Capitalism and the environmental crisis: introduction

Submitted by martin on 28 February, 2007 - 7:33

This collection of articles has been put together by revolutionary socialists, supporters of the monthly magazine Workers’ Liberty. It aims to analyse the causes of the environmental crisis facing the planet and point towards solutions.
The articles are offered as contributions to a debate, a starting point for an important discussion, rather than a finished “word from on high” on these matters. We don’t believe socialist theory or politics should be monolithic in the style of the movements which supported the USSR or other monstrous totalitarian dictatorships. Not all supporters of Workers’ Liberty would necessarily agree with every word of all these articles. But if the socialist movement is to have an effect on the world it must be able to discuss, rationally and democratically, all the issues we have to face to make socialism possible.
What unites us is the belief that socialist politics have something important to contribute to discussion on the environment. The pamphlet aims both to examine various environmental questions and to explain what the socialist tradition can bring to answering them.

The free trade order
By Clive Bradley
At the beginning of December 1999, torrential rains poured down on the coast of Venezuela. The resulting catastrophic mud slides buried whole towns and left 30,000 people dead. Thousands more were made homeless, and in the aftermath, many more fell victim to disease. The full human cost is incalculable.
But the Venezuelan floods were not a “natural” disaster. The authorities had failed to take precautions, like building barriers to contain unruly rivers. Houses were poorly built. Indeed, the physical collapse of urban communities in heavy rain is not a new phenomenon in Latin America: it has been happening to the Brazilian favelas, or shanty towns, for years. In a richer country, the rains would have caused far less damage.
Where did the rains come from? There seems little doubt that the storms which hit South America, and the floods which have devastated large areas of the so-called Third World and China in recent years, are at least partly the result of global warming: storms are a necessary result of the heating up of the Earth’s atmosphere. And global warming is certainly caused by a world economy which pumps greenhouse gases into the air while destroying the forests which could process the excess carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.
In the Earth’s four and a half billion years, there have been several planetary catastrophes. Two hundred and twenty-five million years ago, in the late Permian period, 96% of marine species were suddenly wiped out. Sixty-five million years ago, more famously, the dinosaurs were among the victims of a disaster now widely believed to have been caused by an asteroid hitting the Earth. But these were purely natural events. Now, with many species already extinct or facing extinction, there is a real threat to the planet, and ourselves on it, caused not by natural disasters, but by humanity itself.
The impending disaster
Like many of the features of our environmental crisis, global warming has been doubted by some scientists. According to opinion polls, public concern about the threat of greenhouse gases fell during the 1990s. This is largely due to a concerted campaign by the fossil fuels industry, who are a major cause of greenhouse emissions, to look after their interests and sow confusion and doubt. In fact, the scientific community is more or less unanimous in accepting both that global warming is taking place, and that its effects will be bad.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests there is a discernible human influence on global climate”. The United Nations, in its 1999 report on the environment, warns: “Global emissions of carbon dioxide [just one greenhouse gas]... was some 400 million tonnes more [in 1996] than in 1995 and nearly four times the 1950 total.”’ The result will be: “Average sea level is projected to rise by about 50cm... by the year 2100. [This] would lead to the displacement of millions of people in low-lying delta areas and a number of small island states could be wiped out.”
In addition, the raising of the world’s temperature could lead to the spread of diseases currently only common in hot countries — for example reintroducing malaria to Europe. Yet overuse of antibiotics is leading to a potential terrible health crisis, as even routine infections are becoming immune to treatment.
Some scientists believe global warming will have the paradoxical effect, in Europe, of causing a new Ice Age. Melting fresh water from the Arctic could switch off the process driving the Gulf Stream, which keeps us warm.
