VI. Towards an environmentally sustainable world

The environmental crisis can only be solved if two issues are fully addressed: Firstly, the survival of the human species is threatened by the elimination of its natural habitat resulting from the ways in which capitalism utilises natural resources without regard for long-term consequences. Secondly, the creation of an environmentally sustainable society will not be possible without the elimination of social inequalities within and between nations.

1. Planning and public ownership

The fundamental argument of this document has been that so long as decisions about production and technology remained in the hands of corporations producing blindly for an unknown market, and driven by competition to cut costs and maximise immediate profits, the crisis will remain. Effective environmental protection requires overall social planning, including the ability to set limits to production of certain items, and to use social wealth to subsidise branches of industry that would necessarily operate at a loss for a considerable period given the costs of serious antipollution measures. The subordination of investment decisions to social needs rather than private profits will be essential if production and transport systems are to be restructured to create a sustainable society.

Moreover, given that the degradation of the biosphere is a global problem, such social planning will necessarily have to be international as well as national. It can begin to be tackled at the local or national level but really effective gains require an internationally coordinated effort.

Real social planning is attainable only if key enterprises are denied absolute control over investment. Because the volume of investment is necessarily limited, its distribution among different sectors must be fixed in accordance with socially determined goals, even though that means priority is given to investments in areas, like pollution control technology, that are not profitable for individual enterprises.

Because capitalists invest to maximise private profit and no one has ever worked out a way to compel them to invest in areas that they consider unprofitable, real social planning is possible only when the capitalists are deprived of the right to own the means of production, and they are thus transformed into social property. That, of course, means replacing capitalism with an economy based on public ownership of the productive resources.

But while social ownership of the means of production lays the foundation for the abolition of class divisions, it is by itself insufficient to eliminate all the social and economic antagonisms between people. This is possible only in a society with an economy advanced enough to produce such a plentiful supply of goods and services that people's material wants can be satisfied, not through the exchange of money on the market, but freely according to their needs.

Moreover, only in an economy developed to the point that production for need is the norm can disparities in economic and political power be eliminated. Moreover, effective citizen participation in decision-making depends upon the achievement of a level of social wealth sufficient to liberate all people from the compulsion to engage in tiring, routine labour. Only a society with an abundance of goods will be able to grant sufficient leisure time to everyone so that they can actively participate in the collective management of economic and political life and prevent the emergence of a new layer of privileged professional administrators.

Consumption on the basis of plenty and free from the private-profit drive, far from developing without any limit towards irrational caprice and waste, will increasingly assume the form of rational consumption, that is, consumption in accordance with the requirements of physical and mental well-being. This has been demonstrated even in a social context dominated by money, exploitation, inequality and the desire to "succeed" at the expense of one's neighbor. For example, where drinking water is made freely available to everyone irrespective of the amount of money they have, this does not lead people to excessively consume it or to hoard it.

As society is able to socialise the costs of production of an increasing number of goods and services and to incorporate them into the "social wage" (i.e., making them available to people irrespective of their contribution to social labour), the insecurity and instability of material existence will gradually vanish, and along with it, the fear that this insecurity causes in all individuals. As this occurs, the need to "assert oneself" in order to ensure one's survival in a constant struggle of all against all — the basis for the desire for individual enrichment and accumulation of wealth — will also wither away.

Thus the task of creating material abundance is not unrealistic so long as it is approached systematically, starting from a progressive rationalisation of people's consumption once they have been freed from poverty and material insecurity, from the competitive struggle for private enrichment, and from manipulative advertising that seeks to create a permanent state of dissatisfaction in individuals. Already in the advanced capitalist countries, productive capacity is capable of satisfying people's basic needs for health care, education, public transport, food, clothing, housing and essential furniture at very low cost or free of charge and without adding significantly to collective spending, provided production is rationally organised and democratically planned.

