From the January 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
Year in and year out we release millions of tonnes of carbon gases into the atmosphere. Every year 200,000 square kilometres of tropical forests are destroyed or seriously degraded. So,at the same time we arc destroying the plant life that uses carbon dioxide and converts it into oxygen. The result is a slow but steady build-up of carbon dioxide which may be leading to a gradual global warming.
We are reducing the ozone layer with the result that we now get big holes in it. For the first lime, last year the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica extended over populated areas in the Falkland Islands and the tip of South America. The increase in the amount of ultra-violet is known to be very damaging.
Then again we are seeing a steady and unremitting build-up of radioactivity in the environment; which is also damaging.
These are global changes which involve incredible risks. Some of the dangers are understood but nobody knows and nobody can predict the critical point when any combination of such changes might produce a sequence of further rapid changes which would be catastrophic from a human point of view.
Capitalism to blame
The first thing we’ve got to do is identify the cause of the problem and here socialists begin to part company with most environmental groups. Obviously we share their concern about the problem, and we too want a world where we do not damage the environment. But read the material put out by people like Friends of the Earth and you’ll notice that they never get down to the cause of the problem.
They say, for example, that acid rain and the resulting destruction of the lakes and forests in the Northern hemisphere is caused by the release of sulphur gases. That is only part of the explanation as it tells us nothing about why we keep doing it.
Acid rain is not a technical problem. The means of stopping the release of eases like sulphur dioxide are known and available and with the millions of unemployed there is a super-abundance of unused labour to apply these means.
Acid rain continues for the same reasons why we can’t provide decent hospitals, why we can’t house the homeless, why we can’t stop people living in insecurity and poverty, why we can’t stop people dying of hunger . . . These all result from the economic limitations of a system that puts privileged class interests before the needs of the community. The cause is capitalism which puts profit before needs and which therefore puts profit before the protection of the environment.
The cost of fitting de-sulphurisation equipment in all the power stations that burn fossil fuels would come to billions of pounds and would not be profitable. That is why we continue to create acid rain.
It must be obvious that a set of problems which are global in scale, affecting populations across the entire planet, can only be effectively tackled by cooperation between all peoples.
You can’t have the world divided up between rival capitalist states — all riven by economic competition both within their boundaries and between each other and all driven by the economic pressures of profit and class interests, with a good many of them at actual war with each other — and expect to be in a position to solve the problems of the global environment.
Effective action has got to be based on world cooperation.
Secondly, we have to be in a position of control. In other words, we must be in a position of being able to make democratic decisions about what must be done and must be free to take the necessary action, using the available means without any economic constraints.
It is surely self-evident that unless we have cooperation and control we are never going to begin to solve the problem and that we cannot get cooperation within capitalism.
To get cooperation we first have to get rid of the present system which is based on economic competition. We need to establish a system based instead on common ownership, a world where all means of producing and distributing goods and all productive resources are held in common by the whole community. This means the end of the wages system through which workers are exploited for profit and the end of producing goods for sale so as to get that profit. It means people living and working in the community in a relationship of direct cooperation with each other, producing the goods and running the services that we need. This is a way of organizing the community where the use of money will be entirely redundant.
If we establish common ownership, if we set up a society which is run solely for human needs as a result of people cooperating together, we are at fast in a position where we can control our actions. Under capitalism we are at the mercy of economic forces that nobody can control. Get rid of these economic forces and we are at last in a position to make democratic decisions about how best to use production for the benefit of the community.
At last we would be able to build houses for the homeless without the barriers of cost and money. We would be able to provide a good health service without worrying about how much kidney machines cost. We'd be able to provide everyone with good quality food, to stop the dying from lunger, and to end the malnutrition that exists even in this country. And we would be able to begin the work of restoring the environment.
Socialism is not the instant solution to problems but the means by which we can solve problems. In socialism we get the release of all productive resources — machinery, transport, raw materials, energy and labour — for the benefit of the community, but as, to start with, there will be a great deal to do we would have to make choices. We would have to make decisions in line with agreed priorities of action.
We’ve got to supply a lot more food, so that has to be increased. We’ve got to supply decent housing for everyone and that is an enormous world project. The mention of just these two priorities of action means that we would need a lot more energy and, as we know, the supply of energy is one of the worst villains in this problem of environmental damage.
Produce for use
As things are at present it is clear that socialism will have to do two things at the same time: increase the supply of energy and to do it in ways which protect the environment.
Do we keep on using nuclear generators knowing that inevitably this leads to increases in radioactivity?
Do we keep on burning oil, knowing that oil is an immensely useful material which can supply thousands of very durable products? The burning of oil in power stations is in fact the kind of profligate waste that only capitalism could go in for.
What about coal, do we keep on burning it? There is no doubt that the burning of coal can be made less damaging by the installation of pollution-abatement equipment but it is expensive. In socialism money would not be a factor. So we could go on burning coal in a less damaging way and of course there are immense world reserves of this.
However, most people would agree that the most desirable way of producing energy is with the various renewable, benign methods such as solar, wind and wave power etc. This is clearly where the future lies.
Under capitalism it is uneconomic to use these methods. It costs too much money. It is not competitive. But, again, this would not be a factor in socialism where we would be free to go in for a rapid development of these ecologically-benign methods.
With the establishment of socialism we will throw off the economic shackles of the profit system and break through into the freedom to use all our talents, skills and energies to solve problems through co-operation.