The biggest sources of greenhouse emissions are electric power plants (25%), deforestation (25%), and cars (20-25%). Our civilisation’s reliance on the internal combustion engine is an enormous problem, creating, in addition to global warming, air pollution, and the congestion of the cities where now half the world’s population lives. Thirty thousand people die every year in the United States from illnesses related to car pollution. Eighty per cent of the world’s cars belong to 20% of its people, with by far the largest proportion in the USA (one car for every two people). While the global population has doubled in last 50 years, the number of cars has grown 10 times, and is expected to increase 60% over the next two decades. Car production relies on other environmentally damaging industries like steel.
Closely linked to global warming, although with its own extra costs, is deforestation. One prediction calculated that at present rates, the world would have no rainforests at all by the year 2050. By 1997, for the first time the world’s forests were losing more carbon than they were absorbing.
As well as contributing to global warming, and endangering indigenous peoples, the destruction of forests is threatening an untold number of species. The Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson reckons that at a conservative estimate we are destroying 27,000 species a year, or three every hour. “Plainly” he wrote, “we are in the midst of one of the great extinction spasms in geological history.” The loss of species is not only a tragedy in itself; it threatens to upset the ecological balance in ways we cannot even calculate.
The “development” which causes deforestation can often hasten the process by leading to accidental, but appalling, fires. Most notable have been the fires in South East Asia — costing 4.5 million hectares in 1997, and causing smoke that affected 70 million people. But forest fires have affected many other countries: 3.3 million hectares of the Brazilian forest were devastated by fire between 1996 and 1998.
Soil erosion is a terrible problem. The world is losing 25 billion tonnes of topsoil a year, with disastrous potential consequences for food production. Most new cropland is being created by felling the rainforests.
In dry areas, desertification proceeds. Says the UN: “Soil degradation in the drylands affects or puts at risk the livelihoods of more than 1,000 million people.” In China alone, the total area of arable land was reduced, between 1957 and 1990, by an area equal to the cropland of France, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands combined.
The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer have actually been reduced in the industrial world in the last decade, although not elsewhere (doubling between 1986 and 1996 in developing countries). Even if this trend continues, according to the UN, “excess skin cancer incidence is not expected to begin to fall until about 2060”. The “hole in the ozone” has other bad health effects, notably on the eyes and the immune system.
Pollution is an enormous threat to human health. Acid rain, in particular, has terrible effects, with “critical loads [the threshold at which acid deposition causes damage] frequently exceeded over large parts of North America, Europe and South-East Asia,” according to the UN. The report goes on: “Chemical agents... are considered to be major factors in causing and worsening tuberculosis, bronchitis, heart disease, cancers and asthma. Tuberculosis, the single largest cause of death in adults from infectious diseases, was responsible for three million deaths in 1996, 95% of which occurred in the developing world.”
Meanwhile our seas and oceans are being emptied of fish, and filled with toxic chemicals. Four hundred million tonnes of hazardous waste were produced a year by the early 1990s, mainly from chemical production, energy, pulp and paper factories, mining, and leather and tanning industries. Huge amounts of toxic waste are traded, much of it illegally, to the developing world — that is, dumped there.
An unequal world
Ben Elton, in his novel Stark, coined the phrase “total toxic overload” to describe where the environment is going. We could indeed be heading there. But the world is not producing its poisonous gases and noxious practices on an equal basis. By the far the bulk of greenhouse gases are produced by rich, industrial countries, especially the United States. Those countries which have recently been rapidly industrialising, particularly China, are doing their best to compete (and often with even fewer controls). But the burden of blame lies in the so-called “North”. Most of the environmentally damaging industries which operate world wide are based in (or at least owned by) the North — the oil companies, car manufacturers, petrochemical industries. Fifty-one per cent of the biggest economies on Earth are not nations but transnational corporations, and almost all of them are based in the industrialised North.
It is not only an inequality in blame, however. The inequalities are deep, and social. The top 20% of the world’s population were 30 times wealthier than the bottom 20% in 1960. By 1991 they were 61 times richer, and by 1994 78. Inequality is getting much, much worse. According to the World Bank, 20% of the world’s population earns less than one dollar a day.
