Saturday, February 16, 2008

Emission Control? We have a problem (2008)

The Pathfinders column of the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists have for years railed at capitalist market production for being on a relentless collision course with the environment, and have been more than once guilty of tired clichés like 'profits of doom' and 'merchants of menace'. Nobody expected, twenty or so years ago, that the fat cats in their plexiglass palaces would lift their noses from their account books long enough to notice that, outside the window, the last tree was dying in a desert. Now, mysteriously, we see 150 of the world's largest corporations, including Nestle, Coca Cola, General Electric and Shell, enthusiastically demanding carbon emission cuts of up to 50 percent by 2050 (New Scientist, Dec 8, 07). And in the wake of the recent Bali accord, we have most of the world's countries behind a global effort to cap carbon emissions and prevent disastrous global warming. What is behind this sudden laudable concern for the environment, and how are they going to achieve their aims? Simple, the only way capitalism can think of doing anything. By making loads of money out of it.

Now the way you make money out of anything in capitalism is to deprive everyone of it, and then charge them for access to it. Thus, at Kyoto, was born the idea of depriving everyone equally of the right to emit greenhouse gases, and then charging a flat rate for access to metered pollution rights. It would work, so long as all countries signed up to it. This last proviso is of course what has taken so long to resolve, which is why Kyoto never really worked and Bali, which was strong on emotion but weak on hard targets, still might not.

So how do businesses make money out of a carbon tax? By developing 'green' technologies that produce less pollution, allowing countries to save money on buying or sell on their spare credits to the belching giants like China and the USA. Hence all the new debate in the UK about nuclear power. Hence also the probable Second Coming to Europe of GM technology, previously scorned but now about to return with a vengeance. Agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming, not through carbon directly but through nitrogen in fertiliser, which, apart from the considerable problems of nitrate pollution, algal blooms and dead zones in coastal waters, has the unhappy effect of oxidising into nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon (New Scientist, Jan 5). Genetically modified crops which don't need so much fertiliser, or which can take up more nitrogen and waste less of it, are seen as one way to reduce this huge impact.

And genetic modification of crops won't stop at a few strains of cereal. Rice feeds half the world, and in a more drought-prone world, rice cultivation will be seriously at risk, so drought-resistant strains will have to be developed. And as with salt-resistance, another important factor in coastal areas more prone to flooding, what happens when modifications migrate, as they are known to do, to wild and weedy cousins? Crops could in the future be strangled by superweeds that can withstand flood, drought or weedkillers to threaten the world's food supplies.

But one of the biggest money-making production bonanzas is biofuels. Transport is responsible for roughly one quarter of all global human emissions, but the oil is running out and the much-vaunted hydrogen option requires unfeasibly massive infrastructure changes for storage and filling-station delivery. Besides, biofuels are close to carbon-neutral, absorbing as much in growing as they emit in burning. Better still, with some strains such as switchgrass offering up to 540 percent more energy than is required to grow them, leading to a carbon-saving of 94 percent compared to petrol, the smart money is in inedible crop-growing (BBC Online, Jan 8). Already large swathes of North America are switching to corn-based biofuel production, both to earn carbon credits and as a future hedge against Arab and Chinese-controlled petroleum, while Latin American countries, in particular Brazil, are gearing up to sugarcane-based ethanol harvesting.

So lucrative is this potential market that, not to be outdone, developing countries like Indonesian Sumatra are hurriedly destroying what's left of their last vestiges of rainforest in order to cash in on palm oil production for diesel fuel. And who could blame them when, prior to Bali, there was no agreement under Kyoto to recompense 'green' countries for preserving such unprofitable natural forest. As much of Sumatra's richest forest is bulldozed, the peat that it has lived in for thousands of years is ripped up, and this releases more carbon than will ever be saved by the palm oil grown on it (New Scientist, Dec 1, 07). The Bali accord hurriedly attempted to address deforestation for the first time, but much of the damage has already been done and it remains to be seen whether forest-rich countries stand to gain more by sitting on their green growth or churning it up for the bio-barrels.

