Fighting for the Environment

Tens of millions of people across the world are involved in fighting to protect the environment. In Britain alone, there are estimated to be four million members of various environmental groups. Socialists welcome this mass participation – the involvement of wide numbers of people is vital to the struggle to change society and save the planet. However, we also need to examine, and if necessary, criticize, the tactics, strategy or actions of different campaigns to ensure success.

Involvement ranges from elderly upper-class people who give money to the National Trust, to the most committed activists in the anti-roads movement. It also ranges from small, underfunded, community-based campaigns against toxic waste dumps and road building, to the large, national and international environmental organizations, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, whose international organization had a joint income of $131 million (£87 m) in 1994/5 and employs 65 full-time campaigners in Britain alone. 1 Many other organizations, which were not specifically set up just to campaign on environmental issues are also involved – for example, the General, Municipal and Boilermakers’ (GMB) and Transport and General Workers’ (TGWU) unions have been at the forefront of campaigns over toxic substances and dangerous and damaging agricultural practices.

The huge divergence and variation in the broad environmental movement means that there are big differences of opinion between and within these organizations.

Many groups, for example, have a pacifist and legal approach to campaigning while others are eager to take direct action. Some smaller groups would support sabotage and even individual terrorism to further their aims. Divergence on policy is even greater. Some environmental groups have links with the far Right, mysticism and religious cults, while others are involved in joint action with socialist groups and local communities.

Many environmental groups are based on ‘networks’, rather than the formalized structures of trade unions, political parties, etc. While this can have many advantages in terms of mobilizing supporters for activity, it can also mean there is little control over the people who end up as spokespeople in the national media. Earth First!, for example, now includes many of the most able and committed activists in Britain and is playing an important role in many environmental protests. But its leading spokespeople have a checkered past. For example, Dave Foreman (one of the leaders of the US group) speaking about the 1985 famine in Ethiopia, commented that: “The best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve”.

Socialists and the vast majority of environmentalists would completely reject such reactionary nonsense, which effectively echoes the propaganda of the bosses that there are ‘just too many people’ and lets the people who’ve caused the problems in the first place off the hook. Any tactics based on such an outlook will be unsuccessful and will weaken the struggle for a sustainable society.

However, the majority of people involved in environmental groups and protests today want to see radical changes. Socialists aim to work together with these groups wherever we have a common goal or aim, such as the stopping of a road or defense of a particular recreational area or park from the developers.

Pollock Against the M77

Militant Labour has been active in a campaign in Pollok, Scotland, against the building of the M77 motorway through local open space destroying ancient woodlands and adding pollution to local housing estates.

The Earth First! newsletter (Do or Die, No. 5) described some of the activities, on Valentines day, 1995, when the police tried to close down the protest camp and allow the bulldozers to move in.

What happened on Valentines day coupled with the involvement of the local Militant group to a great extent changed perceptions and began to increasingly radicalize the nearby communities. At 6 am 300 police and security surrounded the camp, placing roadblocks … cordoning off the area. The network of phone contacts went suddenly dead“.

“Word spread about the events. 100 kids walked out of classes, charging down the roadbed, breaking through police lines and saving the bulk of the camp, 26 security resigned that day refusing to be class traitors anymore. One said: “I have a wife and four kids to feed but I’d rather go back on the dole than this.” Militant were central in convincing many of the security to quit, knowing many of them from the local area.

“The pupils began to organize their own union, and three schools started to take part in the protest.

“The No M77 campaign has brought about the long spoken about alliance between Green and Red and made it a reality. Many environmentalists began to see the campaign beyond wholly moral terms and saw the class and social implications of this fight.”

Militant Labour is firmly part of the broad environmental movement. We have been enthusiastic supporters of the setting up of Socialist Alliances, through which different socialist and environmental groups can work together. Many tactical and political issues will be clarified and resolved in debates at these meetings and, more importantly, through joint activity. It is important that discussion, criticism and even disagreement about various campaigns, strategies, and tactics takes place in an open and friendly manner, in the interests of working out clear aims and methods, which are vital to victory.

Tactics 1: ‘Consumer Power’? Consumer Boycotts?

The Green Consumer Guide sold over 250,000 copies in less than a year in 1988-89. It shot to the top of the best-seller lists with its advice on how to use “purchasing power” to influence business and governments by buying “eco-friendly” products.

