Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Ecology: the first decade (1971)

From the June 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ten years ago, anyone who spoke of the “balance of nature,” or claimed that our food was being poisoned on a mass scale, would have been classed along with nudists, vegetarians and socialists. Such talk identified the crank and the weirdo. As for ecology, few could even spell it.

Today fad has become orthodoxy. The language of the crank has become the language of the Pope, the Prince of Wales and President Nixon. Every school child knows the meaning of ecology.

Now we have Doomwatch, the biologist’s Dixon of Dock Green. We have advertisements based on ecological appeal, like the one for Natural Gas. Establishment magazines like Time and Reader’s Digest incessantly remind us of the threats to our natural environment.

In 1960 a book introducing ecology to sixth-formers stated that
  opportunities for full-time employment of ecologists in Britain are few and far between . . . There are neither many jobs nor many people competent to fill them. (John Hillaby, Nature and Man).
Today we take the population explosion of full-time ecologists for granted — and we are not surprised at the rise of environmental consultants, environmental lawyers — even environmental bankers. Within one decade a revolution in ideas has occurred. And this is only the beginning.

In 1962, just after the Thalidomide affair, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, to become an instant best-seller. This far-sighted work, studiously factual yet excitingly written, was an investigation of the ways in which weed — and pest-killers were poisoning wildlife, human beings and the system of nature in general. Rachel Carson showed that
  Every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.
And she demanded:
  Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?
Apparently the answer to that question was: any capitalist who can make a quick profit out of this murderous system. The chemical firms spent a great deal of money spreading lies about the effects of their products, [1] and trying to discredit Rachel Carson as a mystical dreamer out of touch with reality. One such firm wrote to Silent Spring's publishers asking them to withdraw the book, and implying that those who thought like Rachel Carson were in the pay of the Russian government, who thereby hoped to strike at the West’s food supply.

Time magazine and Reader's Digest carried bitter attacks on Silent Spring. An outburst typical of “responsible people’ ’at that time was the following, from the Director of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture:
  In any large-scale pest-control programme we are immediately confronted with the objection of a vociferous, misinformed group of nature-balancing, organic-gardening, bird-loving, unreasonable citizenry that has not been convinced of the important place of agricultural chemicals in our economy.
But these chemicals also had an important, though less benign, place in the ecology as Silent Spring made clear to millions. Most pesticides, in sufficient amounts, kill anything that lives, and not just the pest aimed at. Many of these chemicals are persistent, that is, once added to the natural system they remain there in poisonous form. All the plants, animals, soil and water, in every part of the world, contain steadily increasing amounts of these poisonous substances. Penguins and seals in the Antarctic, thousands of miles from the nearest spraying, contain DDT and numerous other poisons.

Animals which consume these substances do not pass them out of their bodies as quickly as they take them in, but rather accumulate the poisons in increasing quantities. If these animals are eaten by predators, the predators are getting a highly concentrated dosage, which they concentrate further. They may be eaten in their turn, and thus the chemical intensifies as it moves up the food chain. In this way, very tiny concentrations of pesticide may wreak havoc with the neutral system. At Clear Lake, California, DDT was sprayed in concentrations of one part in 70 millions. It was absorbed by plankton, which were eaten by fish, which were eaten by bigger fish, which were eaten by grebes. By this time concentrations were up to 2,500 parts per million. The grebes died.

Those creatures at the tops of food chains are therefore most vulnerable. Man is at the top of many food chains. In more and more parts of the world, men’s flesh would be poisonous to eat, and mother’s milk is poisonous to their children.

