Monday, October 30, 2006

"Too late" to stop global catastrophe?

“At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing over nature – but that we, with flesh and 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 learn its laws and apply them correctly. We are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our productive activity, and so are afforded the opportunity to control and regulate these effects well. This regulation, however, requires a complete revolution in our existing mode of production…in our whole contemporary social order”

You could be forgiven for thinking the above quotation came from a modern day ecologist or environmentalist, commenting on impending global ecological catastrophe and drawing upon the myriad reports currently in existence, written by concerned scientists that portend cataclysmic changes to our life styles if we don’t stop abusing our natural environment immediately. The quote is in fact 131 years old and is taken from Dialectics of Nature, written by Frederic Engels (1875).

So let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Socialists have been warning about the effects of capitalism’s penny-pinching production methods for well over a hundred years, and how they impact on the wider environment, and it is often with despair that we reiterate the Engels message from the latter 19th century, more so now that state of the art technology exists that provides hard evidence as to the dire effects of capitalist production.

So it is not with any great sigh of relief, or shock and disbelief, that socialist’s would have read the lead story in today’s Independent, which covered the findings of Sir Nicholas Stern’s long awaited report on climatic change and indeed the government’s reaction to it. It does make for grim reading, suggesting that time is running out to really address the environment question – previous opportunities having been pathetically squandered at the Hague and Kyoto Summits – and that the possibility of preventing a global disaster is "already almost out of reach".

The Independent informs us: “With world temperatures on course to rise by two to three degrees in 50 years, rainfall could be catastrophically reduced in some of the world's poorest countries, while others grapple with floods from melting glaciers. The result could be the largest migration of refugees in history.”

Amongst the reports shocking revelations, writes Andy McSmith, is “that changes in weather patterns could drive down the output of the world's economies by an amount equivalent to up to ?6 trillion a year by 2050, almost the entire output of the EU.”

The 700 page report, commissioned by the Treasury and carried out by the former World Bank chief economist (Nicholas Stern) argues environmental problems will be "difficult or impossible to reverse" unless something is done now. It says: "Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century."

All is not lost, believe Chancellor Gordon Brown and Environment Secretary David Miliband. They point to the “positive message” arising from the report; this being that the world has the means to avoid the awaiting cataclysm. Money can be thrown at the problem – the earth shattering sum of 1 per cent of Global GDP (?0.3 trillion dollars); a figure, incidentally, which is dwarfed by global military spending.

Labour’s elite would have it that Sir Nick is something of a drama queen, but there again the government is first and foremost the executive of the capitalist class, with powerful interests to defend, so is not wont to panic their pals in big business with hints at environmental legislation that might eat into their profits. Milliband sounded quite optimistic being interviewed by The Independent. He said: "The second half of his message is that the technology does exist, the financing, public and private, does exist, and the international mechanisms also exist to get to grips with this problem - so I don't think it's a catastrophe that he puts forward. It's a challenging message.”

And what are offered are capitalist remedies, and to make it all the more attractive there are profits to be had – well, the master class have to have some damned incentive before they act. As the Independent reported:

“Combating climate change could become one of the world's biggest growth industries, generating around ?250bn of business globally by 2050.” Providing, that is, that we still have a planet worth saving in 50 years time.

Governments appear oblivious to the fact that oil production will shortly peak, that half the earth’s available oil is estimated to by used within 10 years , and within another 20 years countries like China and India will have huge demands that will outstrip supply. Consider the global conflicts this will create

Far worse than a shortage of oil is a shortage of water. We already know that 500 million live in regions prone to chronic drought. Scientists have forewarned us that within 20 years that figure is expected to increase fivefold to between 2.5bn and 3.5bn people. Already over 5 million people die annually - including 2 million children - from diseases caused by drinking contaminated water. Again, what desolation does this portend for the human race?

In the oceans, almost 50% of fish stocks are fully exploited, 20% are over-exploited, and only 2% are recovering. On land, soil erosion and degradation mean that half a billion people live in countries whose arable land can no longer support their own populations. The natural habitats of many animal species are being lost on an alarming scale, which with the decline of bird species, plants, forests - on which, ultimately, the human race depends – signals a crisis for biodiversity.

And the best capitalist politicians can think up is to tempt the master class with the whiff of profits to come if they agree to mend their ways. The very people who have disregarded the effects of their production methods on the natural environment for hundreds of years are now being asked to show it some mercy! Global environmental catastrophe can be halted by throwing money at the problem!

