Earlier this month, the population of the most southern parts of Argentina were warned by the World Meteorological Organisation of unusual and dangerously high levels of ultra-violet radiation in the coming months, resulting in a skin cancer risk, among other things. Normally, the earth is protected from such radiation by a thick layer of ozone gas that surrounds it. But due to various factors - among them, the spread of various industrial gases in the atmosphere - this ozone layer has become much thinner in various places, particularly above the Antarctic region. Following the Montreal Protocol which was signed in 1987 by almost every single government in the world, drastic measures were supposedly taken and the World Bank was given responsibility for funding its implementation. Yet, while governments praise endlessly this first and only example of worldwide cooperation to preserve the environment, scientists keep issuing warnings: far from receding, the depletion of the ozone layer is still getting worse.
Meanwhile, other reports published earlier this year generated optimistic headline articles claiming that Britain would soon be able to enjoy a "Mediterranean climate". If there was nothing more to it, who would complain? Except that, if this happens, many people who live near coasts and estuaries will have other problems to face first - like flooding due to the rise of the sea level as a result of the partial melting of the polar caps. This "global warming" phenomenon, as it is called, is difficult to analyse, let alone to counter. It is at least partly, but possibly not only, due to a considerable increase in the presence of so-called "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere - gases which store the heat of the sun instead of reflecting it. Given the variety of ways in which such gases are released into the atmosphere and the scale on which this is happening, it is almost impossible to make reliable estimates of how best to tackle the problem, nor even to say whether it is possible at all. In any case, this would probably require a complete overhaul of the world's entire infrastructure - in industry, agriculture and transport. As to giving an accurate prediction of the possible speed and corresponding consequences of this global warming, it is simply impossible. The only certainty is that a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions cannot be ruled out.
These are but two examples of known worldwide environmental threats which exist today. But there are many others and most could, theoretically at least, result in a doomsday scenario. They all have one characteristic in common: they are the direct product of the irresponsible and irrational way in which the world capitalist economy is organised. For us, revolutionary communists, the sheer scale of these threats means that trying to confront them, by patching up the profit system which has produced them would be, not just shortsighted, but plainly irresponsible, and in any case ineffective.
Yet, for several decades, a whole current of ideas - the green, ecologist or environmental movement - has selected these specific issues as its main focus, rejecting in the process, the primary objective of social change. As communists who are fighting against this decaying capitalist system, we often find ourselves on the same side as the green activists as regards the issues over which they organise protests. But at the same time, we also find that in most cases they are barking up the wrong tree... Why is that?
The greens' old reactionary roots
Environmentalism is often said to be a specific product of the late 20th century. Its more sophisticated advocates argue that it represents an entirely new system of values which marks a decisive, if not a revolutionary breakthough into a new superior stage in the development of man's social thought.
Yet, environmentalism goes back a very long way, as far back as, for instance, the ancient Greek philosophers who were already worried about the dangerous impact that cities might have on nature as well as on mankind. Since then, it can been traced through the centuries in the works and preoccupations of a long series of intellectuals and artists, up to, and closer to us, poets like Wordsworth and Byron, and philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau.
From Aristotle and Plato to Emerson and Thoreau, there was a common link which went much beyond their concern for the environment. But this link had nothing to do with progress - rather the opposite. Indeed the "green" concerns of these great forerunners reflected primarily a fear among the privileged classes to which they belonged, that man's social and economic development might spoil their way of life and their enjoyment of nature - which they considered as the ultimate haven away from the burdens and duties of society. Far from looking towards the future, and advocating that society should progress and develop along a more rational and harmonious path, many of these "historical greens" harked back to the good old days when their social privileges did not seem threatened by demographic, urban or industrial growth - even though they owed their privileges entirely to this growth. In that, they certainly represented a reactionary trend in society rather than a revolutionary one.
In Europe, the idea of nature conservation really took off the ground under the absolute monarchies, when the royals decided to ensure that entire regions should be devoted to their own pleasure and therefore preserved from the development of agriculture. This was how, for instance, the first national parks came into being in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in the early part of the 19th century. Only later on did nature conservation take on a different, less aristocratic character. Instead it became a moralistic issue, often based on the idea that man should "respect" nature as a "godly" creation. This was illustrated, in the last decades of the 19th century, by the emergence of groupings such as the Sierra Club in the USA, which called for government intervention to protect the forests from uncontrolled logging, resulting in the setting up of some of today's national parks - for instance the Yellowstone park in Wyoming or the Yosemite and Sequoia parks in California.
In Britain, this moralistic trend, often inspired by religion, took on considerable proportions in the second half of the 19th century. This period saw the setting up of institutions such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust, but also a mushrooming of all sorts of societies concerned with one aspect or another of nature conservation. Thus, for instance, the great socialist and trade-union organiser Tom Mann describes in his memoirs how, during his uneasy evolution from religious belief to socialist ideas, he got involved first with the temperance movement, which aimed at preserving man's "soul" from the attacks of society, mostly from alcohol. Then he was attracted by a trend which was then fashionable among middle-class intellectuals - the food-reform and vegetarian currents - which aimed at preserving nature from man's excessive appetite. From there, Mann took the next logical step by joining the Malthusian League, which sought to preserve the planet from demographic growth. Fortunately, at this stage Mann moved to a new factory where he met members of the co-operative movement who introduced him to socialist ideas and he never looked back again towards this moralistic and reactionary nonsense!
Throughout the centuries therefore, the dominant issue among the green forerunners was never how best man could improve nature, and himself, through using his skills, knowledge and social organisation as instruments to shape the future, but rather how parts of nature - and even in somes cases, man himself - could be kept in the past as it were, by protecting them against the impact of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable social development.
