What can save the environment?

Feb 1, 2008

The drive for profit in the capitalist economy undermines attempts to protect the envornment. Photo: Custom Medical Stock Photo

Socialist planning or capitalist profits

The global environmental crisis is growing. Global warming as a result of human activity, shrinking polar caps, widespread pollution, growing shortages of basic resources like water—all these problems have been confirmed by international teams of scientists time and time again over the last three decades.

Global warming as a direct result of industrial pollution was confirmed by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a February 2007 report.1 That body also confirmed the growing water shortages. The shrinking polar caps and rising ocean levels have been confirmed by both The National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Workers and progressives all over the world are concerned about the rapidly deteriorating health of the environment. There is mounting anger against the multi-billion-dollar transnational corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Dow Chemical and Duke Energy—the main culprits in environmental destruction.

Millions of people volunteer time or give donations to environmental causes and organizations. According to a 2007 Harris poll, 77 percent of people in the United States recycle.

People all over the world, especially from oppressed countries, are fighting to stop the exploitation, destruction and pollution of their air, soil and water by the imperialist countries.

For example, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a mass movement stopped the U.S. corporation Bechtel’s attempt to privatize drinking water in 2000. Starting in 2002, a militant mass movement in Nigeria has confronted foreign oil companies like Chevron and Shell, shutting down plants and pipelines and winning many concessions like cleaner drilling and having oil wealth pay for schools and medical clinics.

The U.S. corporate media covers the environment on a regular basis. Al Gore and other imperialist politicians claim to champion the cause. Rock stars put on massive concerts to raise awareness and money to save the environment.

The United States is one of the main sources of pollution. It is also by far the wealthiest country in the world. Yet the U.S. government continues to do nothing to help stop this dangerous crisis. With the urgency of the problem for everyone, one would think that Washington would put its vast economic, scientific and technological resources into motion.

But that is not happening. Instead, working people are forced to pay billions of dollars for imperialist wars as funding for badly needed services is mercilessly slashed.

Why is there no well-funded worldwide task force to save the environment?

The impending danger to the planet is a very serious threat that all progressives and revolutionaries must analyze and struggle to reverse. The most basic question to resolve is: Can the environmental crisis be challenged within the framework of world capitalism?

The Industrial Revolution

Capitalism emerged out of the restrictions of feudal Europe. In the course of revolutions in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, England in the late 17th century, France in 1789, political systems more adapted to the capitalist mode of production completely uprooted feudal economies based on large landed estates and the exploitation of peasant labor through serfdom.

As a system of production, capitalism is superior to the communal, slave and feudal economies that preceded it in terms of developing the productive forces of society. Surplus value, or profit, created through capitalist exploitation of labor has driven a rapid advance in production, science and technology.

Capitalist production gave a great impetus to the productive capabilities of society, beginning in the period of the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 19th century and in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Improved means of production under capitalism included the proliferation of machines; innovations in energy and the powering of machines using steam and coal; the harnessing of electricity; improved means of transportation by land (railway) and sea (steamship); the advent of factories; improved mining techniques; the development of a chemical industry; and a greater knowledge of metallurgy, which led to the production of iron and steel.

From 1800 to 1900, the productive capacity of the capitalist countries ballooned from 20 percent to 80 percent of the world’s total production.2 Giant industrial monopolies in steel, automobile, oil, agriculture, meat processing and many others became the most powerful institutions in such countries as England, France and the United States. By 1904, for example, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled 91 percent of U.S. oil production.

In those and other countries, this period saw a massive transformation of economic relations, ending up with industrial armies of workers on one side, and a tiny minority of wealthy owners, or capitalists, on the other side.

This was also the period that capitalism rapidly developed into monopoly capitalism, or imperialism, with a few corporations dominating whole industries and racing around the world to colonize, plunder and underdevelop whole continents. All this in a feverish pursuit to amass and concentrate the greatest wealth possible.

In Southern Africa, British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and his infamous mining company, De Beers, ruled the British colony of Rhodesia with the twin fists of plunder and racism. After a fierce liberation struggle, Rhodesia became the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Industrialization, with its ever-increasing need for natural resources and its intrinsic need to constantly revolutionize production, also brought with it extraordinary demands on the environment.

