve nature from development through setting aside large areas as a way of conserving species and species diversity. Among the earliest successes of the movement were the 1864 ceding by the US government of Yosemite Park to California (with the stipulation that it be maintained as a public park) and the declaration of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the Royal National Park in New South Wales in 1879.

Further spurred on by the final closure of the American frontier, the preservationist movement was also inspired by various cults of nature, a tradition most immediately represented in the US by Henry Thoreau but with a lineage reaching back to German and English Romantic poets and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The watchword for the preservationist movement in its search for a refuge from the horrors of industrial capitalist society was Thoreau's "in the wilderness is the preservation of the world". In the words of Sierra Club founder John Muir:

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.130

The movement that is today called animal liberation first emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the various societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The assumption of a moral obligation by the human species to other living beings can be traced back to the position first enunciated by Jeremy Bentham when he wrote that what was "important about beings was not, `Can they reason ?', nor `Can they talk ?', but, `Can they suffer ?'". By this criterion other species become candidates for treatment by humans as something more than resources.

d. Marx and Engels

In the theoretical sphere the general scientific conception of the evolving humanity-nature relationship was first uncovered in the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. For Marx and Engels humanity is part of nature and nature provides humanity's direct means of life (and hence the fact that humanity's "physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for humanity is a part of nature"). But nature is also the "object and instrument" of humanity's life activity. That is, confronting nature, humanity "begins to distinguish itself from animals as soon as it begins to produce its means of subsistence". Through labour, through the use of tools, humanity impresses its own stamp on nature in a different way from animals and "the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrow sense of the word, the more they make their history themselves, consciously." As history develops changes that take place in nature are now increasingly due to human activity, so that, for Engels, even at a primitive level of development, "there is devilishly little left of `nature' as it was in Germany at the time when the Germanic peoples immigrated into it".

The evolution of primitive societies into class societies and eventually into capitalist society goes hand in hand with an ever increasing impact of humanity upon nature, which under capitalism is determined primarily by production for private profit. Under the private profit system the Earth itself becomes "an object of huckstering" (Engels): the fertility of the soil and the vitality of the labourer are equally sacrificed to capital's "werewolf hunger for surplus value" (Marx).

Marx and Engels did not produce a worked-out, comprehensive presentation of the interrelationship between a young and expanding capitalism and the environment, but the general humanity-nature relationship haunts all their work, and the specific impact on the environment of different civilisations and modes of production is a recurring theme.

In particular Marx, in a remarkable passage in the Grundrisse, sketched out the essentially antagonistic relation between the "logic of capital" and nature.

The creation by capital of absolute surplus value — more objectified labour — is conditional upon an expansion, specifically a constant expansion, of the sphere of circulation. The surplus value created at one point requires the creation of surplus value at another point, for which it may be exchanged … A precondition of production based on capital is therefore the production of a constantly widening sphere of circulation, whether the sphere itself is directly expanded or whether more points within it are created as points of production The tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome. Initially, to subjugate every moment of production to exchange and to suspend the production of direct use values not entering into exchange, i.e., precisely to posit production based on capital in place of earlier modes of production, which appear too rooted in nature from its standpoint …

On the other side, the production of relative surplus value, i.e. production of surplus value based on the increase and development of the productive forces, requires the production of new consumption; requires that the consuming circle within circulation expands as did the productive circle previously. Firstly quantitative expansion of existing consumption; secondly: creation of new needs by propagating existing ones in a wide circle; thirdly: production of new needs and discovery and creation of new use values … Hence exploration of all of nature in order to discover new, useful qualities in things; universal exchange of the products of all alien climates and lands; new (artificial) preparation of natural objects, by which they are given new use values. Hence the exploration of the Earth in all directions, to discover new things of use as well as new useful qualities of the old; such as new qualities of them as raw materials etc.; the development, hence, of the natural sciences to their highest point; likewise the discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations … is likewise a condition of production founded on capital …

Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side — i.e., surplus labour, value-creating labour — so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilising science itself just as much as all the natural and human qualities, while there appears nothing higher than itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange. Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilising influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all the earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionises it, tearing down all the barriers, which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.

