Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Protect the Planet - Create Socialism

"Climate extremes are the new normal.” - Prof Patrick Verkooijen, the CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, in the Netherlands.

It is fashionable for many capitalist politicians to say that they are "green" - it is a good vote-catcher and is deeply concerned about "green" issues - the issue of green-back dollars! 

When we look at the world around us we cannot fail to notice the extent to which nature is being ravaged in the name of short-term economic gain. It is all too clear that the prevailing economic system of capitalist competition is quite incapable of seriously taking into account the long-term considerations of a healthy planet. On a global basis, the alteration in the natural balance is taking place on a massive and unprecedented scale. One of the gravest criticisms that can be leveled against the capitalist system is that the application of the profit motive has been disastrous to the land. Throughout virtually the entire world, land is not used to produce the crop best adapted to it on a permanent basis but to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible - the same system exalted by the industrial manufacturer. Almost everywhere, the land is being impoverished; its fertility flushed down the world's rivers or blown away by its winds or simply buried under an expanding carpet of concrete.

Every vote-seeking politician in the world waxes eloquently about the urgent need for a curb to be placed on global emissions. They fly hither and thither across the world addressing congresses about their deep concern for the planet's future. Behind these vote catching antics however lies a more pressing problem - how to compete against international rivals in obtaining a larger share of the profits. For national governments to reduce industrial pollution would be economic suicide. Their costs would go up and they would not be able to compete with other nations that had not reduced their pollution. Inside capitalism, in the battle between less pollution or more profits, there is only one winner.  Businesses pollute because it is in their economic interests to do so. Oil companies. Supermarkets. Petro-chemical firms. Airlines. Shipping lines. Globally they spend millions of pounds undermining environmental policy. Big businesses spend serious money on advertising and PR telling us that they are doing their bit for the environment. But away from the public eye they’re spending many millions holding back environmental progress. Airlines are spending millions to persuade governments to expand and build new airports. Petro-chemical companies are blocking environmentally friendly measures because of the cost to them. Oil companies are funding ‘independent thinktanks’, designed to undermine serious climate change research. And they are all doing it for one thing. Profit. The big businesses concerned are only doing what they were set up to do – preserve and increase the wealth of their shareholders. This is an economic imperative as well as a legal obligation. The directors and executives of a business who did not seek to maximise profits and grow bigger could face legal action from its shareholders.

So what do many of the environmentalist propose to do about it? 

Campaign against the whole profit system and for a society in which there would be no profit-seeking businesses controlling production because productive resources would have become the common heritage of all and be used to directly provide for people’s needs? No, not at all. They accept the profit system and merely offer to restrain profit-seeking activities of big businesses by lobbying against their excesses.

How might socialism approach the problem of maintaining the world’s eco-systems.

 Firstly, in socialist society, free of the constraints of the marketplace, it would, of course, be entirely feasible to allocate resources in such a way as to ensure their most productive use. Underpinning this freedom would be the unity of common purpose, a unity forged in the basic structure of a society in which all had free and equal access to the wealth that society produced.

Secondly, socialist society would obviously want to halt and reverse the long-term decline in soil fertility by improving the humus content of the soil. Not only would this make for the more efficient absorption of chemical fertilisers but would help contain further topsoil loss as a result of erosion. Whilst this would involve more labour intensive work which would require a larger agricultural workforce it should be borne in mind that one of the greatest productive advantages of socialism over capitalism is that it would release a tremendous amount of labour for socially productive work. At least half of the workforce today are engaged in activities that, although vital to the operation of a modern capitalist economy would have no purpose in a society where production was directly and solely geared to the satisfaction of human needs.

Thirdly, and most importantly, as a society freed from the profit motive and competitive pressures "to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible", socialism will be able to adopt agricultural methods which achieve a working compromise with nature (for, as explained, all agriculture unavoidably upsets the pre¬existing ecosystem to a greater or lesser extent) respecting the long-term considerations which ecological science teaches are vitally important.

