Socialism or Environmental Catastrophe

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as good heads of the household”
– Karl Marx Capital, Volume III

This pamphlet was originally published as Socialism Today #194. Socialism Today is the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, a section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

Original Introduction

The publication of this special edition of Socialism Today, Socialism or Ecological Catastrophe, coincides with the 21st United Nations conference (COP 21) on the environment, held in Paris. Millions around the world will be hoping that COP 21 will make some progress. It is not hard to predict, however, whatever the declamatory statements produced by the meeting, that this conference will end in failure – like previous ones, as Ben Robinson reports in Climate Talks: Twenty-Five Years of Hot Air (page four). In any case, it will not produce a legally binding treaty. There will be agreement on a series of inadequate measures, most of which will not be implemented anyway.

The major imperialist powers which dominate the conference will in no way rise to the challenge of the environmental disaster facing the planet. As Jess Spear shows, A World of Change (page ten), we are in a period when human society, dominated by capitalism, has a decisive effect on the planet.

There is strong evidence that we are approaching a tipping point regarding global warming that may lead to irreversible damage to the environment, with disastrous effects on human society. The working class and the poor of the world will be the main victims. They are afflicted by a multitude of problems: extreme weather events, flooding or desertification, soil erosion, rising sea levels, and more. It is not just a question of global warming, but also pollution and the proliferation of toxins arising from uncontrolled methods of production and farming.

System Failure

The failure of the COP conferences is not merely the result of poor negotiations. In words, many political leaders recognize global warming and the need for urgent, effective measures. Even the executives of some big corporations recognize the need for action. But the failure of negotiations reflects the underlying contradictions of capitalism.

The big corporations, as well as smaller businesses, are dominated by the drive for short-term profit. They operate according to the laws of competition, nationally and internationally. They aim to minimise their ‘overheads’, and in reality they believe that the social costs, wider effects, and long-term consequences are not their problem. The inability of capitalism to solve environmental problems effectively is shown by Pete Dickenson, Why Can’t Capitalism Go Green? (page sixteen).

The current Volkswagen scandal says it all. One of the world’s biggest carmakers has been caught out falsifying data on the emissions of its vehicles. However, the scandal has been seized on by other carmakers to gain advantage over VW, especially reflecting the intense competition between US and European vehicle manufacturers.

Marxism and the Environment

Marxists are frequently accused of advocating industrial growth without regard for the environment. The truth is, however, that Karl Marx was a pioneer when it came to analysing the relationship between production and nature. He showed that all wealth was the product of the interaction between labour and natural resources. There is an active ‘metabolism’ between the system of production and the environment. Capitalism exploits nature, just as it exploits the working class.

This is shown in Per Åke Westerlund’s article, Marxism and the Environment (page twenty-two). It also answers myths about the Soviet Union. In the first period of the Russian revolution, the Soviet government took pioneering steps to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. This was swept away by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which usurped power from the working class. The totally undemocratic, bureaucratic management of the economy under Stalinism led to a wanton destruction of nature in the Soviet Union. This is not a genuine model for socialism.

The growth of green parties and environmental movements internationally reflects widespread anger at the devastation of the environment. But many of these trends focus on the multiple symptoms of ecological crisis and stop short of advocating a change in the system. Solutions to the deepening environmental crises cannot be separated from the struggle to abolish capitalism and establish socialist production, as explained by Hannah Sell in Green Parties Are Not Enough (page twenty-eight).

To avert ecological catastrophe requires a socialist planned economy, run under workers’ democracy. Environmental degradation does not recognise national borders, and an alternative requires planning on an international basis. This would provide the basis for social cooperation and human solidarity on an international level, a prerequisite for the protection of the environment and the conservation of natural resources.