Paradoxically, the use of chemical killers against a particular pest often destroys that pest’s natural enemies, whilst the intended victim may develop a resistant strain. This leads to a renewed plague of the pests —and the use of new and deadlier poisons. Two or more chemicals added to the environment at different times and in different places may meet in the soil or the waterways, and combine to produce a new substance more deadly than either of them. Nature is a delicate, intricate system, and apparently slight intervention in this system may have dramatic consequences. [2]

No Socialist, Rachel Carson nevertheless could clearly see that the system of production for profit was the major cause of pesticidal pollution, firstly, because chemicals were used to increase the productivity of agriculture regardless of their wider consequences, and secondly, because the companies producing agricultural chemicals constituted a great vested interest. In many cases, alternative, non-chemical means of pest-control were more effective and cheaper, yet precisely because these methods were so simple, there were no great profits to be had from marketing them, and therefore nobody with an interest in selling them to farmers.* [3]

Scientists working on pest control were directly or indirectly in the pay of the chemical companies. These companies have not hesitated to proclaim that the world's food supply depends upon their products, and that people who object to being poisoned by them are responsible for world hunger. As recently as 1967, an employee of the Velsicol Chemical Corporation wrote:
  the campaign of false fear against the use of modern pesticides has, is, and will cause deaths and sufferings greater than those of World War II. It has been over 12 years since a major new insecticide has been brought to market and this is due to unnecessary controversy . . . daily deaths due to starvation and malnutrition have risen from 6,000-7,000 per day to over 12,000 per day, not to mention the millions who have died from vector-borne diseases . . . Each person who has played a part in the campaign of fear must accept responsibility for his share of the unnecessary toll of human life.
Rachel Carson had scotched that one merely by pointing out that agriculture’s chief headache was the problem of burdensome surpluses, though she didn’t go further and explain how a surplus problem could co-exist with a starvation problem. In fact, the world can grow plenty of food for everyone, with or without pesticides. Where people starve, it is not because the food cannot be grown, but because they are too poor to pay for it.

As public opinion swung round on pesticides, other forms of pollution began to hit the headlines. Some, like smog and nuclear fallout, were already issues. Gradually, more and more people linked the variety of pollutions together, and began to see a single problem. Ecologists became sought after and listened to. The Environment was a hot political topic. Firms which had been arrogant and sarcastic looked to their public relations and began to talk about their “responsibilities”. An avalanche of anti-pollution legislation descended from government. As the western economy moved into recession, one branch of industry was expanding as never before: anti-pollution equipment.

The tone of this editorial from Fortune (February 1970), the American business magazine, would have been utterly unthinkable two or three years earlier:
  Looked at one by one, many of our present depredations seem relatively easy to correct. But when we put the horrors in a row — the drab and clumsy cities, the billboards, the scum-choked lakes, the noise, the poisoned air and water, the clogged highways, the mountainous and reeking dumps — their cumulative effect drives us toward the conclusion that some single deep-seated flaw in modern society is responsible for all of these.

  . . . Because our strength is derived from the fragmented mode of our knowledge and our action, we are relatively helpless when we try to deal intelligently with such unities as a city, an estuary’s ecology, or “the quality of life.”
The Environmental outcry, which has yet to reach its height, is fully justified by the horrible facts. It is not a volatile craze which will disappear next year — or next century.

In some American cities tap water is undrinkable; drinking water must be bought in bottles. [4] In Tokyo, the world’s largest city, air pollution has got so bad that oxygen-vending machines have been installed in the streets. [5] Annual property damage from air pollution in the United States is estimated at $12 billion (thousand million). Millions of tons of oil are released into the oceans every year, and the Sargasso Sea now contains a permanent oil slick covering several hundred square miles.

While scientists calculate precisely the increased number of monsters and idiots born because of radioactive fallout, nerve gas and nuclear wastes are dumped in the Atlantic. The lands and seas are cluttered with plastic containers which will not be broken down — no, literally not in a million years. And everywhere swarms capitalism’s iron rat, the petrol-combustion motor-car, always bringing with it death, injury, sickness and frustration on a colossal scale.

Latest pollutants to make the news are PCBS and metals. [6] PCBS (polychlorinated biphenyls), used in the making of paints, varnishes, adhesives and lubricants, can now be found throughout the world’s natural system, including human mother’s milk, already rich in such succulents as DDT and its relatives. Implicated in the destruction of wild birds, PCBS are helping the peregrine and golden eagle along the road to extinction. The effects on humans are not yet known, PCBS are persistent.

