Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Socialists for a sustainable planet

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population on the one hand, concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer.“ Marx, Capital, Vol 1

The Marrakesh COP22 has recently ended and once again we get promises but little action.

“No country, irrespective of its size or strength, is immune from the impacts of climate change, and no country can afford to tackle the climate challenge alone,” commented the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

“The world must rapidly move to scale up actions and ambitions on climate change,” said for his part José Graziano da Silva, Director-General the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The ecological mess we’re now in is because we live in a social system predicated on endless expansion. This blind, unplanned drive to accumulate is the hallmark of capitalist production – the profit motive – and it has created the problem of climate change, not individuals profligate consumption nor overpopulation. There can be no sustainable or environmentally friendly capitalism. It is capitalism as a system which is the cause of the world’s environmental problems. Competing and vying capitalist states can’t cooperate and coordinate on the global level required to address climate change. We have seen this with numerous summits and conferences failing to agree or to implement proposals.  Such planning can only realistically come about through a completely different way of organising production – one based not on making a profit but meeting human need.

The Socialist Party says that the ecologically-unsound behaviour that humans are presently engaged in is the result the socio-economic system under which we live, namely the profit system, or capitalism. We do not attribute it to human greed or having too many children. We call for a change of social system, lifestyle changes, because without a change of social system, lifestyles won’t change. The technological and industrial processes of production are not in themselves the cause of environmental destruction; it is their application under capitalism in the pursuit by separate, competing businesses and states of relatively short-term monetary profit that is the cause.

Too many environmentalists stress facts and figures about the planet’s carrying capacity. Their mistake is to confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total electricity or oil consumption or whatever and then divide it by the total population. But this doesn't give a figure for what people consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government, and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is, in fact, compatible with an increase in personal consumption. Socialists propose to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just of arms and armies but of all the overhead costs involved in buying and selling. It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce are engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity (some estimates go higher). In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head. This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who need it to be increased to a decent level. Diverting resources to do this — and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a decent standard of living will be the primary, initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtaining under capitalism. When socialism begins to get into gear, having cleaned up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off, even decline,  and something approaching a "steady-state economy" is reached. In a society run to meet human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.

It is true that we assume that population levels will also stabilise. This is a reasonable assumption as it is  already beginning to happen, even under capitalism in many regions of the world. The noticeable exception at the moment is Africa since population growth is a feature of the poorer parts of the world. The way to end population growth is to eliminate poverty and economic insecurity, which in practice can only be done by socialism.

Degrowth is a growing movement. Some economists now argue that on a planet with finite resources, we may have to stop growing in order to survive.

"More economic growth means more and material extracted out of nature, and more and waste after we use these materials," sais Giorgos Kallis, an ecological economist and editor of ‘Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era’, "With the current level of economic growth - and aspired levels of growth - there is no way to avoid dramatic and catastrophic change of the climate… Degrowth reminds we have to create a better world, and a more equal world - but we have to do that while we reduce our footprint on this planet. It's a challenge of living with less, but better."

The idea that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely is not new. In 1972, long before climate change became the stuff of global summits, a think tank called the Club of Rome published "The Limits to Growth," predicting: "The limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years."

But with environmental crises becoming an urgent threat and growing evidence that the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger, some are beginning to challenge that consensus.

Ashish Kothari, chair of Greenpeace India, told DW that analysis in India suggests that growth has not managed to meet the needs of the poor . "In fact, it's created tens of millions of newly impoverished people, because their resources have been grabbed by the mainstream economy," he said. "Nor, of course, has it been able to sustain the biological and physical environment on which all of us depend."

The Malthusian influenced de-growth proponents are in a paradox. Increasing personal consumption levels according to their theory would overload the Earth's carrying capacity. But, unless the personal consumption of the people in the poorer parts of the world is increased, then population growth won't slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilization, euthanasia of the elderly and the culling of babies or letting starvation, disease, and wars take their course (as Malthus advocated). So those who most plead for an ethical-based relationship with nature are drawn to an anti-human approach. Socialists stick to a human-centred approach, which embraces the view that the balanced functioning of the biosphere is something that humans should try to achieve since, as part of the biosphere, it is in our interest that it should function properly. There is, in fact, no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the biosphere.

By rejecting socialism and remaining chained to capitalism all those environmentalists are undermining all the good work they are doing drawing people's attention to the need for a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the biosphere. They impede the growth of the understanding of what social and economic changes are needed to create the framework in which the mess can be cleaned up and a sustainable balance with the rest of nature created.

“Now I say that we might produce half or a quarter of what we do now, and yet be much wealthier, and consequently much happier, than we are now: and that by turning whatever labour we exercised, into the production of useful things, things that we all want, and by…refusing to labour in producing useless things, things which none of us, not even fools want…” William Morris