From the February 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
To the environmentalist there are a number of environmental aspects within society today which give cause for concern, and the number is growing daily.
Everywhere he looks, some segment of the environment is under threat. For every one of these that the environmentalist attempts to influence, a number more erupt.
The environment has always been under attack during the development of the capitalist system of production and distribution. Today’s concerns are seemingly fraught with far more potential disasters than those of the past, but even then, threats (such as war and its associated weaponry) had seemed, at that time, potentially just as disastrous.
At the present time, two typical concerns are the danger of sub-clinical lead poisoning caused by inorganic lead being emitted from car exhausts and the possible Fast Breeder Nuclear Reactor programme.
The Lead in Petrol Concern
Organic lead such as tetraethyl, itself a very dangerous substance, is added to all British petrol to increase the octane rating. In itself it is dangerous because it can easily be absorbed through the skin and can attack the nervous system with serious consequences, including possible brain damage. This fact was originally discovered the hard way, when workers working with the substance displayed behavioural changes and some even went mad.
The increase in octane rating of the petrol is achieved by adding tetraethyl or similar lead compound to the petrol to inhibit the violent explosion that would result in the cylinder chamber using lower octane fuel. This violent explosion, noticed as ‘pinking’ is thus reduced to the gradual burn necessary for smooth engine performance.
This means, as far as the petrol manufacturers are concerned, that a standard octane fuel (89.5) can be produced, the higher the octane rating needed, the greater the quantity of lead added.
Having done its job, the lead, now inorganic, would cause engine trouble if left in, so it has to be got rid of—emitted through the car’s exhaust. To increase the efficiency of lead emission, so called ‘lead Scavengers’ are also added to the fuel. ‘Scavengers’ such as Chlorine and Bromine keep the lead more volatile, easing emission. But chlorine, as most schoolchildren know, becomes hydrochloric acid during combustion which, obviously, does wonders for the car’s exhaust system!
The emitted lead enters humans via the lungs through the air they breath and via the gut through the food and drink they consume. Food, particularly large leafed plants like cabbages, have air-borne lead land on them as well as absorbing the lead that lands on the ground around them via their root system. Lead lying in roadside gutters etc. is washed into rivers where drinking water is taken from. Washing and purifying does not remove all the lead.
This form of petrol production is profitable. Selling car exhausts is profitable. Lead in petrol will remain a concern within capitalist society until it becomes unprofitable perhaps through human workloss due to sickness. This is unlikely—the British government at present does not accept sub-clinical lead poisoning. They believe that below a certain level (Threshold Limit Value, TLV) lead is inert and harmless. Also, the illness caused by this lead is subtle and not easily attributed to lead. Or there may be pressure from foreign competitors: already abroad, including within the EEC, TLVs are set far lower than in this country and this type of lead poisoning is causing serious concern. Meanwhile lead to the tune of some 11,000 tonnes is emitted from car exhausts in the United Kingdom each year and every individual continues to breath polluted air and eat polluted food.
The Fast Breeder Reactor Concern
Regarding the Fast Breeder (FB) Reactor programme, at the time of writing the result is awaited of a recent public enquiry held at Whitehaven into whether to build the first experimental FB reactor and whether to extend the reprocessing facilities at Windscale in Cumbria. The enquiry itself was called supposedly due to public concern and outcry over the possible consequences of such a venture (or could it possibly be a safety valve for the capitalist government, the programme going ahead anyway when the economy permits?).
The Fast Breeder Reactor as its name implies, ‘breeds’ more fuel as it reacts. The ‘Fast’ however does not mean that it quickly produces more fuel, it means it makes use of the fast neutrons emitted during reaction. This does however increase the efficiency of the reactor over its present day counterparts, the Thermal Reactors like the Magnox. However, there are disadvantages, the main one being the increased production of a bi-product known as Plutonium. Plutonium is a man-made element not found in nature that is highly poisonous and highly radioactive. It is this latter property as well as the fact that a small quantity plus some easily accessible knowledge and determination could be used to make a bomb, that is causing such concern, not only environmentally but militarily also.
Because the nuclear waste containing Plutonium has to be stored in cooled tanks in isolation for something like 25,000 years, this represents to our unstable society today a huge security risk and a future society, forced to maintain such tanks and security, does not represent a pleasant prospect. As well as this consideration, there is the prospect of more and more transport of waste from all quarters of the country and possibly of the world converging on the reprocessing plant at Windscale. The risks of accident, theft, hijacking or sabotage of such vehicles represents yet another security risk. Already armed guards are being used at Windscale and other establishments associated with the Nuclear Industries.
There are just two of the numerous environmental concerns of today. In the seas, for instance, plankton, the basic start of the food chain through fish to our tables, is also giving cause for concern. This concern stems from the fact that the plankton can absorb low level nuclear waste (and for that matter other pollutants) which are then concentrated up the food chain to us humans. The whale, tiger and other creatures are being slaughtered out of existence mainly for the commercial produce that they represent. Valuable agricultural land is being swallowed up by the 1,000s of acres to build multi-lane motorways for larger and larger juggernaut lorries to use, these lorries travelling to and from such motorways having to use totally unsuitable roads, thundering perilously through villages and towns. Chemical waste is poured by the thousands of gallons into rivers daily, stretching to the limit the biosphere’s ability to cope with such problems. Raw and partially treated sewage is pumped into the seas while oil-based chemical fertilisers, with their own production pollution, are used in ever increasing quantities on the land which will result, some say, in the eventual breakdown of the delicate natural structure of arable land. More and more information is coming to light on such substances as asbestos and fibre-glass with workers in such industries being informed that their health, in some cases, is already beyond repair.
The more he looks into such problems the more the environmentalist is convinced of the inevitable long-term result of such seemingly careless attitudes throughout the modern world—disaster. So why, he asks himself, are such policies and production methods continued?
The Answer — come into the Cold
The answer to this environmentalist’s question and the root cause of all the above problems is the system which gives rise to such policies and production methods — capitalism. The unfortunate truth in the world today is that it is profitable to pollute.
The basic philosophy of the environmentalists is to slow down growth which, they claim, will lead to a stable society. But capitalism is fuelled by growth and must strive for larger and larger growth rates. Listen to the media’s concern, if growth is only being forecast as a small increase. We must have bigger growth rates say the Government, Trade Unions and the CBI — higher productivity. And as to a stable society — capitalism is far from stable, it fosters competition, waste, alienation, frustration and war.
So-called environmentalists (and for that matter all other workers) should study the Socialist’s case. Production for need not profit—and we certainly do not need pollution! A society not owned by a small minority who, supported by the working class, run a society geared to the buying and selling of commodities including our labour power. Until workers, including the environmentalists, use the vote to oust the capitalist system and install Socialism, the environmental movement is a lost cause, another blind alley for genuinely concerned individuals to travel up only to find at its end a blank wall to bash their heads against. At best the environmental movement can act as a brake, a brake easily released when economic constraints permit. At worst it engages enthusiastic, vigorous individuals in a futile struggle for reforms which even if ‘won’ only lead to further problems.
Environmentalists take note — come into the cold, the cold light of realization. Join Socialists the world over who are also trying to prevent the disastrous future that capitalism represents.
Mel St Pier