A Socialist Plan for Sustainability

Environmental intensity is the key factor in trying to deal with the environmental effects of increased consumption, and there are three ways a reduction in its value can be achieved. The first is changing the composition of output to less damaging products, the second is to substitute harmful economic inputs such as fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, and the last is to develop new technology to increase the efficiency of the use of resources. A fourth possibility is to decrease the environmental intensity coefficient by changing not just the technical relations of production but also the social.

Taking each of these in turn, changing the composition of output could be done by promoting public transport and energy efficient means of transportation. Socialists do not oppose the use of private cars in principle, the question will be to develop non-polluting vehicles (e.g. powered from renewable sources and made from re-cycled materials). Another example is to replace air travel for most short and medium haul flights by high-speed trains, again powered by renewables. It is reactionary to propose, as most greens do, that travel should be curtailed for environmental reasons, thereby forcing people to live in a constricted geographical environment. A socialist society will encourage complete freedom of movement to foster the international solidarity needed for, among other things, environmental co-operation. It is often put forward by greens that an important way to change the composition of output is for services to replace goods because they are less energy intensive. It is true that as socialism develops, people will satisfy their basic wants and turn to personal development, meaning that the service sector will become bigger than that for manufactures. However this will only happen after a big initial increase in commodity production has laid the basis for the harmonious further development of society. The goods produced in this process could be made and used on a sustainable basis.

The second factor that is important in reducing environmental intensity is to replace harmful economic inputs, such as fossil fuels, non-re-cycleable materials or uranium for nuclear power, with sustainable ones. A start can be made using present solar, wind, and wave power technology and then providing investment to develop it further into more effective forms. Other, as yet undiscovered techniques, will also emerge if sufficient resources are devoted to the question, as could breakthroughs in existing approaches, such as nuclear fusion. Plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels, could largely be replaced by sustainable materials that are available now, such as high performance ceramics. This route is held back because the investment to introduce new efficient production technology will not be made because it is more profitable in the market system to continue with plastics. The use of new technology, the third factor listed above, can increase the efficiency in the use of resources, not only by developing new and better ways of generating energy but by making the production process more energy efficient.

The fourth way to achieve environmental change is through transforming the social relations in society, from those based on private property to those centred on the common ownership. Such 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. But 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.

If the figures given earlier are accepted, the scale of the task is very large, since virtually all current energy sources and non re-cycleable materials will have to be replaced if environmental intensity is to be reduced by more than 90%. However, the basic human and material resources exist now to achieve this, it is a question of harnessing and developing them, something that cannot be done under conditions of capitalist anarchy. With a democratic planned economy, a start would be made immediately to bring about the changes needed. This will be a long road though because the processes of degeneration and re-generation are long term, so an environmental plan must implement significant and consistent improvements over maybe 50 years. In this time, the 90%+ reduction in environmental intensity that is needed will be gradually reached.

Where will the resources for sustainable growth come from?

It has been estimated that the cost of reaching sustainability just for greenhouse gas emissions in the USA will rise to 3% of GDP after 50 years, in present money terms $300 billion per year. As has already been pointed out, implementing this task in a capitalist system would lead to the slashing of profits and therefore would not be implemented (also planning over this time frame is impossible under capitalism). On the other hand, the resources needed to reach the goal of a tenfold decrease in energy intensity can be released by the socialist economy in the following ways:

  1. By the elimination of unemployment. We now have again what Marx called ‘ a permanent army of unemployed’ in the advanced capitalist countries. In Britain at the end of the present ‘boom’ the real jobless rate is still nearly 2 million, whose cost in terms of lost production and benefit payments has been estimated at £5000 per family per year. A planned economy will be able to guarantee work for everyone, with retraining provided to make sure the new jobs are meeting the needs of people, and some of the huge amount of money saved used on environmental projects.
  2. Luxury expenditure for the rich will be ended and the workers in the energy intensive luxury goods industries (e.g. making Rolls-Royces, yachts etc) re-deployed to fulfil more general needs. The capitalist experts are always keen to point out that ending the wealth of the rich will not solve the problems of society, because however obscenely well-off they are, there are not enough of them to make a big difference. This may be true, but nevertheless the rich do consume 5% of national income which amounts to £40 billion a year in Britain, a not inconsiderable sum, some of which could be used to begin the drive for sustainability as well as the process of transforming the NHS.
  3. Ending arms spending. On a world scale the waste of resources on arms is vast, reaching nearly $1 trillion p.a. at the end of the Cold War, although falling to a certain extent since. This sum represents approximately $1000 a year for every family on the planet, an amount of money that would be a big first step in lifting the majority of the world’s population out of grinding poverty. Although re-deploying millions of highly skilled arms workers, some of whom will work on renewable energy projects, will be a formidable task even for a planned economy, what is certain is that under capitalism such a transformation will never take place. This is because the reason for arms expenditure will not disappear, i.e. the hostility between rival capitalist countries, and even if it did, the market system could not plan the transfer of resources needed due to its anarchic nature.
  4. Eliminating the waste of capitalism. The world is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations who duplicate expenditure in research and development, spend unnecessary vast sums on advertising and design products with planned obsolescence. For example, rival drug companies spend billions on developing varieties of pain killers with marginally different effectiveness. All of this activity leads to a colossal waste of resources and energy, but is perfectly logical when profit is the motivating factor.
  5. Freeing the creative power of the working class. Workers in the market system have no incentive in putting in much of their energies to help out the bosses. In a socialist society, on the other hand, it will be possible to release the creative instincts of employees because no fundamental conflict of interests will exist. Although a factor which is difficult to quantify, in the long run this will be the most significant advantage of socialism. It is often said by management theorists that the real experts in any firm when a problem needs to be solved are the workers themselves.

Even in the initial period of rapid growth under socialism, which will be ten or fifteen years, that is short in environmental terms, real strides towards sustainability can be achieved, particularly by developing new technology. But the environment will not, and cannot, be the only priority at such a time. The international co-operation needed to get sustainability will depend on creating a human solidarity that can only be based on mutual prosperity. This reality answers the critics who will say that the ecological situation is too urgent and serious to brook any delay or diversion of resources to other tasks. A delay is inevitable anyway since a significant initial period of assessing the damage and carefully planning a way forward will be necessary.