Our planet is being plundered and polluted: non-renewable resources are being used up in a reckless manner while other parts of nature are being rendered unusable through pollution and toxic waste. What makes this worse is that this does not even ensure the survival of the human race in decent conditions: millions suffer from hunger, lack of shelter, disease, and ignorance. Even those of us in the so-called developed parts of the world, though not suffering from problems of material survival to this degree, still do not consume proper food, nor have adequate housing, education or health care, and generally lead unsatisfying stressful lives. Clearly, something is radically wrong with the way we relate to our environment.
The first point is that natural resources, the ultimate source of our means of material survival, are not owned in common, but are the private property of individuals or groups. This seems to be quite normal and natural, but in fact, it is a quite irrational way for humanity to organise access to the fruits of nature and their own labour. For it means that a section of society monopolise the means whereby the rest of society live. It means that this minority can hold the rest to ransom and exact tribute. It thus rules out co-operation to produce what is needed and makes exploitation and conflicts the basic social relation of production.
So abnormal did this seem that a whole series of thinkers since ancient times have seen common ownership (the absence of property, or no-ownership) as being “natural” and property as being “unnatural”. Every time that the excluded, non-owning class has revolted against its exploitation by the propertied class the demand for a return to common ownership, regarded as the natural state of humanity, has been raised. In fact, the whole of political philosophy, as still taught in schools and universities to this day, can be seen as a permanent attempt to justify property and refute the more reasonable common ownership.
For where there is property nature cannot be regarded as the common heritage of all, to be respected and looked after in the common interest. There is no common interest and the sectional interest of the property-owners is to utilise the part of nature they monopolise for their own personal benefit, without concern for the rest of society and future generations. So, already, an anti-ecological bias is built-in to any property society.
A strange feature of present-day society is the fact that items of wealth are produced, not to satisfy human needs, but to be sold on a market with a view to obtaining a monetary profit. Not even previous property societies had this feature since, although they were based on exploitation, the aim of production was still used even if that of the ruling class. Generalised production for sale too seems normal today, but is really quite odd for it means that the main reason food is produced is not to be eaten, nor houses to be lived in, nor clothes to be worn; everything, literally everything, is produced for its exchange-value, not its use-value. The aim of production today, far from being the natural one of producing useful things to satisfy human needs, is to accumulate more and more capital in the form of exchange value. In fact production today is governed by an economic mechanism—the accumulation of capital—that is beyond human control and forces humans to obey and apply it even though this clearly does not serve human interests.
The possessing class seeks to maximise its own monetary profit. Each enterprise is a separate profit-and-loss accounting unit seeking to maximise its relatively short-term economic gain, once again without concern; either for the common interest or for longer-term ecological considerations. Capitalist society is incapable of regarding nature as anything other than a resource to be plundered for short-term, sectional economic gain. It is true that from time to time the state does step in to prevent excesses but this does not alter the basic mechanism of capitalism.
As William Morris pointed out with regard to food adulteration, laws against this are only necessary for a society where the economic tendency is to do this, since in a rationally-organised society it just would not occur to anyone involved in producing food to deliberately adulterate it. Similarly, laws against plundering and polluting the environment are only necessary where the tendency to do this is built-in to the economic system. It also means that such laws, besides being frequently broken, can only be palliatives, attempts to deal with effects while leaving the cause intact.
Ecologists either go for more laws and restrictions to try to protect the environment or they aim for a radical social change to bring about a society in which the environment wouldn’t need protecting. Trying to patch up present-day society or working to establish a new society as a preliminary to being able to do anything lasting and constructive? Experience has shown reformism, at best is only running fast to stay still, at worst it is only solving one problem at the expense of creating others.
The only social framework within which human beings could live in harmony with, not at the expense of, the rest of nature is easy enough to discern: it would have to be a society based on common ownership, not property and a society in which the aim of production was to satisfy human needs, not to make and accumulate profits. In short, communism in its original sense, what the Socialist Party today calls “socialism”.
