Humans to Blame?

Greenpeace’s 1991 recruitment leaflet expresses quite a commonly-held view when it says “Modern Man has made a rubbish tip of Paradise. He has multiplied his numbers to plague proportions … and now stands like a brutish infant, gloating over this meteoric rise to ascendancy, on the brink of a war to end all wars and of effectively destroying this oasis of life in the solar system.” So really these people do see humans as the problem. Is all human activity damaging or just some types of it? Is it just a modern problem?

If the planet had a very small human population, similar to the days before agricultural societies when people lived predominantly in hunter-gatherer societies, many human activities, while altering the environment, would not necessarily damage it, e.g. small-scale horticulture or grazing. Soil is not exhausted simply by growing crops – only by using certain methods. Even where societies did destroy soil fertility, there would be other areas to move on to.

The vast majority of early societies did not destroy their environment so that it could no longer support human life. In fact, in some areas of the world, e.g. in Africa, hunter-gatherer societies have inhabited the same area for centuries without in any way exhausting or destroying their habitat. Similarly, in feudal society such agricultural techniques as crop rotation generally safeguarded the fertility of the soil. On the other hand, the felling of forests was locally damaging, but was not devastating overall, because it was confined to relatively small areas of the world.

Human impact on the environment is also not just a development of degree, a gradual decline in the environment. At a certain point the effects mount up until it becomes catastrophic. Quantity changes into quality.

Quantities of Waste: Quality of Life

The 160 million people who live in the Black Sea basin are now threatened by what one newspaper recently called a ‘nightmare … so terrible that most scientists prefer not to discuss it.’ A combination of natural (i.e. outside human control) factors and the disastrous effects of pollution from big cities like Istanbul, industrial pollution and over-fishing, have led some scientists to conclude that the whole sea could die, destroying the whole of local environment and wrecking the livelihood of literally millions of people in Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and a number of other nations. Already, catches of one type of anchovy have collapsed from 320,000 tons in 1984 to 15,000 tons five years later.

Back to the Future?

Does all this mean that the answer to the environment crisis is to stop further development, reduce the human population and turn the clock back to an earlier age – even supposing this would be widely supported by people or was technically possible?

Some people, in their desire to escape from pollution and brutality of modern life, do look back to a kind of ‘Golden Age’, where humans lived in harmony with an unspoiled nature. But the truth is that this never really existed. Early societies were, in the main, a constant struggle for survival. Feudal society might have had crop rotation and a smaller population than today but, for the vast majority of people, life meant work from the cradle to the grave. Almost all work was done by human muscle. Living conditions were poor, life expectancy short, and you were at the mercy of the feudal landlord who owned the land and controlled almost every aspect of out life. Of course, people were then more “at one with the seasons” – they starved and suffered from vitamin deficiency in the winter when they couldn’t get enough food!

Human society has always struggled for a more secure life, for wider horizons and for greater knowledge. This can’t be wished away. There can be no questions for socialists of ‘going forward by going back’.

Effectively, though that is what some people in the environmental movement argue for. For example, the best-selling book Ecology for Beginners claims that “early man and woman behaved themselves quite well … (as) the world only had five or ten million inhabitants in those days”. Well, even if they hadn’t, and they may well not have done, if there were only ten million of them, they wouldn’t make much difference anyway. But that’s not much use to us now, unless the authors are arguing that the only way to protect the environment is to go back to a world population of ten million.

A rural ecotopia (as it is sometimes called), meaning a return to an idealized simple life of growing your own fruit and vegetables, a rejection of modern industry and production and even of society, is no answer to the destruction of the environment or to human problems of starvation, poverty and homelessness. It is impossible to go back in time.

The aim of socialists and those who want to safeguard a sustainable environment must be to find a strategy to change what is destructive in human society, not abolish human society itself. In reality, human society and behaviour show such infinite variety, some destructive, some constructive, that humans cannot be said to be fundamentally locked into any single pattern of behaviour. If we can say anything is fundamental to human society, it is social living, co-operation and problem solving. To be a friend of the earth you don’t have to be an enemy of the people.

How Did the Minority Get All the Power?

Whilst the level of human activity and population are factors which have to be taken into account, these are not the primary problem. We cannot pretend the people don’t exist in such numbers, or simply wish them away. The central issue is how society is organized. (See Chapter 6 for more discussion on population) The revolution in techniques, which led to agricultural society and settled populations, led to a big increase in population as food could be produced on a sufficient level to sustain it. However, in these societies, a contradiction began to develop. On the one hand was the potential of that could be achieved through the development of technique and the ability of humans to co-operate to solve problems and produce socially. And on the other hand, the wealth produced came to be owned, not socially by the people who produced it, but by a small number of people, initially released from labour to administer society. More and more of the resources, knowledge and decision-making of society were monopolized by this section of people – the ruling class. Class society was born.

Natural Disasters?

Most insurance companies claim that disasters are ‘natural’ or ‘acts of God’. Yet the number of disasters and victims are on the increase. This is not because of changes in the natural world – there are not significantly more earthquakes ore volcanoes. The increased effect are down to human action.

Human action makes the world more prove to disaster. Logging of forests increases the risk of flooding during rains, and drought after them. People are more vulnerable to disasters if they are forced to live in dangerous places, such as on the steep sides of mountains that suffer landslides, floods and earthquakes, or in the flood-plains of rivers.

The poor especially suffer from disasters. They live in the most dangerous places. In the years between 1960 and 1981, Japan had 43 disasters while Peru had 31. Yet 2,700 died in Japan (an average of 63 people per disaster) while 91,000 were killed in Peru (an average on 2,990).

The 1972 earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, killed 5,000 people, while the slightly stronger 1971 one in San Fernando, California, killed 65. The Managua quake was called a ‘class-quake’, as it flattened the shanty towns and left the well-off virtually unscathed.

As we have pointed out, humans do have the ability to foresee the consequences of their actions, to plan so that human society goes in one direction rather than another and to overcome problems that are created by earlier developments.

But for this potential aspect of human nature to produce a sustainable society which meets the needs of all people and safeguards the whole environment, we would have to live in a society where capitalism, a system based on the search for profits, oppresses the vast majority of people, wantonly destroys the environment and ignores the long-term effects of its production methods, because its profits would be reduced if it took the environment into account.

What is remarkable about human history is not how often they’ve killed each-other and gone to war, but how humans are social animals. Co-operation and community are key to an understanding of how and why human society has developed. If it is to develop still further, and prevent catastrophe, the co-operation side of human nature has to be liberated from the restrictions of ‘competition’, profits and capitalism.

What is socially produced must be socially owned and democratically controlled.