But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. Furthermore: The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension.131

However, the solution to capitalism's exploitation of the Earth and the worker does not lie in a return to the idyll of a "natural" society, to freezing, if that were even possible, the development of the forces of production. It lies instead in the capture by society from private capital of the means of production, making it possible for the first time for humanity to govern its impact on nature. The socialist revolution in alliance with science finally frees humanity to apply the laws of nature to the humanity-nature relation itself. In contemporary language, it is the precondition of truly sustainable development.

e. Early blueprints for sustainable societies

Aside from a few scattered general comments, Marx and Engels did not develop any systematic views on the organisation of the economy immediately following the overthrow of capitalism. However, as the German Social Democracy grew into a mass party the issue as to the forms socialism would take became more pressing. Thus Social-Democratic leader August Bebel in his work Women under Socialism explores the potential for socialist development made possible by the application of scientific knowledge in soil conservation, recycling and a healthy urban-rural balance. In The Agrarian Question Karl Kautsky anticipated that:

By overcoming the antithesis between town and country, or at least between the densely populated cities and the desolated open country, the materials removed from the soil would be able to flow back in full. Supplementary fertiliser would then, at most, have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment. Advances in cultivation would signify an increase in the amount of soluble nutrients in the soil without the need to add artificial fertilisers.132

Writers like Josef Popper and Karl Ballod developed models of societies ruled by sustainability in the flow of energy and materials and moderation in the use of exhaustible resources. Ballod, followed by Otto Neurath, developed ecological planning techniques, calculating, for example, the area of land that could be fertilised if the annual sewer waste of Berlin were recycled.

2. Rise of the modern environmental movement

However, environmental destruction only became an issue of broad public awareness and concern in the 1960s as a result of the qualitative leap in the degradation and pollution of the planet's air, water and land which came about within the framework of the long boom in the world capitalist economy in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period there was a massive increase in the use of fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, and an accompanying expansion of the automobile industry. In addition, there was a shift to the use of synthetic chemicals, which have penetrated every sector of human activity.

By the late 1960s, public awareness of the damaging impact of these technologies upon the Earth's environment (and of nuclear testing) had created a social climate conducive to the formation of a popular movement around this issue. The movement grew out of the protest movement against the US war on Vietnam. The antiwar movement was informed by the abundance of information detailing the detrimental environmental impact of the war in Indochina, as well as evidence of the extreme toxicity of a range of industrial chemicals to come to prominence after World War II (notably DDT, mercury and phosphates). The 1962 appearance of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was a turning point in the emergence of this mass awareness.

An undeniable achievement of the environment movement both in Australia and internationally has been the mobilisation and at least partial radicalisation of large numbers of people. Owing to its broad and growing support and ability to mobilise large numbers of people, the movement came to pose an incipient challenge to the demands of capital for unrestrained economic growth and profitability. In its earliest phases the environmental movement offered a direct challenge to the compatibility of environmental demands with the dominance of private property.

In Australia and many other countries, the movement has succeeded in pushing through numerous reforms, which have had the effect of partially decelerating the explosive increase in environmental destruction. This can be seen in the almost total halt in the building of new nuclear power stations, in the reductions of the use and production of some synthetic chemicals, and in the development of exhaust emission standards for cars and industrial plants.

Victories for the Australian movement include the successful 1983 blockade of the proposed dam on Tasmania's Franklin River; the curtailing, from the late 1970s, of uranium mining; restrictions on the logging of old-growth forests; and a large expansion in the number and extent of national parks.

Yet at the same time, global damage to the environment is greater than ever before. The reforms won by the movement at most have served to slow down the slide toward environmental destruction. From this perspective, the ongoing degradation of the biosphere points to the need to go beyond piecemeal reforms toward a fundamental transformation of society.

3. Ruling class responses to environmentalism

The response of the capitalist rulers to the challenge of the ecological movement has not been uniform. It has ranged from complete denial of the existence of the crisis (US President George Bush and ultra-right think tanks like the US Cato Institute) to the adoption of "sustainable development" as a policy goal, with the rhetoric of an Al Gore. In its overall response the capitalist ruling class has sought to discredit the more threatening claims of the environment movement while attempting to meet those of the movement's demands which are compatible with maintaining economic and political stability.

