Not Enough to Go ‘Round?

The other side of the claim that there are too many people is that people consume too much. Some environmentalists argue that therefore, either the advanced capitalist countries have to cut back, or the neo-colonial world cannot have the same consumption levels as exist in the West, or a combination of both. However, such arguments are mistaken.

It is true that present society cannot continue treating the environment as it does. For example, even Shell, the oil multinational, have recently estimated that all the world’s current deposits of oil will run out by the year 2055, if current trends of consumption continue. But this ignores the huge potential to reduce waste, as well as recycle and reuse materials. Energy as explained earlier, is plentiful. Most land and water are re-usable and present damage and pollution is reversible in the main. What is required is an economy which gives priority to design for long use, re-use and, in some cases, recycle.

Waste Everywhere

Capitalism is built on mountains of waste. Humans, with all their talents and skills, are wasted, through poverty, premature death, unemployment and under-education. The International Labor Organization estimates that one-third of the world’s workforce is either unemployed or under-employed – that is some 820 million people. Huge quantities of resources, food, water, soil, and energy are wasted. Many of the human and natural wonders of the world are being destroyed. Much of the classic architecture of ancient Greece is being eroded by the poor air quality in Athens, possibly the most polluted city in Europe. Rubbish and litter clog up our streets, making life in urban areas even more stressful and intolerable.

The English water companies have managed to create drought in a country with plenty of water. Yorkshire Water has applied for drought orders in five of the last seven years (1988-1995). They even approached local councils in the summer of 1995 to propose the evacuation of one million people. In the same year, the managing director, Tony Newton, saw his salary soar to £140,000, 85% higher than it had been before privatization. Profits jumped by 17% to £200 million and shareholders had their dividends increased by 21%. The water companies’ only proposal is to introduce metering for households which will double or treble charges. This would effectively mean rationing water for those who need it most – the chronically sick, families with young children or incontinent elderly people – while the rich will be able to use as much as they like in their swimming pools or garden hoses. Although over 30% of water leaks from pipes and reservoirs (an amount roughly equivalent to total domestic consumption), they are not interested in water conservation, which would also create jobs. Redesign of domestic appliances could reduce household waste by 50%. They are only concerned with boosting their super-profits.

Some 30 billion metric tons of solid waste, as well as air and water pollution, is produced every year. The USA produces one-third of this, ten billion tons, but households produce less than 1% of this total with the rest from mining, agriculture, industry and business. Britain has 1,000 square kilometers of land contaminated by pollution and waste. Virtually all the toxic and hazardous waste is from industry. Many of the industries producing this waste are themselves producing wasteful or unnecessary products.

Most of the waste present is dumped anywhere, as long as it is out of sight, in landfills, rivers and oceans. Most of the waste solutions suggested by big business either just pass the problem onto somewhere else by dumping or burning, or are ‘tail pipe’ solutions. These include fitting catalytic converters to cars, scrubbers to chimneys or filters to waste pipes. While this approach provides some reduction in environmental damage, it treats the symptoms rather than the cause of the problems, it doesn’t stop the production of waste, it just moves it around.

Waste for Export

The ultimate insult, which really shows the arrogant attitude of the imperialist powers towards the neo-colonial world, is the increase in one export – waste. Dumping waste in Africa costs as little as one-thousandth of what it does in the West. Often unmarked drums of highly toxic chemicals are just dumped, such as recently in Nigeria where 3,800 tons of highly toxic waste were found on an open site. Guinea-Bissau agreed to store 15 million tons of waste over five years. The payment of $600 million is three times the country’s gross national product.

This trade in poison and death has spread to other neo-colonial countries and now, with the collapse of Stalinism, Eastern Europe is getting the economic ‘benefit’ of the West’s rubbish. Germany introduced re-cycling laws which were widely proclaimed as an answer to waste. Yet Germany is the world’s largest exporter of waste. Much of what is collected under the scheme is not recycled, merely sent off to dumps, especially in Eastern Europe. Every year since 1988 the amount of waste exported has increased.

Not only is the waste dumped on poor countries. Several highly polluting industries have moved the entire processes from the USA, Europe and Japan to countries with the double bonus of low wages and no pollution controls. The free trade zone of Mexico, on the US border, has been described by the American Medical Association as a “Virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious disease”. One town, Metamoros, has 30 times more anencephalic (born without brains) babies than the Mexican average.

The Chief Economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers, stated: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage countries is impeccable and (we) should face up to the fact that … underdeveloped countries such as Africa are vastly under-polluted.” The World Bank argued that people in Africa, Asia and Latin America don’t live long enough to die of the pollution but are so poor they will benefit from the income of the waste trade.