The biggest obstacle to global social equality is the enormous gap between the per capita production and standard of living of the advanced industrial countries and the Third World. Whereas in the most industrialised countries one farmer produces enough food for 40-50 urban families, in the least developed countries feeding an urban worker's family still necessitates hard work by eight or nine peasant families, just as it did centuries ago. Overcoming this gap will require an end to pillage of the Third World by transnational corporations and local exploiters, and a massive redistribution of material resources in favor of the impoverished peoples of the Third World. This can be accomplished only through socialist planning of the world economy, which would allow massive priority investment in the Third World.

Within this framework, a simple reallocation of the enormous resources presently wasted on military activities around the world would be sufficient to rapidly end the chronic poverty, hunger and disease that afflict billions of people in the Third World. Moreover, this could be achieved without reducing living standards in the industrialised countries.

About two billion people in the Third World lack permanent and clean water supplies, and nine million die every year from diseases caused by polluted water. The equivalent of a mere 10 days' world military spending would be sufficient to overcome this problem.

In the Third World today, some 400 million children lack all access to medical care, 100 million children go to sleep hungry every night, and 40,000 children every day die of hunger, malnutrition and disease resulting from inadequate diet. For the equivalent of what the world now spends in just a day and a half on military activities, every one of the Third World's 500 million poorest children could be provided with basic health care, elementary education, an adequate diet, and clean drinking water. Eradicating poverty in the Third World and equalising the standard of living of the world's inhabitants will require a world plan of economic development to promote industrial growth in the Third World on the basis of a rational extension of the international division of labour. This would involve:

  • Developing modern communications, transport, and electricity systems in presently impoverished areas.
  • The expansion of education, housing, and medical facilities (and the industrial growth necessary to achieve this).

Provision of consumer goods, spare parts, and machine repair industries is the minimum industrial development needed in most of the Third World. In addition, social efficiency and ecologically sound planning will often favor the processing of mineral and agricultural raw materials into finished products in the areas where they originate.

A collaborative international division of labour, and assistance from the industrialised countries, would enable the Third World to industrialise without the sort of forced march in conditions of grave scarcity that characterised industrial development in the Soviet Union. It has been estimated by the United Nations that the basic industrialisation of Asia, Africa and Latin America would require investments amounting to about $US8000 billion — less than the projected world spending on armies and armaments for the next decade.

2. Parliamentary versus genuine democracy

Solving the ecological crisis will require — as the UN World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledges — "profound structural changes in socioeconomic and institutional arrangements", including "a political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making". This is not possible under the Western parliamentary system.

First of all, the parliamentary system of government restricts participation in decision making to a small number of elected persons (parliamentarians, local councillors). The vast majority are excluded from such participation, their decision-making power being limited to their right to place a voting paper in a ballot box every three or four years. Once elected, the parliamentary representatives are not directly accountable to their electors. With constituencies of tens of thousands of voters it is not possible for the voters to meet collectively to formulate their demands, hear regular reports from their elected representatives, or recall and replace representatives if they are dissatisfied with their performance.

Secondly, even the parliamentary representatives have limited decision-making power. The administration of government, and often the formulation of government policy, is concentrated in the hands of non-elected, permanent "experts" — the upper echelons of the civil service, the chiefs of the military and police forces, judges appointed for life. These officials have indissoluble social and economic ties to the owners of the corporations. If they are not recruited from the families of the corporate rich — and the selection criteria for admission to the top posts in the government bureaucracy is heavily biased in this direction — they earn salaries that enable them to make investments so that they acquire a personal interest in the defence of the private-profit system.

To ensure the participation of the vast majority of citizens, a political system would require a structure in which all officials — civil, military, and judicial — were elected and in which all elected representatives and officials were subject to recall at any time upon the demand of a majority of their electors. To ensure that the material interests and social outlook of these officials was not at variance with the interests of the majority of citizens, that is, of ordinary working people, their salaries should not exceed the average wage of a skilled worker.

Genuine representative democracy would necessarily require a unique combination of centralisation and decentralisation, with a central assembly made up of delegates elected from regional representative bodies, which in turn would be elected by local community bodies consisting of delegates from constituencies of at most a few hundred citizens. The right of administration in broad sectors of social and economic activity would be devolved to these regional and local representative bodies once the central assembly had by majority vote allocated each of these sectors a part of the human and material resources at the disposal of society as a whole.

