Roots of the Environmental Crisis



The intent of this article is to explore the dynamics underlying environmental problems under capitalism, using real-life case-studies as illustrations. The basic dynamics include the following:

1) Environmental problems are inevitably created by the capitalist system.

2) The capitalist system, even with the mitigating efforts of its international bodies, cannot permanently solve environmental problems.

After you read the examples I’m about to give, you will probably feel horrified and angry. And I think you will also conclude that the dynamics I’ve just outlined are undeniably true.

Our only hope of reversing centuries of environmental abuse lies in overcoming capitalism and replacing it with a world-wide system serving the needs of the planet rather than profits.

International toxic waste dumping

The advanced capitalist countries generate more than 90 percent of the world’s hazardous waste (HW). By hazardous waste, we mean the discards of industrial or agricultural processes, containing substances that are toxic to either human health or to other species of plants and animals with whom we interdependently share our environment.

Hazardous waste can contain either natural or man-made toxins that produce adverse effects, including (but not limited to) cancer.

Since the advanced capitalist countries generate most of the world’s HW, these same countries have been forced by their citizens to develop the most advanced (although still woefully inadequate) regulations regarding the handling and disposal of HW.

But capitalists are driven by the very system of capitalism to compete by cutting costs. So the advanced capitalist countries have “ingeniously” looked beyond their borders for cheaper ways to dump their waste.

It turns out that a significant amount of HW goes from advanced countries like the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland to developing countries mostly in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Developing countries, of course, lack the technical and administrative infrastructure to monitor and dispose of such waste safely. You could think of this transfer as “good for the stock-holders” or, like the Dutch Minister of Environment, you could think of it as “waste colonialism.” Here are some examples; you be the judge:

In 1992, a U.S. firm, named the Southwire Corp., had to get rid of 1000 tons of toxic waste containing heavy metals like lead and cadmium. These metals are highly toxic. Sending it to a permitted HW landfill here in the U.S. would have cost about $300/ton. Instead, for only $45/ton, they sent it to a waste broker, who then sold it for $50/ton to another great American enterprise named Stoller Chemical.

Stoller Chemical then mixed sulfuric acid and water into the hazardous waste and sold it, again at a profit, as fertilizer, to be spread out on the fields where crops like rice are grown. The country it was sold to was Bangladesh, one of the most impoverished countries on earth.

In another scandalous example of capitalist dumping, three prominent U.S. corporations as well as the U.S. Department of Energy sent tens of thousands of barrels of mercury waste to a so-called “recycler” in the South African province of Natal.

Needless to say, the recycler, Thor Chemicals, did not have the capability to handle, store, or dispose of this highly toxic waste, tragically resulting in the poisoning of one-third of their workforce and the death of one worker.

Greenpeace has documented many other capitalist schemes for dumping hazardous waste abroad. There was a plan to ship millions of tires from the U.S. to Tonga, a Pacific island, for incineration. There was a plan to ship 8000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands, and there was a plan to ship toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia to Panama.

In many cases, the country doing the dumping sold the waste to the receiving country for some ostensible use, rather than paying to dispose of it with safeguards.

The capitalist class has been quite self-congratulatory for thinking up these schemes. Listen to the bravado of a World Bank executive, who wrote the following in a 1992 memo: “Shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the least developed countries?”

He went on to justify this by offering his opinion that developing countries have shorter human life spans, greater capacity to absorb pollution, and, lower aesthetic concerns. The memo goes on to say: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that.”

And a U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesperson had this to say: “The waste export and recycling industry raises the standards of living in these countries.”

The same spokesperson called Greenpeace “neocolonial” for trying to put a stop to dumping. He said: “They [Greenpeace] want to end this trade and keep them [developing countries] poor.”

I think this well-documented phenomenon of international toxic dumping sheds a new light on the “tongue clucking” that we hear all the time in the media about how horridly more polluted the developing countries are compared to the advanced capitalist countries.