Among serious metal pollutants are lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, nickel and vanadium. Lead enters the ecology mainly from its use as an anti-knock additive in petrol. It is suspected of inhibiting enzyme action, thus damaging the brain, liver and red blood corpuscles. Beryllium is emitted by processing plants, and like nickel, which is used as a fuel additive and in metallurgy, it damages the lungs. Cadmium, picked up from galvanized water pipes, causes high blood pressure and kidney damage. Mercury, used in the production of paint and drugs, keeps turning up in fish. It is especially toxic to the brain.

Pollution is not just caused by “technology”, and a return to the “simple life” is no answer (though less passionate worship of "progress” might help). The high rate of technical innovation itself provides cures for its own disease, DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor, and other dangerous substances can be totally discarded, and replaced with chemicals which are more specific, or which break down more quickly. Non-chemical methods of pest control can be developed also. Factory chimneys and drains can be fitted with filters. “Biodegradable” plastics can be developed. Sewage can be treated, and could be a useful source of fertilizer. [7] Industrial processes can all be modified if necessary. No technique of production is indispensable. There is a substitute for anything, or there soon can be if research resources are channelled in the appropriate direction. Something can be done about pollution, and of course something is to some extent being done, and the reasons for its slowness and indecisiveness are economic, not technical.

Although European Conservation Year was justly described by some sceptics as “European Conversation Year,” and similar jibes can easily be made at other environmental projects, it would be a gross error to suppose that capitalism is doing nothing about the problem. It is true that the picture has now become more confused with the growth of a general awareness of ecology, so that corporations which formerly flaunted their disdain for nature can now be relied upon to treat the environment as a sensitive public relations zone. Underneath the propaganda, however, progress really is being made, two obvious cases in Britain being the comparative success of the Clean Air Act, and the great improvement in the condition of the Thames. Norway’s biggest industrial combine recently closed, and wrote off as a total loss, a £6 million plant, because the firm could not bear the additional costs of anti-pollution measures (Guardian, 30 April). All over the world, pollution control costs are rising steeply as a proportion of capital investment. It would be equally mistaken to suppose that only the polluters are propelled by profit, those who wish to restrain them being disinterested guardians of the public welfare.

Sometimes the actions of governments are motivated by the crudest short-term financial considerations. The British Government responded to the Torrey Canyon menace by pouring millions of gallons of poisonous detergent into the sea. Ecologically, this was a disaster many times greater than the oil slick, but the holiday trade of seaside resorts was the determining factor. “The tourists were worth £40 million a year and the lobsters were worth £2 million a year,” said the man from Whitehall. “So we killed the lobsters.” (quoted in Richard Pefrow, The Black Tide)

But capitalism’s powers-that-be are capable of a broader approach than this. Cigarette smoking, for example, provides profits for the tobacco firms and tax revenues for the state, yet intelligent administrators of capitalism can readily see that they lose out, because of the illness and death caused by cigarettes, which lower the productivity of the working-class, and thereby cut the rate of return on investments in labour-power (the Health Service, schools and universities, etc).

It is the same with pollution. Short-sighted people often talk as though the choice for capitalism was concern for the environment or economic growth, but the truth is that in the long run a lack of concern for the environment will cut growth by lowering the quality of human labour-power, the source of growth. Poisoned workers are not so profitable to employ. Nations like Japan and Italy, which currently foul their environments more than most, will pay for it.

Furthermore, though government pollution-control laws raise the costs of production, firms do not necessarily mind their costs rising—so long as their competitors are in the same boat. Most leading American managers were found to be in favour of tougher pollution restrictions, and one of them explained:
  If I correct my plant problems but my competitor doesn’t, that company has a competitive advantage. I have committed huge sums; they haven't. In fairness to my stockholders, therefore, I can’t make that first move. (Fortune, February 1970).
This is a familiar pattern. Such laws will be particularly favoured (perhaps after initial howls of protest, as with the pesticide producers) by big firms in industries where competition from smaller firms persists. Anything which raises costs all round help to eliminate the small fry and redound to the benefit of the large concerns. Historically, much factory legislation was supported by large companies for this reason, and such a situation can even result in these firms favouring a general rise in wages.

The established firm may also regard its reputation as an asset, and in conditions of growing agitation over a particular evil, like pollution, such a firm may have to choose between soiling its reputation or handing a competitive advantage to a less reputable rival. Here again, the firm will welcome state direction.

