A Socialist Program for the Environment

The earth is clearly on the path to ecological catastrophe. This road will be marked by, amongst many other examples, the destruction of large areas of the inhabitable globe due to global warming, the chemical degradation of the atmosphere leading to an epidemic of cancer and bequeathing the problem of toxic waste disposal to future generations, for up to 100,000 years.

The responsibility for this situation lies at the door of capitalism, a system, controlled by the infamous ‘hidden hand’ of market forces, and driven by profit. The market economy has an in-built need for permanent growth, propelled by competition and the quest for profit, but at the same time, apparently paradoxically, suffering from regular slumps in production. Both tendencies lead to waste and environmental degradation, as does the anarchic, unpredictable nature of the market economy. The alternative is a socialist society, which because it does not have the need for permanent growth of capitalism, will be able to adopt, in its fully developed form, a sustainable steady state economy. A socialist society as well as avoiding the waste inherent in capitalism, offers the overwhelming environmental advantage of providing conscious democratic control through planning. Democracy is not mentioned here accidentally, it is essential if planning is to be run efficiently. Lack of democracy was the main reason for the ecological devastation in the bureaucratically (mis-)planned economy of the former Soviet Union.

If conscious democratic control is the key to managing the environment what are the pre-conditions needed to make this possible? The first, of course, is to eliminate the anarchy of the market, but just as important, is to provide the mass of people with the ability to run society. Above all this means giving them the time and the knowledge to be able to participate actively in decision making, which can only be done if enough leisure time is available, away from the drudgery of work, to attend meetings, and undertake educational activity and personal development. In its turn, this will only be possible if there is a transformation of economic productivity so that sufficient free time is available, something that will require big growth and investment. Although it might be argued that an alternative would be simply to cut production to such a level that enough leisure time would be freed up, the outcome would be counter-productive. Standards of living would fall, scarcity would increase and all the spare time created would be taken up in a battle to make up for the lost resources. It would set person against person and ‘human nature’ would quickly degenerate into the worst manifestations seen under capitalism; in Marx’s phrase, ‘all the old crap would return’. The co-operation needed, particularly internationally, to tackle the environmental crisis would be impossible.

Freedom begins where necessity ends

Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring that the realm of freedom begins where necessity ends, which means that it is necessary to satisfy all material needs in order to achieve both individual freedom and it could be added now, the freedom to effectively intervene to avoid ecological breakdown. Marxists consider that plenty is a necessary condition for the coming of a fully developed socialist society. Removing want will eliminate the causes of inequality, exploitation and conflict, and thus lay the basis for the co-operation needed for environmental regeneration, but to do this will require growth and investment.

Most greens argue that any growth is unsustainable, never mind the amount needed to completely remove scarcity and want throughout the world. Marxists put the argument round the other way, that it is impossible to tackle environmental problems without effective international planning, a prerequisite for which is eliminating the conflict that results from scarcity. Satisfying needs does not mean, however, that they are infinite and will continue to expand indefinitely. The basic needs for the majority of the world’s population are stable, i.e. clothing, food, shelter, health-care, etc, and account for the majority of consumer expenditures. In the industrialised countries, with high pressure selling and marketing, it can appear that there is an infinite demand for the latest unnecessary gizmo. However, there is actually a trend away from conspicuous consumption among the affluent middle classes, where leisure time for personal development is increasingly being put above further consumption, as for example, in California. Under socialism, as the levels of wealth of the majority rise up to these heights a similar trend will appear. Also the acquisitive habits of individuals fostered by the market economy, which are the driving force of economic behaviour in a society based on scarcity, will gradually disappear as uncertainty and worry about the future recedes and high pressure selling is removed.

Steady state equilibrium

These factors indicate that the possibility will exist for a gradual levelling off of consumption, albeit at a much higher level than exists today, into a steady state equilibrium. It is impossible to define exactly what this higher, equilibrium, level of consumption will be because it will depend on a multitude of unpredictable factors, not least how quickly human psychology adjusts to the new conditions. For arguments sake, and to make the position as concrete as possible, assume that consumption under socialism will be 50% higher than the current level in the advanced industrial countries, which will provide a standard of living currently enjoyed by the middle classes in the richest capitalist country, the USA. For a harmonious, efficient, socialist system to exist, the entire population of the planet must have comparable standards of living, which means that the level of consumption in the industrialised world must apply to everyone. This requires a reduction of environmental intensity of 97% for sustainability, if projections of big population increases are still used (see Appendix, example 3 for details). However, the assumption that population in the ‘South’ will double, will not necessarily be borne out because there is a clear relationship between falling population growth and increases in consumption, even in countries where standards of living were relatively low, such as the former Soviet Bloc.

In a democratic socialist society, as well as increases in consumption, there will be a growing sense of security and solidarity (in contrast to the former Soviet Union), which is another factor that will tend to lessen the perceived need for the ‘protection’ of big families. So, if current projections of population increases are not reached under socialism, the scale of the environmental problem will correspondingly fall. (Recognising that the rate of population growth may fall does not in any way endorse population control, advocated by some greens as a way out of the crisis. Leaving aside humanitarian considerations, such methods are counter-productive because they inevitably instil enormous hostility against the state by the very poor and will frustrate efforts to build the human solidarity necessary for the socialist project. Where such schemes have been imposed by the state they have led to near insurrection followed by collapse, as in India under Indira Ghandi in the 1970s, or passive resistance and failure as in China).

In a socialist state, the scale of the ecological challenge will also be reduced by redistribution of wealth from the super rich, who use a disproportionate share of resources, e.g. for private jets, compared to the rest of society. Since the rich absorb 5% of output, eliminating their consumption will make a small, but significant difference. While this, and the possibility of lower than expected population increases will mitigate the problem of reducing pollution, the size of the task will still be huge, requiring a transformation of current patterns of energy and resource use, so that environmental intensity is reduced by more than a factor of 10.

Greens will argue that since such a reduction in environmental intensity is impossible in their opinion, the increase in consumption by everyone on the planet along the lines proposed here will be unsustainable and go beyond the biophysical limits of the globe to maintain life. It may be true that there are such natural limits, but it is impossible to say what exactly they are, since this depends on the possibilities of substituting with renewables and introducing new technology to increase productivity. (There is an interesting theory developed from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is popular with environmentalists, that claims to show that all human activity generates irreversible increases in ‘entropy’ or ecological disorder, leading eventually to environmental breakdown. Even though the idea is scientifically attractive, the empirical evidence to back it up is limited, in particular it does not predict concretely what the limits to growth are, apart from stating that they theoretically exist). Whether a natural limit to human resource use exists is not however the issue, since it is not proposed to increase consumption unsustainably, but rather to explore the possibilities of transforming resource use with socialist methods.