Within this democratically centralised political system, representative bodies would be executive as well as legislative organs. The citizens would participate not simply through their votes but by being drawn into the actual administrative work through forms of self-government in all spheres of social life including factories, hospitals, schools and universities, transport and communications centres, and neighbourhoods.

3. Peace, disarmament and social equality

Avoiding nuclear war is a necessity if humanity is to survive. There would be no winners in a nuclear conflict. Rather than war in the conventional sense of the term, nuclear war would be an act of suicide for the entire human race. Nuclear war would devastate the global ecosystem, making our planet uninhabitable.

Nuclear weapons were developed and used by the capitalist rulers of United States in order to terrorise working people into submitting to the imperialist world order. Even after the Cold War the US imperialists and their allies will not voluntarily surrender the power nuclear weapons give them to threaten total destruction against those who seek to overturn their system of minority rule. As long as nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the imperialists the danger exists that they will use them, particularly if, as in 1945, they are confident there will be no nuclear retaliation, and if they judge that their gains will outweigh the price they will pay in horror and hatred by working people at home and around the world.

While mass campaigns against imperialist militarism can limit the ability of the rulers of the major capitalist powers to wage war, ultimately the threat of nuclear war will be ended only when the working people of these countries take political and economic power out of the hands of the warmongers.

But to focus on the urgent need to rid the world of nuclear weapons is not to condone conventional war as an acceptable way of conducting human affairs. On a local level, modern conventional weapons can be just as destructive as nuclear weapons. In its war against the Vietnamese people's struggle for national and social liberation, the United States and its allies not only inflicted death and crippling injuries on millions of people, but devastated large areas of Vietnam's forests and agricultural land through carpet bombing and the use of chemical weapons, defoliants in particular. The social and ecological cost of conventional war in Europe today would be almost as great as that of nuclear war. The destruction of Europe's chemicals factories and nuclear power plants in a conventional war would pollute the air, water and land with enormous quantities of toxic material, and almost certainly make the continent uninhabitable.

The Gulf War, launched by the United States and its allies against Iraq in 1991 was a further example of the destructive potential of conventional weaponry. The impact of the war (which lasted less than 90 days in total) on the local environment were severe.

Eleven million barrels of oil were dumped into the Gulf itself, causing massive disruption to the local environment. The smoke clouds caused by oil fires lowered the temperature in the Gulf area by around 10°C causing serious damage to plankton and fish stocks, seriously disrupting the food chain in the area. The Gulf War led to the release of 240 million tonnes of greenhouse enhancing carbon dioxide (around one per cent of annual emissions). The social cost of the war was massive, with deaths from preventable diseases caused by a breakdown in infrastructure continuing for years after the end of the hostilities.

War is a product of the social inequality that characterises class-divided societies. Throughout human history, wars have been the result of conflicts over the sources of social wealth (human labour and natural resources) between exploiting classes or between exploiting and exploited classes. While society remains divided into exploiting and exploited classes the potential for war will remain. The permanent eradication of the threat of war requires the permanent eradication of social inequality and the creation of a democratically planned classless society on a worldwide scale.

4. Social equality and environmental sustainability

Some Western ecologists argue that if all the world's people were to live as "affluently" as the present inhabitants of the industrialised capitalist countries, the world would have to produce 10 to 14 times as much energy and minerals as it does now.

According to this view, raising per capita consumption of resources in the Third World to levels existing in the industrialised countries would devastate the global ecosystem with industrial pollutants and soon exhaust the Earth's fuel and mineral reserves. From this point of view, the socialist goal of a global egalitarian society based on an abundance of goods and services would quickly plunge humanity into an economic and ecological holocaust.

This would certainly be true if the irrational consumption patterns and wasteful, environmentally destructive productive techniques existing today in the industrialised capitalist countries were to be maintained and generalised worldwide. Socialism, however, seeks to direct production for the planned satisfaction of society's needs, and as such seeks to eliminate the irrational consumption and waste of resources inherent in the capitalist system. Along this road two central technical problems — waste management and energy production — must be solved if this is to be achieved.

