On Friday massive student strikes advocating rapid action on the climate crisis again took place. Once again, voices are being heard on the streets condemning governments for their lack of action to stem climate change. Again the school student protests, a historic and highly important event, was under-reported by mainstream media. The world is far from on track to meet climate goals. There is now an awareness by many that inaction is unacceptable.
We have reached a turning point in history. The problem of the environment is the greatest challenge for humanity. The ecological context of the state of the world is becoming more and more critical. Scientific consensus is that we have perhaps a couple of decades before the environmental problems we face will become irreversible. After that, the planet may not support civilisation any longer. The current global financial crisis may be temporarily slowing this process, but the trend continues. GHGs are causing a rapid warming of the atmosphere, glaciers, soil, and oceans that threatens to change the earth’s climate radically and to push that change into an irreversible phase with catastrophic results. Virtually no one in the world doubts that today’s times are desperate. Capitalism has had a profound impact on the planet. Capitalism, and not humanity, is the cause of global warming, which suggests that a necessary part of the solution is to end capitalism before it destroys the earth.
Sadly, the Socialist Party's presence in the environmental movement is not particularly significant. Without the active participation of socialists with a clear analysis, the environmental activists will not bring about the fundamental change needed to resolve the crisis. Capitalism is a form of social organisation that systematically destroys nature. It is a system driven not by need, and particularly not by the need to preserve the natural sources of its bounty, but rather by profit. Profit-making requires efficiency only within the individual business, but the competition inherent in profit-making requires that all businesses maximise profits continually, and particularly over the short term, or go belly up. Preservation of resources for industry and life itself is vital for humanity but simply not profitable in the short term for capitalism, and short term is the only level on which capital can possibly function. A lapse in profitability means the death of a business. Capitalism, with its absolute need to expand continually and with profits as the dominating and often sole motivation, has almost used up all the profitably extractable sources of these fossil fuels. Capitalism is an unplanned system in which each capitalist corporation acts without regard to cooperation but instead competes with other corporations in order to stay alive and in business. In order to stay alive, each must grow and thus must try to expand its profits without limit, so that further investment can maintain its share of the market. If market share shrinks enough the corporation is doomed. Grow or die is the law of capitalism. Capitalist corporations, in order to survive competition, resist having a long-range outlook for their return on investment. So do the stockholders, or they will put their money into other corporations that do bring in quick returns. The corporations must make back their initial investment in plant and equipment quickly, so that their future profits become pure gravy. Concern for the environment, on the other hand, is a long term process that requires giving up the concept of profit in favour of satisfying human needs. Capitalism does not operate to satisfy human needs.
Worst of all, capitalism prevents the world’s working class from acting in accord with our need to preserve nature for ourselves and for future generations. Furthermore capitalism, for all practical purposes, prevents us from obtaining food, water, shelter, clothing, and other needs, unless we work for the capitalists and produce more than we are paid – with the excess taking the form of surplus value, or profit. By withholding our access to the necessities of life, the capitalists force us to do their bidding. The world’s working class today is just as enslaved by capitalism’s debts and dollars withholding these necessities as if we were forced to live and work in collars and chains. Socialists call this wage slavery. Under wage slavery, dehumanising exploitation grinds down our bodies
Capitalists appropriate nature for their own class needs, in effect stealing it from the working class, enforcing their control over us and over the earth through their control of state power. They strip-mine and destroy entire mountains, they force over-fishing of the oceans in the competitive drive for profits, they clear-cut forests for wood products, they drain wetlands for city development. Capitalism turns land into real estate, forests into lumber, and oceans into fisheries. And, we would add, turns the world’s working class into profit-producing commodities as appendages to capitalist machines. Capitalists dump toxic waste into soil, rivers, oceans, and the atmosphere, with numerous deaths resulting. In its single-minded drive for profit capitalists literally get away with murder. Capitalism is fast exhausting the earth’s resources, and what is left is fast being ruined by waste products. In order to continue to expand its profits, capitalism creates wants instead of satisfying needs.