Meanwhile, 70% of all international trade is controlled by a mere 500 corporations. Transnational companies are responsible for over half the greenhouse gases emitted by industry. The ecological crisis is inseparable from this social inequality, and the inequalities of power which go with it.
Within the rich countries, too, there are staggering inequalities. The richest of all, the United States, contains huge numbers sleeping on streets, unable to get medical care, or living in squalid ghettoes. In the early 1990s, 18% of the 81 million full-time employed American workers earned less than the official poverty level — compared to 12% a decade before.
Western (or “Northern”) governments are notoriously reluctant to take meaningful action on the environment, and quick to blame the so-called “developing countries”, especially for having too many children. Within developing countries, too, it is the rich and powerful who cause the most damage. Satellite pictures of Brazil reveal that while 20% of deforestation is caused by logging, a full 55% is the result of slash-and-burn agriculture. Most of this is in the hands of powerful, wealthy landowners. One per cent of landowners hold 50% of the land, and are driving their poorer competitors into logging (and contributing to the pressures which can lead to devastating forest fires). As Mark Hertsgaard puts it in Earth Odyssey, “The main impetus for deforestation in Brazil... is not too many people but too little equality.” (p206)
What drives the big landowners, as with the transnational corporations, is profit. The industries which cause most harm to the environment are big business, and these are protected by their governments. The most eco-unfriendly industries, like petrochemicals, devote significant resources either to attacking environmentalists’ claims about the ecological crisis, or to “greenwashing” (whitewashing, but “green”) their own activities. They block alternatives, which they see as competition; they put pressure on their governments to drag their feet on green issues.
The free trade order
After World War Two, an international order was established which quickly became synonymous with the “Cold War” between the USA and the USSR and their allies. The superpowers contested for domination in the “third world”, as it was known; in the West, “anticommunism” was the driving principle.
For the past decade, the Cold War has been over. “Communism” collapsed in the USSR and its satellites; the USSR no longer exists. A “new world order” was proclaimed, with the drive to establish “free trade” at its heart. Free trade has replaced anticommunism as the religion of the rich, Western world, expressed most brutally through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), set up more recently to implement GATT. Their stated aim is, by allowing market forces to flourish, to bring about “harmonic convergence”, or “harmonisation” in the world economy.
But in a world of such staggering inequality, “free trade” means more wealth for the rich, more inequality for the poor. From 1982 to 1990, the South paid, in debt servicing alone, $418 billion more to the North than it received in all forms of aid: $50 billion a year. Thirty of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The loans come from such sources at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These organisations — set up after the Second World War — are notorious for the conditions they place on their loans (very little is given in the form of non-repayable grants); or when they “reschedule” debt already owed. They call for “austerity” programmes, which always involve the poor “tightening their belts” to balance government budgets, the slashing of whatever welfare programmes or government subsidies on basic foodstuffs exist, sometimes devaluation of currency, lower wages, insistence on privatisation, and so on, resulting in more poverty and unemployment.
Free Trade Zones (FTZs) established in “third world” countries to attract foreign capital always mean low wages, no trade union rights, few controls on environmental hazards, and huge tax incentives for the foreign businesses.
In Mexico, for example, “economic openness” in the 1980s of the type these institutions love, saw an dramatic increase in economic hardship and malnutrition. Real wages dropped by over half. There was also a big increase in the number of millionaires; but at huge social cost.
At the same time, demand for cheap labour increases the international flow of migrant workers. Moving to richer countries, immigrants are forced into low-paid jobs, and find themselves blamed for the social crises around them. Politicians use anti-immigrant rhetoric to win popular support. But in fact the movement of labour is a result of the movement of capital, and the opening up of trade borders. Other immigrants are refugees fleeing disastrous wars.
