Solutions to the environmental crisis

January 26, 2000

Environment, Capitalism and Socialism
Democratic Socialist Party
Preface by Dick Nichols
Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999
210 pp., $15.95 (pb)
Available from all Resistance Bookshops (see page 2)
or order by mail (see advertisement on page 7)

Review by Sean Martin-Iverson

It was claimed in the 1990s that there was a rise of new, green capitalism, committed to "sustainable development", "resource efficiency" and the development of "eco-technologies". Despite this corporate rhetoric, the environmental crisis has become even more severe, while the environmental movement has been in retreat.

The new edition of the Democratic Socialist Party's Environment, Capitalism and Socialism cuts through the "greenwash". It explains the environmentally destructive nature of capitalist production and offers socialist solutions.

Environment, Capitalism and Socialism is not simply a catalogue of the environmental crimes of capitalism. The document, adopted by the 16th congress of the DSP in 1995, argues that the environmental crisis is inextricably linked to the social system that condemns the mass of people to poverty.

The ecological crisis is often blamed on "overpopulation", especially in the Third World. Environment, Capitalism and Socialism argues that rapid population growth and environmental devastation in these countries are both results of forced underdevelopment. "The economic exploitation of Third World countries by transnational capital, and the accompanying military-political intervention by Western governments to maintain this exploitation, is the fundamental obstacle to the social and economic changes required to eliminate poverty in those countries, bring about a decline in their population growth and take the pressure off their environment", the document explains.

Rather than blaming economic growth, industrialisation or "overconsumption" in the advanced capitalist countries for the environmental crisis, the book points out that it is important to look at the social relations that determine technologies and patterns of consumption. The drive for profit leads to excessive packaging, planned obsolescence, mass advertising to create false needs and inefficient processes of production that result in a much higher amount of waste than levels of consumption dictate.

One of the most glaring examples of profit-driven wastefulness under capitalism is the dominance of private cars for transportation. Mass transit systems could meet society's needs with a far lower cost in energy consumption and harmful emissions. However, because the rational and sustainable alternative of an extensive public transport system is not profitable, the majority of working people in the industrialised capitalist countries have no choice but to bear the financial and environmental costs of motor vehicles.

While technological development and industrialisation has resulted in an increase in pollution, it has also created the opportunity for a sustainable affluent society. With production determined by private profit, sustainable technologies are used only to tap into the "green market" created by the spread of environmental consciousness, when any extra costs can be passed on to the consumer, or if cleaner technologies save money for capitalists. Technological and scientific research that contributes to sustainability but cuts into profits is suppressed.

Environment, Capitalism and Socialism is critical of green utopianism, mysticism and "back to nature" ideas. Dreams of a return to small-scale local production, eco-centrism and Gaia worship are false paths which do not offer achievable or desirable solutions. However, the main perspective that must be countered by socialists is environmental reformism or "eco-capitalism".

The eco-capitalist viewpoint holds that capitalism is a natural phenomenon, or at least a framework that must be worked within rather than challenged. Legislation and regulatory agencies, introduced under pressure from environmental lobby groups, are seen by many people as saving the environment from the "excesses" of capitalism.

In an appendix, Dick Nichols criticises "eco-taxation". Green taxes, he argues, do not have the power to force capitalism to be sustainable, particularly when they are so rarely enforced. Where they have been tried, the additional costs have been shifted onto consumers, and taxes set at a high enough level to be effective would compel businesses to shift their operations elsewhere.

Eco-capitalist measures, the DSP argues, cannot succeed because social planning is required to achieve a sustainable society. Environmental protection requires that limits be set on areas of production, that whole branches of industry be subsidised in order to be restructured in a sustainable fashion, and that social and environmental needs be placed before private gain. But capitalists will not invest in unprofitable areas, and governments that derive their political power from capitalists will not dispossess them.

The modern environmental movement developed in the late 1960s on the basis of anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiment, a growing awareness of the dangers of pollutants, and local conservation campaigns. Despite some important gains, such as the banning of the pesticide DDT in many countries and the scrapping of the proposed Franklin River dam in Tasmania, the environmental movement is far from any lasting victory.

Environment, Capitalism and Socialism outlines how the potential of the environmental movement is undermined by the dominance of reformist goals and lobbying strategies.

Established environmental lobby organisations such as Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation operate by working with governments and big business, providing green credibility in exchange for token environmental reforms. These organisations are usually led by a small core of people who are unaccountable to their large but passive memberships.

Greenpeace and other eco-reformist groups who use direct action prefer stunts carried out by "professionals" to mass protest action. While often creative and successful in attracting publicity, such actions do not allow the participation of significant numbers of people.

In the 1980s, the environment movement began to find a political expression in Green parties. While these parties linked environment and social issues, and challenged the parliamentary status quo, from the beginning, the Greens shied away from class politics. In Australia and particularly in Europe, Green parties have shifted from viewing parliament as one arena of work to support the movement, to making it their exclusive focus.

Green parties have joined the major conservation groups in seeing themselves as simply a pressure on the capitalist parties, and supporting the "lesser evil" parties. While the Greens continue to contain a spectrum of opinion, many radicals, eco-socialists and "deep greens" have left or been expelled as the parties' leaders have increasingly focused on their "responsible" parliamentary role and ensuring "stable" government.

Instead of professionals lobbying parliamentarians, the DSP proposes broad coalitions to organise street marches, pickets, strikes and public meetings. In Environment, Capitalism and Socialism, the DSP argues for a red-green alliance — an alliance of the environment movement with the organised workers' movement.

Such an alliance has the ability to solve the crisis because only the working class has the social power to take the revolutionary action needed to put an end to capitalism and its associated environmental destruction.

Many green reformists point to the terrible environmental record of the Soviet Union as evidence that socialism is not a solution. The book explains that the bureaucratic workers' states' environmental failures are not evidence of the failure of socialism, but rather show that "planning without the democratic participation of the mass of producers-consumers is extremely wasteful and can fail to meet the needs of society, including the need for a healthy environment". The environmental record of revolutionary Cuba shows that, even in a poor and isolated country, democratic socialism can develop towards sustainability.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels recognised that capitalism's destructive and expansionist dynamic also applies to the exploitation of nature and that socialism offers the opportunity for a rational relationship between humanity and nature. Environment, Capitalism and Socialism, using this perspective, argues that only a society based on public ownership and democratic control of the means of production has the potential to solve the environmental crisis.

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