A summary and examination of the environmental crisis and its causes, and how we think that the problems can be solved.
The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result will be the extinction of human life on the planet.
We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognise that nature and the environment have value in their own terms.
The main environmental problems include:
Air pollution: creates global warming (or climate change): a general increase in planetary temperatures that will severely disrupt weather patterns causing mass floods, droughts, chaotic climate fluctuations and disease killing millions; destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous cancer-causing rays from the sun; turns rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life. It also causes respiratory and other diseases amongst humans which kills over 30,000 people a year in the UK1
Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products, have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps. This is also a waste of finite resources and it poisons and injures people.
Soil erosion: this takes place in both the West and the so-called “developing” world, and is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilisers, dangerous pesticides etc., as well as inappropriate land use, land overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a rate faster than that at which it is being produced which contributes to rural poverty2 /
Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago. This results in the loss of many species, and undermines the eco-sphere on which all life depends.
What’s behind the environmental crisis?
There is nothing inherently environmentally destructive about modern industrial technologies3 . However as they are (mis-)used today, industry – particularly the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas for energy, which releases carbon Dioxide (CO2) which causes global warming - is catapulting the planet towards disaster. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
|The effect of global warming: Argentina's
Upsala Glacier was once the biggest in South America. This image
and more on bbc.co.uk
Many dangerous technologies and substances can be replaced. For example, instead of burning fossil fuels, renewable sources of energy can be used, such as wind, solar or geothermal power. Petrochemical based plastics, which are not biodegradable, can be replaced by starch-based plastics (which safely disintegrate if left outside in a couple of weeks); palm oil can be used to replace diesel, etc.. Dangerous technologies must be replaced with sustainable ones. Wasteful practices must be ended such as the use of disposable containers as opposed to recyclable ones, and importantly the production of far more goods than can actually be used. Living in harmony with the Earth does not mean that we in the West will have to accept a lower standard of living, although the excesses of the ultra-rich are unsustainable.
Rather than on ordinary people in relatively wealthy countries, the real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of capitalism and the State, and the society that these forces have created.
Capitalism is an enormously wasteful system of production, which is geared towards competition in the market, and to making profits. Under capitalism, the needs of the working class are not met, a false sort of "over- production" takes place, and pollution is endemic.4
Huge amounts of goods are built to break as soon as possible in order to keep sales up (built-in obsolescence) and a large number of useless or inefficient goods are promoted and sold by means of high pressure advertising, and often with the aid of government policy (such as private cars in place of large-scale public transport). Furthermore, this advertising pressures us to dispose of useful items which are no longer “cool” and purchase new ones.
We must not make the mistake of assuming that all goods produced under capitalism are actually consumed by ordinary people. Often the bosses produce more of a given product than can be sold on the market, and this can lead to a price collapse and a recession. The bosses' solution is to destroy or stockpile the "extra" goods, rather than distribute them to those who need them (which would cut into profits). In 1991 there were 200 million tons of grain worldwide which were hoarded to preserve price levels. Three million tons could have eliminated famine in Africa that year – and now the situation is still no different.
It also costs money and cuts into potential profits to install safety equipment and monitor the use of dangerous materials. It is more profitable for the capitalists to shift these costs (sometimes called "externalities") onto the consumer in the form of pollution.
We noted above that there are many environmentally-friendly technologies that can replace environmentally destructive ones. Many of these technologies and patents have been bought up and suppressed by vested capitalist interests – particularly big oil companies and renewable energies - that do not want technological changes that will threaten their profits.5
The state, props up the capitalist system, and while it is largely powerless to alleviate environmental destruction it in itself is also a major cause of ecological degradation, funding huge environmentally destructive projects such as dam buildings or weapons manufacture and testing.
The state is a structure created to allow the minority of bosses and rulers to dominate and exploit us, the workers. The state will not willingly enforce strong environmental protection laws against the bosses because it does not want to cut into the profits of the bosses and into its own tax revenue.
