From the March 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
In two previous articles we stated the basic reasons why the International Conference on world pollution, held at The Hague last November, broke down in failure and recrimination. The delegations represented rival capitalist states, each driven by the pressures of profit-making and national interests into the continued use of production methods which are destructive of the environment. At present, on balance, the problems resulting from pollution are getting worse. What is required is co-operation between all people and the freedom to set up a safe world energy system.
We also cited the fact that the capitalist system creates vast amounts of energy waste in the military and its socially useless jobs such as marketing, finance and banking which are part of its profit making machine. This waste would not happen in socialism which would be solely concerned to provide for real needs. So, socialism would bring great savings of energy but also increased demand in the work required to raise the living conditions of people throughout the world. However, once this has been achieved it could then be possible for society to settle down to a stable and sustainable way of life working within the natural systems of the planet without being destructive.
The idea of a zero growth, sustainable society is not new and in recent years has been put forward by the Green Movement. But whilst many of the declared aims of the Green Movement appear to be desirable these are contradicted by a fatal flaw in all green policies. They stand for the continuation of the market system. Instead of a society based on voluntary co-operation where all goods and services are produced directly for needs with free access, the Green Movement aims to retain the market system in which goods are produced for sale at a profit. This must mean the continuation of the capitalist system which is the cause of the problems of pollution in the first place. The Green Movement has never been able to answer the question which is how it can achieve a zero growth, sustainable society whilst retaining a market system which includes an irresistible, built in pressure to increase sales for profit and where if sales collapse, society tends to break down in recession, unemployment and financial crisis. The only way in which the aims of the Green Movement could be achieved is through socialism.
When we speak of a stable, sustainable society we do not mean a static society in which there is no development. On the contrary, when liberated from the profit motive of corporate research and the military machines of capitalist states, science will flourish and will serve the interests of all people. Nor do we suggest that new science will not result in new technology. The urgent need for care of the environment will be just one field where research and new technology would be given priority. However, we should also recognise that the abolition of all the economic constraints imposed by the market system on the use of labour will bring enormously increased powers of production. In socialism it will be possible to produce vast amounts of goods. It is in the light of this fact that people in socialism would have to ask if it makes sense to go on and on producing whilst using up the planet's resources or whether there should be voluntary limits to consumption and an eventual scaling down of productive activity.
There is an assumption in our society that increased ownership and consumption of goods leads to increased happiness and should therefore be a central drive in our lives. But whilst we all need to live to a decent standard of comfort and enjoyment the values of our acquisitive society arise from insecurity and competition. We substitute personal ownership for the better human relationships which would express our real needs as social individuals. Our happiness, or otherwise, arises from how we relate to people not from how we relate to material objects as owners.
So whilst we do not presume to lay down in advance what decisions will be made in socialism we can set out a possible way of achieving an eventual zero growth society operating in a stable and ecologically benign way. This could be achieved in three main phases. First, there would have to be emergency action to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world. Secondly, longer term action to construct means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems for the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods. These could be designed in line with conservation principles, which means they would be made to last for a long time, using materials that where possible could be re-cycled and would require minimum maintenance. Thirdly, with these objectives achieved there could be an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode. This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could reconcile two great needs, the need to live in material well being whilst looking after the planet which is our shared home in space.
Although capitalist society appears to place great importance on its material wealth, it sometimes has no hesitation in destroying it in vast quantities and in ways which have no thought for the loss of human life involved. For example, the 20th. Century was one such story of continuous destruction. We have already mentioned the misuse and waste of energy in armaments production, but more energy has then been used to fuel the war machines of the world. These have gone on to destroy vast amounts of means of production and useful structures such as factories with all their machinery, roads, bridges, railways, vehicles, aircraft, and millions of tonnes of shipping. In Vietnam the American Government poisoned entire areas of the country with deadly Agent Orange. The names of Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Berlin, Dresden and Caen are just five of the hundreds of towns and cities that have been reduced to rubble. In the Balkans, even as the century closed we saw installations in Serbia being bombed whilst in Kosovo the homes of people were being shelled and incinerated, together with their occupants. In a sane society, all these means of production and useful structures would be produced and would then serve out their useful lives, which in some cases like houses and bridges could be for hundreds of years.
Some applications of labour have to be constant as, for example, in food production. With food, production and consumption are more or less simultaneous. But with housing, infrastructures and durable means of production, the products of one generation, with subsequent maintenance, can be used by many succeeding generations. In socialism this could mean that the initial work required to solve the problems of capitalism would not have to go on and on. Given that the work was in accordance with conservation principles, that population levels become close to stable, and that communities were content to place voluntary limits to consumption, then there could be an eventual fall in production with all the benefits this would bring to care of the environment.
Seen solely from a technical point of view there are no doubt many ways in which the damage caused by pollution could be reduced with different uses of labour. But before any of these can become real options on which communities can freely make democratic decisions, labour itself must first be liberated. Labour must enjoy its own freedom outside the present enclosed system of commodity exchange in which it is confined to its function of profit making and the accumulation of capital. Not even in the most optimistic dreams of defenders of the free market will the “accumulation of capital” ever be made to equal “care of the environment”.
In the meantime, the play-acting that passed for an International Conference on pollution at The Hague last November, is booked to continue at Bonn in May. But what presents itself as farce is really a tragedy in which we must cease to be a mere audience. How much more time wasting and failure must we see before it is accepted that capitalist politicians are incompetent to deal with the problem. The real powers of action are with the great majority of people. This will be when we decide to create a society in which we will be free to co-operate and to use all our great reserves of energy and ingenuity for our needs. Without doubt, this includes the urgent need to stop the despoliation of our planet.