PROFITS VS. THE PLANET: Does Humanity Have a Future? The Environmental Crisis of Capitalism

By ROLAND SHEPPARD

Since the development of capitalism, the natural resources of the planet have been consumed on a larger and larger scale by the profit system. A result of this process has been a rapid change in the earth’s ecological balance that could eventually lead to the extinction of humanity.

Whole forests have been destroyed, whole oceans are undergoing life-threatening changes, as the air we breathe is becoming more and more contaminated by the expansion of capitalist production.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels, the earth’s ecosystem has been greatly altered. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. imperialism at the end of World War II demonstrated the technological development and the capacity of capitalism to destroy humanity. This potential of nuclear pollution and destruction has been a glaring reality from that time to the present.

The less apparent product of World War II was that the technologies developed for wartime purposes had changed chemistry and physics forever. These products were tested for their effectiveness during war-not for the safety of humanity.

Under the banner of “Better Living Through Chemistry,” life and production changed. The “miracle fiber” asbestos was used everywhere and everything was dusted with DDT. Twenty years after their introduction, the death toll from cancer caused by these two substances began to come in.

The development and production of synthetic organic chemicals, used in everyday life, has increased over 100 fold since World War II in the United States. The increase has been geometric, doubling every seven to eight years.

In the United States, by the late 1980s, production had reached over 200 billion pounds per year. Many of these new compounds and medicines have been to the benefit of humanity. Unfortunately, only approximately 3 percent of these chemicals have been tested for their toxicity and potential long-range harm.

Rachel Carson’s warnings

Rachel Carson was the first scientist to come forward and explain the potential dangers of the new pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic pollutants. Her first book, “The Silent Spring,” is credited with the beginning of the environmental movement. This book explained that cancer and other diseases have become part of the world’s food chain and even present in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Predicting the coming catastrophe if the mode of production does not change, Rachel Carson wrote in “The Sea Around Us”: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

Despite Carson’s warnings and the beginnings of the environmental movement over 35 years ago, the destruction of the environment by capitalism and the capitalist mode of production has only escalated.

An example of this escalation is global warming. The melting of glaciers throughout the world is one demonstration of this phenomenon.

The Quelccaya ice cap in South America, home to some of the world’s largest glaciers, is rapidly melting. From 1930 to 1990, it had been shrinking at the rate of three meters a year. Since 1990, it has been shrinking at the rate of approximately 30 meters a year.

The Antarctica ice shelves have been in retreat for 50 years, shrinking approximately a total of 7000 square kilometers in that time span. In the past year, from October 1998-March 1999, the Antarctica ice caps have retreated approximately 3000 square kilometers.

These quick increases in glacier decline are foreboding. Recent studies of ice cores in the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate that global warming may not be a gradual phenomenon.

The ice core studies demonstrate that during the last global warming, the earth’s climate warmed gradually and then abruptly increased by approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit to end the ice age 12,500 years ago. The ancient carbon dioxide levels that provoked these abrupt changes, while significant, were far lower than the rising concentrations in today’s atmosphere.

Until these discoveries, global warming had been described as a gradual event (4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 60 years) that will reach dangerous levels around the year 2050 or 2100. This new evidence demonstrates that the present gradual warming could develop into an abrupt change.

An increase of this magnitude (20 degrees Fahrenheit) would flood most cities and industrial centers in the world as the ice caps melt into the sea raising the sea level. (If all of the ice caps melted, sea level would rise approximately 260 feet.) The potential catastrophic results of global warming and the threat to humanity’s future should become an immediate concern.

Along with global warming, the increasing pollution of the oceans, the fresh water, the land, and the air throughout the world has put into question the future of our species and other species.

Fidel Castro expressed the urgency of these problems in his speech to the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. He opened with these words:

“An important biological species-humankind-is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction. … Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.”

In this context, the fight for the spotted owl, the snail darter, and other endangered species, while important in their own right, are indicative of a far greater concern-the survival of humanity.

A fight for human rights

It is becoming clear that the struggle for the environment is a fight for human rights and the survival of the species-a struggle for environmental justice. We need to defend, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, humanity’s “Unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

We should demand:

  • All products must be tested for toxicity before being produced for the market. The present practice of experimenting on human beings and waiting for the human body counts before determining that substances are toxic must be stopped;
  • The production of toxic substances must be stopped and the least toxic alternatives must be used until all toxins can be eliminated from use;
  • Gravity, wind, and solar power must be developed to replace fossil fuels as a source of energy.
  • The top priority throughout the world must be the elimination of pollution and the development of science to maintain the earth as a healthy biosphere for humanity;
  • The squandering of trillions of dollars on military spending must stop and these trillions of dollars must be used to repair the environment. (In 1991, even after the end of the Cold War, military spending was almost 1 trillion dollars.);
  • There must be a 100 percent tax on the profits of companies that pollute.

The environmental movement has raised many of these demands. In the past 30 years, many laws have been written incorporating some of these concepts. Yet despite these laws, environmental destruction has been allowed to proceed because these regulations have always been compromised by the incorporation of the concept of “economic feasibility.”

Economic feasibility means that the profitability of an economic enterprise cannot be subordinated to environmental needs. Therefore, environmental and safety laws, under capitalism, have always been a compromise between science and business.

In fact, environmental destruction, pestilence, and death are factored into production the same as casualties of war are factored into military battles.

The most glaring example is the occupational environment, where workplaces have become “killing fields.” In the United States alone, at least 350,000 workers get occupational diseases (cancer, etc.) and 50,000 workers die each year from these diseases. In fact, some estimates are higher!

Blue-collar workers and agricultural workers all have higher rates of cancer and other diseases because they receive higher doses of the toxic chemicals at the workplace than the rest of the population. Eventually, these toxins spread to the entire working class as they become part of the environment.

Scientific technology exists to prevent the high rate of occupational diseases, but the profit motive and capitalist competition prevent the implementation of preventive action and proper safety precautions.

Science and technology are not an obstacle to maintaining a safe environment. The barrier to a safe environment is capitalism and its paramount principle of production and science for profit.

Most environmental studies demonstrate that environmental destruction has become globally intertwined within our society and that the globalization of capitalism has speeded up the destruction of the planet.

Under the conditions of global capitalist competition, it is not economically feasible to invest the capital necessary to reverse this destruction.

In the present world, the rights of the capitalists to make a profit are in direct conflict with our basic rights. In this sense, the capitalist system has become a threat to humanity.

Jefferson’s words that human rights are “unalienable” means that these rights can never be superseded. At all points of conflict the rights of humanity to survive must supersede the right of the few to make a profit. The right to a safe environment is an unalienable human right!

Since environmental illness and destruction are a global concern, it requires all of humanity to act collectively, in our overall interests for our survival as a species, to correct the problem and to remove the obstacle of capitalism.

It requires a society where humanity has social, economic, and political control over the entire environment.

Such a society, a socialist society, is needed to ensure that all decisions affecting the environment are under the democratic control of humankind so that the production of goods will be done for the needs and survival of humanity instead of the production and the destruction of humanity and other species for profit.

With common ownership of the means of production, and common control and protection of all property and wealth, science and society will be in harmony with the ecosystem and humanity’s future.

With these goals we can begin to build a more effective environmental movement. As we continue to organize against capitalism and its destructive course, we can and will transform the world.

In the words of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”