They try to blame developing countries for being poor in the first place, and for having pollution. And they claim that the antidote to pollution is more advanced capitalism, but in fact, the opposite is true. Developing countries are kept underdeveloped by more advanced capitalist countries, and too frequently, the pollution is transferred to them from the so-called advanced countries to serve their competitive interests.

Now, I’d like to give a brief history of the efforts of the international bodies of capitalism to address this problem. In 1984, UNEP (the UN Environment Program) came out with guidelines (the “Cairo guidelines”). In the wording of these guidelines, you’ll notice that the “dumpers” and the “victims” are respectively referred to as “exporters” and “importers”, illustrating how neatly these abuses fit into the capitalist model of commerce.

The Cairo guidelines modestly called for the following:

1) The waste exporting country should notify the importing country prior to dumping HW.

2) The importing country should consent to the shipment.

3) The exporting country should verify that the importing country has waste-handling requirements at least as stringent as the exporting country.

That third point was the sticking point. Needless to say, a fight ensued between exporting and importing countries. The waste exporters wanted nothing more than “informed consent.” But the importers, led by the African nations, wanted a total ban on HW exports.

In addition, because the developing countries were unable to enforce a unilateral ban on their own, they sought assignation of liability for illegal traffic to the exporters.

At the 1989 Basel Convention, this conflict was resolved when the United States strong-armed the importers into capitulating to a limited “informed consent” policy. The Organization of African Unity tried to counter with amendments that would prevent exports to countries lacking the same facilities and technologies for dealing with HW, and to provide enforcement by UN inspectors, but the U.S. refused to accept these amendments.

After this sorry beginning illustrating the ignoble manueverings of the richest country in the world, the tide began to turn when, in 1990, Greenpeace published an exposé on the extent of illegal HW exports (the top 1000). In 1991, the OAU attempted to impose a unilateral ban on imports of HW, but Asia and Latin America were still vulnerable. By 1994, due to international public outcry, the tide had shifted toward regulation.

International toxic waste dumping is a prime example of environmental abuse created by the international capitalist economy.

As a side note, just because advanced countries like the United States have the technical capacity to more safely dispose of HW, and environmental laws that require them to do so, it doesn’t mean that Americans are safe from abuse. There are loopholes in the laws that allow industry to repackage HW and sell it as fertilizer here in the United States. This practice is so common that the Seattle Times has a whole group of web pages documenting it. Here are a few headlines and summaries:

In Norfolk, Neb., Frit Industries attached a fertilizer factory to the Nucor steel mill to recycle the mill’s hazardous waste for agriculture. The chalky, black waste is collected from a pollution-control device in the mill’s chimney.

In Gore, Okla., a uranium-processing plant is disposing of radioactive waste by spraying it on grazing land. It is called Raffinate and is registered as a fertilizer with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Some people blame the fertilizer for such mutations as a nine-legged frog and a two-nosed cow. They also say it could be a factor in some of the 124 cases of cancer and birth defects counted in families living near the plant.

In Tifton, Ga., the headline reads: “Steel-mill brew kills peanut crops aimed for humans.” In Camas, Wash.: “Mill’s chimney ash plowed into soil.” In St. Paul, Ore.: “Waste brokers look for new markets.”

Air pollution and acid rain

Acid rain is caused by emissions into the air of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The National Center for Atmospheric Research has recorded storms in the northeastern United States with a pH as low as 2.1, which is the acidity of lemon juice or vinegar.

In Canada, Scandinavia, and the northeastern United States, acid rain is blamed for the deaths of thousands of lakes and streams. These lakes have absorbed so much acid rain that they can no longer support the algae, plankton, and other aquatic life that provide food and nutrients for fish.

Prior to the 1960s, industrial stacks released pollutants to the area in their immediate vicinity, usually effecting primarily the poorest, most disenfranchised workers who lived nearby. In the 1960s, due to regulations passed by the industrial countries, the height of industrial stacks was raised as much as six times, resulting in broader dispersal of pollutants into the atmosphere and changing chemical forms.

As a result, pollution was transported downwind, and fell as acid rain, sometimes across international borders. It was in the 1960s that Sweden started amassing scientific evidence that their lakes were suffering from acidification due to sulfur dioxide emissions from outside their country.