‘Environmentally friendly’ products are now Big Business. The Economist recently commented (3/6/95) that “Many firms have discovered that green laws can be good for profits – either by creating new markets or by protecting old ones”. How many people playing that little bit extra for a washing powder with ‘biodegradable’ written all over the packet in big green letters realize, for example, that every single washing powder in the UK exceeds EU standards on biodegradability? The National Consumer Council’s March 1996 report, Green Claims, reported that claims about environmental performance were often “misleading, meaningless or even downright dishonest.” Any Arthur Daley just needs to add an “ecologically friendly” label (which has no legal status or meaning at all) to a bottle of washing-up liquid or a can of aerosol and add 20p to the price! But many of us can’t afford the cheap stuff, never mind the more expensive one, and, if you’re struggling to pay the bills, you can forget about buying your soap from the Body Shop!

Pollution and environmental degradation are overwhelmingly caused by big businesses’ drive for profits at all costs. From the toxic waste and pollutants produced by business to the blanket-bombing of the countryside, e.g. in Iraq, and the ‘expert’ agricultural methods wrecking rural areas, it is capitalism and its governments which are to blame. Of the 380 million tons of waste in Britain every year, households produce less than 6%. Even if we re-cycled every single can, bottle, bag and wrapper, we wouldn’t be making that much difference to the overall problem.

Of course, we all have our own part to play. None of us should allow the fact that the problems are much wider as an excuse not to re-cycle our rubbish or to throw litter on the street. But to leave it there leaves the real problems unsolved, and can let the real culprits off the hook.

It suits the Tories and big business to lay the blame for the destruction of the environment on to individuals. It fits on very well with Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there’s no such thing as society – only individuals and families.” It’s all part of a strategy to make us feel guilty about things that aren’t even our fault. Even worse, they blame the victim rather than the culprit. Pollution is as much the fault of the people who buy the product as poverty is the fault of the poor!

One simple example should answer this idea: The total amount of Greenhouse gases produced by the burning of oil flares in Ogoni-land, one region in Nigeria, by one oil company – Shell – is greater than that caused by the production of all the electricity used by every household in the whole of Britain. So much for the idea that turning off your lights saves the earth – it is like saying that wringing out your swimming costume in a beach hut instead of the sea empties the ocean!

It is quite natural for working people to try to find practical solutions to their problems. The heroic efforts of workers who try to find a way out of the profit system by creating alternatives within it, always end up being forced to bow before capitalist ‘logic’ at some point. The Co-op was founded in 1844 by 24 workers in Rochdale as an alternative to adulterated food. But the Co-op today sells the very same food as every other supermarket and operates in exactly the same way as any other private firm.

It’s a bit like world starvation and charity. Despite Thatcher’s claim that there is “no such thing as society“, the response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine showed true human solidarity. Live Aid was a marvelous instance of the way in which ordinary people will respond to human tragedy, and it’s often the poorest and those with the least who’ll give the most. Yet, the £40 million raised was a drop in the ocean compared to the $42.9 billion a year net transfer out of the neo-colonial world by the banks and the multi-nationals.

There is a third choice between making the best of what is or waiting for a change. That is to campaign now against the problems we face and fight to change the system.

Where consumer boycotts and other forms of ‘individual action’ are effective socialists will give them 100% support. We will be involved, whenever possible, in such actions. Success is most likely when they involve the mass of the population, as when 85% of Germans supported a boycott of Shell petrol in protest at their plans to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea.

Tactics 2: The Power of Persuasion?

In the past, many Green groups argued that the power of their arguments will lead to change. The claim has been, if we let everyone know these facts, they’ll have to do something. Such arguments not only leave unanswered the question “What to do?”, they are, unfortunately, not even true. The fact that someone knows something is bad doesn’t necessarily stop him or her from doing it, as any smoker will tell you!

Capitalists have not fundamentally altered anything at all since the days when global warming and Acid Rain were only talked about in academic seminars. If anything, they’ve just become better and more cynical at hiding their real plans. Chris Rose, Greenpeace Campaign Director, admitted as much in an article in The Independent (21/11/94): “Neither business nor governments have delivered serious change. Commitment to environmental principles such as ‘sustainable development’ sounds heartfelt, but in reality it has served as a cover for ‘business as usual’. Further awareness-raising by environmental groups now triggers rhetoric, rather than action, from government.

Throughout the whole of modern history, well-meaning people have appealed to the bosses to end slavery; for a decent welfare system; for education and decent wages. But, on every occasion, economic interests and greed get the better of morality. None of the rights we take for granted; whether it is the health service, education, even the right to vote, to free speech and to form parties and protest groups, was given to us by the ruling class. It all had to be fought for by our predecessors. The same is true of the environment. As long as the bosses can make a profit out of wrecking the planet, they’ll do it. Appeals to them to be good will fall on deaf ears.

