hurricane sandy

Climate Change and the Socialist Revolution (Part 1)

We see it everywhere: from the nightly news to our own neighborhoods; in the newspapers and on the internet; we taste it in our food; we feel it in our declining health—the environment is being pillaged. Scientists predict that the arctic could have its first ice-free summer as soon as 2040. Meanwhile, sea levels have risen by about 7 inches in the last century despite almost no changes for 2,000 years prior to that. Extreme droughts and floods threaten farmers’ livelihoods around the globe and giant superstorms like hurricane Sandy destroy homes and wipe out infrastructure.

 

hurricane sandyResearch shows that the amount of precipitation falling in the heaviest storms has increased by 20% in recent years, as rising temperatures increase the amount of water the atmosphere can hold. These are just the most well-publicized consequences of our biggest environmental crisis: climate change. To truly grasp the scope of the environmental crisis we would need to take into account everything from water pollution and earthquakes caused by fracking, to the nuclear waste in Superfund sites. It is truly a daunting situation.

Capitalism has conquered markets and resources across the world and exploits them mercilessly in the name of one holy crusade: the maximization of profit. This ceaseless drive is the defining feature of this world-spanning political and economic system. Human life and health, sustainability, natural habitats, communities and the planet itself are harmed in this endless quest for profits. If we hope to fundamentally change this state of affairs we must first understand that the environmental crisis we face is not just an unhappy accident, but rather, a direct outgrowth of this system. We must therefore ask ourselves: why doesn’t capitalism respect the environment? What can we really do to save the earth? What is our role as individuals and more importantly, as members of the world working class?

Capitalism 101

In order to understand how a system like capitalism relates to the environment, we must examine a few of its defining features. One of the most striking features of this system is the way it treats everything as commodities. A commodity exists only as something to be bought and sold on the market. All other useful properties of a commodity are considered secondary or coincidental to its nature as a commodity. A life-saving vaccine, for instance, is only considered valuable if it can be sold profitably. The fact that it saves life is a secondary point. This is one reason why governments find it necessary to subsidize pharmaceutical companies to produce and distribute vaccines, because without this intervention, the market does not provide enough incentive; it is not profitable enough (not to mention the fat profits these companies make off the public treasury).

This is how we must understand the capitalist exploitation of nature (and people). Environmental resources and workers are seen solely as commodities. They are only useful to the capitalists insofar as they can create profit. This is the logic of commodification.

This is why capitalism has no real interest in things like clean air. Air is not something that can typically be bottled and sold at a profit—although recently in China, bottles of air have been selling for hundreds of dollars!

However, this is an incredibly one-dimensional way of seeing the world. Nothing exists in isolation; nothing is simply a commodity. There is a term in bourgeois economics for the secondary “costs or benefits that affect a party who did not choose to incur those costs or benefits.” These are referred to as externalities. The term itself betrays the mindset behind it. Whatever impact or effect something may have is external to its central importance as a commodity to be bought and sold. The destruction of the environment towards the point where it is no longer inhabitable is just one such unfortunate externality.

This worldview lies at the core of capitalism; all things and relations are reduced to a financial cost-benefit analysis. People cease to be human beings and become “consumers”; wives, husbands, and partners are no longer people to share the pleasures of life with, but to share the burdens of life with; things are not sold because of their actual usefulness, but because they are “deals.” The driving force behind this alienation is capitalism.

Capitalism thrives on brutal efficiency. Its aim is to create as many sellable commodities as possible at the lowest possible cost. It does this by cutting corners and mercilessly driving down costs in the pursuit of more profit. Labor is one of the primary costs in the production of commodities. This is why capitalism always seeks to reduce the amount of labor it takes to produce something—and to drive down wages and increase productivity. This also applies to health and safety issues as well as waste disposal and management. For example, when safety codes are neglected to save money, it is the workers who will end up paying for it through increased injuries and long-term health effects. When proper waste disposal is cut, it is working-class communities whose water supply will suffer, and so on. So long as capitalist relations dominate our world, we will be subject to this kind of inhumane cost “sharing.”

For example, there are many techniques for extracting coal, but capitalism always seeks the least expensive and most “efficient” techniques in order to save money on labor. In the case of coal, one of the most efficient methods is mountaintop removal, a process in which the tops of mountains are blown to bits and the coal is then extracted. The job is done; the coal which was in the mountain has been successfully removed and can now be sold on the market.