Recycling and Reusing

Recycling is put forward as an answer. Many people in the West, keen to do something about the environment, dutifully take waste back to recycling centers. However, many recycling systems are of little or no environmental benefit if the total impact is considered. The processes need to be redesigned so that the waste is not produced in the first place. Rather than being recycled goods should designed for reuse.

Denmark banned all drink containers that couldn’t be reused. Britain took them to the European Court, claiming this infringed competition. However, the law still stands and now over 95% of containers are reused in Denmark.

Replacing and Reducing

New technologies offer opportunities to replace present materials. In many cases this can lead to huge reductions in materials used, the costs involved and increased opportunities to recycle goods. The reduction in computer size and cost in the last 30 years from a machine the size of a room to a small box is an example. It is likely that on the basis of carbon-based molecular circuits, a further reduction of the same scale is possible. Plastics that are biodegradable, made from plants, could replace metals and many of today’s plastics made from oil. Ceramics made of plentiful raw materials such as silicon (sand) and calcium carbonate (limestone or chalk) could also replace metals. Already optic fibers (glass from sand) have replaced large amounts of copper wire.

There are many other potential developments. However, under capitalism only those technologies that are likely to produce a profit are encouraged. Also the priorities of most research are not towards saving resources.

Even the way in which production in capitalist societies is measured, the Gross Domestic Product, (GDP), shows a complete lack of understanding or concern for environmental problems and human needs. GDP includes, as positive values, the production of pollution, manufacture of nuclear weapons, or the cleaning up of an environmental disaster. Similarly GDP does not measure, as negative values, damage done to the environment, the loss of resources, or starvation. To measure the real overall balance of the economy, the environmental and social costs have to be included.

Human Needs

Under capitalism millions of people have their basic needs unfulfilled while huge amounts of industry are dedicated to producing luxury goods and military equipment.

The argument that the neo-colonial world should settle for less is a continuation of the racist arguments of the population controllers. Most of the experts behind these arguments are well-off, white men. Yet one rich kid in the USA will do as much damage to the environment in their life time, by using resources and producing pollution, as 20 average Americans, or 1,000 children in India. Yet people like Garret Hardin never suggest the best solution for the planet would be to get rid of rich Americans.

Most humans want and need the basics of life, adequate food and water supply, housing and clothing, health and education, security from war and premature death, as well as an enjoyable life. Yet most of the people of the world do not have these basics. While many workers in the developed world may have some of these physical needs, there is no security that they will have some of these physical needs, there is no security that they will have them tomorrow. Unemployment, long-term ill health or other charges are being undermined with constant cuts in social services such as health and education. Almost all of the world’s population, wherever they live, have no say in the future of their life or society.

It is unclear how reduced consumption, even if desirable, could be brought about under the present economic system. Capitalism is based on producing commodities to be sold to realize a profit for the owners of production. The system depends on constantly expanding markets. Even a small slow-down, as in recent recessions, causes turmoil. The impact of a dramatic fall in consumption would be a catastrophe.

How would an environmentalist party persuade millions of people in the West, already facing cuts in living standards, to further cut back? Such an election program would just sound like a new ploy to justify cuts. Any cutbacks in the West would be unlikely ever to benefit the poor of the neo-colonial world on the basis of capitalism, nor would they safeguard the environment.

Socialism is not only about sharing out the world’s production and wealth more fairly. Of course the glaring inequalities of society should be abolished. The major feature of socialism is that its priority is meeting human needs and wants, rather than making profit. A socialist society would immediately free many of the planet’s human and natural resources that are currently applied to useless ends (like arms), wasted through duplication, competition or the lack of planning, or misused in other ways such as marketing, advertising and packaging. A new society would also free scientists and resources to investigate how increased energy consumption and other renewable forms of power.

Walkmans and Videos for All?

Useful production and the provision of basic human needs is well within the range of the world. Even many consumer goods could be readily supplied. Some argue, for example, that the limits of the world’s resources mean that it would be impossible to provide Walkmans for the population of China. However, if this was desired, rational production could make them to be long-lasting and readily recycled. At a cost of less than $10 each, it would cost $10 billion, a few days arms expenditure. However, more important than Walkmans is the provision of jobs, health, and security.

Human wants and needs are of course, ever changing and complex. Some of these wants are falsely created by marketing and advertising: but there can be no question of a socialist society restricting access to Walkmans, videos or other consumer goods, for example, only to the ‘elite’ of the West. Human society can never return to a ‘simple life – even if such a life were desirable (see Chapter 2). Inventions cannot be ‘reversed’ and we cannot pretend that certain technologies were never developed.

The present methods of production are enormously wasteful. Socialists argue for a totally changed approach to production. The priority would be human needs not profit. Goods would be designed to be long lasting and at the end of their life totally reused and re-cycled, rather than being dumped on a rubbish tip. A socialist economy would save the resources squandered on advertising, financial speculation, and repression of people.