Editorial from the April 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
In recent years the environment has become a major political issue. And rightly so, because a serious environmental crisis really does exist. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat have all been contaminated and polluted to a greater or lesser extent.
Natural materials are being transformed into substances (including waste) which nature cannot decompose, or such substances are being created at too fast a pace for nature’s decomposing processes to be able to keep up with them. The result is the current environmental crisis — or, more accurately, the ecological crisis, since what is involved is much more than unsightly skylines in cities or ugly factories in rural areas. Substances which are poisonous or cannot be decomposed are being released into nature — for instance lead and the pesticide DDT and also the other heavy metals and a host of chemicals. These substances eventually find their way back to us through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Ecology is not just about protecting nature — animal rights, saving the whale and other moral issues. It is about human beings too — the way we live and the quality of our life.
Nature and the environment are being damaged today because productive activity is oriented towards the accumulation of profits rather than towards the direct satisfaction of human needs. The economic mechanism of the profit system can function in no other way. Profits always take priority both over meeting needs and over protecting the environment.
This is why the Earth's easily-accessible resources have been plundered throughout the history of capitalism without a thought for the future, why chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used in agriculture, why power stations and factories release all sorts of dangerous and noxious substances into the air and water, why road transport has replaced rail transport, why human waste is not recycled back to the land, why animals are injected with hormones, why detergents have replaced soaps, why lead is put into petrol, why goods are made not to last . . . the list of anti-ecological practices indulged in under capitalism because more profitable is endless.
Where we differ from the various Green parties and movements which share this ecological perspective is over what should be done. To find an effective solution, awareness and indignation about a problem must be accompanied by an understanding of its cause.
Explanations of the cause of the environmental crisis which circulate among Greens differ from ours. Some blame modern technology rather than the use — or, more accurately, the abuse — that is made of it under the present system. Others attribute pressure on resources and the environment to overpopulation. Others say that humans are too greedy and preach restraint on consumption for moral reasons. But respecting the laws of ecology does not mean abandoning modern technological knowledge and going back to the productive methods and personal consumption levels that existed before the coming of industrial capitalism. It means rather using materials and methods compatible with a balanced functioning of nature. With appropriate modification, modern industrial techniques of production are quite capable of providing enough good-quality food, clothing and shelter for every person on Earth and of doing this without damaging the environment.
The Green Party in Britain sees the solution to the environmental crisis as lying in the achievement of "a system of human activity which is in harmony with the Earth's life-sustaining systems", as they put it in their 1987 General Election manifesto. However, they see this as being achieved through the election of a Green Party government which would take measures gradually to transform the present growth-oriented and profit-motivated capitalist economy into a decentralised, democratically-run and ecologically-sustainable one. While awaiting the election of such a government the Green party concentrates, like environmentalists in the Labour and other parties, on advocating reform measures to try to protect nature and the environment.
We are up against a well-entrenched economic and social system based on class and property and governed by coercive economic laws. Reforms under capitalism, however well meaning or determined, can never solve the environmental crisis — the most they can do is to palliate some aspect of it on a precarious temporary basis. They can certainly never turn capitalism into a democratic, ecological society.
The conclusion is clear: if the present environmental crisis is to be solved and the threat to — indeed the actual degradation of — the environment removed, then capitalism must go. It must be replaced by a socialist society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.