What do Socialists Propose? Part Four. Capitalism Feeds on War, Environmental Destruction


Following is the fourth chapter of a new pamphlet by Paul Siegel, “Socialism versus Capitalism.” It is available from Socialist Action Books for $3.

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development, established by the United Nations General Assembly, issued a report, “Our Common Future,” after a three-year study. It concluded its report with the sober statement that the continued existence of the human race is threatened by the interaction of poverty and environmental degradation on each other.

Rich countries contribute by far the most to pollution and toxic waste, but poor countries suffer most from the resulting environmental effects. Depleting their resources in order to survive, they in turn contribute to deforestation, soil degradation, desertification, and the loss of biodiversity. No nation, no matter how rich and powerful, can escape the resulting damage to the planet.

The final words of the report were, “We are unanimous in our conviction that the security, well-being, and very survival of the planet depend on such changes [in ‘attitudes and reorientation of policies and institutions’] now.”1 But these solemn words were not acted upon.

Capitalism by its nature is concerned with maximum profit at any cost, whether that cost is human misery or environmental degradation. It seeks quick returns and is opposed to long-range social planning. Talk about international cooperation for the benefit of all can only be unheeded exhortations in a global economy in which competitiveness is the name of the game.

How capitalism stands in the way of the solution of the environmental crisis can perhaps be most clearly seen in what many regard as the most pressing environment issue, that of global warming.

The 2500 leading climate scientists of the world, brought together by the United Nations in a body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, announced in a series of reports beginning in 1990 that the earth is heating up at a faster rate than at any time in the last 10,000 years. This, it said, was primarily as a result of the “greenhouse” effect caused by the trapping of the sun’s heat by the emissions from coal and oil burning.

The panel stated that, unless in very short order fossil fuel emissions are reduced by from 50 percent to 70 percent from 1990 levels, there will be “extreme high temperature events, floods [caused by melting glaciers and ice caps], and drought, with resultant consequences for fire, pest outbreaks, and ecosystem[s].” These would be “likely to cause widespread economic, social, and environmental dislocation.”2

In response to these warnings, governments engaged in negotiations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, each seeking agreements that would be advantageous to them as against their competitors. However, despite all the palaver and bickering, carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 1999 went up, not down. Japan’s emissions increased by 14 percent, the U.S. emissions increased by 12 percent, and the European Union emissions increased by 1 percent.

The comparatively small increase of the European Union was largely due to the North Sea discoveries that made natural gas available to Great Britain and to the absorption of the much less industrialized East Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany. This resulted in a sharp drop of more than 5 percent in the early 1990s, but there was a strong rise thereafter.3

It is not that countries lack the knowledge to switch from fossil fuel energy to other forms of energy such as solar power, wind power, and natural gas. Such a change to renewable, clean energy, however, requires confronting the power of the trillion-dollar-a-year global coal and oil industries that taken together form the biggest enterprise in history.

The Bush administration rejected the Kyoto Protocol, an entirely inadequate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent below 1990, on the grounds that it would have a negative impact on the U.S. economy and that it was unfair in excluding the developing countries in the initial stage of the reductions. The urgent threat of climate change was thus subordinated to the interests of the dominant U.S. coal and oil industries, which block a restructuring of the economy that would use alternate means of energy.

The plea that the exclusion of the unindustrialized and the semi-industrialized countries from the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol was unfair is absurd.

The advanced capitalist countries have achieved their dominance by having polluted the atmosphere for the past 200 years. They are responsible today for 80 percent of the world’s atmospheric pollution, with the United States itself being responsible for 25 percent of it.

It is true, however, that such heavily populated countries as China and India desperately need to grow economically and that if they follow the European-American route in doing so they will add immensely to global emissions.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Ross Gelbspan says, “The issue of global economic inequity is as critical as the carbon balance to the stability of the planet’s atmosphere. … A transfer of wealth-in the form of clean energy technologies-will be necessary to help the poor countries leap-frog over the archaic and destructive type of industrialization that is powered by coal and oil and use energy from the sun, the wind, and the rivers to develop their economies.”4

This would require, however, the international planning that is incompatible with capitalism.

