The Nature of the Problem

Few, except for George Bush and his carefully picked ’experts’, who speak for the interests of the oil companies and other multinationals, argue against the view that we face an impending environmental crisis. So, while it is not necessary here to prove that a catastrophe is looming over us- the evidence is now compelling- it is useful to give a quick summary of the key threats, in order to put the arguments about sustainability into context.

The main symptoms and causes of unsustainability are summarised in Table 1. To eliminate the effects of all these symptoms will be a massive task, something the anarchy of the capitalist market has been incapable of getting to grips with. All the factors shown in table 1 pose major threats to sustainability and many of them are linked to each other. For instance, deforestation contributes to global warming because the reduced amount of vegetation is no longer able to absorb as much carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. There is not space to describe all the headings in the table, but three of the most intractable and difficult areas, the greenhouse effect, nuclear waste contamination and ozone depletion need some further explanation in order to understand the scale of the crisis.

Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect is where certain gases (e.g. CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere are more transparent to the short wave radiation from the sun than the longer wave re-radiation from the earth’s surface. The result is that some of the heat from the sun is trapped inside the atmosphere, a similar effect to that occurring in a greenhouse. The greater the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, the more heat is trapped and the tendency for the average temperature of the earth’s surface to go up is established.



Main Causes


Greenhouse effect/climate change

Nuclear waste contamination

Ozone depletion


Non-nuclear toxic contamination


Emissions of Carbon Dioxide, CFCs and Methane

Production of nuclear reactor by-products

Emissions of CFCs

Emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide

Sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone

Renewable resource depletion

Species extinction


Land degradation

Fishery destruction

Water depletion


Land use changes, future climate change and ozone depletion.

Land use changes, future climate change

Unsustainable agricultural methods

Overfishing, habitat destruction

Unsustainable use, future climate change

Non-renewable resource depletion

Depletion of various resources


Extraction and use of minerals and fossil fuels

Table 1 Symptoms and causes of environmental unsustainability

Since the industrial revolution began over 200 years ago, CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels have increased by about 25% and the concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, has more than doubled. CFCs, the gases released by aerosol sprays, are also major contributors to greenhouse gas (GG) emissions, although their contribution is likely to slowly fall due the very belated international government actions to phase them out. The effects of the rise in emissions of GGs have still to be experienced, but the potential for disaster is clearly there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that sea levels could rise by up to 1 metre this century. This would devastate the inhabitants of the flood plains of Bangladesh and Egypt, and world-wide, hundreds of millions of the very poor would be displaced. Extending the prediction of the IPCC to 250 years gives a sea level rise of up to 4 metres (12 feet), which would make significant areas of the earth’s surface uninhabitable, including large parts of north-west Europe.

Even these figures are probably conservative, since they were based on data drawn up in the 1980s. There is much evidence that global warming is accelerating shown by the fact that the three hottest years since records began in the 1860s occurred in the 1990s. The IPCC calculated that CO2 output must fall by 60% to stabilise the situation, whereas it is was growing at 0.5% in 1992, the year for which figures were given.(The current economic crisis will probably lead to a small decline, but this will not alter the long term trend).

Nuclear Waste Contamination

Sections of the capitalist class realise that a climate change disaster is looming and are looking desperately for a cheap way to solve the problem. An answer from their point of view would be to expand nuclear power, since the technology exists and is relatively cheap, and it does not produce greenhouse gases. It would be completely wrong to assume however, that this option does not pose a serious threat to environmental sustainability, in particular linked to the problem of toxic waste.

A direct consequence of producing electricity with nuclear reactors is the accumulation of radioactive waste, uranium and plutonium. There is also a significant amount of plutonium produced for military purposes which has to be stored. Taking the example of the waste stored in the USA in 1991, it comprised of 4900 cubic metres with a radioactivity of 24000 MCi (A Curie is a unit of radioactivity, MCi is one million Curies). To get a measure of this figure, a typical radioactive source used in a classroom for a science experiment has an activity of one millionth of a Curie.

An average sized 1000 MW nuclear power station reactor has a total radioactivity of 70 million Curies (70 MCi) in its spent fuel one year after discharge. After 100,000 years this figure will fall naturally to 2000 Curies, still 2 billion times more radioactive than the typical source used in a classroom mentioned above.

The implication of this data is that a safe storage method must be found that can be guaranteed to be secure for more than 100,000 years, a task which poses huge uncertainties and problems because it is difficult to predict what natural conditions will be after that time. If the material is buried, the onset of earthquakes in previously unaffected areas is possible, as is a meteor strike. If the radioactive spent fuel is put at the bottom of the sea the integrity of the materials used as a storage medium must be uncertain after such a long time, possibly leading to seepage. Also undersea volcanic activity could start, producing the same result.

The technical difficulties and understandable opposition from local communities where it has been proposed to dump the wastes, has meant that there will be at least another ten years delay before any supposedly safe site is ready in the USA and another 20 in Europe. In the meantime, the dangers go unchecked, shown by the clusters of child leukaemia cases occurring in the vicinity of the current British nuclear waste storage site at Sellafield.

Ozone Depletion

The layer of ozone gas in the atmosphere protects humans and the ecosystem from the harmful effects of the sun’s radiation. It has been damaged by the release into the atmosphere of CFCs, which was a chemical used to propel aerosol sprays and also occurs in packing materials. The Montreal Protocol was designed to cut and eventually eliminate the production of CFCs and has had some effect, since their output fell by 77% between 1988 and 1994. Incidentally, this may appear a successful example of international capitalist co-operation, but actually the USA held back for years against the Montreal protocol and only signed up when it was clear that US corporations had the lead in developing alternative aerosol propellants.

The result of the delay is that the full recovery of the ozone layer will not take place until the 22nd century, because there is a long delay before the levels of chlorine, produced by the CFCs, in the stratosphere, will start to decline. This means that the benefit of the first reductions in CFCs that took place in the 1980s will not be apparent until 2005, in the meantime the ozone layer will continue to be destroyed. The 3% loss of ozone noted in 1991 over the USA was expected to produce 12 million extra skin cancers in that country alone.