Partly in response to this problem, Sweden hosted the first UN conference on the environment, in Stockholm in 1972. Affected nations such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway wanted acid rain to be recognized as an international problem.

They proposed regulation of emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, but they were overruled by the main polluting countries who relied more heavily on coal-fired power. These countries included the U.S., U.K., Germany, Belgium, and Denmark.

In 1979, a limited international agreement on acid rain emissions was reached, but it was voluntary and toothless. This was followed in the 1980s with new evidence of acid rain damage to European forests and historic buildings. Nonetheless, the United States and Britain continued to block emissions reductions.

In 1985, 21 nations agreed to voluntary reductions of emissions, but they lacked the support of the U.S., Britain, and Poland, which together produced 30 percent of world emissions of sulfur dioxide. Likewise, in response to proposals for token reductions of nitrogen oxide, another acid rain pollutant, the United States again refused to go along.

These examples of the failure of international capitalist efforts to regulate themselves demonstrate that the leading nations (such as the U.S. and the U.K.) were unwilling to make any sacrifices for a safer environment that might jeopardize their standing in global capitalist competition.

Ozone depletion

The theory that depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer may be caused by chloro-fluoro carbons (CFCs) was first advanced by scientists in the United States in the 1970s. CFCs are used for many industrial purposes, ranging from solvents used to clean computer chips, to the refrigerant gases found in air conditioners and refrigerators, as well as aerosols.

CFCs combine with other molecules in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and then, by attaching themselves to molecules of ozone, transform and destroy the protective ozone layer. The result has been a sharp decline in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere.

At ground level, ozone is a threat to our lungs, but in the upper atmosphere ozone works as a shield to protect against ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If the ozone shield gets too thin or disappears, exposure to ultraviolet radiation can cause crop failures and the spread of epidemic diseases, skin cancer, and other disasters.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has developed or been in possession of the strongest evidence of the linkage between CFCs and ozone depletion. Yet the U.S. government has not been a leader in proposing world-wide standards for phase-out of ozone-depleting pollutants.

Instead, the United States has vacillated, and sometimes blocked, international efforts, subordinating them to the self-interest of the U.S. capitalist class. (Note that even with a total ban on CFCs, it is estimated that it would take 100 years for the ozone layer to repair itself.)

By the 1980s, the United States was responsible for an estimated 30 percent of the world’s total production of CFCs. The U.S. government had been pressured by environmentalists to regulate the use of CFCs in aerosols. U.S. industry wanted capitalists in other countries to follow suit and to incur similar costs for developing new technologies, so that the U.S. would not be at a competitive disadvantage.

A 1987 international conference in Montreal developed the first “Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer.” This protocol was a very weak compromise, calling for less than half the reduction necessary to stabilize (let alone reduce) ozone depletion. At this conference, the U.S. government opposed a fund to defray the costs of substitutes for CFCs in developing countries.

By 1990, as more scientific evidence was amassing on the linkage between CFCs and ozone depletion, there was an international push for a 1997 deadline for eliminating CFCs. The United States was one of the four leading CFC-producing countries that opposed the 1997 deadline, and proposed a slower schedule, with a deadline in the year 2000.

In 1993 and again in 1995, proposals were advanced by other capitalist governments to phase out another class of chemicals that were also linked to ozone depletion. These are the HCFCs, or hydro-chloro-fluoro carbons. Both times, the U.S. government opposed the proposed bans.

It seems that some U.S. capitalists had invested heavily in HCFC technologies as substitutes for CFCs, and those capitalists got out their spreadsheets and calculated that they needed more time to recoup and protect their capital investment. This self-interest was behind U.S. opposition to an international ban.

The pursuit of substitute technologies has been encumbered by capitalist manuevering to preserve profit. For example, there’s the question of patents-who owns the rights to new technologies? Patents can slow down or even prohibit the application of new technologies and the replacement of more harmful ones.

Also, capitalist economics gave rise to a worldwide black market in CFCs, since the replacement technologies cost more than the environmentally damaging ones.