This constant denial of the need for mankind to take control, consciously, of the course of social development was consistent with the social prejudices of the privileged milieu in which these ideas blossomed. Unlike the working classes whose "quality of life" was primarily constrained by capitalist exploitation, the middle classes did not suffer from social organisation itself. They only reacted against those side-effects which affected their protected way of life.
Towards a scientific approach
While the middle-class greens of the 19th century were taking care of their own quality of life, both material and moral, some scientists were beginning to take a new look at nature as a whole.
The scientific discoveries of the 18th century had, at last, pushed god and all the religious paraphernalia out of the scientific sphere. The subsequent fast progress made by scientific knowledge was leading more and more scientists to look at nature as a consistent whole in which each and every part was interacting with the rest according to complex laws. But one question still remained unclear - what was the place to be occupied by man within nature? Darwin's "Origins of the species", published in 1859, provided one part of the missing answer. It showed that just like all other living species, man was one of the by-products of a complex evolutionary process which had started, millions of years before, with the first mono-cellular micro-organisms. This placed man, firmly as one integral component of nature, one among all the others.
There was another dimension to Darwin's discoveries, however - the idea that the evolution of living organisms was determined by the requirements of their fight for survival within the natural environment in which they lived. It should not come as a surprise therefore, that the person usually credited for the invention of the word "ecology" in 1866, the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, was himself a staunch Darwinian.
Haeckel was certainly not a "green", neither in the modern sense of the word, nor even in the sense of the 19th century nature conservationists. He was not in the least concerned with fumes, pollution or moral issues. For him, nature was the product of an uneasy balance between an enormous number of interacting factors. Any alteration of one of these factors could result in major imbalances and lead to qualitive changes which, in turn, would inevitably affect the evolutionary process itself. Hence the importance of the environment for mankind.
This, however, left unanswered one aspect of the original question. If man was indeed an integral part of nature, what about man's activity? Was it not part of nature too? And if so, why should man be prevented from altering nature, as the nature conservationists argued? Or, to put this differently, how could man's activity be reconciled with the requirements of nature?
Back in 1845, long before Haeckel had even thought about "ecology", Karl Marx had already answered this question in a critique of the traditional materialist philosophy. The fact that man is part of nature, Marx had argued, means that man shapes the environment as much as the environment shapes man, and therefore that man changes himself through his own activity. Therefore, said Marx, it is pointless to complain about the wrongs of circumstances unless one strives to ensure that human activity is applied to change them. And addressing himself to the young radical intellectuals who were his peers, Marx concluded: « The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. »
What made this approach a fundamental breakthrough, was the idea that man's activity could, and should become a conscious instrument for the improvement of nature - instead of being a hazard, as the greens of the time saw it. Marx's starting point was that while being part of nature, man stands out by his ability to master his environment through his labour. Human development coincides with the development of labour.
As Engels wrote later in a short pamphlet called « The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man », labour « is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this is to such extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself. » And he added: « In short, the animal merely uses external nature and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes nature serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and the other animals and again it is labour that brings about this distinction. »
But, said Engels, « let us not flatter ourselves overmuch for our human victories over nature. For every such victory it takes its revenge on us. Indeed, each in the first place brings about the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third place it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first ones... When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slope which were so carefully preserved on the northern slope, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of dairy farming in their region; still less did they foresee that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year... Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we with flesh, blood and brain belong to nature and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to know and correctly apply its laws. »
But, unlike the ecological currents, including the most recent, Marx and Engels were as much concerned by the social consequences of human activity as they were by its effects on nature. In 1844, in his "Condition of the Working Class in England", Engels detailed the appalling conditions experienced by workers, who mainly lived in the most wretched slum conditions. In Manchester, for example, at that time the textile capital of the world, the working class were concentrated in a belt about 1.5 miles wide around the commercial centre of the city. There they lived in gross squalor, packed in like sardines. By contrast, the well-to-do lived in villas in leafy suburbs, mainly to the north and west of the city where they could breathe in "healthy country air".
The root of the problem, as Engels pointed out in the pamphlet already mentioned, was that « all hitherto existing modes of production have aimed merely at achieving the most immediate and directly useful effect of labour. The further consequences, which appear only later and become operative through gradual repetition and accumulation, have been totally neglected. » And he added: « We are gradually learning, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing the historical material, to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and regulating these effects as well. However, to carry out this regulation requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production and, with it of our whole contemporary social order. »
Such was, therefore, the socialist answer to the direct and indirect threats to mankind caused by its uncontrolled and irrational activity. Unlike the piecemeal reactions of the fledgling green movement, it was a global answer which aimed at opening the way for a viable future which could accommodate, and indeed build on human development instead of resisting it. In that sense it was offering the only complete answer to the problem investigated by scientists like Haeckel. But because this answer also involved putting into question the existing social order, and therefore the position of the privileged classes, it was dismissed and fought against by the ecological currents, at the time and ever since.
The mushrooming of the greens
Although the green current largely developed out of their ranks, the middle classes have done quite well in protecting themselves from the adverse effects of economic development - at least within the limits of what their money could buy. Most large towns bear witness to the fact that the privileged classes have been careful to settle on land away from the prevailing winds, and therefore protected from factory fumes. As most European towns and cities have westerly winds blowing eastwards, the "west end" became synonomous with middle-class suburbs and the "east end" with grime and the poverty of the working class.