Many writers on the environment clearly see the need for dramatic change in the way the world is run. They recognize that today’s society, based on inequality of wealth and power, with the dominant aim of profit for a few, is leading to an ecological disaster. The dilemma they face is how to change things given the power of the polluters. Often education is held out as a great hope. If, so the argument goes, people’s views and outlook are changed, then maybe the world can be saved.

There is no doubt that young people and children today are much more aware of the world-wide environmental problems than twenty years ago. However, educational policy is dominated by the government and behind them in the rulers of society, the very people responsible for the environmental problems. The general trend in education is to make it more controlled by the needs of business and to restrict wider issues.

Schools and teachers who try to fully explain the causes of the crisis will be discouraged or labeled as ‘politically motivated’. Already the School Inspectorate have warned against too much environmental discussion. At most the solutions offered will be at the level of individual action, which on its own is inadequate.

Of course Militant Labour is in favor of education, that is why we’ve produced this book. The problems of the environment are not due to ignorance. They are because the rulers of the world benefit from a system that pollutes, wastes resources and destroys the planet. We support all activity to defend the environment both as it may restrict some of the attacks and also as it raises people’s awareness and confidence. However, it is not enough to understand the world, the point is how to change it.

Tactics 3: Green Capitalism?

Capitalism isn’t interested in what is healthy or best for the long-term survival of the planet. It is only interested in what makes a profit. ‘Green Capitalism’ is a contradiction in terms. Campaigners who have put the idea forward (there’s even a book called Green Capitalism) fail to explain how society can regulate and control industries that it doesn’t own.

Caring Companies?

Three well-known greens, Jonathon Porritt, Sue Parkin and Paul Elkins, have launched a “different kind of environmental organization” as they put it, called Forum for the Future. Also involved are Chris Patten (a leading Tory), Glenys Kinnock (Labour Euro-MP) and Richard Branson (of Virgin fame). They have set up a body of “Corporate Partners” including companies they claim have “a proven commitment to environmental issues” including; B&Q, Body Shop, NatWest Bank, Tesco and Wessex Water.

It may be a surprise to know that these companies are committed to environmental protection. Maybe it has more to do with good publicity for these firms than a policy to protect the environment.

The planning of towns and cities; the world division of agricultural products; the location of industry; the re-cycling and disposal of waste; all should be planned on an international scale. But it can only be done with public ownership and democratic planning of the world’s resources.

‘Green capitalists’ fail to explain how basic economic laws would be altered: if something makes money, it’s produced: if it doesn’t, it isn’t. The very essence of capitalism is that everything, from water to cars to health care, is reduced to commodities to be bought and sols. The balance sheet and the accountants rule. If that means that other people or species suffer, then that’s just tough as for as capitalism is concerned.

The spread of so-called ethical investments, funds which claim only to invest in ecologically friendly companies, is little more than consumer power in a bigger scale. Investment bankers have just adapted to a new market – the advertising of such funds themselves is quite often only a marketing ploy. It is another form of exploiting the environmental concerns of consumers – in this case, mainly middle-class ‘consumers’ with spare money to save or invest – to grab a bigger share of the market for a particular company or investment house.

Some theoreticians even argue that turning those parts of nature not yet in the market, such as clean air, every species, or beautiful views into cash commodities, is the best way to protect it. This would effectively ration enjoyment and use to the rich, excluding the poor from water, leisure and the countryside. Putting a price on everything would make the problems worse, as all would then be sold to the highest bidder to abuse as they wish. Already they are patenting life, using science for profit, with the ownership of new species of plants and animals produced by genetic engineering becoming private property.

A similar argument advanced by Garret Hardin in Tragedy of the Commons is that natural resources that are not privately owned, such as air or common land are most open to exploitation. In fact much common land was well protected by the traditions of its users. It is the advent of capitalism that has destroyed the traditions and opened the land to degradation. Hardin’s argument to privatize everything is powerfully answered by the events in the Amazon. The transfer of land to private ownership went hand in hand with the destruction of the rainforest.

Yet some capitalist commentators and theoreticians still argue that capitalist development is now the only way to save the planet. But capitalism is a system in crisis: it cannot even make full use of the productive potential of the 820 million people throughout the world who are unemployed or under-employed. The ‘glory days’ of capitalism, the boom period of the 50s and 60s, when (at least in the developed nations), there was some development and a general rise in living standards, have gone forever. World capitalism is now marked by permanent crisis, debt and instability. The living standards of the majority of the world’s population are actually declining, forcing them to do whatever is necessary to survive – including damaging the environment.

Even where capitalism is able, due to special historical conditions, to develop economies, it makes environmental problems worse rather than better. Throughout the neo-colonial world capitalism’s advance had created environmental disasters. It has increased the poverty of millions forcing them to use short-term and destructive agricultural methods.