Capitalism not only threatens the destruction of humanity through ecological damage but through modern weapons of mass destruction. War in our time kills more civilians than soldiers. Eighty million people died in World War II-eight times as many as died in World War I-if those who died of malnutrition and illness as a direct consequence of the war are included.

Nazi genocide-the assembly-line killing of an estimated 6 million Jews and 4 million Roma (Gypsies), Poles, homosexuals, and others-was only the most awful manifestation of a general descent into barbarism that occurred in World War II. Both sides disregarded on a huge scale the “rules of war,” supposed to govern civilized nations, that civilian populations are not to be military targets.

American and British air force bombing killed over 900,000 German civilians. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed perhaps 250,000, and the 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo, according to General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the U.S. air force, killed even more.5

Civilian deaths were heavy in the wars in which the United States engaged after World War II. In the Vietnam War the United States dropped twice as many bombs as were dropped in all of World War II. An estimated three million Vietnamese were killed.

The Iraqi war was presented to the American public as a high-tech “surgical strike,” an almost bloodless operation, but John Pilger cited American and French intelligence reports that estimated “in excess of 200,000 civilian deaths.”6

He cited also a 1995 report of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization that stated that more than 560,000 Iraqi children died as a consequence of the war and the U.S. sanctions. Today the deaths exceed 1.2 million.7

The wars against Vietnam and Iraq were wars of colonialism against underdeveloped countries. In addition, there were wars between underdeveloped countries and ethnic wars within underdeveloped countries. There were five times as many of them as there had been in the same period of time before World War II. Ninety percent of these wars were internal.

In 1994 there were almost 27 million refugees and internally displaced persons, 11 times as many as in 1970. One of every 200 persons in the world was either a refugee or an internally displaced person.8

The underlying reason for the enormous increase in the number and the destructiveness of these wars was the desperate conditions within the countries. Where there is a frantic scramble for food, water, and other necessities, ethnic antagonisms escalate.9

With the towering dominance of American military might, there have been no wars between major powers since World War II. However, the indefinite continuance of this situation is by no means assured.

After all, in the 1930s crisis of capitalism it was the very fact that Germany had no colonies and had been forcibly disarmed and that Japan was belated in its capitalism and poor in resources that made them the most militarily aggressive of the imperialist powers. Another worldwide depression could have the same effect as the Depression of the 1930s.

With more than one power possessing an atomic arsenal and the atomic bomb itself being vastly more powerful than the ones that wrought such havoc in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the next war would bring the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The high anxiety concerning this threat that existed at the height of the Cold War has receded. Yet not only is an atomic arsenal still retained by the major powers; it is being acquired by more and more countries.

The danger of a nuclear disaster by accident or by war is stronger than ever. The annihilation of humanity would be the ultimate conclusion of the destructiveness of contemporary capitalism.

Is there, then, any hope for humanity? Can socialism be achieved? And if so, how can it be effected?

(continued in our next issue)


1 “Our Common Future,” report of World Commission on Environment and Development (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 343.

2 Ross Gelbspan, “The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate” (Addison Wesley, 1997), p. 5.

3 John Bellamy Foster, “Ecology Against Capitalism,” Monthly Review, October 2001, pp. 9-10.

4 Gelbspan, pp. 112­14.

5 The callous words of LeMay in defending the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are worth quoting: “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”-N.Y. Times, Aug. 6, 1996. LeMay later advocated bombing Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.”

Observer, June 3, 1991, quoted by Pilger, p. 53.

7 Pilger, p. 53.

8 “UN Human Development Report 1996,” pp. 24, 26.

9 “The United Nations Population Fund … in its annual report … said two billion people [out of the 6.1 billion in the world] … lacked sufficient food, and water use had increased six times over the past 70 years. By 2050, it said, 4.2 billion people would be living in countries where their basic needs cannot be met.”-N. Y. Times, Nov. 8, 2001.

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