The coming of the railways offered new opportunities for escaping the smog. In London, at Waterloo, a special underground was built to take the well-offs from rural Surrey to their City offices. But when railways began to expand around London, the bourgeoisie manoeuvred, once again, to preserve its way of life. Thus railway depots and sidings were built in virtually unknown places like Didcot and Swindon, simply because the Oxford university dons refused to allow Oxford to become a major rail town. And Peterborough became a major rail junction due to the arrogant refusal of the Cecil family of Burghley House to allow this in Stamford.
Even today in overcrowded areas like the South-East of England the middle classes can more or less isolate themselves from the dirt and rubbish generated by industry and from the inconvenience of the large conurbations. It is mainly a question of money - and they are not short of that.
But the scale on which capitalism has developed the productive forces means that the middle classes can only buy protection up to a certain point - unless they can afford to buy themselves a private island in the Carribean. Otherwise, they cannot filter out toxic fumes or escape radiation any more in Hampstead than they can in Newham. Motorways and high-speed rail tracks end up cutting across rural woods near Newbury or properties in Kent as they do built-up areas in Redbridge and Greenwich. Nor can the well-offs be sure to be safe from BSE just because they buy fillet steak instead of MacDonald's. The illusion that money can protect the middle-classes from the hazards of capitalist industrialisation is wearing increasingly thin. And since they will not put capitalism in question for fear of sawing off the branch on which they sit, they are, once again, becoming attracted by green ideas, and pulling behind them people from all walks of life, just as similar currents had attracted Tom Mann in the 1880s.
The new ecological movements which emerged in the late 60s and 70s did not orientate mainly towards conservation, however. Most of them sought to emphasise that environmental catastrophe could only be avoided by fundamental changes in the orientation and regulation of industry. They proliferated mainly in the developed countries. In Britain the Conservation Society dates from 1966, Friends of the Earth from 1970, followed by Greenpeace in 1971 and the Ecology Party (later renamed the Green Party) in 1973. The fact that their growth coincided with the return of the world economic crisis was not coincidental. Their positions expressed a reaction against the threats implied by the economic crisis, but a reaction impregnated with the prejudices of the social milieus in which they developed. One way or another they advocated population reduction, reduced consumption and the scaling down of economic growth.
In 1879, the German socialist August Bebel noted that « the fear of overpopulation always appears at periods when the existing social conditions are disintegrating. The general discontent which then flares up is ascribed primarily to the excess of people and the lack of food and not to the manner in which it is produced and distributed. » The "theoretician" of overpopulation, the reverend Thomas Malthus, who occasionally indulged in economics, had earned his fame, as Bebel wrote, for « coming up with the right words at the right time for the English bourgeoisie ». Indeed, Malthus started his career in 1798 with his "essay on the principle of population", against the background of food riots caused by the war against France. But he only became really famous after the end of this war, when the concentration of landed property and the rise of large-scale industry boosted the wealth of the privileged while forcing the new proletarian masses into abject poverty. The bourgeoisie found it convenient to shift the blame away from its profits by endorsing Malthus' strident condemnation of the poor for having too many children!
Of course, it was not food shortages which threatened Britain in the early 1970s, but oil shortages - or at least this was what the Western governments claimed in order to justify the sharp increase of petrol prices, allegedly triggered by the oil-producing countries, but in reality actively encouraged, if not directly engineered, by the oil majors seeking to make larger profits, even if this meant a reduction of trade.
Two publications from this period received particular prominence. A select but hitherto obscure group of intellectuals who called themselves the Club of Rome asked researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a report on the state of the world. The resulting "Limits to Growth" argued that population and industrial growth had gone too far and that unless it was reduced drastically, the world would have to face a major catastrophe by the year 2000. It was the Malthusian hysteria all over again, this time with the help of modern statistical data and computer models. "The Ecologist" journal, on the other hand, produced its "Blueprint for Survival for Britain". It urged a reduction of the population by about half, down to 30m and, in a particular stab at the urban proletariat, highlighted crowded housing estates and large cities as breeding grounds for delinquency and broken homes. Instead it recommended (as did "Limits to Growth") small, self-sufficient decentralized communities.
The reports were socially undifferentiated: the unequal burden that society imposed on the working class and the poor was incidental - they were held to be just as much consumers, and therefore culprits, as everyone else. Nor were the bourgeoisie brought to task for living off such a disastrous system. But it was clear from these reports who was in the firing line when they said that, in addition to the need for great restraint, « Legislation and the operations of police forces and the courts will be necessary to reinforce this restraint. » Roll on Big Brother!
A comfortable accommodation to the system
The slowing down of population growth in the industrial countries has not brought this scaremongering to an end. Some ecologist currents have adapted to widespread prejudices by shifting the blame onto the demographic explosion in the Third World. Others, who probably did not want to take the risk of being accused of racism, have put the emphasis on the unsustainability of the waste and pollution generated by the existing population of the rich countries. But the argument, regardless of its repackaging, has remained more or less the same.
At the same time, new, mainly single issue, campaigns have emerged and in fact sprouted in many different directions. So, for example, animal rights, eco-feminism, anti-nuclear protests, Third World issues, alternative technology, alternative medicine, vegetarianism, not to mention the more extreme vegans, tree protesters, hunt saboteurs and green anarchists can today all be included in the broad church of the green movement. What all these campaigns have in common, together with the mainstream green organisations, is their insistence on not seeing the wood for the trees - i.e. that it is the capitalist system which is responsible for all the mess. This, of course, is not just due to misconception. It is a fundamental social choice on the part of those who initiated these groups and campaigns - a choice which often comes down to pretending that somehow significant gains for the environment can be made within the system, by "using" it. But such a choice carries usually a price tag.
