From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Part 1 can be found here.
The second article in this series, where we ask how we can co-operate to provide a good life for all while avoiding damage to the environment
In commenting last month on the breakdown of the International Conference on climatic change, held at The Hague last November, we asked the question, How do we build a society in which all people are able to co-operate to provide a good life for each other whilst avoiding damage to the world environment? We argued that this could only be done through the relationships of socialism and concluded that leaving the problems to capitalist politicians and their conferences, such as the fiasco at The Hague, can only lead to further disaster.
In dealing with problems such as world pollution, people in socialism will enjoy freedoms of decision making and action that are denied to us under the capitalist system. This arises from a basic difference between the two systems. Throughout most of history, within the limits of technical development, humans have been able to make full use of productive powers. But the emergence of capitalism meant that these powers could only be used to produce goods that could be sold on the markets. Since then, because of the limits of market capacity and their unpredictability, it has been impossible to make rational decisions about how total productive resources should be used. This economic constraint on our powers of action is the basic reason why the problems of pollution persist, but being free from these restrictions in socialism the world community would have no difficulty in mobilising its resources of labour and technique. Indeed, the state of the planet demands that the utmost urgency be given to stopping the degradation of the world environment.
With all people united about their shared interests, the division of the world into rival capitalist states will be replaced by a democratic administration organised on world, regional and local levels. The global nature of the problem would surely require a world energy organisation and we can anticipate that its functions could include bringing together technical experts and planners from across the world and setting up research projects. This research would not be constrained by costs and it would not be tainted by commercial or nationalistic interests. Nor would it be shrouded in secrecy or geared to national security. So, in a completely open society, such a world energy organisation would make available all the most up-to-date information on the problems of pollution together with the various technical options for acting on them. Such information would be the basis on which democratic decisions would be made.
World energy resources
The world distribution of energy sources is uneven between capitalist nations and mainly monopolised by the developed countries through economic power and control of spheres of interest backed up by military force. Conflict over energy sources has been a potent part of the cause of war. But in socialism the production of energy would work freely with the natural advantages of the whole planet in whatever geographical location was necessary and these would be available to the whole world community. This would be the use of the world as one productive unit. Without economic competition there would be no pressure to work with the methods that keep labour cost to a minimum. Cheapness, which compels the use of so many destructive methods, would not be a factor. If safety and care of the environment required a more labour intensive method of production, these would be the deciding reasons for using it. This, however, would not be a problem since socialism would bring a vast increase in the numbers of people available for useful production and there would in fact be an abundance of labour.
As long ago as 1983 a very useful book by Janet Ramage Energy: A Guidebook was published. It was a mainly pessimistic review of world energy production and she ended by asking “Is there an altogether different alternative?" How about a world-wide electric grid, she suggested. It could use underground and ocean floor super-conducting cables, and the power would come from solar farms in the world's major deserts, OTEC (ocean thermal) plants in tropical waters, and wave power stations and wind turbine arrays in remote regions. No atmospheric pollution, no radioactive wastes. No wastes, no use of valuable agricultural land or previous fresh water. Would it work? Estimates of annual world energy demand in 50 years' time lie between 600 and 1,000 exajoules. Using the data from earlier chapters, it isn't difficult to find the size of installation for any selected contribution from each type of power plant. There are probably no insuperable technical problems. There is just one question, How do we get there from here?”
It was not the purpose of Ramage to look beyond the capitalist system so she could see no way forward towards achieving this solution. But this is exactly the kind of technical option that socialist society, on the basis of world co-operation and common ownership, could act upon. Further research based upon the principles set out in this ecologically benign solution would surely refine the non-destructive technology.
But the construction of a such a world-wide grid would not necessarily be the only means of providing energy. Some ecologically benign methods are suitable for local, small-scale use. Solar panels in well-designed buildings would not have to be connected to a grid supply. It is likely that many such ideas will be proposed for achieving a balance of methods. The important point is that before we can fully act on them we must do the political work of replacing capitalism with socialism.
The estimates of future energy needs suggested by Ramage would have been based on projections from present consumption but socialism would be able to make enormous savings in energy. Much of this would result from ending many occupations that would become redundant in socialism. This aspect of waste was pointed out most eloquently by Marx:
"The capitalist mode of production, whilst on the one hand enforcing economy in each individual business, begets by its anarchical system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous" (Capital, Volume I, at the end of chapter 17)
If this was true in the time of Karl Marx how much more true is it today? For example, in Britain there are over one million workers in insurance, finance and banking. None of these workers contribute to the real needs of the community but their wasteful occupations use up vast amounts of energy. Much of this is in transport.
During World War II, to relieve pressure on an overworked transport system, numerous posters asked the question—“Is your journey really necessary?” This is a good question that applies now to the countless millions of journeys by train, bus and car, from suburbs into every city centre, by commuters with jobs in insurance, finance and banking. Cars and buses stuck in traffic jams cough out a poisonous mix of exhaust gases whilst power stations generating the electricity for millions of useless train journeys do the same. This waste spreads to the energy used to manufacture and operate the huge amounts of equipment in Insurance, Finance and Banking, such as computer hardware. In socialism all this waste would be ended and the energy would become available for useful production.
A further example of waste is the energy used in the world's arms industries. Especially since the beginning of the last century, every branch of industry, manufacture, communications and transport has been used to mine and process every kind of raw material for the production of the fighter aircraft, bombers, warships, tanks, lorries, guns, missiles, shells, and much more besides, all of which make up the military in capitalist states.
The amount of wasted energy used to run the parts of the profit system that would be ended in socialism is a substantial proportion of total consumption. The end of this waste would be a gain in a society that would produce goods and services economically, solely for the real needs of people. On the other hand this also means that in socialism, at least to begin with, there would be a need to increase the production of food and housing, and all the things necessary to raise living standards to decent levels for every person, especially considering undeveloped regions. Before housing and consumption goods can be increased the means of production would have to be increased and this would be energy intensive. So in looking forward to the use of energy in socialism we can anticipate great savings from the end of waste but also extra demand.
The object of socialism will be to create relationships of co-operation between all people and to solve the problems caused by capitalist society. Initially, this will involve a commitment to great world projects requiring a new democratic administration, new institutions, and expanded production. However, we can also anticipate that in a situation where much of this great work has been accomplished there could be an eventual fall in production. This suggests the possibility of a sustainable, “steady-state” society which could work within the natural systems of the environment in a non-destructive way.
In a final article, we will examine the practical ways this could be achieved.