Of course, the fundamental limitation to the ruling class response to the environmental crisis lies in the refusal to accept any challenge to the private ownership and profit system, the root cause of environmental destruction. At best the results achieved by the capitalist class and its environmental reforms are a limited amelioration of the crisis in certain areas — the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions in the advanced capitalist economies, for instance. At its worst, corporate capital's response offers only a "Greenwash" of the problems; a blaming of the victims rather than seeking the fundamental causes of ecosystem breakdown. And, predictably, there's a growing trend in private industry to see whether "clean, green" production can't be made profitable in some areas (and hence boosted as the realistic solution to the crisis).

a. Business and the environmental crisis

Until the early 1980s the basic response of business to the environmental crisis was to continue treating nature along the lines described by Marx and Engels — as a storehouse to be ransacked for "factors of production" and as a sewer. For decades the big corporations polluted with impunity and succeeded in marginalising the small environmental movement. This was the epoch of such disasters as Love Canal, Minamata and the Monsanto Corporation's war of ridicule against Rachel Carson.

However, three decades of rapidly rising pollution and resource depletion brought the inevitable day of reckoning: business stood increasingly exposed as the prime suspects in the eyes of a public that was paying increasing attention to the environmental cause. For a period in the 1970s the general corporate response was to try to ride out the storm of criticism of its environmental record through a strategy that combined pressure to dilute government regulatory standards, systematic deceit (for example, meeting emission requirements only on the days the inspectors were on site), and terrorism against environmental activists (as in the corporate murder of anti-nuclear campaigner Karen Silkwood).

Although this phase came to an end with the 1977 release of dioxin in the Italian town of Seveso and the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, in general business's tactics were not without success. Despite the growth of a vast environmental bureaucracy (especially in the USA) the main indices of pollution continued to climb. Pollution reduction targets continued to be revised upwards; "safe levels" for emissions established by government regulators often coincided with existing business practice. The root cause of this failure was continuing corporate dependence on intrinsically toxic technologies. The use of mercury in chlorine production, of DDT in agriculture and lead in petrol could be banned (despite considerable corporate resistance), but nitrogen fertilisers, plastics and high-compression combustion engines could not be dispensed without making severe inroads into corporate profit. As Henry Ford II said: "Minicars make miniprofits".

However, the continual worsening of the environmental crisis (symbolised by disasters like the Exxon Valdez) and the ongoing broadening of environmental consciousness (particularly as reflected in the rise of Green parties) further increased the pressure on business to adapt. Even as the corporations continue to press government to adopt "realistic" emission targets and guarantee resource security, they have moved to adapt their operations to the new environmental reality. Leading the way in corporate environmental consciousness have been the insurance multinationals, for whom a decade of rising disaster payouts have provided persuasive evidence of the reality of global warming.

At one level this response has been purely decorative — annual reports are now on recycled paper, there are business environment institutes and awards, the corporates now sponsor World Environment Day and the dark satanic mills have been placed behind rows of native trees. Typical is US oil multinational Chevron. When the US Clean Air Act came up for renewal in 1990, Chevron and other oil giants spent millions trying to relax the provisions covering emissions from oil refineries. This didn't stop Chevron chairman George Keller from claiming that "at Chevron we're proud of a corporate environmental policy that says we comply fully with the letter and spirit of all laws affecting our operations".

The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash describes the offensive:

A leader in ozone destruction takes credit for being a leader in ozone protection. A giant oil company professes to take a "precautionary approach" to global warming. A major agrochemical manufacturer trades in a pesticide so hazardous it has been banned in many countries, while implying the company is helping to feed the hungry. A petrochemical firm uses the waste from one polluting process as raw material for another, and boasts that this is an important recycling initiative. A company cuts timber from natural rainforest, and replaces it with plantations of a single exotic species, and calls the project "sustainable forest development" … While they proclaim that "corporate environmentalism" is here, the TNCs are working to help create a new world order where international agreements and practices will give them unregulated, unparalleled power around the globe.133