The capitalists are systemically incapable of seriously addressing the problem except by pitifully ineffectual gestures. Today the vast majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening faster and faster. And those destined to suffer the greatest effects are always the working class. The capitalists, of course, would also suffer major destruction in the process of global warming-caused catastrophes, but unwittingly they share at least one characteristic of suicide bombers in taking down as many innocent victims with them as they can, though their own death is unintended. Various capitalist defenders propose technological solutions such as trapping emissions from factory smoke stacks and dumping them into the ocean or putting them back underground after extracting the coal and oil. Aside from the extreme expense of this process, what this would do to the oceans and what leakage from these underground sites would do to the atmosphere and soil are unknown. Ideas such as these are not seriously being investigated but rather are thrown up as a smokescreen to mask the inability of a profit system to reverse the destruction of the environment – a smokescreen that itself adds to global warming both metaphorically and in fact.
We can shape our own destiny only by embracing Marx’s society of 'associated producers'. Only a system in which use value, rather than exchange value, is the basis of society can even contemplate removing GHG-producing physical capital from its productive base. But a system that the working class controls for its own collective needs (socialism), rather than a system that a relatively small class controls for its own individual profit (capitalism) can in fact act in this way. The capitalists’ refusal to destroy their own profit-producing capital holds even when that profit is destructive of much of the rest of the world. When environmental activists call for the government to regulate the capitalists they are merely subscribing to the myth that the government (or in Marxist terms, the state) stands above society and mediates among the various classes. This myth was exploded a century and a half ago by Marx and Engels. The misunderstanding of political power and the nature of the state is the central flaw in all calls for the state to intervene to save the environment.
The illusion that individual or small scale actions can solve the crisis, even if many people participate, amounts to blaming the working class along with the capitalists for the destruction of the environment. That is, if any workers refuse to go along with the charade, they can be blamed for hastening the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere. And even if we do go along, the claim that we could save the earth by decreasing our personal use of GHG-producing technology, implies that our personal patterns of consumption and usage are, at least in part, the source of the problem. But the working class does not control the patterns of consumption; the capitalists do.
One of the most unpleasant ideas subscribed to unwittingly by many in the climate emergency campaigns is that overpopulation in the world is the main cause of both global warming and resource depletion. It takes the racist form of blaming all those “poor people” with darker skin, particularly in the “lesser developed countries.” Many of these authors claim that the earth’s carrying capacity has been exceeded. But they cannot identify what that maximum carrying capacity may be. In today’s world the problem is not too many people, but rather capitalism’s enforced poverty and exploitation. Even if the world's population could be reduced by half or more there would still be unemployment, poverty, disease, and all the other horrors of capitalism. Indeed when the world’s population was half its present size these scourges were just as prevalent. There is no solution to resource depletion and global warming – nor to poverty, racism, exploitation, and war – outside of world socialism.
Socialism is the only form of organisation in which the world’s people will be capable of solving all these problems and restoring a sustainable relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. Competitive forms of social organisation, such as capitalism, are not capable of taking any actions along these lines, other than token ones. As long as capitalism exists, with its expansionist tendencies, we will be incapable of solving the problems of humanity’s interaction with nature, in which nature is used up in the drive for profits and the waste products choke and starve us. Only communism will permit us to halt our accelerating advance toward the edge of a proverbial cliff. When the world’s working class is able to rationally plan the production only of things we really need – whether materially, psychologically, or aesthetically – coordinated and cooperative planning by a communist society, without the interference of the profit motive, will permit us to act according to our needs. The hazards of continuing capitalist exploitation of the working class are now clear. In order to save ourselves, our class has to remove this obstacle to cooperative action and establish workers’ power everywhere in the world through communist revolution and reconstruction. Only then will we be able to rebuild the world.
Abridged and adapted from here