A similar story can be told regarding the phase-out of methyl bromide, a potent fumigant, commonly used, which also is a class I ozone-depleting substance. In fact, methyl bromide is 50 times more powerful than CFCs in destroying ozone.

The United States is by far the world’s largest user of methyl bromide. Although the U.S. Clean Air Act prohibits its production after 2001, the powerful pesticide lobby boasts to members that “we stand an increasingly good chance of being able to use methyl bromide well beyond the year 2001.”

Indeed, the Clinton administration has expressed interest in a “critical agricultural use exemption” that would create a large loophole and remove any incentive for implementing alternatives to methyl bromide. Once again, the United States was confronted with evidence of a big problem, but refused to act on it, elevating the interests of U.S. investment above concerns for the global environment.

Attacks on Superfund

So far I’ve been giving examples of the ways in which the international capitalist system routinely puts profits and national competition ahead of everything else, even when their own scientists warn them that a potentially irreversible crisis looms.

But what is the status and fate of environmental policies within the borders of this one country, the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world? The evolution of the Superfund law is a good example.

The Superfund law, formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, was passed in 1980 to clean up the most badly contaminated sites in the country. It is a relatively strong environmental law, but only if it is enforced (there’s the rub!).

Where there is evidence of a hazardous release (such as contaminated drinking water), the government is authorized to take direct action to clean it up, determine the identity of the responsible parties, and make them reimburse the government for the cleanup costs.

In order to accomplish these costly cleanups, a tax on industry, including the oil and chemical industries, was funneled into a sizeable fund. Hence the law’s nickname, “Superfund.”

The capitalist class has never liked the Superfund law. They have waged a war against it since it was enacted. There have been bipartisan attacks on the law and on EPA, the agency responsible for enforcing it. (Superfund work constitutes about half of the work of the agency).

Some of these attacks have included administrative reforms initiated by the Democratic Party to cut back on agency oversight and to otherwise defang the law, thereby weakening its preventive component. Bipartisan attacks have included a policy to stop listing new sites altogether, so that it will look like there is nothing left to clean up.

One of the most insidious bipartisan attacks came in 1995 when the Superfund tax was suspended altogether, giving industry a free ride for the past four years, and spending down the fund so that it is now all but depleted.

This corporate giveback is likely to be institutionalized by bipartisan proposals to take future funding out of the general U. S. budget. If passed, the burden of cleanup costs will have been transferred from the polluting industries to working taxpayers. This would be in direct contradiction to the 20-year-old philosophy of Superfund to make the polluters pay.

With respect to all the other environmental laws in this country governing clean air, clean water, etc., across-the-board budget cuts to EPA would result in dramatically less enforcement. As has happened with OSHA’s inability to enforce worker health and safety laws, EPA would not have the staffing to enforce the nation’s environmental laws (good, bad, or indifferent).

I have tried to provide you with real-life examples illustrating that environmental problems are fundamentally tied to the capitalist system.

International bodies convened to solve environmental problems inevitably become subordinated to the competing economic interests of the most powerful countries.

No matter how severe a given environmental crisis might be, it can never transcend the primacy of the capitalist crisis, in the eyes of the capitalists. The only real gains have been in response to independent activist groups, as illustrated by reforms of international dumping practices, cleanup of water bodies, and protection of other species.

Finally, I would like to say a special word to younger people. Because environmental problems are longterm and international, requiring a longterm, international vision, youth have a special role to play.

To whom would you entrust your future, and the future of the planet? Do either the Democrats or the Republicans offer any hope?

Although right-wing conservatism is often blamed by the Democratic Party and the media for exacerbating environmental crises, “liberalism” cannot solve environmental problems either.

Both capitalist parties put the interests of big business ahead of environmental concerns. Despite Bill Clinton’s rhetoric at the recent WTO meeting in Seattle, his administration’s record on the environment is a sorry one.

We must create our own party. One that rejects the current organization of society and seeks to serve the interests of all humanity-as well as other species. The future of the planet depends on it.


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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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