Greenpeace, for instance, could afford to carry out spectacular, well funded campaigns against Shell over North Sea oil-rig dumping in the Atlantic, or against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Not only could they rely on powerful friends in high places in Germany (in the case of the oil rigs) or Australia and New Zealand (in the case of Mururoa), but they can also rely on the financial support of a relatively affluent milieu in Britain or the USA. Indeed that is part of their strategy for influencing the political mainstream. But when it came to the Gulf War which was an ecological catastrophe as well as an unjustifiable mass slaughter, they remained strangely silent - either because they did not want to risk alienating their supporters, or else because they agreed with Bush's gunboat strategy.
In much of Europe - with the notable exception of Britain, but not for lack of trying - ecologist groups have become a part of the institutional political landscape. The most successful have been the German greens. First elected to the European Parliament in 1979, they have successfully climbed over the 5% vote required by Germany's semi-proportional representation system and are now represented at local, regional and national level. And quite a few of their leading figures have displayed the usual tendencies all too familiar among traditional bourgeois politicians - a sharp taste for power and an attraction for opportunistic political coalitions in the hope of gaining government positions.
As to the animal rights campaigners who confronted the police again and again last year on behalf of calves being exported from Britain in what they considered as "inhuman" conditions, maybe this was the only shocking aspect of the present economic system they had ever come across. After all some of the prudish daughters of the Victorian bourgeoisie, who could not bear the idea of showing their legs, probably did not know that their expensive dresses were paid by the labour of women who had to work half-naked in the unbearable heat of a foundry or a coal mine - or rather, they certainly did not want to know. Were the animal rights demonstrators so blindfolded and insulated from the rest of the world, that they did not know about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of workers who are ferried in "bovine" conditions in and out of London everyday, in 30-year old overcrowded commuter trains? Had they not realised that, for millions of workers, being thrown on the dole amounted to social and moral dereliction? Or was it that they did not want to know either? Let's give them, in particular the youth among them, the benefit of the doubt by assuming that maybe after all their only reason to be there was the prospect of a good punch up with the cops...
How green can capitalism be?
So, is it actually realistic to aim at achieving environmental reforms under capitalism? As always, the main obstacle is, of course, profit.
Commenting on the revelation that a small council estate in south Oxford had been built on top of a tip where large quantities of toxic materials had been previously dumped, an environmental expert explained that there were more than 3,000 such tips all over Britain. The law may have been tightened in that respect. But, with a battery of compliant scientists and commercial lawyers at their disposal, the big companies, which are the main producers and users of toxic materials, can argue their way around every legal nicety. Smaller companies may not have such resources but can resort to using the fly-by-night, shady operators to get the problem off their hands. Meanwhile, exporting toxic waste to Third World countries has become a boom industry, meaning a new and deadly threat to the local populations.
In December 1984 the world's worst chemical disaster occurred at a pesticide and fertiliser manufacturing plant, owned by the US multinational Union Carbide, at Bhopal in India. This was an accident waiting to happen. But it was not just a question of incompetence. Despite the objections of local engineers, a design using large storage tanks containing the deadly MIC (metho isocyanate) gas had been built. When the accident occured, monitoring indicators and controls had been malfunctioning for more than a year. More than 4,000 died in the immediate aftermath of the accident. In total an estimated 150,000 were left with injuries or chronic health problems. As to Union Carbide, they got away with paying limited compensation, much of which never reached the victims' families. They may have closed down their operation in Bhopal but only to expand operations in Indonesia, Tibet or some other impoverished country. As for those who feel they can rest in comfort on the grounds that "such disasters couldn't happen here", they should remember Piper Alpha, the North Sea oil rig which claimed over 200 lives, or the dioxin catastrophe, at Seveso in Italy.
Such catastrophes show the risks involved in allowing multinationals to settle in poor countries where they feel less constrained in terms of safety provisions. Yet, the poor countries are not in safer hands when the running of development projects is under the control of western state institutions, as was shown by the case of the Aswan Dam built on the river Nile in Egypt.
On the surface, this largest ever, partly aid-funded project should have marked a significant advance for the country, while providing large profits for the engineering and construction companies involved. True, hydropower from the dam now provides enough electricity to meet half the needs of the entire country. It has also brought freedom from seasonal flooding. But that is where the problems started. Over 100m tonnes of silt, clay and sand which once fertilised downstream fields during periods of flooding are now silting up Lake Nasser forcing increased imports of fertilisers. The lock-up of silt, starved Cairo brick-makers of clay and, offshore sardine fisheries which depended on nutrients from the Nile, were virtually wiped out. The Nile delta is in retreat and problems caused by increasing salinity have grown.
Should the project never have been undertaken in the first place? We cannot say. But what we do know is that no serious impact studies were carried out. Or if they were, the results were carefully concealed from the public. Of course, feasibility studies are costly and do not bring in any profit. Besides who would have been able to force the western multinationals to redraft their plans? The World Bank which coordinated the funding of the project? But who controls the World Bank, if not the governments and banks of the richest industrialised countries - in other words the caretakers and owners of the same western multinationals which banked on high returns from the initial project? Could the Egyptian state have halted the project, then? In theory, yes, provided they had the political will to do so - hardly likely on the part of a state machinery whose function, among other things, is to channel as much international funding as it can into the purses of the local bourgeoisie! In other words, the Western companies operating the project could do virtually what they wanted - and they did.