The big powers who dominate GATT and the WTO devote precious few of their resources to helping the South, even in the dubious form of “aid”. The US allocates 0.21% of its GNP to foreign aid (far short of the 0.7% asked of it by the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992). And aid always comes with strings. As one US official once famously put it, “To give food aid to people just because they are starving is a pretty weak reason”. Japan, for example, successfully put pressure on its aid recipients to back its policy on whaling in international forums. Since aid is almost always in the form of loans, it contributes to the crushing debt problem. An extraordinary amount of aid consists of deals in which the recipient agrees to buy products from the donor country. As much as 90% of British aid is said never to leave Britain, in effect; in Canada the figure is 80%. The US Treasury Department defends World Bank procurements with the argument that the Bank (supposed to benefit the “third world”) spends more in the United States than in any other country.
The $125 billion asked of the North at the Rio summit is a fraction of the world’s military spending. On the other hand, quite small — by these standards — amounts of money could seriously address major problems: the World Bank estimates that a health care package of just eight dollars per person could wipe out many deadly diseases in the developing world. But that would require different priorities.
This is the context in which the WTO pushes “free trade”. GATT’s insistence on absolute “equality” in the world market means that nations’ laws, whether they are designed to protect the environment or other, social areas, are under threat. For example, restrictions on smoking in Thailand were successfully challenged by US tobacco companies through GATT, which ruled that no country could use trade restrictions to enforce public health laws, unless they could be proved to be the “least trade restrictive” means to that end. That is, they’re only allowed if they don’t challenge the tobacco companies’ profits. A whole range of “trade restrictions” have been challenged under GATT rules — even including in the US. Regulations which protect public health, workers’ rights, as well as the environment, can be challenged under GATT as “trade restrictions” interfering with private companies’ right to make money.
Talk of “free trade” is a joke in a world like this. The poor in the South, rarely self-sufficient in food, for example, will suffer as agribusinesses, supported by international trade agreements, take more and more land, convert production to cash-crop monocultures, drive peasants from their land into starvation, and increase the price of food. This is what free trade means for millions of the world’s poorest people.
“The market” returns to the East
The collapse of the USSR and its satellites has led to a drive eastwards on the part of Western companies, looking for new markets, and often seeking to impose the same economic conditions familiar in the South. Indeed, as aid to the South has fallen, aid to the former command economies has risen.
As nuclear power has run into political difficulties in the West, new possibilities have arisen in the East for Western-funded nuclear projects, often with the assistance of Western government money. “Western taxpayers,” says Tom Athanasiou in Slow Reckonings, “have spent more than twice as much money expanding nuclear power in the East as they have making existing reactors safer,” (pp 128-9).
This is particularly worrying, as the safety record of the USSR in particular in appalling. Everyone’s heard of Chernobyl, where a terrible accident in 1986 dominated the world’s headlines. But the nuclear weapons plant in Chelyabinsk was a state secret for decades. At its Mayak (“lighthouse”) complex, three terrible accidents occurred during the Stalinist period, the worst of which was in 1957. A nuclear waste dump exploded, pouring 70 to 80 tonnes of waste into the sky. About 272,000 people were exposed to the same dose of radiation that 750,000 would experience at Chernobyl. There are places in the Mayak complex where radiation is so high a person could die almost immediately if exposed to it. And the surrounding rivers have levels of radiation vastly in excess of safety levels. Not for nothing has the area been called “the most polluted spot on earth.”
The state-controlled system paid little attention to safety standards in a host of environmentally dangerous industries. Water is so polluted in Russian cities it is often unsafe to drink. There has been a fall in the greenhouse gases produced in recent years in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but this, according to the United Nations, is “mainly as a result of the economic crises in Eastern and Central Europe”. In that crisis, a new “mafia capitalism”, bred by years of totalitarian rule, is taking over. Outside the law, this mafia capitalism is wrecking its own ecological havoc: the Russian mafia controls an increasing amount of logging in Siberia.
The legal market is no more likely to result in steps being taken to deal with the environmental costs of the “communist” era.