Sharon Beder describes the corporate lust for greenwash, which saw US firms spend one billion dollars on environmental PR activities in 1995:

Every Earth Day provides another opportunity for firms to get environmental credentials, deserved or otherwise. One US PR consultant observed: "There's a virtual feeding frenzy among corporations about what roles they will play on Earth Day." On the same topic, the Public Affairs Director for the Monsanto Chemical Company has said: "There's a mad scramble for many companies to project an `I am greener than thou' attitude" …

The attempt to provide a "green" and caring persona for a corporation is a public relations strategy aimed at promising reform and heading off demands for more substantial and fundamental changes. A PR expert advised in Public Relations Journal:

"There really are no solid solutions to many environmental problems other than ceasing to partake in the activity that causes the environmental hazard. Therefore, the key to devising successful solution ideas is to show that your client cares about the environmental issue at hand."134

However, big capital knows that, given its record and community suspicion, more is required. So the corporations, often the worst polluters like DuPont (main world producer of polychlorinated biphenyls), are being forced to spend large sums cleaning up their operations (at least in those countries where environmental consciousness is most acute).

Business never stops complaining about the "excessive" cost of environmental protection, which in the US has been rising faster than the growth rate of industrial production. Pollution abatement costs currently stand at $40 billion a year for US manufacturing industry. Disposal costs for some toxic wastes have risen as high as $10,000 per ton 135 and can be ill-afforded in a global economic context marked by huge excess capacity and pressure on profit margins. Cost cutting is the imperative of the day, to be secured by unending attack on wages and environmental and occupational health and safety standards, if necessary through shifts to Third World pollution and cheap labour havens.

Nor has the corporate war against environmental activism eased. In the US agribusiness corporations have been so eager to stifle debate of toxic pesticide residues on food that the industry has been campaigning to pass "food disparagement" laws which make it a crime to criticise agricultural products without "a sound scientific basis". Such legislation is now on the books in eleven US states and under consideration in ten more. Even if such laws are not adopted federally they will depress discussion of the possibility that the products of agribusiness aren't good for human health.136

Even where corporate polluters are caught red-handed, capitalist governments are careful not to endanger private profitability too much. For example, while US energy utility Rockwell International was fined $18.5 million for intentionally polluting Rocky Flats, Colorado, with plutonium wastes, the same company was given "performance bonuses" totalling $22.6 million by the US Department of Energy for the last three years it ran the plant.

Similarly, after the Bhopal tragedy, which affected around 200,000 victims, plant operator Union Carbide deliberately liquidated a substantial portion of its assets in the form of special dividends to shareholders, thus reducing the company's ability to pay out compensation. (Most of the victims of Bhopal have still received no compensation.)

Notwithstanding this protection, business's position remains vulnerable because awareness is spreading that the prerequisites for a solution to the crisis already exist. Already, numerous global, regional and sectoral "blueprints for survival" have been developed; resource efficient and non-polluting technologies feature in the media; and practical courses of the treatment of the major environmental problems have been developed and formally adopted by governments and international agencies.

Taking the long view, the environmental crisis again confirms that when the ruling elites have developed their own plans for confronting an all-pervasive social crisis, the rest of society — the subordinate classes — are also capable of developing their own more radical response — at the expense of the ruling elites themselves.

This state of affairs makes the environment, especially environmental liability, a permanent fact of life for capital. Environmental management is now incorporated into the operations and management structures of major corporations. MBA courses now cover such topics as "best practice environmental management" and how to "change the corporate culture" along environmental lines. The new "pro-active" approach to environmental and community issues advocates that companies:

  • Incorporate environmental management into their staff training and "total quality management" schemes;
  • Have in place a well-supervised monitoring system, so that a company can react to pollution problems before being forced to react to outside deadlines and directives;
  • Accept external auditing of the firm's environmental performance. By 1991 in Australia 75 per cent of chemical and mining companies and 53 per cent of companies in the metal trades were conducting external environmental audits. The point of such arrangements is for companies to have an early warning system as to the possibility of community protest or regulatory intervention;
  • Become "pro-active" in their communication with local communities. Business is now putting much more effort into talking with local authorities and community groups in an attempt to diffuse or split opposition to their industries. In the words of environmental business consultant Christopher Davey: "Lack of local criticism of an operation removes one of the major triggers for the wave of public indignation that sweeps through communities from time to time, causing difficulties for industries".