By eliminating the private ownership of resources and the drive for private profit through the exploitation of wage labour, socialism will open the way for the restructuring of the world's industry to obtain ecologically sustainable production through the development of full automation. By its very nature, fully automated production liberates human beings from the compulsion to labour, and therefore requires that goods and services be increasingly distributed free of charge. Moreover, fully automated enterprises can function most effectively only if they are integrally linked so that the wastes from one technological process provide the raw materials for another, so that instead of accumulating and contaminating the biosphere, wastes will be self-processed. Industrial ecology, at present a marginal experimental trend, will become the norm.

"Waste-free", automated technology would also enable the rational utilisation of mineral resources. Conventional production techniques waste enormous amounts of raw materials and energy. Approximately two per cent of the natural raw materials extracted around the world today go into making the final products used by society. The remaining 98 per cent is discharged into the environment, often in ecologically dangerous, toxic forms. Ash discharged from thermal power stations alone contains 130 times more zirconium, 25 times more vanadium, 15 times more aluminium, 14 times more cobalt, and 11 times more titanium, than is presently mined, and as much nickel as is presently mined.168

Fully automated production combined with the elimination of unnecessary packaging of consumer goods, the abolition of planned obsolescence, more durable product designs, and the development of thorough recycling of all industrial products, would massively reduce the problem of resource depletion.

Today many materials are recycled in industry. The recycling of scrap metal has clear ecological benefits. Compared with traditional steel manufacture, for example, the production of steel from steel scrap reduces water consumption by 40 per cent, air pollution by 87 per cent, and extraction waste by 97 per cent (what needs to be extracted are only a few materials for conversion of pig iron into steel, such as fluxes and coke). Production waste is reduced by 105 per cent, since the amount of waste utilised in recycling steel is in surplus to the waste produced.169

Materials recycling, of course, reduces the need to extract primary raw materials and thus damage to the natural environment. Thus, the recycling of a million tonnes of waste paper saves 3.6 million cubic metres of commercial wood, which means that about 179,000 hectares of forest does not have to be felled.170

Products made from petroleum — synthetic rubber, chemicals and plastics — are among the most difficult to recycle. But even here there have been promising research results. For example, experimental work has indicated that scrap rubber products can be converted through destructive distillation into a liquid oil that can be used in manufacturing other chemicals, a combustible gas for fuel, and a carbonaceous residue useful as a filter char or binder in concrete.

There is no natural limit to this process of materials recycling since none of the chemical elements of the global ecosystem are qualitatively changed when they are used (except in nuclear reactions). And such is the progress in this area that researchers believe it will not be too long before it will be technologically possible to break down any substance into its constituent atoms and use it as raw material for a new cycle of production. Human beings have been doing this for centuries with metallic compounds, beginning with the smelting of copper ores 6000-7000 years ago.

Important engineering problems remain to be solved in developing recycling technologies, but the biggest obstacle to their utilisation is the capitalist private-profit system. Indeed, the big corporations can be expected to resist the adoption of thorough recycling where this cuts across profit-making. The development of "waste-free", non-polluting technologies will require a large-scale allocation of available financial resources, research facilities, and skilled personnel. The restructuring of industry to obtain ecological purity in production processes will threaten the big corporations with billions sunk in polluting capital stock with an across-the-board reduction of profit.

Moreover, thorough recycling will require socially planned, centralised control of the distribution, use, and collection of productive resources. Despite promising initiatives in some countries, this is not likely to be accomplished under a system of private ownership of resources and production for private profit.

The development of a fully automated, waste-recycling production system may well require an expansion of energy production since every new cycle of utilisation requires a certain expenditure of energy — even though the use of recycled raw materials, particularly of metals, has energy savings as compared to the production of primary raw materials: 95 per cent in the manufacture of aluminium, 80 per cent in the manufacture of copper, 74 per cent in the manufacture of steel, and 50 per cent in that of lead and zinc. Moreover, the inevitable loss of energy in all production processes, through dissipation of heat into the environment, must also be taken into account. Thus, of pivotal importance in creating a sustainable, egalitarian society is the need to shift to renewable energy as rapidly as possible.

