Can Capitalist Reform Save The Environment?

Can Capitalist Reform Save The Environment?

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has recently identified a number of key issues which are becoming catastrophic for life on Earth. Climate change is only one of them but it’s top of the list.

Capitalism is only concerned with short term profits; and the costs to the environment like pollution and the extinction of plant, insect, animal life and pollution are simply “externalities”. Pollution from agricultural fertilisers, mining, and destruction of rain-forests are “externalities” to profits derived directly from these activities. In cities all around the world, pollution from the factories and vehicles of the profit machine cause lung disease and damages children’s brain development – further “externalities”. For capitalism it’s more important to make profits than for children to grow up healthy.

At some point in the near future, climate change will become irreversible. Burning fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere trapping heat from the sun. The slow warming of the planet causes secondary effects such as melting polar ice, release of methane previously trapped in permafrost regions, turning forests from carbon sinks to CO2 emitters etc. all making global heating worse. Over the coming decades hundreds of millions of people will be subject to “water stress.” Water rationing in cities such as Cape Town and Mumbai are already harbingers of what is to come. Weather patterns such as extreme droughts, floods, wild fires such as in Australia at the end of 2019 are direct consequences of increased temperatures. A quarter of all CO2 discharged ends up in the oceans making them more acidic. The result is coral reefs are dying, marine life is unable to build shells and fish stocks are collapsing. So what can be done about it?

A Green Solution?

Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the Green lobby call for governments to commit to targets to reduce the production of greenhouse emissions and invest in green energy. In the US and elsewhere there are campaigns for a “Green New Deal.” The “Sunrise Movement” activists in the US, backed by Democratic congress woman, Ocasio-Cortez, call for a deal to create a “100% renewable energy system and a fully modernised electrical grid by 2035.” They hope that shifting production to greener alternatives can kick-start a moribund capitalism and save the planet at the same time. In the UK the “Common Wealth” think tank also calls for a new deal similar to that proposed for the US.

Many of the solutions favoured by the Green lobby involve environmental destruction and pollution themselves. Mining large quantities of rare earth metals, cobalt and lithium, required for green energy, cause appalling pollution. China, where 70% of rare earths are mined, has poisoned vast areas of land. Mining lithium, for car batteries, in the Atacama desert in Chile has already destroyed salt water lakes and robbed the freshwater aquifer. The fact that capitalism requires continual growth and each nation state is in competition to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals means the environment must always remain an “externality.” What capitalists can never admit is that the cause of the entire suite of environmental problems is global capitalism itself. Hence all solutions which leave capitalism in place are futile.

The Only Realistic Solution

Capitalism’s production for profit has from the start involved exploiting nature’s “free” natural resources. Humanity lives through a relationship with nature, and capitalism’s strangling of nature threatens the existence of not only plants, insects and animals but the existence of mankind itself. The environmental catastrophe is a product of the capitalist system of production. While the environmental movements of today are a response to real contradictions of the system, they pretend there is a solution within the system. However, the truth is that these problems cannot be solved while we continue producing for profit. Attempting to reform elements of capitalism while production for profit remains can only lead to failure. We need to start producing for human needs in a globally planned way. This means the overthrow of this insane system, which in turn means revolution. Revolution can only be carried out by the exploited class, the working class, which itself suffers the worst effects of the environmental crisis. The problem is a political one of creating the consciousness of the need for revolution and building a political organisation to help achieve this.

The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 50) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.