Right across the planet the economic system that governments defend plunders and squanders the Earth’s non-renewable mineral and energy resources and with one object in mind – profit. All over the world it pollutes the seas, the air we breathe, the forests, rivers and lakes, upsetting natural balances, eco-systems and defying the laws of ecology. Clearly, this destruction and waste cannot continue indefinitely. It should not and must not and no amount of money is going to redress the delicate balance.

Socialists have long argued that it is quite possible to meet the material needs of every person on this planet without destroying the natural systems on which we depend and on which we are party. So what stands in the way? Why isn’t this done? The simpler answer, which we must not get tired of reiterating, is that under the present economic system, production is not geared to meeting human needs but rather to accumulating profits for a few. Consequently, what we produce and the methods and the materials we employ are not decided rationally and democratically, but are dictated by market forces.

Production today is in the hands of business enterprises of one sort or another, all competing to sell their products at a profit. All of them – and it does not matter whether they are privately owned or state-owned – aim to maximise their profits. This is not the result of the greed of the owners or managers, as some Greens claim, but an economic necessity, imposed by the forces of the market. If a business does not make a profit it goes out of business. “Make a profit or die” is the law of the capitalist jungle.

Under the demands of the market, businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interests, ignoring wider social and ecological considerations. The whole of production, from the process employed to the choice of what to produce, is distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by anarchic market forces which compel decision-makers, however selected and whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste.

So it’s no wonder that nature’s balances are upset today, and that we face problems like global warming, acid rain and the widening hole in the ozone layer, to name just a few. It’s no wonder that the Earth’s easily accessible resources are plundered without a thought for the future; that the power stations and factories release all sorts of dangerous and noxious substances into the air and water; that chemical fertiliser and pesticides that get into the food chain are used in agriculture; that animals are injected with hormones, fed unnatural diets; that human waste is not recycled back to the land; that non-biodegradable plastics and textiles are produced; that lead is put into petrol; that goods are made so as not to last, etc. The list of anti-ecological practises imposed by market forces is endless.

The conclusion is clear: If our needs are to be met while at the same time respecting the laws of nature, the present market-driven profit system must go and be replaced with a system capable of producing the essentials humans need, but in an ecologically friendly way.

Most Greens believe that things could be put right with a change of government policy, which is exactly what Labour now proposes. What is needed, they say, is a government that will pass laws and impose taxes – on air travel, motoring and high emission vehicles - to protect the environment. But experience shows that no government, however well meaning or determined, can protect the environment. Governments exist to run the political side of the profit system. They do not have a free hand to do what is sensible or desirable. They can only act within the narrow limits imposed by the market system. This is why the reformist policy advocated by the Green Party, Friends of the Earth etc. is not working. At most it could only succeed in slowing down the speed of decay, not in making the profit system work in an environmentally friendly way. Those who want a clean and safe environment are up against a well entrenched economic and social system, based on class privilege and property and governed by the overriding law of profits first. What Greens should work towards is not a change of government, but a change of society.

If we are to meet our needs in an ecologically acceptable way, we humans must first be in a position to control production or, to put it another way, to consciously regulate our interaction with the rest of nature – and the only basis on which this can be done is the common ownership of productive resources.

Once the Earth’s natural and industrial resources have become the common heritage of all humanity, then production can be geared to meeting needs in an ecologically acceptable way, instead of making profits without consideration for the environment. These include types of farming that preserve and enhance the natural fertility of the soil, the systematic recycling of materials obtained from non-renewable energy sources while developing alternative sources that continually renew themselves (i.e. solar energy and wind power); industrial processes that avoid releasing poisonous chemicals or radioactivity into the biosphere; the manufacture of solid good made to last, not planned to break down after a period of time.

We are talking about a system of society based on common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. That is the only basis on which we can meet our needs whilst respecting the laws of nature. And it’s the only basis on which we can begin to successfully reverse the degradation of the environment caused by the profit system. The only effective strategy for achieving a free and democratic society, in harmony with nature it to build up a movement which has the achievement of such a society as its sole aim.

5 comments:

danny said...

Excellent piece John.
what the Greens have yet to grasp, is that before we can get the ecological relationship with our planet sorted, we first have to sort out social relationship.
Danny

Gian Maria said...

I'm going to translate this article in Italian for my blog. :)

Philip said...

Some great stuff here but a fundamental misunderstanding about the Green party - indeed a couple of lines are complete nonsense - eg "Most Greens believe that things could be put right with a change of government policy, which is exactly what Labour now proposes."