As to the continuing use of petrol-powered engines, which is rightly denounced by environmentalists, together with the expansion of motorways to the detriment of rail and other forms of public transport, who is to blame? Developing a reliable, extensive and cheap public transport system operating at all hours, which would be a very effective way of solving most transport and environmental problems in areas of dense population, would not be profitable in capitalist terms. Such a system would have to be run by the state and be funded by a sizeable tax on profits and capital - not the kind of venture bourgeois governments would ever consider. Nor would they consider throwing a spanner in the works of the oil majors and car multinationals by making a serious effort to replace the ancient petrol or diesel engines with something less polluting. Exactly a hundred years ago an electric car capable of reaching 60mph was built in Belgium. Yet, serious research in this matter only started a few years ago, when the marketing departments of several car manufacturers discovered that there might be a market for an expensive small "green" urban electric vehicle. Not only will these vehicles be solely aimed at the affluent middle-classes, but companies like General Motors in the USA and Peugeot in France, and probably many others, have even managed to get their design funded by the environmental budget of their governments! Just as the famous "green" lead-free petrol, was propped up by state subsidies in all industrialised countries under the pretext of reducing pollution - despite the fact that it is actually cheaper to produce!
Green institutions blue chip companies
Indeed this is just what happens when bourgeois politicians pretend to take stock of environmental concerns - they become a pretext for careerism and develop into yet another profit spinner.
Today each rich country has a host of environmental and planning agencies which provide a comfortable living for thousands of bureaucrats, sometimes former green activists. They produce an endless stream of reports which, more often than not, are primarily designed to cover the backs of ministers. And when they happen to be on the wrong side of the governments, bins are there to be used!
The BSE scandal has been a glaring example of this. There was no shortage of warnings issued by government agencies since the first cases of BSE were detected in the late 1980s, including about the fact that the disease could only have been the consequence of using sheep carcasses, without proper controls, to produce animal feed for cattle. But the British government chose not to risk cutting profits in the cattle and rendering industry by imposing safer methods. Whether they just crossed their fingers, hoping for the best, or actually made the decision to allow the disease to spread, is beside the point. The fact was that their disregard of the reports made by their own institutions amounted to just such a decision. And even when the likelihood of a link (which still remains a possibility, but not a certainty) between BSE and the emergence of a new strain of the human CJD disease, was raised by their own experts, the British government still ignored it as long as they could. Nor were they the only ones. Leaked memos issued by top European institutions show that there was a secret but explicit concensus on this criminal approach among all European governments, for the sake of protecting profits in the beef industry. This is what environmental government institutions are worth as long as profit remains paramount.
Stiffer environmental controls have actually generated a whole industry, and a profitable one. Waste disposal is one of them. For instance, since October 1st, a new "landfill tax" must be paid in Britain by anyone dumping rubbish. Up to 20% of this tax is supposed to be used to fund so-called green projects. But who is the chairman of the body set up to monitor the distribution of these funds? None other than Lord Cranbrook, a biologist and Tory peer, who happens to be also chairman of the environmental advisory board of Britain's largest waste disposal firm, Shanks and McEwan. As to the two directors who will assist him, one used to be chief executive with the same company, while the other is chief executive of the trade body of the waste disposal industry. It is not hard to guess who will get the funding, nor that the green content of the projects involved will weigh very little compared to the profits expected.
And the same is true of international bodies, such as the one set up to oversee the implementation of the Montreal Protocol to protect the earth ozone layer. The seven committees which are in charge of vetting the projects seeking funding from the World Bank within the protocol, are all chaired by representatives of the chemical industry - including two top executives from ICI - in other words of the same companies which have been producing, and are still producing the CFC gases which are largely responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer. Should it come as a surprise, then, that these committees have recommended, as replacements for CFCs, two families of gases - one is still a danger for the ozone layer, although a milder one, but both are dangerous contributors to global warming. Besides, the production of both replacements require the use of an extremely toxic substance known as hydrofluoric acid, which could easily cause catastrophes comparable to Bophal. Was it only a coincidence if these two gases just happened to be part of ICI's well-advanced research projects?
A decade ago the pollution control market worldwide was estimated to be worth £50bn and is probably at least double that today. Ironically, but quite logically, it was companies in those countries where the green movement had the highest profile and applied pressure for the most stringent controls - namely the USA and Germany, which have prospered most. These same companies, sometimes fronted by former high-flying green activists, are now queueing up at the doors of poorer governments, armed with so-called "decisions" made by all sorts of world bodies to cut pollution and offering, at a price, to clean up their ruined beaches, rivers and hinterlands.
Everything can be bought and sold for profit under capitalism, including the right to pollute. For instance, a programme was introduced in the USA in 1992, which allocated certificates to coal-burning power plants allowing them to dissipate into the atmosphere a certain amount of sulphur dioxide corresponding to the limits they were allowed by the law. The programme allowed "cleaner" companies to sell their allowance to the dirty ones. Auctions are held regularly in Chicago to that effect. The theory was that this would prompt companies to clean their act in order to be able to sell their certificates. But in fact, because the regulations were not all that stringent, this has amounted to a subsidy to the more modern, and usually richer companies which did not need such a large allowance, while the older operations were allowed to pollute over and above what was prescribed by the law. The only advantage of this system, according to the US government, is that it costs much less in bureaucracy without risking the accusation of doing nothing. Of course! And since then, the system has spread to other types of pollution and other countries, including Britain. A project sponsored by the United Nations is now under discussion which would aim at creating an international market of such certificates covering carbon dioxide emissions, which would be similar in most respects to the debt bond market. It is estimated that in its initial, still restricted stage, the paper market thus created would be worth £5bn - not an enormous amount compared to the currency market of course, but quite a good opportunity for a few intermediaries and companies to make sound profits, without having to spend very much on pollution, of course.