China under Deng Xioaping chose to “go capitalist” at breakneck speed, and with terrible environmental consequences. Five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. Sixty to 90% of the rain in the southern province of Guangdong is acid rain — and China’s acid rain falls also on its neighbours like Japan and South Korea. China is becoming one of the world’s leading producers of greenhouse emissions. Plus, economic transformation, while raising average incomes, has brought mass unemployment (30% in many areas), appalling smog, and a chronic water shortage in parts of the country.
Here also, the watchword is making money, and the bulk of the Chinese population, reportedly, like many in “third world” countries, is more interested in this than in environmentally safer economic growth.
Market solutions?
“The thing we call capitalism,” says Michael Rothschild, author of Bionomics. The Inevitability of Capitalism, “isn’t an ‘ism’ at all, but a natural phenomenon.”
With the dogma of “free trade” — in reality, the domination of the weak by the strong — goes the argument that this is the best environmental policy in any case. The market, it is argued, can sort out every problem; it is, indeed, only an expression of the basic workings of nature. According to Rothschild, economies are like ecosystems, with technology doing the work of genetic mutation, and competition that of natural selection. It’s a forced, and weird, analogy: evolution is littered with extinctions.
“Third wave” environmentalists aim to show that the market holds the key to all ecological solutions, and their theories are increasingly popular. Historically, pro-capitalist ideologues, and scientists working for the fossil fuel industry, for example, tried to say that there was no global warming, no hole in the ozone layer, no threat to the species of the rainforests, etc. Now they have switched tactic, and claim that it is capitalism, and capitalism alone, which can deal with these problems.
If the rich get richer, the argument runs, wealth is generated all round, and the poor ultimately benefit. Says one GATT paper, Trade and the Environment: “Increases in per capita income — which are boosted by increased market access and expanding trade — provide more resources to contain environmental damage.”
The statistics about both growing world inequality and the failure meaningfully to clean up the planet show this argument to be nonsense. Capitalist growth consistently widens the gap between rich and poor, within and between nations. One effect of this is that the dispossessed poor are often too concerned with survival to be especially interested in environmental warnings.
In 1991, Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, let the cat out of the bag more frankly. In the notorious “Summers memo”, he asked his colleagues: “Shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migrations of the dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?” The South, he argued, was “underpolluted”, because they had too little industry. Plus, since poor people live shorter lives anyway, “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable”. Summers later joined the Clinton administration.
Capitalism is neither a fact of nature nor the most effective way to increase social wealth. It is a particular way of organising the economy — these days the economy of the whole world — which has developed historically. There is nothing natural about a system which condemns most of its six billion people to poverty, curable diseases, and powerlessness. There is nothing natural in the domination of the world economy by a handful of transnational corporations. These are human arrangements, and as such they can be changed. Capitalism, a system which expands the market into every sphere of life, turning everything into a commodity, has not always existed — far from it. In its modern, full-grown form, it’s only around 250 years old.
Exploitation is as basic to capitalism as oxygen is to air. From the beginnings of ancient civilisation, societies have depended on producing a surplus, which leads to the division of the population into classes: one class takes the bulk of the surplus. Capitalism does it in its own way, and on a vastly greater scale — hence the extremes of inequality.
Market-pundits point to the fact that in rich industrial countries there is a generally higher standard of living, and hold this out as a model of the South’s future. The higher living standards are a fact; yet even in the United States, still the richest capitalist power, there are extremes of inequality, with huge, squalid ghettos and a mass of dispossessed poor. Millions of people live below the official poverty line in Britain, too. In the South, these extremes are even greater. If the market promises to raise everyone to the same standard of living, it has signally failed to do so till now, as we have seen.
There is a countervailing trend to the “free trade order”: the US worries about Japanese imports; the European Union has trade walls around it. The reality of the world economy is a complex mix of free trade and protectionist tendencies.
Yet free traders like to accuse environmentalists of “green protectionism”. Often what they mean is simply that greens have fought for laws to protect the environment which free trade agreements trample on. But they are right, in a sense, that protectionism, meaning state controls on imports, is no alternative to free trade. Both are policies within the same framework — that of a capitalist world.