Suggest reading more at:
http://www.greenparty.org.uk

Some socialists have indeed taken Green issues to heart - but they are very absent from being central to economic policy - and without that being the case we cannot have social justice. We need for example a fundamental shift in our economic policies from Globalisation to Localisation. Green taxes are all very well but as you rightly point out are only a small - very small - part of the story. We also need the Green Party policy for tradable carbon quotas and an ever-decreasing "cap" on this country's emissions. Of course a Climate Change bill with strict annual targets would also provide a good "cap", but without the tradable carbon quotas the government would struggle to find ways to meet the targets.

We should also look closer at what is really going on re Stern - everyone is being very positive about Stern...even Monbiot doesn't criticise much. Yet the stabilisation target is 500 - 550 ppm CO2e - this virtually guarantees 2C plus temp rise which is thought to trigger many of the positive environmental feedbacks that will accelerate warming. Stern hasn't costed what it takes to stop climate change but the minimum price of attaining run away change. His proposals don't actually prevent many of the catastrophies he describes - they may lessen them somewhat which is worth doing but not prevent them happening.


See also an exciting new project - Green Left:
http://www.greenleft.org.uk

Philip said...

Just saw this - saying similar:

FREE MARKETS ‘DON’T CARE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE’

BUSINESSES CAUSE CLIMATE CHANGE, GREEN MEP TELLS OXFORD UNION

MARKET forces alone are unable to prevent devastating climate change, Green Party Euro-MP Caroline Lucas will tell the Oxford Union tomorrow (Thursday, November 2nd).

Dr Lucas will argue that business has played a key role in causing climate change – and largely remains indifferent to it in the quest for
ever-increasing profits and growth.
“If corporations were people they’d be psychopaths, pursuing their own
self-interest at the expense of everyone else and society as a whole,” she will say.

“The very purpose of business is to maximise profits and growth – indeed
corporations are under a duty to put these interests, the perceived
interests of their shareholders, before any other considerations, even halting a preventable and predictable global catastrophe.

“If we are to prevent the worst impacts of climate change we need to regulate business activities on a global scale – and force them to cut emissions and contribute to sustainable development wherever they operate.

The Green Party MEP for South-East England, a member of the European Parliament’s International Trade and Environment Committees, will join Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan MP, Shell Chief Executive James Smith and South African opposition leader Tony Leon MP in to debate whether business is the solution or the problem to tackling climate change.

She will argue, alongside Alan Duncan, that business is indeed part of the problem on the issue of climate change. James Smith, Tony Leon and Sir Stuart Hampson will argue the opposite: that they are the solution.

The Stern report has outlined the horrors we face if climate change is left unchecked, and begun to describe the scale of changes we would have to make to prevent them, Dr Lucas will tell the union.

“But Stern doesn’t go far enough – he talks about stabilising atmospheric CO2 at 550 parts per million when the reality is this is much too high a concentration to halt runaway climate change.

“If we are to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and do so in way which is globally fair and promotes sustainable development, we need to cut global CO2 emissions by as much as 90 per cent by 2030. That’s going to require different cultures, different economies, and different expectations: in short nothing less than a different way of life.

“Such a way of life must be based on putting the needs of individuals and
the environment over those of corporations and businesses – who have got us into this mess in the first place. The business-led model of society just isn’t up the challenge of climate change.”

“Properly regulated business could, I hope be part of the solution to
climate change. But business on its own, unregulated by government and unfettered by public concern, is very much at the heart of the problem.”

Environmental initiatives by businesses – such as the re-branding of BP with a sunflower logo not unlike that of the Green Party – tended to be marginal activities aimed principally at changing public opinion in order to ‘buy time’ to maximise the profitability of their core activities, she will add.

John said...

Philip Booth suggests we have a "fundamental misunderstanding about the Green party" but goes on to demonstrate his fundamental misunderstanding about us!

We are not attempting to out Monbiot Monbiot. And of course we do not accept that the Labour Party ever had anything to do with real Socialism.

GT

His fellow Green Party member Caroline Lucas is quite right:"The very purpose of business is to maximise profits and growth..." but like the Labour Party before them the Green Party hope to make a system based on production for profit run in the best interests of the majority.

How? By ensuring that government "properly regulates" business so that it puts the needs "of individuals and the environment" first.

This has been the best hope of reforming political parties for a hundred years and more. The sad fact is that capitalism [the production for profit system] cannot be made to do this.