The myth of overpopulation and scarce resources
Ignoring capitalism's basic characteristic of maximising profits at all costs and trying to find a "solution" within its framework for environmental problems can lead, and has led, to very dangerous drifts towards the most reactionary perspectives. The most glaring example of this is in the rich countries' preoccupation with population control in the Third World.
Following World War II, basic advances in hygiene and disease prevention improved life expectancy and reduced infant mortality across the world. With the doubling of the world population within a generation, alarm bells started ringing in the 60s and 70s. Pressure was brought to bear by the USA and other rich countries on India and South America in particular. Imperialism feared a social powder keg in the making. The official concern with growing food shortages and famines at the time was the excuse rather than the reason as there was plenty of food available - if not in these countries themselves then in North America and other rich countries. But in the poor countries, the local elites were quite willing to implement forced population control because they, too, feared the social consequences of the rise in population of the poor masses, most of whom were unemployed or underemployed.
As a result in India, in the 70s, Indira Gandhi's government tried to bribe the poorest layers into accepting male and female sterilisation. But there were few "volunteers". Officials handling the campaign risked losing their jobs as they fell below quota. Soon they resorted to compulsion. Eventually this sickening scheme was withdrawn but only after millions had been sterilised against their will.
Some environmentalist groups jumped on this appalling bandwagon. For instance during the Ethiopian famine in 1984, certain members of "Deep Ecology", a mainly US organisation, argued that no relief should be sent to Ethiopia and that in this largely man-made famine "nature should be allowed to take its course". Fortunately, the majority of greens dissociated themselves from such statements. Yet, by taking this reactionary stance, "Deep Ecology" was only being consistent, in its own outrageous way, with the "overpopulation" approach which was largely shared by most ecologist currents.
It is a historical fact, however, that population control in the rich countries has been achieved by increasing living standards to the point where the fears of old age have been reduced through pension provisions and healthcare. The obvious answer to the Third World's problems would be to bring them up to living standards comparable with the rich countries. But as that would involve a reorganisation of the world economy incompatible with the workings of the so-called free market, it is simply not on the agenda under capitalism. So the greens hide behind specious arguments about overpopulation and scarce resources.
In fact there has never been overpopulation in modern times in the sense that there was not enough food available to feed the whole of the world's population three nourishing meals a day. From the height of the Irish Potato Famine when massive amounts of grain continued to be exported to England, to the situation in India today, where 300m go hungry daily according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (Rome) while government officials agonise over India's mounting food surplus according to the Economic Times of India, the problem has always been the impoverishment of the masses, who cannot buy food at market prices, and all the obstacles to the free circulation of food to where it is needed - in other words the fact that the capitalist "free market" only guarantees the freedom of profit.
Another major theme in the green movement is that of the possible exhaustion of the world's finite natural resources. Even if the world could feed itself, it would be no use if the fuel was lacking to transport it or if the metals were too scarce to make the necessary ships and vehicles. In fact such prognostications have no scientific basis.
Who talks today about the oil shortage predicted by the so-called "experts" of the early 70s? In fact there is such a glut of oil on the world market that capital has manoeuvered the semi-permanent removal of Iraqi oil, the world's second biggest oil exporter until its invasion of Kuwait! Even if the relatively tiny resources of the North Sea are running down (thanks to the fact that, under Thatcher, the British government encouraged a volume of production ranking only behind the USA, Saudi Arabia and Mexico), elsewhere it has hardly begun (in the southern hemisphere, for instance). Oil companies continue to spend millions on exploration and where they pull out, it is often because of political uncertainties - as in the case of Shell on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East - rather than because of shortage of oil.
Resources available can in any case only be known resources, meaning under capitalism, whether they are profitable to exploit. Before 1973 it was not profitable to pump up North Sea oil; afterwards it was, and many made fortunes as a result. The same is true of many minerals elsewhere. In fact all talk of scarcity, whether it be of oil, platinum, uranium or other rare substances needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Given the permanent stagnation in the world's economy, haven't the mining companies every interest in slowing down the rate at which new supplies become available and scaling down estimates of resources - in order to prevent prices falling and thereby boost profits?
But, of course, the main point which is simply ignored by this argument is the systematic squandering of natural resources - human, mineral, agricutural and so on - by the capitalist system itself. What proportion of world labour and resources is totally wasted for no social reason whatsoever in the armament industries and through the destruction caused by war? Or in the luxury industries, where perfumes take years of research, by entirely empirical and therefore labour-consuming methods, while fashion dresses, which are only worn once, have to be of unique design and are therefore incredibly costly in social terms? Or in the advertising industry, the only purpose of which is to sustain competition between rival companies, not to mention the slimming industry which in the USA alone is estimated to be worth £21bn a year, most of which is spent on totally ineffective fairy-tale treatments.
Is technology the problem?
Since World War II there has been an explosion of new technologies. Many of these have been opposed by the environmentalists as being harmful to man and nature. Perhaps the most controversial has been the development of nuclear power.
However the environmentalists' objection is based on a faulty jumbling of scientific and economic arguments similar to those about limited resources. That nuclear power can be life-threatening is undeniable. But to proceed from there to saying that all nuclear power will always be unsafe is absurd. The only certain fact is that under profit-regulated control, governments or the industry's bosses can never be trusted to put safety first.
All reactors throughout the world should certainly be closed down today on safety grounds. But that does not mean that research should not continue into safer and more efficient use of nuclear power. After all, with each box of matches containing enough energy to blow up Mount Everest, if only it could be harnessed safely, might we not be standing on the brink of solving altogether the energy problems which ecologists accuse the world of ignoring?