Respecting ecological principles does not involve a “return to nature” in the form of a return to primitive agricultural and handicraft techniques. Agriculture, even in its primitive forms, has always presented an interference with nature and upset the pre-existing balance. Humans have to do this in order to obtain their material means of survival. But the point is to establish a sustainable balance between our use of nature as a source, of wealth and nature’s ability to keep on supplying us on a self-regulating basis because we allow it to recreate what we take from it.
What respecting ecological principles involves is, first of all, a recognition that there is a balance of nature which can be upset by the choice of techniques of food, energy, and industrial production. It involves choosing techniques in light of this knowledge, including developed industrial techniques since nothing prevents these from being in principle integrated into a sustainable ecosystem. Change, involving upsetting a particular balance, is not at all ruled out nor is it necessarily undesirable in itself but, once again, it must be realised that change can upset the existing balance of nature and that steps must, therefore, be consciously taken to help a new, different balance to be found. Having said this, however, it is likely that, after an initial increase in food, energy, and industrial production to help overcome the problems of world hunger, destitution and disease which socialism is bound to inherit from capitalism, production levels will become stabilised in socialism and be tied to population levels (which will also be stabilised). In other words, socialism will eventually become a society with a stable level of production, integrated into a stable relationship with the rest of nature; a particular balance with nature will be achieved and sustained.
We would say that this aim can be achieved only in a society based on the common ownership of natural and industrial resources in which production could, therefore, be oriented solely towards satisfying human needs. In any event, it is quite incompatible with the existing capitalist system which, because of its very nature, will never “ensure basic material security for all”, cannot put “people before profit” and is in fact “the insane rat race of economic growth”—the blind mechanism of capital accumulation out of profits realised from sales on a market.
Some ecologists would seem to be on the way to realising that the achievement of an “ecological society” Involves a complete change of economic and social system. A non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society based on the common ownership of natural and, to be absolutely clear, industrial resources enabling us to realise our full human potential is not a bad description of socialism as we understand it.
The reason why no government dares take the obvious steps to save the humans is that no one has come up with a magic fix to suppress emissions without suppressing economic growth and profits. Given capitalism, economic growth and profit maximisation must be systematically prioritised over all other considerations including emissions reduction or companies will fail, the economy will collapse, and mass unemployment will be the result: global warming may kill us in the long run but economic collapse will kill us in the short run. This is the ultimate contradiction of capitalism: We have to destroy our children’s tomorrows to hang onto our jobs today. In the real world, carbon taxes don’t work. The whole idea has been doomed from the start.
The problem is the economics: If the tax is too light, it fails to suppress fossil fuels enough to help the climate. But if it’s heavy enough to really suppress them, then companies and consumers balk and resist the tax -- because without any safety net for businesses and consumers, the entire burden falls on them, so they rationally resist to save profits and jobs. Thus to date, the only carbon taxes that have proven acceptable to governments and the voting public are those which are too light to do the job. More than 40 governments including EU, California and British Columbia have imposed taxes on carbon but none has put more than a trivial dent in emissions. No government will set a price high enough to spur truly deep reductions in carbon emissions because they all understand that this would force companies out of business, throw workers out of work, and possibly precipitate recession or worse. What government wants that?
The IPCC climate scientists called on governments to impose truly draconian taxes -- on the order of $135 to $5,500 per ton, even $27,000 per ton -- whatever it takes to suppress fossil fuel consumption enough to keep global warming below 1.5° Celsius.
The pro-market Heritage Foundation, not surprisingly, skewered this recommendation arguing that taxing industries by anything like these numbers “would bankrupt families and businesses and trigger a global economic disaster.” The IPCC plan, they said is “a blueprint for destroying the world economy.” Given capitalism, they’re right, of course.
In a world of abstract models, the carbon tax strategy works perfectly. But in the real world, with real investors and real employees, the imposition of draconian carbon taxes would bankrupt some of the largest companies in the world, precipitate a stock market crash, throw millions out of work, and most likely “destroy the world economy.”