A number of companies have moved even further along the spectrum of greenness. Apart from those which are producing for the burgeoning "green market", firms are to be found which are seeking to make their operation as environmentally benign as possible, in the knowledge that there's money in greenness. Thus the Australian arm of Shell spent $600 million on a refinery upgrade to reduce lead levels in its leaded petrol. In the US the 3M company introduced its Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) plan in 1975. By redesigning products and equipment, changing processes and recycling waste, 3M was able to save $537 million over a 15-year period and greatly reduce its rate of pollution emission.

The response of the more astute sections of multinational capital to the pressure for sustainability is encapsulated in the 1995 formation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which promotes the concept of "eco-efficient leadership", defined by WBCSD director Björn Stigson in these words:

The term has two elements: the first is eco-efficiency, which is about simultaneously improving environmental and financial performance; the second is about leadership, having visions, being proactive, transforming organisations and people. In everyday speech, eco-efficient leadership is how to do more with less, bring more value to your customers and come out looking great.137

With some 70,000 firms in the US now involved in some form of "environmental commerce" and with ethical investment funds also expanding rapidly, some environmentalists see no reason why the entire system of capitalist production can't be made ecologically benign. This prospect is outlined by leading US green entrepreneur Paul Hawken in his book The Ecology of Commerce. For Hawken the key to producing a "prosperous commercial culture that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature at every step" is to levy green taxes and subsidies at levels high enough to make polluting, resource-depleting production totally unprofitable within a given time span.

Hawken's approach is reminiscent of that of 19th century populist Henry George, for whom the cardinal sin of the capitalist system (unearned property income, especially through land speculation) was to be answered through the imposition of a single land tax. In a world of increasing capital mobility, Hawken's proposal is even more utopian than George's. Multinational firms are already decamping from countries with taxes, wages, infrastructure costs and environmental standards that are "too high": Hawken's proposal would simply accelerate the flight of capital to the pollution havens of a Third World that economists like former World Bank chief Lawrence Summers regard as "underpolluted".

The enormity of what Hawken is proposing can be understood better when we look at those very few companies that are practicing what he preaches. For instance, the Dutch information consultancy BSO/Origin began attaching a monetary value to the environmental damage done by operations in its 1990 annual report, subtracting a figure for this environmental "value lost" from conventional value added. Company president Eckhart Wintsen believes that all companies should be required to calculate, in cash terms, the burden that their products place on the ecosystem throughout their life cycle, and be made to pay an "extracted-value tax" on this basis. The revenue would be used for environmental repair. However, Philips, the Dutch electronics multinational with a 40 per cent stake in BSO, "has been unenthusiastic about Wintzen's suggestion that the company voluntarily pay its extracted-value tax into a fund to finance good works".138

As matters stand, "green corporate citizens" make up only a tiny minority of producers and even those companies with the best environmental record have not reduced total output of pollutants. 3M is a case in point. While its 3P program is supposed to have prevented the release of 32,600 tonnes of pollutants between 1975 and 1989, total pollution emissions increased because of big increases in production.139 Or take US telecommunications multinational AT&T, which aimed to phase out use of CFCs by 1994 along with sharp reductions in toxic air emissions, manufacturing waste and paper use. However:

Conspicuously absent … are goals for reducing carbon emissions and toxic wastes. Including these would permit the comprehensive restructuring of industrial processes that holds the key to building an environmentally sustainable global economy.140

However, the massive rise in environmental consciousness and the fact that there is no escape from most forms of pollution, means that even sections of the capitalist class will support some environmental demands, making possible very broad alliances against this or that instance of environmental degradation. This trend is reinforced by the growing division between those sections of capital which can afford to retool with less polluting equipment and those, like the oil multinationals, which have billions sunk in infrastructure with the potential to wreak havoc on the biosphere.