The face of the earth has gone through great changes in the last 250 years. Entire forests have been destroyed; many bays, rivers, lakes and streams have been contaminated with industrial and agricultural runoff; many species have been driven to extinction due to hunting and environmental changes; and entire mountain sides have been gutted in a relentless search for minerals.

Industrialization has meant that air pollution has been a constant threat. In 1873, the first in a series of killer smogs occurred in London. Over 1,150 people died in three days from severe air pollution from coal burning.

Workers now live in huge, sprawling cities. That is where the jobs are. Factories, refineries, power plants and cars located in these cities emit harmful toxins into the water, air and land. Oppressed communities, especially African-Americans, immigrants and Latinos, live in the most polluted neighborhoods.

According to a Congressional Black Caucus report, 70 percent of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. In every one of the 44 major metropolitan areas in the United States, African Americans are more likely than whites to be exposed to higher concentrations of toxins in the air they breathe.3

In underdeveloped countries and around the world, the environmental depredations of oil, mining, agricultural and chemical companies know no bounds.

One of the most infamous environmental accidents occurred in 1984 in Bhopal, India. A Union Carbide pesticide plant accident released dozens of toxic gases into the air. Some 8,000 people died in the first three days after the leak. In all, 20,000 people died as a result of the accident.

In the days following the disaster, Union Carbide lied and claimed that the leaked gases were really a potent tear gas. Refusal of the company to disclose accurate information about the leak led to misdiagnoses and many unnecessary deaths.

Every year there are on average 20 to 40 major oil spills of anywhere from hundreds of tons to a million tons. Toxic oil spills cause immense damage to wildlife and have dire effects on water quality. Crude oil is made up of harmful chemicals like benzene, toluene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

One of the largest recent oil spills happened in Lebanon in 2006 when Israeli jets bombed the Jiyeh Power Station during the U.S.-backed Israeli war on Lebanon. That attack released 30,000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean. The biggest oil spill in history happened as a result of the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991. Over 1 million tons of oil were spilled into the Persian Gulf. At the beginning of the war, U.S. planes bombed oil tankers, pipelines and holding tanks.4

A January 2004 Friends of the Earth study estimated that one company alone—the U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil—has contributed 5 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions over the 120-year period from 1882 to 2002.5 Carbon dioxide is one of the “greenhouse gases” that is linked to global warming.

U.S. imperialism opposes progress

Preventing further environmental ruin is not a priority for the U.S. government or its masters in the capitalist class.

A 2006 study by scientists from Britain’s most prestigious professional science academy, the Royal Society, revealed that the United States emitted more greenhouse gases in 2004 than at any time in history. “Total U.S. emissions have risen by 15.8 percent between 1990 and 2004, mainly due to increased consumption of electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuel, a rise in energy demands caused by increased industrial production, and a rise in petrol consumption due to increased travel.”6

The U.S. capitalist class, however, will not agree to cut emissions by even the smallest amount. The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before, refuses to submit the extremely weak protocols of the Kyoto treaty on global warming to the U.S. Senate for ratification. The Kyoto protocols aim to reduce world emissions by only 5.2 percent by 2012.

Despite his rather weak record as vice president from 1992 to 2000, Al Gore has emerged as the most visible “pro-environment” capitalist politician in the U.S. ruling-class circles. Gore’s environmental film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” has increased public knowledge of the scientific consensus on the causes of global warming through carbon emissions. But Gore’s solution to the problem of global warming is based on misleading programs like carbon trading and biofuels.

Carbon trading is a market-oriented system as opposed to a rational plan to stop global warming. Polluting companies would get credits to emit a certain amount of carbon. If a company does not emit as much carbon as it is allowed, that company can sell its left over carbon emissions credit to another company, which can then emit more.

