National Sections of the L5I:

Earth Summit solves nothing

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Leaders of over 120 countries, surrounded by rock stars and the world’s media, assemble in Rio this month to discuss what can be done to reverse the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer. But the only significant effect the Earth Summit will have on the environment will be the emission of a great quantity of hot air, writes Keith Harvey.

The Earth summit is unlikely to save the planet. Its main aim is to bolster the reputation of those in attendance. This won’t include Carlo Ripa di Meana (the EC Environment Minister) since he believes it will produce “words, rather than binding obligations and precise understandings”. This is exactly why George Bush will attend.

The summit will discuss items such as global warming and third world development without making any positive commitments. Such cynicism is appalling when it is projected that at present rates:
• All accessible rain forests of West Africa, South East Asia and Central America will have been cleared by the year 2000
• Temperatures will rise 1.7˚C by 2025 with rising sea levels potentially submerging whole areas
• The ozone layer will be depleted with a resulting increase in skin cancers and other incalculable effects.

What should workers do faced with these developments? First, it is necessary to understand that these developments are not the consequence of “industrialism” or “consumerism” in and of themselves. They are the product of a specific historical set of social relations of production—capitalism.

Capitalism is a social system that does not produce according to the needs of the population or with an eye to the long term possibilities lodged within the eco-system.

Production is driven by the need for profit. This can have a direct or indirect effect on the environment.

Take deforestation as an example. Twenty million hectares of forest every year (about the size of Wales) is devoured by logging companies for commercial gain. But in fact some 60% of rainforest destruction occurs as a result of peasant land hunger. They have been driven off their former land by profit hungry capitalist farmers, cattle ranchers for example in Latin America, and forced to clear the forests to scrape a living.

Capitalists are, by material interest, indifferent to pollution and depletion of raw materials. To make these a concern would be to increase production costs and threaten profit margins when competitors face no such compulsion. This makes the individual capitalist complacent and short-sighted about the environment.

The state does intervene into the process—usually under the pressure of the working class and the middle class—in order to enforce rules that impede the reckless destruction of the environment by the bosses and impose general conditions on them all for their own good. But if such intervention threatens the capitalists’ ability in general to make a profit it will not happen.

This explains the central fact about Rio that can be predicted in advance. It will commit the world’s imperialist governments to doing precisely nothing. Because to remove the social conditions which drive individual capitalists and peasants to destroy the environment would remove the source of profits. In particular third world debt, which is a massive impulse for the wasteful exploitation of natural resources and for land hunger, will not be discussed.

In addition, the capitalist class is essentially a national class. It has no supra-national state machine that could enforce laws even in the feeble way national environment ministries do. It makes enforceable international agreements only when strong imperialist nations are prepared to back them up by force.

As a result, in Rio, we see governments coaxing and cajoling towards meagre environmental agreements rather than imposing them.

Of course groups of private sector capitalists can club together and seek to promote environmental measures in their self-interest. But these are usually image conscious multinationals who calculate that they can generate good publicity and “green” customers as a result.

More typical by far are the 2,000 US and Canadian owned companies that operate just inside the Mexican border. Nearly half of them generate hazardous waste. Four out of five of them have admitted that weak environmental laws were the reason for moving to Mexico. Meanwhile, polluted waters have increased birth defects in Mexico.

Such environmental destruction is normal and logical for the capitalist system, not an aberration. In February of this year the chief economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers, admitted this:

“Shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?”. Since the cost of pollution to the community depends upon loss of earnings due to death and injury he argued that “the logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable”.

Bourgeois forces for reform are facing an uphill struggle in Rio precisely because in the 1980s and 1990s the dominant trend within the imperialist ruling class is to move away from state regulation and intervention and towards neo-liberal deregulation. In the name of the free movement of capital, of creating a “level playing field”, tariffs come down, health, safety and environmental measures are sidelined or scrapped.

In the semi-colonial countries of the Third World the situation is even worse. On the one hand, it is their resources that are mercilessly plundered without a care to conservation or replenishment, or the damaging effect it has on the local economies of indigenous populations. Japan, for example, eats up Thailand’s forests for its wood product needs but protects its own forests from destruction.

On the other hand, semi-colonial dependency ensures that those regimes that still aspire to industrial economic development are only allowed access by the multinational firms to semi-obsolete, highly polluting and energy-inefficient technologies. This ensures both that they remain uncompetitive and that they continue to pour filth into the semi-colonial environment.

It is a mark of narrow-mindedness, rather than lofty high ideals, that the imperialists come to Rio in such numbers.

