The Letter From Europe column from the December 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent change of government in West Germany has again focussed attention on the ecologists, die Grünen or the Greens as they are called, who are expected to replace the discredited Free Democratic Party (Liberals) as the third party in the German parliament after next March’s general elections, maybe even to the extent of holding the balance of power.
But the first country in which ecologists have been elected to a national Parliament is in fact Belgium, where since the general elections of November last year they have nine representatives (four deputies and five senators). They also scored a relative success in the Belgium local elections in October, winning 120 seats, and they now take part in running Liège, the largest city in the French-speaking part of the country.
Before going on to examine the programme of these ecologists, we must say something about the word ecology itself. This is a science, a branch of biology which studies the relationship between living organisms and their natural environment. Strictly speaking then an ecologist should be somebody who studies or practices this science, not the partisan of some political movement. It is true that humans are also living organisms and that their relationship to their natural environment is another legitimate field of study for the science of ecology. It is of course because such a study reveals that this relationship is unbalanced that, by extension, those who advocate political, social or economic changes with a view to trying to restore this balance are called, or call themselves, ecologists.
In this sense socialists could also legitimately call themselves ecologists, with much more justice in fact since the change we advocate — production solely for use on the basis of the common ownership of the world’s resources — is the only lasting and effective way of restoring a proper balance between Humanity and Nature. In contrast, as we shall see, those on the political field who call themselves ecologists advocate mere reforms which would either only scratch the surface while leaving the basic problem unchanged or which are quite unrealisable within the framework of capitalism.
For the 1981 general elections the French-speaking section of the Belgian ecologist movement, ECOLO, published a pamphlet called 90 Propositions des Ecologists. Apart from the usual proposals that you would expect to find in the programme of an ecologist party — anti-nuclear, anti-motorways, consumer protection, health food, protection of the environment, anti-blood sports — the pamphlet does also attempt to provide a more global programme, of change from existing “capitalist and productive society” to an “ecological society”.
Instead of a society oriented towards “growth” they want a society in which, among other things, goods would be made to last, materials would be systematically recycled and work shared so that the working day could be considerably reduced. Whether or not these are desirable objectives, reading through the pamphlet it soon becomes clear that ECOLO takes for granted the continuing existence of wages, prices, profits, taxes, banks and so on. In other words, they don’t envisage going outside the framework of capitalism.
But capitalism is precisely a society geared to “growth” or. more accurately, to the accumulation of capital. This is its logic, its dynamic, even if this growth is not in a straight line but in ups and downs (we are currently in the middle of a down period, a state of “zero growth" which the now discredited Club of Rome used to call for). Capitalism is a system of society in which production is oriented towards the accumulation of capital through profits realised on the market. So to want to stop the accumulation of capital (“growth”) and its side effects while preserving the wages-prices-profits system which is capitalism is quite unrealistic. The political ecologists, in Belgium. Germany and elsewhere, are therefore a species of reformist and so subject to the same criticism: that they deal with the effects, not the cause, and that they divert much-needed energies from the struggle to achieve socialism (the only real ecological society possible today).
Capitalism has solved the problem of production; it has built up a stock of means of production capable of eliminating hunger and poverty throughout the world and even of providing plenty for everyone. But what capitalism has not solved, and cannot solve, is the problem of distributing this potential abundance. It is constitutionally incapable of doing this as its economic laws decree that priority has to be given to accumulating capital, or growth, as against consumption. Production under capitalism is geared to making profits, and not to satisfying needs. The only way to solve this problem is to institute production solely for use, but this can only be done on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the earth’s resources, both those made by people and natural resources; in other words, by abolishing capitalism and replacing it by socialism.
Only on the basis of common ownership can the aims of the ecologists be achieved. Only in a society in which goods are no longer produced for profit can the problems of pollution and adulteration be eliminated. Only in a society where goods are no longer produced for sale can high-quality, long-lasting goods be produced. Only, finally, on the basis of the common ownership of the earth’s resources can humans restore the balance which capitalism has upset between them and nature and live in harmony with their natural environment, live ecologically if you like.
Adam Buick (Luxemburg)