Gore has also been a proponent of biofuels, which are heavily promoted on the website of his foundation, the Alliance for Climate Protection. Most biofuels are currently made from food crops such as corn, resulting in an increase in prices for corn, milk and other foods. For countries where corn is a staple, like Mexico, the increase in corn prices has hurt working-class people. A greater emphasis on biofuels is destined to lead to artificial and real food shortages as the price of corn rises with increased demand.

Socialist revolution and the environment

In the same way capitalist production overcame the feudal relations of handicraft and landed estates, socialist production offers the possibility of releasing workers and oppressed people from the chains of capitalist relations.

To this point in history, workers have taken power and set out to construct socialist societies within the bounds of countries whose economies had not gone through full capitalist development prior to the revolution. While the relative weakness of the capitalist and ruling classes in countries like Russia and China made revolutions more possible, the task of socialist economic planning and construction is made much more difficult within the confines of a less-developed economy.

Socialism as a mode of production that seeks to meet the needs of the entire society relies on the complete industrialization of society and the fully developed working class that goes along with it. Because they must develop their economies or be overturned and brought back into the imperialist orbit, independent countries like China, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others have to make difficult choices.

The primary concern of any oppressed country, whether or not they have had a socialist, national or anti-colonial revolution, is the development of the means of production. Revolutionaries and progressives defend all oppressed nations’ rights to develop their economies on their own terms as an essential component in their struggle against the predations of U.S. and other imperialist powers.

Is China the real problem?

Listening to the U.S. ruling class media today, any worker would think that the main environmental problem in the world today is China. Beginning in August 2007, for example, the New York Times ran a series of articles called “Choking on growth: China’s environmental crisis.” The September/October 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, an influential ruling-class journal, ran an article called “The great leap backwards,” which argued, “China is fast becoming one of the leading industrial polluters in the world.” The Council on Foreign Relations devoted an extensive report in February 2007 to “China’s environmental crisis.”

The 1949 socialist revolution in China took place in a vast country where poverty, starvation, drought and misery were routine for hundreds of millions of people. Colonial bondage at the hands of Japanese, British, French, German and U.S. imperialists had left the country incapable of providing for the basic needs of its people.

China’s much-needed and rapid development has come with consequences. The country is plagued by the same environmental problems that imperialist countries faced during their industrialization. Seventy percent of China’s energy production comes from burning coal—42 percent higher than the world’s average. Many of China’s cities suffer from excessive air pollution and smog as a result.

China does face a pollution crisis. It has contributed to the broader global problem of global warming and environmental crisis. But China’s situation as a country emerging from colonial exploitation cannot be compared to a developed country like the United States.

On the one hand, much of China’s pollution is due in large part to the colonial legacy of underdevelopment and foreign ownership of industrial companies that export goods primarily to imperialist countries.

On the other hand, China’s retention of some central planning gives them tools to combat corporate criminals that workers in imperialist countries do not have. For example, the Chinese government’s 11th Five-Year Plan aims at reducing energy consumption by 20 percent, while the discharge of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants should drop by 10 percent.7

Also in 2007, China unveiled two important strategic plans for sustainable development: the Action Plan on Environment and Health and the National Climate Change Program. The former is designed “to guide environmental and health work in a scientific way,” according to a Jan. 5 posting on China.org.cn. “Positive public health is mandatory for sustainable social and economic development,” the report notes.

The National Climate Change Program commits the Chinese government to “swiftly adopt measures ranging from laws, economy, administration and technology which will combine to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and imbue the country with a flexible approach to climate change.”8

Socialist Cuba

Cuba is the world’s leader in developing a sustainable, environmentally responsible economy.

Socialist economies are based on central planning, a tool which offers the key to resolving the contradictions between national development, human well-being and care for the environment.

Cuba’s environmental revolution has happened at a time when the island’s economic development is still far behind countries like the United States, Britain and France. In part, Cuba has turned toward large-scale programs like organic agriculture out of necessity. The overthrow of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries meant that Cuba had to look for ways to greatly increase food production without imported fertilizer and pesticides and without their main trading partners. In 1990 and 1991 alone, Cuba lost 80 percent of its foreign trade.