It is precisely because the issues under discussion there are not simply problems for the poor and exploited masses of the semi-colonies but have global effects that they are starting to take the problems seriously.

But equally urgent environmental issues such as Third World debt and poverty—which have little immediate bearing on the lives of the imperialist bourgeoisie—will find no place on the official agenda of the summit.

One issue—population growth and the need to control it—will be the subject of fierce debate around the summit. On the one side stand the reactionary Catholic church and its supporters amongst the corrupt regimes of Latin America and the Far East. They want to stop any initiatives which require making contraception more easily available to working class and peasant women. On the other side stand people like Prince Charles who thinks population growth is the main cause of a lot of the world’s poverty and environmental depredation. Charles, along with powerful allies like the World Bank, peddles the old argument of nineteenth century quack scientist Thomas Malthus who regarded war, famine and disease as the natural “regulators” of population. Whilst opposing the Catholic hierarchy on contraception and abortion, workers should reject the arguments and the solutions of the “neo-Malthusians”.

Large families occur in poor, largely rural economies where children’s labour is vital to sustaining the whole family.

All the facts show that it is modern industrial development that slows down population growth fastest. Birth rates in the semi-colonial countries are slowing down at the same time as food production is rising. There is no truth in the argument that “the earth cannot support so many people”. It is capitalism that prevents the allocation of natural resources, in particular food, rationally to meet the needs of starving millions.

In denouncing the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and its essential destructive logic the workers’ movement should not uncritically embrace the various doomsday scenarios produced by the petit bourgeois forces active in environmental causes. Over the last decade or so various, often contradictory, forecasts produced by different research bodies have been used to predict first a new ice age and later a new epoch of irreversible global warming. In reality the techniques of prediction are still primitive and scientists are not unanimous.

The petit bourgeoisie is imbued with a pessimism that stems from its class position. It feels the victim of forces beyond its control and pessimistic about the prospects for change promoted by either the workers’ movement or by bourgeois reforms. An air of alarmism and desperation is introduced into its propaganda as a result.

The working class must adopt an independent programme of struggle to save the environment. The bourgeoisie approaches reform from an image-conscious self-interested standpoint; the middle class above all from a green consumerist point of view that is blind to the urgent needs of the mass of the world population. The workers and poor peasants require more production, more growth and more industrialisation—not less—if they are to satisfy their most basic needs.

That is why we reject the various green utopias of “no-growth economies” and “sustainable growth”. To say that economic progress must stop because it damages the environment, that the third world must abandon industrialisation, is to concede that the social relations which make this so are permanent. They are not.

The goal of the workers’ struggle around environmental issues must be the overthrow of capitalism since it is the source of all unplanned, reckless consumption of natural resources without any thought given to conservation and reproduction.

But conservation and protection have to be approached from the standpoint of the needs of the mass of the working population not the rights of species of flora and fauna to be protected. That species die, that resources are used up and not replaced is inevitable. That ecosystems are destroyed and replaced with new ones is a result of humanity’s struggle to raise itself above nature and control it for human needs.

Socialism unashamedly stands for the continuation and ultimate victory of that struggle. Nevertheless our goal is the optimum rather than maximum development of production. Only this can combine an increasing standard of living with planned depletion and reproduction of natural resources.

To reach that goal requires that we fight here and now against all effects of environmental damage upon the lives of the workers and poor peasants. To prevent the further destruction of the rainforest we demand that land hunger be addressed so that the poor of Brazil and elsewhere do not need to slash and burn a natural resource to survive.

To combat the environmental hazards caused by third world industrialisation we demand the immediate cancellation of all debt and all debt repayments and the nationalisation of industry under workers’ control.

Against pollution and hazards at work we fight for factory committees and for the trade unions to impose a workers’ veto over the processes. Safer technology and conditions should be introduced under workers’ inspection at the bosses expense.

Beyond the factory we argue for unity in action between production workers and the population of the surrounding areas, to force the governments to impose safer methods of waste disposal on the bosses. Local committees to monitor air, water and food pollution levels should be formed.

Finally, the environmental question for the working class is not only a preventative struggle. Much damage has already been done and must be repaired. We demand that within programmes of public spending a high priority be given to restoration of the environment. Better sanitation and reliable supplies of drinking water, integrated rehabilitation programmes in regions of desertification, the construction of river and sea defences in monsoon regions—all these capitalism should be forced to pay up for now.

Only through this programme—and not through standing as spectators outside Earth Summits between capitalist ministers—will the working class save the planet from needless destruction by capitalism.n