The people of the neo-colonial world need to raise their living standards. Development on its own is not itself the problem but who controls the development. Usually economic development is to boost big business profit without concern for the people or environment.

In Thailand, for example, which, like other southeast Asian countries, has seen spectacular growth rates, and some growth in living standards for a section of the population, in the last two decades, the change to an urban, capitalist economy has been a disaster for the environment of the country. Half of the country’s forests have been chopped down over the past 30 years, rivers have been clogged up and water supply is now a major problem for the whole country. The capital, Bangkok, has terrible traffic jams and pollution.

One of the main newspapers, the Bangkok Post, recently gave an excellent example of how to put the blame in the wrong place: “If you wash your car frequently, if you hose down your porch or water your garden, if you hum a tune while you enjoy a nice, long shower … then you are the problem.” Yet domestic consumers only account for 4% of all water consumption in Thailand, while agriculture accounts for 90% and industry the rest!

Yet again blaming individuals although they produce very little of the environmental damage. The main culprits for pollution, waste, depletion of resources, destruction of land and the species are big business, war, agri-business, and government.

Making business pay for the damage it causes, wither by laws prohibiting pollution and requiring repair of any damage done or by heavy tax penalties for pollution sounds like a good idea to many people. Such would need strict laws that the costs have to be met out of profits. This would mean governments challenging the power of big business. However, governments world-wide give appeasing big business a higher priority than the environment or workers’ living standards. Even the best environmental protection legislation and rules aren’t powerful enough to change the economic realities of capitalism. Often, the cost of fines and enforcement are borne by the companies as an inconvenient added cost which they pay up, as its cheaper than changing their processes. If they can get away with it, the additional costs are just passed on to consumers by putting the prices up!

The “polluter pays principle”, another popular idea of pro-capitalist Greens, amounts to making ordinary people pay. The producers of raw materials in the neo-colonial world suffer price cuts. Workers in industry suffer wage or job cuts. Consumers pay as prices are jacked up. Meanwhile the real culprits, big business, keep their profits.

Governments are also quite happy to use the cover of ‘the environment’ as another way of taxing workers more heavily. Taxes are used to subsidize polluting industry and to pay for the clean-up afterwards.

The Tories had the nerve to argue that their imposition of VAT on household fuel was a green measure to cut down consumption and Greenhouse gases. They never suggested that the money they were raising would go into a program of house insulation or other energy-saving measures. This episode shows the limits of a non-political and individual approach to environmental problems. One of the only national organizations supporting the Tories was Friends of the Earth! A number of local groups were, however, furious about the national policy.

Another marketing ploy is to sell licenses to pollute, which companies can bid for, rather than stop polluting. In the USA, when environmentalists bought up the permits to stop the polluters, the government prohibited them.

All these capitalist solutions are ‘bolt-on solutions’ which, at best tackle the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problems. So, rather than paying attention to reducing the number of cars on the road and investing in public transport, big business puts forward the misleading false idea that everything would be OK if we all fitted catalytic converters!

When capitalism moves into recession, these laws are often dumped anyway because the bosses claim they cannot afford them. The Republicans’ 1994 victory in the US Senate elections threatened a ‘bonfire of the regulations’ governing national park protection, pollution control and air quality. The republicans Chief Whip in the House of Representatives, dismissing the scientific base of the anti-CFC regulations, recently commented; “I’m not going to get involved in mumbo-jumbo.”

Even the limited environmental protection measures that have been achieved over the past few years have been in the teeth of furious opposition from big business. The Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act, weren’t given to us by benevolent bosses but were fought for by working-class people, through the trade unions and grass-roots organizations.

Tactics 4: Lifestyle Politics?

‘Lifestyle politics’, the idea that changing people’s lifestyles is the key to saving the planet, starts from the same principles as consumer boycotts, that individuals changing their attitudes and behavior can change the planet. Thousands of young people, in particular, are attracted to such ideas. Their actions are important both in helping to raise the ideas and, in a small way, helping to preserve resources.

But opting out of society, or trying to create new societies within the overall structure of capitalism, will not solve the problem. Capitalism will not allow people to opt out: even those small groups of people who manage to do so for a short time are eventually subject to planning controls, land ownership rules and the rest of the instruments of control. Anyway, even opting out of society would not stop damage to the environment and people being affected by air pollution, global warming, acid rain or nuclear disaster. You can’t create your own whole planet!

Battle of the Beanfield

On the first of June 1985, the police attacked a convoy of New Age Travelers heading for Stonehenge. In ‘Operation Solstice’, 1,363 police officers began arresting travelers without any attempt to persuade or negotiate with them.

