Save Humanity, Save the Earth
Two interrelated global crises confront us in this intense epoch. Exponentially accelerated technological development has pushed the inherent contradiction of capitalist to its limit and created an polarization of wealth and power, manifesting itself in broad declines in the standard of living of previously secure sectors and the absolute impoverishment of over one-fifth of the earth’s population. At the same time, global warming, the destruction of natural resources, and the fouling of land, water and air call into question the very future of the planet.
Saving humanity and saving the earth are one and the same struggle. It is increasingly clear to many that capitalism, with its overarching drive to accumulate and expand, and treating nature as a commodity in the same way it treats humanity and human needs, is fundamentally unable to save the environment. It is no wonder that concepts such as ecosocialism and solar communism are being debated in the environmental movement.
The Environmental Situation
Leading climate change scientists estimate that unchecked global warming, caused by oil and fossil fuel consumption, will result in global sea level rise and agricultural collapse. Some estimate that we may have only a decade left to put in place a prevention program to avoid catastrophic climate change. Biologist David Schwartzman, in his 2009 article “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?” wrote “The threat of ecocatastrophe is no longer a potential contingent outcome in some indefinite future….it is now highly probable in the near future unless radical changes in both political and physical economies are made in time”. He cites as the major obstacle to these radical changes the nuclear-military-industrial-fossil-fuel complex, especially its U.S. component.
Environmental issues take many forms. The 2010 film Gasland documents with dramatic testimony the health and environmental impacts of the natural gas extraction practice of fracking on rural areas all across the United States. The proposed Keystone Pipeline System and its Cushing Extension, running from the Athabasca Oil Sands in Canada to the Gulf Coast, carry potential dangers of oil spills, exacerbation of greenhouse gases, and cultural impacts. The impact of war consists not only in the human toll, the immediate destruction of ecosystems and the chemical and toxic waste left behind for decades, but also the use of fossil fuels for the production of huge amounts of armaments, drones, humvees, and other military hardware.
Experts have estimated that 30% of asthma exacerbations among children were related to the environment, and the World Health Organization has estimated that 44% of the asthma burden worldwide is due to the environment. The United Farm Workers Union has launched a petition against the insecticide chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that presents particular dangers to the developing brains and bodies of children and is linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Monsanto’s seed monopoly controls the genetics of nearly 90% of five major world crops including corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets.
Public acceptance of the science of global warming has fluctuated widely over the past five years, from 71% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. An onslaught of propaganda has utilized pseudoscience to sow doubt about the role of human activity in causing climate change, and has promoted the concept that environmental laws and regulations are “job killers” in a time of suffering from high unemployment. In the meantime corporations are aggressively pushing their anti-environment agenda through ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps corporations write state and federal legislation supporting their interests.
Naomi Klein, in her November 2011 article in The Nation, “Capitalism vs. Climate”, points out that these forces understand very well that a meaningful response to global warming is antithetical to free-market capitalism, but that Democrats also have gone mute on the subject in order not to alienate independents, and that “the liberal climate movement runs away from the deep political and economic implications of climate science”.
Technological Revolution in Service of Earth and Humanity
The revolution in technology and the exponential increase in productive capacity force us to rethink many assumptions about what value is. Conventional economists deal only with exchange value, that is, how goods are bought and sold. Exchange value is tied to scarcity. If there is not enough of something, exchange value is used to determine who gets it and how it is traded. But if the things we need are abundant and freely available, exchange value becomes irrelevant. In an era in which it is possible to produce sufficient necessities for all, we should not be basing our economy on exchange value but on use value, that is, on what benefits humanity materially, culturally and spiritually.
Increased productivity does not have to mean increased consumerism and waste. Consumerism is a product of capitalism and exchange value, which uses clever manipulation to persuade people to buy things, not because they are needed, but because the profitable products are aggressively advertised and people are made to feel left out if they don’t have them. Increased unnecessary capitalist production using fossil fuels has led to vast environmental problems, in terms of the energy it takes to make them, the pollution from the byproducts of production and the waste of discarded goods.