At present, 90 per cent of the world's electrical energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, which release large quantities of carbon dioxide. While the use of nuclear fission fuels (uranium and plutonium) could overcome this problem, their use entails serious safety problems and the generation of radioactive waste with insurmountable disposal problems. Plutonium processed from uranium in breeder reactors can provide a long-term energy source, but plutonium is the most toxic material known to humanity — the atmospheric dispersal of less than half a kilogram of plutonium could cause 21 billion cases of lung cancer. Complete reliance on it as a fuel source for electric power production would require the circulation of 200,000 tonnes of plutonium at enormous risk to all life on the planet.

At the heart of the thermal pollution problem is the low efficiency of energy production from existing thermal power plants. At present, such power stations lose at least 70 per cent of the heat generated by the chemical energy contained in their fuel. The production of each kilowatt of electricity in thermal power stations is accompanied by the emanation of 2-3 additional kilowatts of heat. Further losses are incurred in the transmission and use of electric power. If a world population of 10 billion people used electricity at the same per capita rate and with the same inefficiency as the United States does today, the human contribution to the Earth's total heat balance would reach 1-2 per cent, setting off potentially catastrophic changes in the global climate. Solving the energy problem will therefore require large-scale investments to achieve greater efficiency in energy production and use, and the development of alternative energy sources. Use of superconductive electric power lines, for example, would eliminate energy losses in the transmission of electricity. Use of improved lamps, reflectors and computerised lighting control systems in buildings could cut consumption of energy for artificial lighting by 75 per cent or more. Advanced building designs can reduce loss of heat through windows, doors and walls. In prototype superinsulated homes, heat radiating from people, light and appliances can reduce energy consumption for heating by 90 per cent.171

The only lasting solution to the world's need for sustainable energy supplies lies in the conversion of solar and other forms of renewable energy into electricity. Solar power is an effectively inexhaustible source of energy. Existing permanent electricity generators have a combined power of 10,000 billion kilowatts, equal to about 0.01-0.09 per cent of the power of the solar energy that reaches the surface of our planet. Development of solar energy has been retarded due lack of interest and investment in research because of the low purchasing price of fossil fuels (and the ignoring of their heavy environmental costs). Moreover, those with the largest resources to devote to renewable energy sources — the big oil and coal companies and the electric power utilities that use fossil fuels — have a vested interest in delaying the development of alternative energy sources, and in using their resources to further lower the market price of fossil fuels.

A major expansion, and radical restructuring, of the world's productive forces is necessary to create the material basis for a socialist society. But unlike capitalism, with its competitive drive to accumulate capital by maximising private profit through the unsustainable production and sale of an ever-growing mass of commodities, socialism does not require permanent economic growth.

The aim of socialist planning is to satisfy the needs of society within the framework of the optimum rational development of all human potentialities. Just as individuals do not require an unlimited supply of food, clothing, housing, etc, society as a whole does not require an unlimited expansion of the productive forces. In a planned economy possessing a stock of automatic machinery that is adequate to satisfy all current needs (including a reserve to cope with any emergency) and able to assure a plentiful supply of goods and services to its citizens, there will cease to be any necessity for economic growth. The question of economic growth will become a matter of free choice for the citizens of a socialist society.

When global society is freed from any economic compulsion to expand the productive forces, the question of profitability or of labour productivity (economy of labour time) will vanish as a criterion of wealth. Instead, the criterion of wealth will become people's free, rational, and creative use of leisure, directed towards their own development as rounded personalities in harmony with each other and the natural environment. Only socialism will make it possible to develop the enormous productive potential of modern science and technology for the satisfaction of rational needs in conditions that assure the blossoming of the creative abilities of all individuals and all peoples without destroying the global ecological system upon which all life depends. The alternative is a society in which the enormous productive potential of modern science and technology, subordinated to the irrational imperatives of the capitalist private-profit system, assume ever more destructive forms in relation to both society and nature. The alternatives facing humanity are, quite simply, socialism or extinction.

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