Similar divisions are opening up between those companies that stand to gain from the imposition of tighter regulations (for example, miners of platinum for catalytic converters, private incinerator owners and the "big few" who can afford the conversion costs of non-polluting technology). Green consumerism is also creating new classes of winners and losers. For example, German household-goods company Henkel developed a phosphate-free detergent which so rapidly swept the German market that the government was able to ban detergents containing phosphates: the losers were French detergent companies exporting their phosphate-based product into the German market.141

As the global environmental crisis deepens these intra-capitalist divisions will also deepen. The gap between business greenwash — and even the "sustainable development" plans of corporate think tanks — and its practice in the world of profit-making, will therefore also become more glaring, and more politically destabilising.

b. Environmental `governance'

Confronted with the depth of the environmental problem and the growing environmental movement the response of governments in many advanced capitalist countries was to establish regulatory organisations. The best example of this approach is that of the US, with legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the early 1970s. Australia, along with other countries, has followed the US lead.

The shortcomings of this approach are analysed by Barry Commoner in Making Peace with the Planet:

The United States is a good place to look for answers. Concern with the environment and efforts to improve it are now world-wide, but the United States is the place where the environment movement first took hold, and where the earliest efforts were made. Since the early 1970s the country has been governed by basic laws that were intended to eliminate air and water pollution and to rid the environment of toxic chemicals and of agricultural and urban wastes. National and state environmental agencies have been established; about a trillion dollars of public and private money have been spent … Environmental issues have taken a permanent place in the country's political life.142

Commoner then traces the degree of improvement achieved since the proclamation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The greatest success has been registered where minimal changes to production techniques have been required. Notable success has been achieved in reducing atmospheric concentrations of sulphur dioxide, the key constituent of acid rain. Largely emitted from the stacks of coal burning power stations, sulphur dioxide emissions decreased by around 50 per cent in Britain between 1976 to 1991 as a result of government regulation requiring the installation of "scrubbers" (pollution control devices that trap gasses before emission) to stacks. Atmospheric lead concentrations also decreased significantly as a result of regulation — by 94 per cent between 1975 and 1987.

Where pollution is more intrinsic to the production process, regulation has proved less effective. Regulations to install catalytic converters to the exhaust systems of all new cars has had the effect of decreasing the emissions of carbon monoxide from automobiles, by as much as 24 per cent between 1975 and 1987. However, increased social reliance on road transport (cars, trucks etc) has meant that despite regulation, concentrations of nitrogen oxides (a key contributor to the formation of petrochemical smog) continue to grow. Concentrations of the pollutant grew by as much as 35 per cent between 1986 and 1991 in Britain. Water quality has not been greatly improved by government regulation. "In sum," Commoner points out, "the regulations mandated by the Clean Water Act, and more than $100 billion spent to meet them have failed to improve water quality in most rivers." In fact while levels of phosphates remained relatively constant in US water systems from the 1970s to 1987, levels of other serious pollutants increased sharply. Nitrate levels in water increased most dramatically, owing to increased use of chemical fertilisers in farming.

Despite enormous expenditure on clean-up the US decontamination program runs massively behind schedule, over budget and with questionable quality of result. Superfund, the US funding agency established in 1980 with $1.6 billion to clean up 400 contaminated sites, now faces a bill of $300 billion to clean up 1200 sites, with another 900 expected by the year 2000. The US General Accounting Office has also found that the EPA's standards for declaring decontamination "successful" vary by as much as 360,000:1 from site to site.143

Outright banning of toxic substances has had much more impact. The banning of DDT in the US in 1972 meant that environmental concentrations fell dramatically over a short time. A similar result was achieved with PCBs. However, regulation has failed to halt the environmental dissemination of other seriously threatening chemicals, such as dioxin, concentrations of which have been steadily increasing. (Dioxin is a resultant waste product of the burning of certain plastic wastes at relatively low temperatures. Its increased concentrations in the biosphere have mirrored increasing production of materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for throw-away packaging.)

The lack of success of the regulatory approach forced a series of back-downs by the environmental bureaucracies. Targets for the reduction of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and ozone levels in US cities were set by the US EPA to be met by 1977. In 1977, with no cities coming close to compliance, deadlines were extended to 1982, and then again to December 31, 1987. At this date, the most polluted cities were given a further extension of time — until 2007!