The alternative technologies proposed by some greens are, by the way, not new. Experiments in wind and solar power have been going on since the beginning of this century. On the evidence so far, at least, they could never meet the needs of more than a fraction of peoples' energy requirements. Even if the entire countryside was littered with wind-powered generators and solar panels, there is no guarantee that this would be enough to make up for the closure of traditional power plants. And surely this is not the kind of landscape the greens are dreaming of?
Enormous scientific and technological strides have been made this century despite the continuous pursuit of profit. One of the problems with the present situation is that these technologies end up increasing the waste and hazards created by the system. This means the system must be changed, by getting rid of the causes of this wasteful and dangerous orientation, but not by turning the clock back on centuries of science and technology.
Recently arguments have become widespread amongst greens and in society in general about the ethics of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Such so-called "tinkering" with nature is held by some to be "unnatural" and, aided by the fantasies of Hollywood film-makers, conjures up images of man-eating monsters and science run amok. In fact such developments are merely the continuation, using the most recent scientific advances, of a process which began centuries ago with selective breeding of plants and animals for human consumption. In the sense that the vegetables gardeners grow, and the animals farmers raise, are totally transformed from their originals in the wild, we have been eating and living unnaturally since the dawn of civilisation.
Of course many scientists have firmly rooted objections to the applications that are made of their discoveries and inventions. But that is a criticism of the present society and the way science is so often perverted for profit. To abandon a branch of science such as genetic engineering because of the unscrupulous way some individuals or companies have used it, would be pure nonsense. For instance, plant breeders and genetic engineers are in the process of adapting plants so that crops can flourish in harmony with their environments rather than in spite of them. This in fact holds out the prospect of getting rid of one of agriculture's biggest problems - the profligate overuse of fertilisers, weedkillers and pesticides.
Legumes produce their own fertiliser thanks to cooperation with bacteria which exist in the soil. This characteristic is in the process of being transferred genetically to other plants thereby reducing reliance on harmful nitrates. Crops have been developed which duplicate the disease resistance of wild species. For instance without the resistance to Fusarium wilt provided by the Peruvian tomato, many of today's commercial tomatoes would not be viable. This came from an accelerated plant-breeding programme. But the use of tissue culture and gene-transfer techniques could take the process much further as is shown, for instance, by a single gene taken from an Ethiopian species which protects California's $150m pa barley crop against yellow dwarf disease.
There are, of course, well-known examples of catastrophes generated by new scientific discoveries, particularly in the field of pharmacology. Thalidomide, which was introduced in 1956 in Germany, was hailed as a breakthrough because it was a non-addictive sedative. It was even recommended for children and sold without a prescription. Three years later a sudden increase of a rare syndrome among new-born babies - a defect of the long bones - remained unexplained, until 1961 when it was discovered that Thalidomide was responsible. In Germany alone, 10,000 babies were born with deformities, of which only half survived. It was discovered later that the drug had not been tested on pregnant animals - a test which has since become compulsory for all drugs.
But the culprit was not science. It was the haste of marketing departments to sell what looked like a good profit-spinner - and the complacency of governmental health bodies which proved none too demanding on the trial runs with patients. Unacceptable risks were taken for the sake of profits, not of science.
The disease must be cured, not just the symptoms
Mainstream parties have been quick to adopt a green agenda, partly for electoral reasons but partly also because nothing they advocate puts into question the social organisation of society - and very often, does not cost anything. On the contrary measures can benefit the rich while tightening the squeeze on the poor.
At the present time the Tories like to tout themselves as some of the green men of Europe for their policies on road transport. A steadily increasing tax on petrol is supposed to be a green tax which will push the "gas guzzlers" off the road. The only result is to push more working people into an already overstretched and ageing transport system - that is, if they can afford it. Such is bound to be the effect of the various green taxes advocated by the ecologists, unless this goes hand in hand with addressing the root cause of the problem - the absence of a transport system which corresponds to present needs. But if that was done, there would be no need for green taxes!
Some boroughs, such as Camden in London, have introduced draconian penalties for merely dropping litter. Of course, such behaviour is anti-social but given the neglected state of so many of London's streets and the run-down appearance of most public housing stock, laws like these are sheer hypocrisy - particularly when the same council is cutting down on rubbish collection! Meanwhile workplaces which pollute and use life endangering equipment are given derisory fines when they are brought to book at all.
If in Britain and most of the rich countries measures taken in support of the environment are tokenistic where they have been taken at all, they do not amount to putting the clock back - not so far at least. But in the Third World measures advocated by environmentalists would do just that. Coming usually from the rich countries, the so called "experts" have joined hands with local nationalists to argue against the introduction of most kinds of technology in agriculture.
Their starting point is undeniable: the enormous increases in productivity during the so called "green revolution" have caused environmental and social disasters. Because the new "high yield" grains will only respond if massive amounts of fertilisers and pesticides are used, most small farmers became indebted to chemical suppliers like Union Carbide. Poorer peasants have been driven off the land and the shanty towns of the cities have been swollen by immigration from the countryside. In addition an ecological disaster has been caused by the extensive use of weedkillers and pesticides spreading to the soil and the groundwater.
But posing "traditional" methods of agriculture, or "sustainable growth" schemes as they are called, as an alternative, actually plays into the hands of the multinationals. It isolates Third World populations from the world market, thereby depriving them of the means to buy any product requiring modern technology such as hospital equipment. It leaves the multinationals still free to make their investments - but on their own terms which certainly will not include hospitals and infrastructure as these do not make a profit. Meanwhile the only growth the population is actually allowed to sustain is that of poverty!