Fourthly, socialism would have no difficulty in developing and applying existing technology. Conservation production would mean employing methods that avoid using up and destroying natural resources. For example, standardised machinery could be designed with the minimum number of wearing parts which, with simple maintenance, could be easily replaced and the materials re-cycled and used again. For parts of machinery not subject to wear, durable materials which do not deteriorate could be used. If for some reason such machinery became redundant, the materials involved could be recycled and used again. The principle of conservation production could establish the practice that once materials became socially available after extraction and processing, they would be available for permanent use in one form or another. Thus socialism would bring into use means of production, permanent installations, structures and goods which would last for a long time, and even when redundant could be re-cycled for other uses. With its shoddy goods, built-in obsolescence, and the pressure of the market to constantly renew its capacity for sales, capitalism is incapable of applying this production principle.

 If  environmental destruction are to be minimised then human behaviour — human productive activity, to be precise — must change, in such a way that what humans take from nature, the amount and the pace at which we do so, as well as the way we use these substances and dispose of them after use, should be done in such a way as to leave the rest of nature in a position to go on supplying and re-absorbing them. We call for a change of social system. We plead guilty to being human-centred for we do have a human-centred approach: we want a socialist society primarily because it will be good for human beings. It will also be good for the biosphere but, then, what is good for the biosphere is also good for humans.

We have indeed spoken of socialism in terms of abundance and our  green critics claim that human wants are "infinite" — interprets this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever-increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more food, to take more and more holidays, and to acquire more and more material goods. If humans wants were "infinite" then this would be the result of a society based on free access and geared to meeting human needs, but human wants are socially-determined and limited. Humans can only consume so much food, for instance, and only seek to accumulate more and more material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In a society, such as socialism would be, where people could be sure that what they required to satisfy their needs would always be available then we would soon settle down to only taking what we needed and no more. This is all we meant by talking of socialism as a "society of abundance": that enough food, clothing and other material goods can be produced to allow every man, woman, and child in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It was not a reference to some orgy of consumption, but simply to the fact that it is technically possible to produce more than enough to satisfy everyone's material needs, thanks, we might add, to technology and mass production.

Meeting everybody's likely material needs will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the millions and millions of people in the so-called Developing World who are suffering from horrendous problems of starvation, disease, and housing. So, yes, socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world's population.  Impossible, say many Green environmentalists, this would exceed the Earth's carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse. Not necessarily so, we reply.  They 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 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. This in effect is what 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 is engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity. 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.

After clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off and something approaching a "steady-state economy" reached. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.  Population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, in the developed parts of the world.  Population growth is a feature of the poorer parts of the world, suggesting a link between it and poverty and the insecurity that goes with it (the more children you have the more chance there is of someone to care for you in your old age). If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation programmes, the revival of eugenics or letting starvation, disease takes their course. Socialists emphatically reject such an anti-human approach. If that's what an "Earth-centred ethics" teaches then we want nothing to do with it. We'll stick to our 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.

We say that no government can protect the environment. Governments exist to run the political side of the profit system. And the profit system can only work by giving priority to making profits over all other considerations. So to protect the environment we must end production for profit. Environmental degradation result from the inappropriate ways in which materials from nature are transformed into products for human use. But what causes inappropriate productive methods to be used? Is it ignorance or greed, as some Green activists claim? No, it is the way production is organised today and the forces to which it responds.  Business enterprises, all competing to sell their products at a profit and it doesn't matter whether they are privately owned or state-owned—aim to maximise their profits. This is an economic necessity imposed by the forces of the market. If a business does not make a profit it goes out of business. Under the competitive pressures of the market businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interest, ignoring wider social or ecological considerations. All they look to is their own balance sheet and in particular, the bottom line which shows whether or not they are making a profit. The whole of production, from the materials used to the methods employed to transform them, is distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by uncontrollable market forces which compel decision-makers, however, selected and whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste. Governments do not have a free hand to do what is sensible or desirable. They can only act within the narrow limits imposed by the profit-driven market system.

Having said this, governments sometimes do intervene, in the overall capitalist interest, to restrain the activities of some business or industry where these activities are endangering the interests of all other businesses and industries. But they can work this out for themselves without the lobbying of no doubt well-meaning ecologists and charities.

If the climate change crisis is to be solved, this system must go. 

1 comment:

Tim Hart said...

Ditto my previous comment, another great article! As well criticising capitalism - the equivalent of a sitting duck for anyone that is not an ostrich - it is important to set out a vision of socialism. This article does this very well in advocating a socialist solution to the climate crisis.