Nor are these the only problems. Subsistence farmers pushed off land to make way for biofuel production, and given no help or financial aid by regional governments, have no choice but to invade natural forest and clear it by slash and burn in order to live. And food supplies are threatened on a larger scale too, as biofuels, though efficient in some ways, are the most land-hungry method of producing energy, many times more than fossil, wind, nuclear, hydro or solar. There is only so much arable land, and the population is rising. What happens to human food supplies as the world's engines groan ever more hungrily to be fed? According to recent research, the total availability of suitable undeveloped land for biofuels is between 250 and 300 million hectares, but even using the most efficient crops it will take 290 million hectares to produce 10 percent of the world's projected energy requirement in 2030. But by then, the world will also need 200 million of these same hectares to feed the extra 2 to 3 billion people who will then be alive (New Scientist, Dec 15, 07). And this is to say nothing of all the extra nitrous oxide being emitted by fertilised biocrops, if suitable GM alternatives are not developed or are not accepted for use. On top of all that, there is the problem of water supply. Switching 50 percent of transport and electricity requirement to biofuels by 2050 will require up to 12,000 cubic kilometres of extra water per year, close to the total annual flow down the world's rivers (New Scientist, Dec 15, 07). All this and in a drier world too where water wars are already widely predicted.

The truth is, nobody really knows if the pros of biofuel production really outweigh the cons. Like all capitalist economics, it is largely guesswork. All capitalism really knows for sure is that, in the words of the aforementioned large corporations, "the shift to a low-carbon economy will create significant business opportunities", or in plainer language, there's gold in them thar green hills. Besides, the subtleties of comparative studies may be lost on governments keen to assuage a growing public demand that they 'do something' about the environment. Australia, already suffering the longest drought in its recorded history, has recently turfed out its long established climate-sceptic government in favour of one which, within weeks, signed up to Kyoto. As Bob Dylan would say, "it don't take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows".
Paddy Shannon

What about the Meantime? (1955)

From the World Socialist Party of the United States website.

Originally published in the March-April 1955 issue of the Western Socialist.
To the Editors:

I read your magazine regularly and find it interesting, informative and also puzzling. What puzzles me is that you advocate socialism and at the same time oppose social reforms. I always thought that socialists saw nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of socialism while at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands.
I believe democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order. But I rather doubt that I shall see socialism in my time. In fact I doubt if the generations, old and young, living today will see socialism in their time.

Meanwhile people must live in the world as it is here and now. By nature most people desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children; they want to live in decent homes equipped with modern conveniences; to wear fairly good clothes, to eat wholesome food and to offer their kids better advantages. This is why working people turn to politics. That's why I vote for Democratic Party candidates endorsed by labor. I work in an automobile factory in Michigan. I also belong to a union and my union fights for better wages, hours and working conditions for me and my fellow workers.

Because I worked in 'the shop before we had a union. I know that the gains we made through our Union have been considerable and I expect we shall continue to make more gains in the future.

But there are groups in Michigan - mainly corporations and their Republican allies in the state legislature - who want to pass. anti-Union labor laws which would serioUsly weaken the union. Seventeen other states have already Passed "Right to Scab" bills and as a result the workers in those states cannot improve their wages and working conditions nearly as much as they might if those bills had been defeated.

Should workers in Michigan ignore attempts by big business and the Republican politicians to pass a similar bill in this state? Or should the workers support labor-back" candidates in the Democratic Party Pledged to do all in their power to defeat anti-union legislation?

Another example. During the last year there has been much unemployment and part-time employment in Michigan; consequently thousands of workers and their families suffered hardship, especially those work; ers who remained jobless long after their unemployment benefits were exhausted.

Currently auto factories are rehiring work. ers by the thousands in order to step the tempo of production for the next months or until new 1955 models flood their market faster than they can be sold. TIll once again there will be mass layoffs.

If labor had enough friends in the state legislature they would press for unemployment compensation amendments to increase, weekly jobless benefits and to extend duration of payments. Similarly, if labor-supported legislators were in the majority they could push through other important reforms, such as a public works program for more jobs and better schools, hospitals, improved roads, etc.

Yet you say that in the area of politics workers should strive only for socialism and should spurn reform measures designed to! make their lives and the lives of their children a little better while they still live. Somehow this reminds me of those religious groups who admonish us to spurn the day-to-day life of this world and think only of a future in heaven.

Or do I misinterpret your position on political action? If so, please clarify.