A company with a near-monopoly position in regard to particular products will have a somewhat different outlook. With the competitive pressures off, the natural distaste for state interference will reassert itself. The firm will tend to anticipate possible government intervention, and act preemptively, in order to preserve as much room for manoeuvre as possible. Thus, Monsanto Chemicals, the sole North American and British manufacturers of PCBS, recently stopped selling these, voluntarily, except for uses which are unlikely to leak into the environment. By doing this, they hope to avoid a total ban, and incidentally a pollution scandal which might embarrass them now they are moving into the field of anti-pollution technology. Their spokesman said of pollution:
   I don’t think it’s a scare which will go away . . . We want to be masters of our own fate, rather than to be swept overboard on a wave of political emotion.
To say that most big capitalists welcome anti-pollution restrictions, does not prevent their still having an incentive to bend or break these laws. ‘‘Nader’s Raiders” in the United States uncovered case after case of government agencies becoming corrupted by the interests thety were supposed to regulate. And outright wilful contravention of the law is not uncommon—though, as in the case of offshore oil-drillers who omit to instal expensive safety valves, this may not come to light until disaster strikes

The pollution problem is just as bad in Russia, and this is often used to argue that the profit-incentive has nothing to do with it. But this misses the point. The manager of a western company is subject to pressures which ignore the general welfare of the population: he is therefore likely to be faced with a situation where to keep costs down he must pollute. His employers judge his performance by profits, not by charitable acts. The manager of a Russian state enterprise is in an identical position, only in addition to making a profit he must also fulfil a production target decided in an office in Moscow. This is just an extra pressure, and with its production-at-all-costs emphasis, is hardly likely to deter him from polluting. Commenting on the Russian pollution crisis, Izvestia complained that the manager’s attitude was: “We deliver the goods, and the rest is of no importance.” (Economist, September, 1970)

There are two general tendencies in capitalism’s response to pollution: increase in the power of central government, and further (administrative) unification of the world. Pollution is not bounded by frontiers. Biologically, there is only one world. The Germans ruined the Rhine for the Dutch as well as themselves. The Swedish government is cracking down hard on pollution—but a great deal of poison descends on Sweden after floating across from Britain or America. The insecticide BHC is widely used in Russia, but little in America or Britain: its presence in British rainfall is presumed to be due to its having floated round the world, across America and the Atlantic. Pollution is one more world problem, which, it is evident to everyone, can only be solved on a world scale.

Why does pollution occur? A small amount is due to ignorance or miscalculation. A small amount is unavoidable given present technology and population. But the immense majority is due to the economic network. People pollute because it is in their economic interests to do so.

It is sometimes claimed, though, that the problem arises from a wrong attitude to nature. This has some truth, though it will not do as a complete explanation. The attitude to nature, and the economic system, are interlinked. The present growth of ecological awareness is full of hope, for it encourages a mentality which considers total processes rather than isolated fragments. The vast majority of specialised scientists did nothing to warn us of the menace to our environment, and when people like Rachel Carson raised the alarm, many of the “experts” were more horrified at this usurping of their oracular role than at the gravity of the crisis. In the pesticide controversy, as in the earlier fallout controversy, the authorities were wrong and the “faddists” right. You cannot trust the powers that be.

[1] Documented in Since Silent Spring by Frank Graham jr, from which is also taken some of the other information cited here.
[2] Robert L. Rudd’s Pesticides and the Living Landscape is now a standard work on the subject. It was actually written before Silent Spring, but turned down by publishers as a “polemic.” As a result of having written this book. Rudd lost a promotion, and almost his job, at an American University, and was sacked from a state agricultural experimental station.
[3] Biological methods of control, such as introducing specific organisms which attack the pest and keep its numbers down.
[4] Barry Commoner, Science & Survival, p. 16.
[5] Economist, 5 September, 1970.
[6] The Ecologist, January 1971; Fortune, January 1971; “Trace Elements” in The Ecologist, May 1971.
[7] “Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture. So far as their utilisation is concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.” K. Marx, Capital, Vol. Ill, Ch 5.

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