The Material World Column from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Nearly a quarter of all human deaths is caused by pollution. Contaminated water, polluted air, chemical waste, climate change, and UV radiation kill 12.6 million people annually, says a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The worst affected are children, the poor, and the elderly, WHO has found. ‘If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young,’ said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general.
Many environmentalist activists advocate lifestyle changes implying that it is the individual who is personally responsible for climate change. It suggests that we are each personally responsible for the pollution and should share in the sense of guilt. One of the greatest weaknesses of the mainstream environmental movement has been its failure or refusal to identify capitalism as the root problem.
Coal India has 175 open-cast mines and production from open-cast mines during 2014-15 was 92.91percent of total production. Why open-cast mining when it is environmentally destructive and harmful to the people living in the locality? Because it requires less investment and less time to extract coal. Those who believe that the threat to the environment can be dealt with by a person’s life-style choices are hopelessly wrong. The energy industry is a leading source of pollution – including sulphur and nitrogen compounds – that cause breathing difficulties in vulnerable people, including children and older people, and can lead to premature death. Energy production and use account for about 85 percent of particulate matter and almost all of the sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides. Traffic pollution although still important in developed countries, causing a fifth of deaths, caused only 5 percent of deaths across the globe as a whole. Air pollution from power stations, mainly coal-burning plants, was significant globally, causing one in seven deaths. It is the biggest single factor in the US, causing a third of the 55,000 annual deaths, compared to 16 percent in the UK. It is not you or your neighbours but the business interests which control the corporations which run the industries that produces most of the pollution.
The global air pollution crisis is killing more than 6 million people a year. Air quality has been identified as the fourth-largest threat to human health, after high blood pressure, poor diet and smoking. A report in February from the Royal College of Physicians which blamed air pollution both inside and outside homes for at least 40,000 deaths a year in the UK. It took just eight days for London to fail its air quality limits for the entire year and this near-invisible pollution kills up to 9,000 people a year in London. Richard Howard, at the think-tank Policy Exchange, found that a Londoner’s life expectancy is cut by about 16 months by air pollution with poorer neighbourhoods the worst affected. Air pollution is estimated to reduce the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of six months.
Capitalists are not overly concerned with ending pollution. The existence of every business is based on its ability to make more profits than the next capitalist. If the cost of reducing cuts into their profits no real steps toward halting pollution will be taken. Capitalists are not about to reduce their profits for anybody. They haven’t to provide full employment or to avoid wars so there’s no reason to expect them to do so in order to tackle pollution. Capitalism is all about the insatiable pursuit of profit and it is accompanied by tremendous waste and pollution. If there are profits to be gained, capitalists are not too bothered by the long-term, or even short-term, consequences for other people or future generations. Political leaders lecture about the need to address environmental problems, while turning a blind eye to the role played by this rapacious system of profit chasing. Capitalism is a blind process of profit accumulation. Too many people want to preserve those profits while preserving the environment. It cannot be done. Capitalism doesn't take any notice if the air is noxious and if another technology is 'cleaner' - unless the 'dirty' option becomes unprofitable. The capitalists are waiting for a time when renewables are more profitable than fossil fuels.
Many socialists seek the ideal of a ‘gardened’ planet cared for by those that live on it. We no longer seek to conquer and dominate nature but to live in harmony and in symbiotic relationships with the world around us. Socialists are environmentalists who seek a non-exploitative economic system that permits co-operation and collaboration between people, and that recognises the mutual benefits when we also fully understand the responsibilities of our stewardship of the Earth. Our society and our way of life need to be in harmony with nature, not always battling against it, because in a war against the planet and nature there can only be one winner, and it will not be us. In the long run, humanity's greatest resource lies in the innovative intelligence of our species. Our problem is how to establish a society in which this intelligence can find its full expression for human needs.