Despite the apparently massive effort to the contrary, Commoner is forced to conclude:

In sum, the Congress has mandated massive environmental improvement; the EPA has devised elaborate, detailed means of achieving this goal; most of the prescribed measures have been carried out, at least in part; and in nearly every case the effort has failed to even approximate the goals.144

The response to the apparent failure of regulation has been a turn to deregulated market-based "risk management" approach to the setting of environmental standards. Pushed particularly by the Reagan administration in the USA, this approach attempted to combine environmental risk assessment with the "cost and feasibility" of reducing risks to arrive at a regulatory standard that is supposed to reduce the risk. The market-based approach to environmental protection was further extended with the introduction of tradable pollution rights. Companies are assigned a limit to which they are permitted to pollute. If they do not use the full "value" of their quota in any one year, it may be sold on the market to a company which has exceeded its own limits. The effect of this policy change "is a profound moral and political judgment: that poor people who lack the resources to evade it should be subjected to a more severe environmental burden than rich people."145 The responsibility for society to protect the living environment of the individual is obfuscated in a supposed drive for economic efficiency.

A sophisticated ruling class response to the challenge of the ecological movement is that encompassed in the so-called "international development" response. Characterised by its proponents as a "new paradigm", this response is centred around international relations between "developed" and "developing" countries. A thorough exposition of this response is given by US Vice-President Al Gore in Earth in the Balance. Gore presents the responsibilities of the "developed" nations as follows:

Many people of good will recognised early on the need to bring some coherence to the efforts of rich and poor nations to build a more just civilisation; what came to be called development is now the chief means by which wealthy nations — often working through multilateral institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks — can help undeveloped nations accelerate their transition to modernity.146

While recognising that the development paradigm often entailed serious environmental harm, Gore sees it as the basis for a global approach:

While it is true that there are no real precedents for this kind of global response now required, history does provide us with at least one powerful model of cooperative effort: the Marshall Plan.147

The crux of such a plan would be:

… massive efforts to design and then transfer to poor nations the new technologies needed for sustained economic progress, a worldwide program to stabilise world population and binding commitments by the industrial nations to accelerate their own transition to an environmentally responsible pattern of life.148

From the advanced capitalist countries the main requirement would be "money for helping the transfer of environmental helpful technologies to the Third World", while the Third World itself would have to guarantee "sustainable population and a new pattern of sustainable economic progress". Gore's strategy would involve a massive reallocation of resources. The proposal entails a virtual reversal of the existing economic relations between rich and poor nations. The action plan envisages the transfer of technologies to the Third World, on other than a market basis. If carried out, Gore's proposal would see a massive slump in profits currently derived from exploitation of the Third World's resources. No individual capitalist firm, group of firms or nation could countenance such action. While it is certainly a basis to a solution to the ecological crisis, Gore does not suggest any feasible way it could be implemented. Thus despite all the rhetoric regarding the joint responsibility of rich and poor nations for the environmental crisis, the "global action" approach collapses into an attempt to rehabilitate the idea that it is the rapid growth of population in the Third World that is the principal threat and chief obstacle to solving the global ecological crisis.

This neo-Malthusian view was particularly reflected in the run up to the third UN International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in September 1994. Imperialist governments argued that population growth was a cause rather than a symptom of ecological/social breakdown, with the consequent obfuscation of the underlying reasons for global environmental rupture. The Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights was very critical of the basic intent of the conference. While it attempted to enlist the support of feminists, with statements linking population control with the empowerment of women, the Network saw the official conference as having a very narrow agenda:

Fundamental to the consensus is the view that rapid population growth is one of the major causes of the environmental crisis, despite the occasional lip service paid to the problem of consumption. Blaming such a large proportion of environmental degradation on the world's poorest people is unsustainable, both scientifically and ethically.