Of course, there are more than a few “externalities”: waste thrown into rivers, habitats destroyed and poisoned, and the brutal scarring of the landscape. This in turn leads to even more widespread destruction of vegetation. This vegetation is necessary for preventing mudslides and for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. The destruction of these natural carbon dioxide converters exacerbates climate change.

These are just some of the effects even before the coal goes to the power plant to be burned! The interconnectedness of the environment is truly a remarkable thing and can never be in harmony with a system as one-dimensional as capitalism. Poisoned water due to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” nuclear fission meltdowns, and oil spills are all “externalities”—part of the price we pay for allowing the continuation of capitalist production.

What is the role of consumer choice?

Many people feel the need to take some kind of action to prevent this unprecedented destruction of the environment. Due to the lack of any other clear alternatives, most of the ideas that have been proposed seek to solve the problem without challenging any of the underlying cause: capitalism. For example, many people have made an attempt to “vote with their dollar” or “buy green.” The idea behind this approach is that through consumer choices, we can “send a message” to the big capitalists by withdrawing our business, while at the same time supporting businesses that, at least in theory, do less damage to the environment. While these types of actions are not in and of themselves a bad thing, insofar as they reflect a desire to make a difference, it is unrealistic to expect them to mitigate the large-scale environmental destruction that we are experiencing, destruction which is systemic, not accidental.

Another problem with this approach is that putting too much hope in a consumerist strategy can create illusions about the sustainability of capitalism. If the idea is to “vote with your dollar,” we must also ask: who has most of the dollars? Is it the individual who carefully allots a couple of hundred dollars each month to buy food and other products from companies that adopt sustainable practices, or is it the masters of the economy, who own and control the means of food production and resource extraction, and who have millions of dollars with which to buy politicians who don’t step on their toes?

Unfortunately, fundamental change cannot and will not come about by changing this or that approach to buying a product, while keeping the basis of capitalism. We agree with the environmental consumer’s idea that there need to be better products available. However, the question arises: how are we going to come up with a plan to produce those better products? We answer, you cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own. In order to radically shift production to meet human needs in harmony with the environment, we must take over the productive forces (factories, power plants, large farms, the chemical industry, etc.). The environment simply cannot be saved by pressuring the capitalists.

A few concrete examples may help to illustrate the situation. Demand for healthy food has increased recently, so the supply must rise to meet it. Hence the rise of companies like Cascadian Farm, a popular organic brand which includes the following in its mission statement: “Cascadian Farm also realizes that we can make a difference beyond just the food that we produce. That’s why we work with partners who share our mission and can help us make improvements to our products and processes. Together, with every bite of our delicious fruits, vegetables and whole grains, we can sustain the health of the earth for all living creatures today, tomorrow and for generations to come!”

However, Cascadian Farm is a subsidiary of General Mills, which has numerous times been found responsible for violating the Clean Water Act—not to mention its consistent record of unfair labor practices. On the basis of private ownership and production for profit, these companies cannot be trusted to produce solely in the “interests of humanity.”

The Marxists are in favor of organic food production, but our struggle for organic production cannot stop short. The struggle for organic food production and the rational use of resources will and must eventually topple capitalism, and replace it with a planned economy. Obviously, in the absence of a mass movement to end capitalism, things must be done to lessen the damage done to the environment. We are all for turning off lights when not using them, eating organic when you can afford it, and driving a fuel efficient car, but these things alone cannot solve the environmental crisis.

350.org is one of the biggest environmentalist organizations these days. Their approach is to put pressure on the Obama administration to protect the environment. However, it was infamously reported that during 350.org’s protest of 40,000 against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, DC, Obama was playing golf with oil men. It is obvious whose side Obama is on. 350.org is also leading a global movement to have universities divest their investments from companies that produce carbon-based fuels.

However, universities are not even significant investors in these companies; it is the big banks and the boards of the big energy companies that really call the shots. Once again, the question of who owns the wealth comes into play. This is why these initiatives—despite the best of intentions—cannot address the real issue, as they do not address the real economic dynamics at work. One cannot use market mechanisms to solve a problem that itself arises directly from market dynamics. No struggle can be successful so long as it allows its opponent to define the very field and scope of that struggle. We welcome any fight against the capitalist destruction of the environment, but the ideas, tactics, and strategies need to be fully worked out in advance, and must begin from a class analysis of society.

. . . to be continued

 


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