Because Karl Marx was living and writing in the early stages of capitalism, he focused his analysis on what creates exchange value (labor) and where profit comes from (surplus labor-power). This does not mean that he did not recognize use value. He built his critique of political economy in large part around the contradiction between use value and exchange value. In fact, he frequently referred to sustainability as a material requirement for any future society – the need to protect the earth for successive generations.
It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to turn back the clock and repudiate technological advancement. Production, motivated by use value and not exchange value, and determined collectively and democratically, could serve the actual needs of humanity and the earth we live on. Besides providing for the basic necessities of life for everyone, such as healthy food, decent housing, and quality health care, enlightened production can develop the means for clean air and water, efficient mass transit, renewable energy resources and the repair of damaged ecosystems. Since with higher productivity people have to work less to produce these necessities, more time can be available for the labor-intensive work necessary to foster healthy families and communities. People would have time for personal development through learning, arts, and recreation, including appreciation of the natural world. All of this is only possible in a cooperative society, where the benefits of technology are distributed equally.
The question of the earth’s population also has to be considered in the context of the capitalist economic system imposing extreme inequalities. Schwartzman writes, “‘Overpopulation’ is a reality, but only in the context of the carrying capacity of the present political economy in this world of extreme inequalities. It is not so in relation to the carrying capacity of the biosphere…’Overpopulation’ is not the fundamental driver of global inequalities and widespread misery; it is, rather, a symptom of the unsustainability of a world economy in which capital reproduction takes priority over the needs of humanity and nature.”
Solarization of the economy, including harnessing wind power, is essential for the continued survival of humanity and the earth. Solar power is abundant: one hour of solar energy flow to the earth supplies the same amount of energy as that consumed globally by society in one year. Critical to this question is the concept of EROEI (energy return on energy invested) – that is, the amount of infrastructure and investment of energy that has to be made to realize solar power. The newest technologies being developed, including plastic thin-film photovoltaics, are making these renewable energy sources a more efficient and viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Where do we go from here?
We have to reject the idea that the world’s ecological damage can be repaired without the disruption of the market economy and the capitalist system of accumulation that dominates the world. Market-based solutions such as the “Cap and Trade” system of trading pollution credits, and “Clean Development Mechanisms”, make atmospheric carbon dioxide a commodity under the control of the same interests that created global warming, and allow them to use their power over money to control the carbon market for their own ends. We can’t be fooled by “greenwashing”, where corporations and organizations, including some of the worst polluters, cynically advertise their “green” credentials to promote their marketing aims.
Recognizing the seriousness of the ecological crisis should also not lead us to ”ecocatastrophism” – the idea that there is no time to build a popular movement for a sustainable cooperative society. This leads to coalitions with the same forces that promote the market-based proposals, while delaying the real comprehensive change that is needed. And while good individual habits such as recycling, reducing one’s carbon footprint and rejecting consumerism are positive indications that people are aware of environmental issues, they alone cannot turn the tide against the uncontrolled onslaught of capitalist accumulation and expansion. Collective action, not individual behavior, is the only effective path to making changes on the scale necessary to save the earth.
Popular collective actions for the environment are abundant and varied. Chico Mendes and the Forest Peoples Alliance fought against deforestation in the Amazon. The residents of Shell Bluff, Georgia, are raising questions about the cancer epidemic that has developed since nuclear reactors were built there in 1987, and why they have to accept sickness and death in order to get jobs in their communities. The Bolivian people prevailed against the privatization of water by Bechtel. In California’s Central Valley, where air pollution is the worst in the country and asthma rates are very high, communities opposed a Wal-Mart distribution facility to stop the impact of the trucks on air quality. The French Farmers Confederation fights against GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Many cooperative Occupy encampments have included sustainable practices and community gardens to demonstrate their respect for the environment.
A broad movement to save the earth must be based in these community grassroots struggles. It can’t be separated from the movements for economic justice – for decent jobs, health care, wholesome food, housing, and education. It must be part of the fight for a robust public sector, since acknowledging and acting on our common interests and needs is essential to preventing and reversing ecological damage. All of these struggles are on the path to a cooperative society where the needs of humanity and the earth are returned to harmony with each other.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011