The prospects for the summit delivering commitments with real teeth are almost non-existent. A statement issued by, among others, Greenpeace, Oxfam and FOE, before the meeting in South Africa, was clearly sceptical. It said that it was embarrassing, in watching the build up to the summit, to see different nations and blocs single-mindedly pursuing their own narrow interests at the expense of poor people and the planet’s future. Furthermore they stated: “The system of horse-trading, back room deals and bullying by powerful blocks is becoming common practice in international negotiations. Rarely has it produced so little by way of firm results. We have been appalled to watch governments renege on commitments made at Rio ten years ago…” Although socialists share this scepticism, we think it is necessary to draw all the necessary conclusions that flow from past experience, particularly as regards the role of the capitalist, market, system in the degradation of the environment and as the main barrier to sustainable development.
When the Bush government in the US dumped the Kyoto agreement, which aimed to reduce global warming, millions of environmental activists throughout the world were enraged. The message was loud and clear: that the interests of the multi-national corporations- represented by the White House-come before the looming environmental disaster caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Bush’s blatant policy of defending the profits of US companies has brought into question the credibility of international agreements between rival capitalist powers and prompted a debate among left wing environmentalists about the way forward. A socialist alternative to the destructive anarchy of the market system is needed, which will give a path to environmental sustainability- a term that has been defined as the establishment of conditions for life on earth to continue into the distant future. Socialists agree with most environmentalists that sustainability issues cannot be separated from economic, social and political questions, but we think understanding the class interests involved is central to finding a way forward.
According to most environmental activists reducing global warming and other environmental threats to sustainable levels is not just a technical issue, but is closely tied to the question of reducing or reversing economic growth. Since this has great implications for the possibility of abolishing poverty throughout the world, which is a pre-requisite for building socialism, a different strategy needs to be explored. An important aspect of this debate, which is only just beginning to be considered, is proposing an alternative to the market system, whose single-minded quest for profit is the prime cause of unsustainable environmental destruction. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the degradation of the environment in Eastern Europe during the Stalinist period, appeared to discredit the ideas of planning as an alternative to capitalism, the planned use of resources, as compared to the anarchy of ‘free enterprise’, will be the essential tool to tackle the problem of global warming and other threats. Such a planned economy, if it is democratically controlled, is an alternative both to capitalism and to the perversion of socialism practised in the former USSR.
A social system based on need not profit would have enormous inherent advantages from the viewpoint of saving energy. For instance, it would avoid the duplication of resources, planned obsolescence and wide-scale destruction of factories, plant and machinery in slumps, characteristic of the capitalist profit system. Eliminating these features of the system will have a significant impact in increasing the efficiency of energy usage and therefore reducing pollution. However, the biggest environmental advantage of a socialist society, where production is driven by need not profit, is the ability to tackle the threats facing us using democratic planning, compared to the inevitable environmental degeneration linked to the anarchy of capitalist production.
The developing world economic crisis, perhaps the most serious since the Great Depression, could divert attention from the problems of the environment, because the output of some forms of pollution will temporarily fall, along with the decline in economic activity. However, the history of capitalism shows that after even a deep crisis, with its resulting suffering and devastation, a recovery eventually occurs and a new phase of unplanned anarchic growth ensues, leading to a further twist in the spiral of environmental degeneration.