What is needed is planning which could integrate these countries into the world economy in such a way as to make available to their populations all the resources worldwide, in particular in terms of technology. But of course, such pooling together of resources cannot and should not be dependent on profitability. By adapting to the criterion of profitability dictated by imperialism, the aid agencies are offering a band-aid, rather than a cure. In the process they offer a helping hand to multinationals whose cash crops and industrial subsidiaries are not affected.
The logic of the green position is to say that since economic growth has resulted so far in the destruction of nature, through pollution and waste, it should be stopped and world production reduced. But if this was implemented, a large proportion of the Western population would be trapped into poverty and most in the Third World would be deprived for ever of the material comfort they've never had - even assuming that the imperialist sharks like Union Carbide and Shell stopped their plunder. Whereas the real root of the problem lies with the anarchic and unplanned nature of economic growth under capitalism, and the incredible waste this growth actually conceals. While economic growth cannot be an end in itself, it is not responsible for the crimes of the profit system.
Only social change can "clean" the planet.
Contrary to what most ecologists argue, industrialisation, science and techology will form a large part of the solution to mankind's problems. But only provided they are based on the collective and conscious will of mankind to move forward. This goes back to Marx's argument against traditional materialism - it is man who can change man, by changing nature.
But for this to be possible, the atomising and corrupting effect that the capitalist mode of production has on human activity needs to be reversed first. A social revolution will be needed, in order to provide a framework which no longer obstructs the rational organisation of society, as under capitalism, but actually facilitates it.
Ending capitalist domination will free almost instantaneously enormous resources on a world-wide scale. Firstly in terms of manpower, since the conditions of employment will no longer be determined by the need for capitalists to maintain a certain relationship of forces with the working class by keeping wages low and hours long. Millions of pairs of hands will be instantly available to build the collective future, allowing more skills to be used in better conditions with shorter working hours. Millions of others will be freed once and for all from production and activities which are socially useless or even harmful.
Material resources will be freed immediately as well. The mountains of stocks in fuel, food and raw materials which are constantly piled up in the rich countries, either for speculative purposes or because they cannot be sold at market prices and are waiting to be destroyed, will be made available immediately to be used wherever they are needed.
The major task will then begin, that of raising the standards of living of the world population to the level required for collective consciousness to become an integral part of social life - through education as well as through not having to fear the uncertainties of tomorrow.
Will this mean an increase in world production? Not necessarily because of the enormous waste and useless production which will have been stopped. It will certainly mean increasing production in some areas which are lacking - for instance, building materials and sanitary equipment, books, etc.. It may even mean that the overall level of industrial production will have to increase, maybe considerably. What is crucial, however, is that whatever happens, increase or decrease, will be dictated by the actual needs of the world population - not by the gamble for profits of a greedy minority.
What this will not entail is the need to build a fully-fledged industrial economy in every single country - as opposed to the current trend imposed by capitalist competition. The best use will be made of all existing industrial capacity first, including the reconversion of factories making armaments, portable phones or bow ties... Likewise, the best use will be made of all cultivable land. The millions of acres clogged up by cocoa in Ghana could easily be used to grow foodstaples, just as could the fancy golf courses in Haiti. British kids will just have to do without their chocolate for a while, while the tiny Haitian elite will be allowed to do some work with their hands for a change. Then, and only then, if needs cannot be met, will new industrial facilities have to be built and new arable land to be tilled. But where and how will be based on a rational choice in which the population will be able to take part fully.
The consequences of industrialisation will not need to be the same, simply because the criterion of profitability which generates waste dumping, the release of toxic fumes, etc.. today will be replaced by that of social usefulness. Any activity which can fulfil an existing tested need is socially useful but only in so far as it does not cause avoidable environmental destruction or pollution.
For this to operate harmoniously and efficiently, two conditions must be met. The first is a certain level of world-wide centralisation to achieve a constantly updated census of all available resources, production facilities and needs. Also the mechanisms to ensure that all decisions made requiring cooperation and co-ordination are forwarded to all those concerned. Secondly, a high level of decentralisation will be needed allowing all those concerned with decision making, whether directly or indirectly, to participate in working it out. In fact these two conditions are tightly intertwined: no census of resources and needs can be exhaustive without a high level of decentralisation; and no decentralised decision-making process can work without an efficient coordinating mechanism.
All this, however, can only be based on the widest and most direct democracy. Such a democracy is the precondition for giving a conscious content to man's activity. In fact it is not conceivable that capitalism with its vast social basis, particularly in the rich countries, can be overthrown without a high degree of direct democracy being implemented in the process. Amongst the working class, of course, but also amongst the social layers which are peripheral to the working class - the urban petty bourgeoisie of the rich countries and the urban semi-proletariat of the poor countries. For without such a convincing demonstration that they can have a stake in the revolution, these social layers could easily become an obstacle to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
And to the green activists who are frightened today by the terrible threats of economic or population growth, we can only say:
If you consider that man cannot conduct his future consciously and rationally, then you are right to be frightened, because the mankind you have in mind is doomed, not just to turn the clock back, but to commit suicide sooner or later. But if not, if you believe in the capacity of man to be in control of his future, then the kind of democracy that the end of capitalism will allow is the only one that can guarantee that man's activity is prevented from going astray, thanks to the watchful eyes and conscious control of billions of people. This democracy, this society, will be greener than anything that can be conceived of or dreamed of under capitalism. But if you want to take part in constructing it, you will have to turn red!