[Editorial note: The task of answering this letter has been turned over to a worker in a Detroit automobile plant. inasmuch as, being "on the spot" he is in a position to deal familiarly and directly with the issues raised by "Interested Reader."]

Dear Fellow Worker:

During the many years I have spent in the auto plants of Detroit, I have come into contact with literally thousands of workers organized in the United Automobile Workers (CIO) who believe, in part, as you do: that to improve their lot in life they must work not only through 'the unions on the job, but also through Labor-endorsed candidates for political offices who presumably will pass legislation in favor of the workers.

The encouraging, refreshing - and challenging - part of your letter is that it goes much further than this limited union thinking. The question you raise is whether or not this fighting for immediate demands or social reform legislation conflicts with the movement to establish socialism.

The 99%, and more, of the auto workers who favor union-sponsored and union-controlled political action have not reached the stage where socialism enters into their thinking at all. They believe they can find a solution to their problems of living costs, unemployment, old age security and the like within the framework of the capitalist system.

To be sure, they gripe and bitch over high prices, short work weeks, inadequate income, long layoffs, and so forth, but when someone at a union meeting dares to take the floor and suggest that perhaps socialism is the answer to their problems, they greet him with cries of "throw him out," "sit down," or "send him back to Russia."

The auto workers, like the rest of their fellow workers, want capitalism today, and capitalism tomorrow. You, Interested Reader, believe in working to get the good things of life under capitalism today, and postponing socialism to the indefinite future.

You admit that "democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order." Thus, we are in agreement on the ultimate goal: socialism, and since you do not question our definition of socialism- common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution- we assume that you are in agreement with this also. What separates us is this one point: What do socialists do in the meantime, until the majority become convinced of their case? In a word: will the socialists win over the majority of people to their case by fighting to improve their lives under capitalism - as you advocate - or by spending all their energies in educating the workers to the necessity of eliminating capitalism and establishing socialism?
Just as you cannot see why there is nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of a socialist society at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands, we from our viewpoint can see nothing consistent in advocating a complete overthrow of the capitalistic conditions of life, at the same time offering programs to make , these conditions more tolerable to the workers, or in brief, to fight for reforms.

All through your letter you state that "workers" should fight for more unemployment compensation, against "right to work" legislation, for better roads, and other reforms. You do indeed misinterpret our position on political action, if you believe we, as socialists, are opposed to workers going after 'these reforms. We do not set ourselves up as opposing the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism. We know the limitations of these attempts, and the limitations of the unions. Our fellow workers have yet to learn them.

But it is one thing to say that socialists should not oppose the non-socialists fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that socialists should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. There are so - called "socialist" organizations which seek to gain leadership over the workers by aiding them to improve their position under the present order, at the same time they know this is a futile struggle. We hope you have not confused us with these "socialists," when you admit being bewildered at our policy of advocating socialism, and not fighting for reforms.


Not only is it inconsistent, in our opinion, for socialists to seek to solve problems for the workers under a system which they say cannot solve these problems, but in a practical sense, such a two-directional approach would never bring about socialism. And the latter, we recall, is our goal, as well as yours.
Suppose the World Socialist Party were to embark on a high-powered Campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth. Perhaps we would get a lot of people to Join our organization. On what basis would they Join? The same basis on which we appealed to them. We would in the end have an organization consisting of workers who were seeking continUal improvement under capitalist methods of production and distribution, under a price, profit, and wage economy. What happens when such an organization is voted into political power as a majority? It merely uses the power of the state to carry on capitalism under different forms state- ownership or 'nationalization. It cannot use the control of the state to abolish capitalism, because its own members who Joined on a reform basis, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism, or lose its members to another organization which advocated remedial measures.

Is this a theoretical approach? Not at all. If space permitted, we could cite example after example where a party calling itself "socialist," but advocating immediate demands now and "socialism in the future" came into political power, and instead of abolishing exploitation, merely altered the form of it. For five years, the British Labor Party was in power in England, but it made no attempt to establish socialism. History proved once more that the means sought social reforms - were identical with the ends sought - a state capitalist society. For another important illustration, we recommend Integer's introduction to Rosa Luxemburg's Reform or Revolution, in which he proves that the social reforms advocated by the German Social Democratic Party before Hitler were inseparable from their ultimate goal - more reforms under state control.