The TV programme, Critical Eye, showed one woman being pulled through a broken window by her hair. A TV news reporter described seeing the police clubbing people carrying babies. Social Services had been brought in to the area to take the children into care. One traveler was turned around by the police and forced to watch as they burnt his home. The travelers had not broken any law. The police tried to prevent the camera crew from filming their activities. When journalists went back to the studio to look at their film, they discovered important sections, depicting particularly brutal police action, were missing.

241 people were arrested for unlawful assembly. Most of the charges were dropped and only a handful of people found themselves in court. The beatings and intimidation had obviously been the main purpose of the operation. 26 people sued the police, who were found guilty of assault, damage to property and false imprisonment. They were awarded damages which didn’t even cover the cost of their legal fees. No action was taken against the police and, in at least one case of assault on a woman, the officer concerned was promoted.

Since then, new laws have been introduced as part of the Criminal Justice Act, to give police greater powers to carry out such operations. This does not, of course, mean that we should not struggle and fight back. But we do have to understand the forces ranged against us and how to tackle them.

Tactics 5: Direct Action?

Many of the most effective campaigns in defense of the environment begin life as small numbers of people using direct action, occupying a building, stopping the traffic, picketing a board meeting, etc. as a means of getting the message across. Sometimes, these activities to gain publicity are the first steps in a much wider campaign of mass activity: on other occasions, the campaign relies solely on the individuals involved in the direct action.

Direct action is an extremely effective way of getting the message across. Militant Labour members have a wide experience of direct action: occupying sheriffs’ and bailiffs’ offices against the poll tax; climbing cranes during the miners’ strike; hunger strikes against youth poverty; student sit-ins and so on. But we have never left the campaigns there: we always attempts to use such actions as a means of mobilizing wider support, both for the specific campaign and for the broader struggle to change society.

Where direct action can work, we are the first to support and participate in it. But it can only ever succeed to a limited degree: it can slow down or even stop this or that road being built, but it doesn’t in and of itself change transport policy. It can temporarily stop a particular factory from polluting a particular stream, but it doesn’t change the fact that capitalist industry is only interested in making profits and pollution is ‘someone else’s problem’.

It is the whole system that is at fault. It has enormous wealth as well as an array of supporting powers – the police, judiciary, private security guards, the media, etc. There is even speculation now that the security service, MI5, searching around for a new role after the collapse of the ‘communist threat’, it to target environmental protests. MI5’s new public brochure about its role states that it advises ‘those elements of commerce and industry whose services and products are of critical national importance.’ Like the farming lobby or the road-building industry? Organizations like MI5 and the other powers of the state clearly cannot be tackled just in one wood.

One pitfall of direct action if it is not linked with wider numbers of people is that it can give the impression that a handful of brave individuals alone can save the planet. Not only is this not true, but it can also play to the agenda of the Tories and the ruling class, who are always arguing that environmentally friendly individuals are the key. This is simply an attempt to shift the blame from the system, and especially big business, to individual workers, shoppers and consumers.

Tactics 6: No Politics?

Environmental problems are urgent and the price of failing to solve them could be catastrophic. Some people therefore claim that we have to put the environment above politics. The idea that “We can’t argue about stupid things like who rules the country while the earth is being wrecked” can seem very attractive. After all, politicians of all parties have presided over the crisis. The same politicians then rushed to become ‘Green’ in the late-1980s, when the extent of the problems became clearer. Even Margaret Thatcher announced that she was a Green!

Certainly, we can’t leave the protection of the planet to the pro-establishment politicians. The June 1992 Rio Summit, at which every world leader pledged, hand on heart, to ‘save the planet’ was nothing more than an expensive public relations exercise. 130 heads of state and 15,000 negotiators, lobbyists and activists met for 12 days and agreed on nothing of any value. It would probably have been better for the planet if they’d all stayed home. For every five minutes that each of them spent flying to Brazil, they used the same amount of energy as the average person in the neo-colonial world does in a year!

The environment is not above politics. This whole book has explained that the problems we face are caused by the way that the economy, science and society are organized. This is politics. Capitalism owns and controls industry and raw materials, determines how land is valued, decided priorities for transport, and controls the police and other arms of the state: in short it is thee root of the problem.

So, if the problems are caused by the way society is run, then the solution is not to reject human society outright, but to find a different way of running it. To ignore politics is to leave the present rulers in control. We need a new politics, based on the interests and needs of the majority of the world’s population.


  1. Independent on Sunday, 10/9/95; Independent, 6/11/95.