In a capitalist world, there are, by definition, “winners” and “losers” in market competition, and those with a big head start are likely to win. Capital, especially big capital, is extremely mobile, and will move to wherever costs are cheapest — in particular where workers are paid least, have fewest rights, and where there are the least awkward laws restricting how production is carried out. “Globalisation” thus becomes a hurricane blowing through developing economies, as governments, eager for foreign capital, enforce low wages and poor conditions, often through dictatorial regimes. The ultimate “losers”, therefore, are not smaller capitalists unable to compete, but the people capitalists exploit.
Greener capitalism?
When Al Gore became Clinton’s running mate, and later US Vice President, many environmentalists were heartened. Gore had written a book, Earth in the Balance, which warned of the need for drastic action. Yet as Hertsgaard puts it, “The environmental proposals the Clinton administration advanced in its first months... included only a pale version of Gore’s original vision, and even that was abandoned at the first sign of opposition from corporate interests” (Earth Odyssey, p281).
Efforts have been made to persuade corporations that they can save money by “going green”, occasionally with partial success (although there have been exposures even of the “greenest” companies, like Body Shop). But this gets mixed up with those corporations’ efforts to present themselves as environmentally friendly, which for the most part is “greenwashing”. The nuclear industry likes to pose as eco-friendly and “clean” (because it involves no greenhouse emissions). Manufacturers with terrible records, or who have in the past devoted much energy to ridiculing green warnings as “scare-mongering” or “catastrophism”, have gone into PR overdrive to portray themselves as defenders of the environment. “Most of these corporations are green in the way an apple is green, on the outside where you can see it,” according to Joel Hirschorn (quoted in Athanasiou, p 237).
This is also the trouble with the idea of “sustainability”, which has become the buzz word of environmental discussion. Now almost everyone claims to be aiming for it, to the point where the phrase has become virtually meaningless. Capitalism as a system, and certainly the free trade order represented by the WTO, is incapable of any meaningful sustainability.
The problem is not simply that capitalist concerns will go for the fast, easy buck rather than the long-term health of the planet, nor that ecologically safe investment is necessarily too much of a cost; greens have put a lot of effort into proving that it could be cheaper. The problem is also the entrenched powerful interests who will obstruct change. In the car industry, for example, it is not only a matter of whether manufacturers would prefer to build more energy-efficient machines, with cleaner petrol, or using other fuels. They will make those changes only if there is sufficient “market pressure”, ie if they are losing out to competitors, when the costs of restructuring would seem justified. Plus, there is the oil industry lurking behind the scenes, jealously protecting its interests.
In 1993, Greenpeace activists “kidnapped” a Renault Vesta-2 prototype and took it to the International Car Show. The car had a maximum speed of 140 mph, and got 107 miles to the gallon. As Hertsgaard notes: “Toyota, GM, Ford and Volkswagen had produced similar prototypes, but like Renault, had not put them on the market, claiming they were uneconomical” (p111).
The same paralysis afflicts capitalist governments. Tom Anathasiou writes: “According to one conservative study, the US nuclear industry received $97 billion in direct federal subsidies between 1950 and 1990. [This] is nothing compared to the subsidies which have gone to fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, but it is more than enough to have established long ago a large and viable solar industry” (Slow Reckoning, p 265).
It is true that capitalism responds to change, and determined movements can bring about even substantial reforms, or impose limits on exploitation. In Britain, for example, we still have the welfare state (although it has taken a battering for two decades or more), mostly thanks to the struggles of the labour movement.
But on the environment, the system’s response is very slow, and very late. And any response has to conform to the dogmas of profit-making. An example is the phenomenon of “emissions trading”, a model now being expanded into other spheres. The United Nations thinks this “one of the most promising of the many new economic instruments being developed.” But by rational criteria, it is monstrous. The idea is that under international agreements, a company that reduces its emissions below the required levels can trade the “rights” to others who are over those levels, i.e., sell the right to pollute the air and heat up the atmosphere to someone else. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that this need not lead to much of a reduction in emissions globally, if any. It can make literally no difference at all, or even make things worse, to people who live in areas with high emissions and the air pollution which goes with them.