This is not to deny that the poor are involved in deforestation, though on a global level they are clearly not the main culprits. Moreover, it is important to look at the underlying reasons why poor people degrade their environment when they do. In some cases the reason may be scarcity of fuel wood and the lack of alternative energy forms, in others the need to farm marginal land because the best land is controlled by a powerful few. Population pressure can contribute to the pressure, but it is rarely the root cause. Why then does the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) continue to blame population in publication after publication?149

A more rounded response to the environmental crisis was developed by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, particularly in Our Common Future. The report clearly identified the key environmental threat as poverty and the unequal distribution of the world's resources. It strongly advocated the need for sustainable development. However, the scale of the change the report deemed necessary was a challenge to the institution that commissioned it:

The Commission has noted a number of actions that must be taken to reduce risks to survival and to put future development on paths that are sustainable. Yet we are aware that such a reorientation on a continuing basis is simply beyond the reach of present decision making structures and institutional arrangements both national and international.150

Reflecting the largely advisory nature of the UN General Assembly, the report attempts to set goals for change rather than outlining strategies. The document addresses all key areas of environmental concern as identified by the UN, concluding each section with a series of recommendations.

In terms of a strategy for change however, the report has little to offer. Apart from recommendations to increase the power of bureaucratic bodies such as the UN itself, the commission suggests very little to alter the system in the fundamental way it alludes is necessary. For while clearly defining the key problem of the environment as one of social control over the industrial process and international relations, the commission failed to offer any strategy to fundamentally challenge the power of those who make the production decisions, the ruling corporations.

The most lasting result of the commission's deliberations was the initiation of the process that led to the holding of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in 1992. The UNCED conference adopted five documents, including two statements of principles, two conventions and an action agenda (Agenda 21). None of the documents adopted is considered binding on the participating nations, relying rather on moral pressure.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development lays down the framework for international cooperation on environmental issues agreed at the conference. In substance this document recognises the responsibility of nations for their own environmental impact, as well as espousing general principles on international cooperation, elimination of poverty and war and the need for the empowerment of women. Other declarations lay down general principles on the conservation of forests, international measures necessary to inhibit global warming and to guarantee biological diversity. Agenda 21 lays out the basis of actions necessary to implement the content of the principles adopted.

Despite the gains in environmental consciousness made during the course of the conference, few concrete steps have been taken toward implementation. For example, the documents set a specific target for environmental aid from the "North" to the "South". Environmental aid was to be increased to 0.7 per cent of the combined GNP of these nations. By mid 1993, the amount of aid had declined by $6 billion from 0.33 per cent to 0.29 per cent of combined national income.

The Rio agreement on biological diversity calls on signatory states to recognise endangered species and move to protect their habitats. The agreement has done little to halt the rate of deforestation and species extinction as habitats are destroyed by forestry and agricultural activities. The biological diversity convention also contains certain provisions that would seem to contradict its intent. Under pressure from US negotiators, the draft of the final document opened the way for the patenting of life-forms.

The document allows those who possess the genetic "blueprint" of plant species to patent these and so have absolute control over their genetic use. This provision is tantamount to ceding control of future advances in agricultural productivity to those who currently control gene reserves — the agrotechnology multinationals like Cargill.

Although the majority of crop genetic strains are found in countries of the Third World, the genetic materials are stored and catalogued in institutes controlled by the industrialised nations. The biodiversity convention therefore explicitly gives the North the right to patent the genetic rights to these seeds, effectively giving these nations control over developments in agriculture in perpetuity. The failure of the US Bush administration to sign the treaty at Rio, reflected a reluctance on behalf of some capitalist interests to have to pay for any further genetic materials taken from the South, while the decision to sign on the part of the Clinton administration is explicit recognition that institutionalising property rights over life-forms will benefit the industrialised nations most.

UNCED gave the global environmental effort an agenda (inadequate), institutions and a monitoring process. It gave birth to the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) which, while having no legal or financial clout, serves as a forum for reviewing progress on sustainable development. The CSD is in effect the Rio Summit in microcosm and in regular session: through it governments can be held up to shame, independent scientific assessments can be heard and NGOs can mobilise pressure for faster change. But it lacks any power to enforce compliance with the 215 international agreements presently in operation, nor has it any power to compel important non-participating nations to commit themselves to Agenda 21 and other targets and undertakings.

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