Central planning during the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was essential for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. Public ownership of the means of production made the switch to sustainable production much easier.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation’s 2006 “Living Planet Report,” Cuba is the only country in the world to meet the standards for sustainability using two indices—the World Wildlife Federation’s ecological footprint measure and the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index. The HDI is calculated based on life expectancy, literacy and per capita gross domestic product. An HDI value greater than 0.8 is considered to be “high human development.”

The ecological footprint measures “demand on the biosphere in terms of the area of biologically productive land and sea required” to provide resources and absorb waste. A nation’s footprint includes, “cropland, grazing land, forest and fishing grounds required to produce the food, fiber and timber it consumes,” to absorb the waste produced and to provide space for infrastructure.9

The footprint is measured in terms of “global hectares” per person per country. The global average footprint is 1.8 hectares, so a footprint size lower than 1.8 denotes sustainable use. The United States’ footprint is 9.5 hectares. Only Cuba had an HDI value of 0.8 or greater combined with an ecological footprint of 1.8 or lower.

With socialist planning and distribution, environmentally sound production is attainable. Socialist production on the basis of human needs eliminates the incentive to waste resources in pursuit of short-term profit present under capitalism. Under socialism, there is greater incentive to plan for sustainable development, stewarding natural resources for future generations.

Who will save the environment?

The criminal capitalist class is unsuited to lead a movement to save the environment. It is in their nature to oppose anything that diminishes their ability to profit from exploiting the earth, its people, and every other thing on the planet.

Struggle and organizing can bring about change in environmental standards and regulations. It has in the past.

A 1970s California grassroots movement to reduce smog led to stricter regulations and cleaner skies. A 2007 grassroots campaign in Indiana and Illinois stopped British Petroleum from increasing their heavy metal dumping into Lake Michigan. Renewed struggles in this vein are very much needed now.

But the capitalist system does not produce rational strategies or outcomes. Competition between enterprises prevents the kind of national, much less international, economic planning that can both provide for peoples needs and do it in a manner that puts a premium on ecological sustainability. Each corporate CEO, no matter what they feel and think about the environment, makes decisions with one goal in mind: to maximize profit each quarter for the investor class. If they make a decision that is good for the environment but bad for profits, they will be quickly fired.

Only a global system based on economic planning instead of on cutthroat competition can offer the framework for making decisions that favor the environmental needs of the entire planet rather than satisfy the narrow needs of investors seeking the biggest return. This is an essential difference between a world capitalist economy and a world socialist economy.

Capitalism revolutionized the means of production over the past five centuries. Industrial and scientific development, operating together under the impetus of national and now international competition for the world market, created the material basis for eliminating hunger and want.

It also created an unplanned assault on the core ecosystems of the planet.

People will never go back to the pre-bourgeois period, the stage of society that pre-dates industrialization. Industrial society is a reality that offers great promise toward eliminating poverty and want.

Now, though, the collective property that has welded the people of all continents together as a world economy must be liberated from capitalist ownership and converted to public property. That alone offers the hope and possibility for an economic development plan based on international planning that both meets human needs and protects and restores the health of the global environment.

Communism offers society the way back from the precipice.


1. “Science panel calls global warming ‘unequivocal’,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 2007.

2. Paul Bairoch, “International Industrialization Levels from 1750 to 1980,” Journal of European Economic History Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall 1982), p. 269-325.

3. Kenya Covington “Climate change and extreme weather events: An unequal burden on African Americans,” Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Inc., Center for Policy Analysis and Research Report, No. 2, September 2005.

4. Friedhelm Krupp and Peter Symens, “Gulf Sanctuary,” Arabian Wildlife Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1994, http://www.arabianwildlife.com/archive/vol1.1/sanct.htm.

5. “Exxon’s climate footprint,” Friends of the Earth International, London, 2004, http://www.foe.org/camps/intl/exxons_climate_footprint.pdf.

6. The Independent, April 19, 2006.

7. Xinhua News, March 8, 2007.

8. China.org.cn, June 4, 2007, china.org.cn/english/environment

9. World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2006, http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report.pdf, p. 16.

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The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...