In addition, the rulers of the state are afraid that strong environmental laws will chase away investors (e.g. in 1992, capitalists in Holland were able to block a proposed tax on carbon pollution by threatening to relocate to other countries).6
We reject the idea that the environment can be saved by means of the state, or by electing a Green Party. Green Parties always talk radical when in opposition, such as in the UK, but act the same as other parties when in power, as can be seen in Belgium, and also Germany where the government of which the Greens were a part backed nuclear waste transports and mobilised 20,000 police against protesting residents. See our manifesto's introduction for more reasons we believe the government can not help solve these problems, and also our criticism of the UK Green Party.
At a general level, it is clear that the environmental crisis affects everybody, and threatens the survival of the human race as a whole.
However, even though the environmental crisis is a global threat, it is the urban and rural working class that is most severely affected by the various environmental problems.7 It is the working class that has to take the dangerous jobs that cause environmental degradation.
Profitable - reducing pollution is a pricey business, not in the interests of corporations in competition
While in the long-term a global environmental crisis would obviously affect everyone, it is not true that everybody shares an immediate interest in fighting against the environmental crisis: the bosses and the State benefit from the processes that harm the environment.8 Only workers and the poor have a direct interest right now in fighting for a clean environment.
Corporations engage in practices which destroy the environment as they need to make the maximum profit possible. Apart from the legal obligation to do so on many companies, the capitalist system enforces perpetual destruction by the imperative it creates – that corporations must grow or die. If a chemical company, say, instead of cheaply dumping waste at sea began to filter and purify all its waste – thus protecting the environment – it would lose valuable profit and thus would be either go bust or be bought up by a more ruthless competitor. Thus the institutional nature of capital makes individual corporations powerless to help, even if they wanted to (which of course they rarely do).
How can the problem be solved?
Mass action and a new society based on co-operation rather than profit are ultimately the only real ways to stop the environmental crisis.
The environmental crisis was generated by capitalism and the State, and can only be dealt with by challenging the power of these forces. We believe that only mass organising and mass grassroots action, as opposed to elections and lobbying, are effective methods of struggle. Read more on why we support grassroots action...
Because of the manner in which capitalism and the State by their very nature generate environmental destruction it is necessary in the long term to overthrow these structures and create a society based on real freedom and production and distribution on the basis of need, not profit. It is this kind of society that we would call "libertarian communist”, or “anarchist".
In addition, the working class is the source of all social wealth and is thus able, by action at the point of production, to wield a powerful weapon against the bosses and the rulers. We believe that our power as workers must be brought to bear in the struggle to halt the environmental crisis.
Because a large proportion of environmental damage takes place at the point of production and because the workers and our communities are the main victims of this pollution , "[t]rade union struggles for health and safety constitute the first line of defence for an embattled environment".9
The working class, organised in workplace resistance groups (such as syndicalist unions or rank-and-file groups), allied with communities struggling against environmental abuses can go a long way in stopping the State/capitalist onslaught against the planet. This sort of mass organising by the productive working class will do far more to stop the bosses than the small-scale guerrilla and obstruction tactics favoured by groups such as Earth First!, such as sabotaging bulldozers.10
A libertarian communist society will help the environment in three ways. First, the capitalist/state system that was the main cause of environmental problems, a system oriented to profit and power, will be replaced by a society based on need-satisfaction and grassroots democracy. Secondly, the excessive levels of consumption by the ultra-rich will be eliminated altogether, as will the idea that happiness can only be gained by buying more and more useless commodities.11 Finally, the workers will be able to install (and further develop) the ecologically sustainable technologies that the bosses currently suppress.12
Our role as libertarian communists is first and foremost to spread the ideas of workers’ self-organisation as far and wide as possible. We are in favour of helping people organise ourselves, and increase our confidence in our own decision-making capacity.
A crucial part of our work is to link a criticism of the present society with a vision of how society could be organised to benefit everyone. We support all progressive struggles, for their aims, for the confidence that campaigning gives people, and because it is in struggle that ideas are spread.
We always try to relate our ideas to the day-to-day needs and struggles of our class. We are opposed to an abstract form of environmentalism that does not link itself to the class struggle.
A solution? Workers in environmentally destructive industries have to be organised, to force the introduction of green practices.