Expanding this practice to such things as toxic waste only emphasises the absurdity of it. But this is the world we live in.
The dogs of war
The image of the oil fields alight at the end of the 1991 Gulf War is a striking one, demonstrating the potential of military conflict to cause environmental disaster. Other things also go with wars, like population dispersal, and disease. But even localised conflicts are buttressed by the vast trade in arms, and the absurd amounts of money spent on means of destruction. Even after the end of the Cold War, and the so-called “peace dividend”, US arms expenditure has only reduced to 80% of its Cold War levels.
World military spending in 1997 was $1,416 billion, or $240 for each person alive. Remember that just eight dollars could wipe out many deadly diseases in developing countries.
Rich countries frequently sell weapons to dictatorial regimes in the South. That Saddam Hussein had been provided with many weapons by the very people who attacked Iraq in 1991 is well-known. The Labour Government, despite its “ethical foreign policy”, has continued to provide the Indonesian government, among others, with arms. Other governments, like Turkey’s, which carries out terrible repression against its Kurdish minority, is sold huge amounts of arms by Western powers, who also provide it with military training.
The arms manufacturers are another powerful group who are deeply resistant to change. Added to this, as a threat to the environment — and the world’s population — is that nuclear arsenals still exist, and countries like India and Pakistan have been belligerently testing their own nuclear weapons.
The “New World Order” has seen a few peace deals in old conflicts, but many new local wars, big power interventions like the Gulf, or the Russian war in Chechnya, and all with terrible results in lives lost, refugees, and environmental degradation. There are obvious ecological consequences of the use, for example, of depleted uranium missiles by NATO. But the displacement of millions of people is no less an environmental matter. The war in Sudan, to take an example which features less in the press than many others, by 1996 had left one and a half million people dead; 85% of the southerners — who were persecuted by the northern government — had become refugees.
“Time is running out fast”
For those who think capitalism can provide the solution to ecological crisis, the problem, necessarily, is presented as a “Southern” one, in which the cause is overpopulation; unfortunately greens have sometimes gone along with this view. Of course there are limits to the world’s resources, but a much bigger problem is the way they are distributed. Blaming overpopulation is, in effect, blaming the poor. The rate of population growth has declined recently (from 2.0% worldwide in 1970 to 1.7% in 1992), but projections still expect numbers to peak at between eight and ten billion before they level out. This puts strains on the ability of the human species to feed itself, and some commentators have predicted terrible wars fuelled by hunger. But much of this is because of systems of land tenure, and the destruction of arable land caused by poor farmers overusing the soil in an attempt to survive as they are buffeted by the encroachments of “globalisation”.
As the United Nations comments: “The Earth could, in theory, support far more than its present population but the distribution of good soils and growing conditions does not match that of the population.” It is, in other words, a problem of social organisation.
The inequality of capitalism is not only between “North” and “South” of course. The richest people in the “South” have far more in common with the rich of the “North” than with their own people, and — as we have seen with Brazilian agribusiness — Southern companies are capitalist, too. Indeed, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the inequalities within countries are far starker. The ruling classes of those countries are often quick to blame “imperialism” (even “eco-imperialism”) for their environmental problems; but whatever the element of truth in apportioning blame, fundamentally they are equally responsible. In many Southern countries, where environmental laws exist, they are not implemented, because the power of both foreign capitalists and local ones is too great to be challenged.
Capitalism has become a real threat to our planet. The United Nations warns: “There used to be a long time horizon for undertaking major environmental policy initiatives. Now time for a rational, well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out fast. In some areas, it has already run out... Full-scale emergencies now exist on a number of issues.”
Action needs to be taken, quickly, to arrest and reverse these frightening trends. The question is: what sort of action, and by whom?

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.