A Planet in Danger

In 1995, hundreds of thousands of people across the world protested against the obscenity of French nuclear tests in the Pacific; millions of people in Germany boycotted Shell petrol in anger at Shell’s attempt to sink the Brent Spar oil platform and its waist into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1996, thousands of people joined protests against the building of the Newbury by-pass and other road schemes; millions were outraged by the disastrous oil swill in South-west Wales when the Sea Empress ran aground; and revelations about the potential damage to humans caused by ‘mad cow disease’ led virtually the whole population of Europe to question the way in which our food is produced.

Every day, it seems, we read or hear about the environmental problems facing the planet. Scientific reports, predicting disaster if human society continues the way it is going, get more and more regular. But it’s not just scientists now: people across the entire planet are no longer leaving it to “the experts”.

This broad movement is to be welcomed. It represents the desire of people for a better world, to move beyond the narrow, insecure, boring, and limiting life we’re often forced to live under this system.

We stand in the tradition of the pioneers of the socialist movement, who placed the health and safety of working people and the fight for a cleaner, pleasanter and healthier world at the forefront of their struggle.

Early trade unions fought against pollution, bad housing, contaminated food and water. Many of the major improvements in the environment – for example, in hygiene, with better housing, clean public water supply, sewage disposal and food standards – were, at least in part, due to workers’ struggles. Workers’ organizations, such as the Co-operative movement in its early days, and even local Labour parties, such as Bermondsey in south London, established their own bakeries to provide unadulterated, affordable bread.

The right for most people to enjoy the countryside had to be fought for. The mass trespasses, demanding open access to moorland in the 1930s, were often organized by unions and the Communist Party, and resulted in the establishment of the National Parks after the war, by the 1945 Labour government. Modern socialists carry on the struggle of those workers, living in bad housing in polluted cities, who wanted access to fresh air and beauties of the countryside and fought the rich landowners in their country mansions for it. Today, the battle continues against the Criminal Justice Act, the back-door privatization of Forestry Commission land and landowners’ constant attempt to charge for, or even stop, enjoyment of the countryside.

The leaders of the Labour Party, now New Labour, have completely abandoned struggle and action, preferring deals with the bosses. These leaders have refused to support any direct action. Although the leaders of the traditional Labour and socialist parties internationally have given up struggle, this hasn’t stopped people fighting back, in unions, community groups and environmental organizations. Across the world new socialist organizations are emerging that stand for struggle. Environmental battles are now often led, instead, by Green Parties, organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and a wide variety of single-issue campaigns. But are they enough? Is there a connection between the wide variety of different campaigns that environmentalists are involved in? And is there a solution to the environmental crisis?

What’s the Problem?

The environment is the basis of our whole life. It about the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. As well as the burning of the Brazilian rainforests, and global issues like the destruction of the ozone layer and the Greenhouse effect, it’s also about the choking of our towns and cities by cars and pollution, the enormous increase in asthma among children and workers forced to work with toxic chemicals in unhealthy conditions.

There are literally thousands of examples of environmental problems. They can be summed up under three broad headings: Pollution (the production and dumping of poisonous, damaging or dangerous substances); Resource Depletion (the using-up of various natural resources, coal, minerals, soil, timber, etc.); and Decreasing Bio-Diversity (the destruction of species of plants and animals).

Human impact on the environment, which started at the local level when our ancestors began t hunt and gather food, is now of such a kind that it threatens to dramatically alter the planet’s ecology – it’s climate, food, air and water.

The effects of modern processes are no longer limited to the immediate vicinity, they have an impact hundreds or thousands of miles away. You only have to watch the weather forecast on TV to see how fronts and weather systems – and pollution and poor air quality – move across whole continents and oceans. Capitalism in 200 years has spread pollution to every part of the world with even Antarctica having industrial pollution carried thousands of miles in the air. Just as any one country would find it impossible to put up barriers to the rest of the world to create its own weather, so environmental problems can’t be solved country by country. Movements in every country have a very important contribution to play but we also need an international strategy to fight back.

The way in which we as humans relate to nature is largely determined by the way in which we organize production. Early societies based on hunting and gathering of food, clearly had a different relationship with natural forces both to agricultural societies where barons and lords owned the land (feudalism) and to capitalist society, based on private ownership of the productive forces.

Many of the problems we experience, from air pollution to contaminated food, from the destruction of soil to the destruction of whole species, are products of the short-termism of capitalism, of search for profits overriding all other considerations. We argue in this book that the “market”, that is capitalism, is the main source of these problems. Capitalism cannot be looked to for solutions and especially when the world economy in general is in a long period of depression and stagnation. In such times, we would expect competition between firms and nations to intensify for the more limited markets. Environmental legislation, like health and safety and a living wage, will go to the wall.

Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist magazine, expressed a commonly held view when he said: “I honestly believe that if people knew the truth about the pollution caused by nuclear power stations and the dangers of pesticides in food, they would not tolerate either the nuclear or chemical industry”. Education and the general informing of people about what is going on in society in relation to the environment is very important and is obviously one of the aims of this book. But the devastation being brought about by capitalism is so widespread that people can feel angry or even depressed but in the end, powerless to change the situation. What is crucial is whether or not they can see a way of fighting back, of achieving a different sort of society, a different way of producing what’s needed which doesn’t threaten the health and even existence of humans.

Jobs and the Environment

One of the issues which we address in this book, which often prevents workers from giving their whole-hearted support to campaigns about the environment, is the issue of jobs. Constantly, workers are told that they have to choose between supplying weapons to brutal regimes around the world or unemployment. Workers in the nuclear power industry are told that if Sellafield, for example, is closed there’ll be no more work in the area and they will see the destruction of their communities, with all the ill health, lost opportunities and premature death that can mean.

We argue that this is a con trick. We should not be taken in by the arguments of the bosses and their political representatives. When they talk about the threat to jobs, they mean the threat to profits. How else can we explain their enthusiasm for privatization which will have led to 250,000 job losses by the year 2000? – or the estimated three and a half million unemployed in Britain in 1996?

There is no fundamental conflict of interests between those who want to see a sustainable environment and workers in industry. The conflicts are the product of the way capitalism operates. What is needed is a struggle to change society so that workers can be retrained to do other socially necessary work, as suggested, for example, by the workers at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s, who produced a detailed plan of how military technology could be shifted to useful production. If industry were democratically owned and controlled the whole character of what is produced and how it is produced could be reviewed, and work could be directed to the areas where jobs are needed.

This book looks at the environment from a socialist point of view. We want to examine the problems but more importantly we need to be able to do something about them. A catalogue of disaster is not enough, we also need a book of answers. What do socialists say about all of the basic issues that are discussed in the Green movement? What exactly is the environment? How exactly do humans fit into it? Is capitalism the problem? How do socialists fit into the Green movement? How do the working class and trade unionism fit in to environmentalism – are they the problem or the solution? And what would a socialist society do differently to protect our planet?

We believe that it’s not human society but the way in which it is currently run, that’s the problem. Capitalism means control by a tiny minority, who rule in their own interests, not those of society as a whole. The profit motive dominates and the environmental consequences of human industry count for nothing. Stalinism – the system that, until recently, ran the economies of a third of the world – also rested on the needs of a minority of rich and powerful bureaucrats and disregarded the damage to the environment of the ex-Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. We stand for a genuinely democratic socialism, where the needs and wants of the people of the planet can be met through planning of natural and human resources. We believe that this is the only way forward both for human society and for the environment. We hope this book will convince you, and other readers, of the need to join our fight.