See our Organise section for tips on all these activities.
1. The Earth is facing a serious environmental crisis with potentially catastrophic results.
2. The environmental crisis has been created by the twin institutions of capitalism and the State.
3. The working class has a direct interest in fighting to halt the environmental crisis as it the main victim of this crisis. By contrast the capitalist class profits from the crisis, and capitalist businesses are forced to continually expand and destroy the environment since if they did not, profits would fall and they would be bought up or go bust.
4. Mass action against the capitalists and the State is the only effective way to fight the environmental crisis in the short-term.
5. The only effective long-term solution to the crisis is the replacement of capitalism and the State by a society where production is organised not for profit, but democratically in the interests of all people and the planet – by a libertarian communist or anarchist society.
6. General workplace and community organisation will play a central role in fighting and winning the battle to end the environmental crisis, and its causes.
Edited and altered by libcom from an article by Zabalaza Books and the Bikisha Media Collective, 2005. Last reviewed/updated October 2006.
- 12000 UK figure: UK 32,652 - EU Commission report - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4283295.stm
- 2 Cooper, Dave, (1991) "From Soil Erosion to Sustainability: land use in South Africa," in Cock, Jacklyn and Eddie Koch (editors), (1991), Going Green: People, Politics And The Environment In South Africa. Cape Town. Oxford University Press. p177.
- 3 Purchase, Graham (1993), "Rethinking the Fall of State-Communism", in Rebel Worker, volume 12, no 9 (108) pp15-16. The examples of environmentally-friendly technologies come from Purchase, (1993), pp15-6 and Graham Purchase, (1991), Anarchist Organisation: Suggestions and Possibilities. Sydney. Black Swan. pp3-5, 21-3.
- 4This section is based on McLoughlin (1992); Class War (1992), pp30-1; and Lekachman and van Loon, (1981), pp62-4.
- 5McLoughlin (1992); Purchase (1991), p4.
- 6Weekly Mail (22-8 May 1992) p34 for this and other examples.
- 7Crompton, Rod and Alec Erwin, (1991), "Reds And Greens: Labour And The Environment," in Cock, Jacklyn and Eddie Koch, 1991, Going Green. Oxford University Press. Cape Town. p80; Chemical Workers Industrial Union (1991), "The Fight for Health and Safety", in Ramphele, Mamphela (editor), 1991, Restoring the Land. London. Panos Institute. p80; also Koch and Hartford cited in Cock (1991a) p14. For similar arguments for the USA, see J. Baugh, (1991), "African- Americans and the Environment: A Review Essay," in Policy Studies Journal, vol. 19, no. 2, p194; Morrison, D.E. and R.E. Dunlap (1986), "Environmentalism And Elitism: A Conceptual And Empirical Analysis," in Environmental Management, vol. 10, no. 5, pp586; van Liere, K.D. and R.E. Dunlap, (1980), "The Social Bases of Environmental Concern: A Review Of Hypotheses, Explanations And Empirical Evidence," in Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2. pp183-4, 189-90. Cf. to Lowe, P. and J. Goyder, (1983), Environmental Groups in Politics. George Allen and Unwin. London. pp14-5; McCloughlin (1992).
- 8see also A. Dobson, (1990), Green Political Theory: An Introduction. Unwin. London. pp152-3.
- 9Crompton and Erwin (1991) p80; also Chemical Workers Industrial Union (1991); McDonald (1994).
- 10Bill Meyers. "Ecology and Anarcho-syndicalism", Ideas and Action; see Anon. You Can't Blow Up A Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism for a detailed examination of the case for mass organising and actions instead of small- scale guerrilla and terrorist approaches.
- 11see Bill Meyers. "Ecology and Anarcho-syndicalism"
- 12Mark McGuire, (1993), "Book Review Corner", Rebel Worker, vol. 12, no. 6 (108)). p12.
- 13For an example of workers in a damaging industry attempting to convert it to be socially useful, read our history of the Lucas Aerospace struggle for useful work - http://libcom.org/history/articles/lucas-aerospace-fight/index.php