Much to the displeasure of some environmentalists, the World Socialist Movement shamelessly says that socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world's population. We describe socialism in terms of abundance. Impossible, rebukes these Green activists, declaring such growth would exceed the Earth's carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even more assured. Not so, we answer.
There are those in the ecology movement who interpret socialism as a society of ever-increasing consumerism, of people seeking to acquire more and more material goods. But our reply is human wants are socially-determined and limited. Humans can only use so much food, for instance, and only wish to accumulate more and more material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In socialism where people could be sure that what they required to satisfy their needs because goods 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, housing and other material goods can be produced to permit everyone in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It was not a reference to some orgy of over-indulgence, 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 industrialisation. Despite many Greens’ claim to the contrary, industry and technology are not in themselves the cause of pollution and environmental destruction; it is their application under capitalism in the pursuit by separate, competing businesses and nations of relatively short-term monetary profit that
is the cause.
The error in the eco-activists thinking 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 energy output 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.
What the World Socialist Movement propose is to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just the obvious as the resources devoted to armaments and armies but to the far wider 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 (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, the initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtained under capitalism.
After clearing up the damage and harm 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. It is true that this assumes that population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, wherein the vast majority of countries, fertility rates and family sizes are falling. Some neo-Malthusians disagree with us. But they offer no answer to the problem since being against increasing personal consumption levels as in their view this 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 there won't slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation or letting poverty and pestilence take their course. The World Socialist Movement rejects such a misanthropic anti-human world view. We embrace a human-centred approach that a balanced relationship with our eco-systems is something that humans should try to achieve. It is in our interest that the biosphere should function properly.
There is in fact no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the environment. We say that the ecologically-unbalanced behaviour that humans at present engage in is due to the socio-economic system under which we live, namely capitalism. We call for a change in the social system. We want a socialist society because it will be good for humanity. It will also be good for the planet but, then, what is good for the planet is also good for humans.