Now let us turn to the method advocated by the socialists. They appeal for members on the one plank of obtaining state power for the purpose of abolishing capitalism. Whereas, if elected to office, we would not oppose social reforms, at the same time we would not advocate them. By the same token, by putting forth a program of immediate demands, we would not be educating any workers to the necessity for socialism. We would instead be educating on the need to get all they can under the capitalist system. This latter type of education has never produced socialists from among the workers, altho it has contributed more than its share of members to the trade union officialdom. If you but take a glance around you in our union, the UAW-CIO, you would see many union officials who started out in the unions with your idea of "reforms today, socialism tomorrow." They originally viewed reforms as a means to an end, but reforms became ends in themselves.
The socialists, where they are employed in shops which are organized, do not spurn the day to day struggle, as you put it. By the very nature of the fact that they are workers they participate in the fight for better Wages and working conditions. But with two qualifications, which qualifications arise from the fact that they are socialists first, and members of unions second. First, socialists understand that this economic struggle against the capitalists is merely a defensive struggle, to keep capital from beating the working class living standards down. For this reason they couple their struggle on the economic front with political education of the workers in the shops. They point out the limitations of wage increases.

Socialists point out the limitations of the latest union demand, the guaranteed annual wage, in that it would prove an annual wage, at best, for those who have enough seniority to remain on the job, and that it will merely stimulate employers to introduce new methods so that they will have fewer workers for which they will have to guarantee.


Second, socialists in unions do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put the socialists in a position, not only of advocating reforms - which is opposed to socialist thinking - but also of educating, or rather miseducating, the workers to believe that the capitalist state can function in their interests, when it is in the final analysis the agency by which the capitalist class maintains its domination over the working class.
So the socialist is involved in the economic struggle by the fact that he is a member of the working class which naturally resists capital. But this is not the same thing as stating that the socialist party engages in activity for higher wages and better conditions. This is not the function of the socialist party. Its task is to fight for socialism, and the method it employs is education of the majority. The socialist party is not concerned with reforms under capitalism.

This is the concern of the ruling class which uses reforms to bribe off the working class, and the concern of those groups, such as the unions and their political arms, which seek to get all they can out of the present system. Were the socialist movement to vanish from the earth, the capitalist, by the very class nature of the system, would still grant reforms to forestall the development of revolutionary thought among the workers. On the other hand, a rapidly rising socialist movement would force the capitalist class to grant more and more reforms.

It is not true that the socialists "spurn the day to day life of this world and think only of the future in heaven." Rather it is those who postpone socialism to the unlimited generations ahead who are spurning day to day life. By this we mean that socialism today is a practical proposition. As you know yourself from working in the automobile plants and living in the industrial area of Detroit, modern technology has reached the point where people can receive what they need for themselves and their children - today, and on this earth. It is the profit system which prevents workers from obtaining decent homes, clothes, education - all the things you say the union is fighting for, but which we say they cannot obtain because it is limited by its support of the profit system.

Those who call themselves realists, and call the socialists dreamers and utopians, are in truth unrealistic themselves in believing they can gain the good things of life under capitalism. By the way, if the latter be true, then why fight for socialism at all?


As a final point, we would like to suggest a contradiction in your approach. You believe in socialism, but because it is so far in the future, you think it best to spend your energies in the reform movement. Multiply yourself by thousands upon thousands who have thought, and do think; in the same way. Had all these people spent one tenth of the time for socialism that they spent in fighting for reforms, the socialist movement today would indeed be a large one, and as you yourself implied, the bigger the socialist organization gets, the closer we are to socialism.
Only if people see the need for socialism, and work actively for it, will we ever obtain socialism. On the other hand, if everyone who reaches a socialist understanding comes to the conclusion that socialism will never come about in his lifetime, this is this the best guarantee that we will never see socialism. Indeed, workers who admit they believe in socialism and then fight for reforms under the excuse the workers are not ready for socialism, are in an unexplainable contradiction. They really mean to say that they themselves are not ready for socialism.

In not fighting for reforms but in expending all our energy in educating workers to socialism, we know we are at least on the road to socialism.
This is our case for not advocating reforms at the same time we advocate socialism. We ask that you consider it.