by Christine Frank / August 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
Human beings knew about the harmful effects of breathing filthy, polluted air even before the Industrial Revolution. Smoke and soot from the burning
of coal plagued England over 700 years ago. London recorded air pollution problems even in the Middle Ages. Due to a wood and charcoal shortage in Europe, people stepped up the use of coal for heat in the early 17th century.
Conditions became so intolerable in London that the monarchy commissioned scholar Sir John Evelyn to make a study of the foul air that hovered over the city. He authored the pamphlet, “Fumi fugi urn,” published in
1661. But his suggestions for alleviating the problem were soon forgotten as capitalist progress marched relentlessly onward.
In the 19th century, the solution to factory soot and smoke was to construct ever taller chimney stacks, thinking that the higher it was spewed into the air,
the less it would affect those on the ground. But this only spread the noxious stuff over a wider area. From the very beginning, people not only knew of the
consequences of breathing bad air; they were also aware of the effects of industrial pollution on nature. Already in the 1840s around the manufacturing
center of Manchester, 50 tons of particulate matter a year would settle over the area from the factories, turning everything black, including the vegetation and lichens.
Entomologist R.S. Edleston discovered that the moth Biston betularia, a gray, peppered variety that rested during the day by blending quietly into its
surroundings, had adapted to its new environment by having turned completely black. He dubbed the new species Biston carbonaria. As industrialization spread across the European continent and to North America, so did carbonaria.
This is one of Nature’s success stories—that of a creature that was able to mutate and survive. Unfortunately, thousands of other plants and animals
have not been so lucky in trying to prevail against the human genius for transforming the world.
In 19th-century America, Henry David Thoreau was one of the first writers who attempted to stir public opinion against unrestrained industrial development, which he recognized had cruel consequences for Nature.
His was largely a voice crying out in the wilderness as the pioneers proceeded to tame it by driving the indigenous peoples off the land with muskets and felling the great forests with axes. From New York all the way to the land of Paul Bunyan in Minnesota, they slashed and burned, turning millions of acres into farmland and adding to global warming.
This devastation prompted George Perkins Marsh, one of the first conservationists, to publish in 1864 his insightful “Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action,” in which he decried the
conversion of continuous woodlands into open spaces dotted by scattered copses and groves: “The felling of the woods has been attended with momentous consequences to the drainage of the soil, the external
configuration of its surface, and probably also to local climate.”
Not only “does an increasing population demand additional acres to grow the vegetables which feed it and its domestic animals, but the slovenly husbandry of the border settler soon exhausts the luxuriance of his first fields, and compels him to remove his household goods to a fresher soil.” This prodigal migration came to a halt only after whites reached the ocean on the other edge of the continent.
The point of all this is that environmental consciousness developed slowly, if at all. After the lower United States had been completely settled by Europeans and their descendants, it finally occurred to some folks that perhaps a portion of the wild, open spaces should be preserved, and so, the conservation movement was born. Ironically, one of its early 20th-century proponents was Theodore Roosevelt, a man who would shoot anything on sight for sport.
Overtime, advocates succeeded in having a significant number of wilderness areas and forests placed under national protection, including 191 million acres in national forests, 74 million in parks, and 44.5 million in wildlife refuges. It has been an ongoing struggle, however, to maintain these preserves and protect them from exploitation by ruthless timber, ranching, mining, and energy interests—thanks to men like James Watt, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes.
Birth of the environmental movement In the 1960s a handful of nature writers like Rachel Carson began to sound the alarm against chemical contamination with the use of pesticides like DDT. Their landmark work helped to eventually launch the contemporary environmental movement. Earth Day was first observed in April, 35 years ago.
Until then, national U.S. organizations like the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and Wilderness Society remained small and focused almost exclusively on conservation issues. These groups have since become
professionalized—employing lawyers, scientists and lobbyists to advocate for legislation and regulation of the environment. Fund-raising and membership grew as public support for environmental protection became
much more widespread.
By 1990, the 10 leading environmental lobbying organizations claimed a membership of more than three million and combined budgets surpassing $200 million. Today, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
alone claims an annual operating income of almost $53 million. Much of that money comes from foundation and corporate support, which cuts down on the militancy and combativeness of groups like the NRDC, pressuring
them to work legitimately within the system while focusing on litigation in the courts and lobbying efforts in Congress and state legislatures.
This is true for most of the so-called Big Ten groups, which include the Sierra Club, NRDC, Audubon Society, Isaac Walton League, and Nature Conservancy. The ranks of these organizations passively tend to be content
with paying their dues, receiving their newsletters or slick magazines, and having someone else fight their environmental battles for them, leaving the activism to the professionals.
As the established environmental lobby became increasingly devoted to Washington politics and the compromises that entails, other more radical
organizations and small grassroots groups became critical of “the nationals” for their willingness to sell out their principles in order to accommodate
industry and government.
A case in point is the recent sell-out by the Sierra Club in which its leaders betrayed local activists by signing off on Xcel Energy’s new coal-fired plant to
be built in Pueblo, Col. This was done on the dubious promise that the energy giant would reduce emissions. The plant will undoubtedly be burning the cheapest, softest, dirtiest Western bituminous there is because
it is mined in the state and readily available. So much for clean energy.
Grassroots opposition to pollution
Out of a growing discontent in the ‘90s with the horrors of chemical and radiation contamination, thousands of grassroots organizations have grown up across the country. One of the first was started by Lois Gibbs of Love Canal, N.Y. The Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes now has about 8000 groups affiliated or registered with its national office.
The government and the waste-management industry had assumed that it was safe to locate dump sites in working-class neighborhoods or on Indian reservations, thinking the residents would be too ignorant or indifferent to notice or care. Consulting firms have even done demographic studies concluding that “rural, low-income neighborhoods whose residents have limited education and tend to be older in age” are likely to offer the least resistance to a new waste-disposal site.
But they found out the opposite was true. Communities of working farmers, workers, and oppressed nationalities have been some of the fiercest fighters
when it comes to protecting their own health and safety. With no prior experience in politics, these activists have not been afraid to confront government bureaucrats, corporate executives, or the media and have courageously exposed their duplicity, deceit, and callous attitudes.
They have educated themselves about the technical aspects of their dilemma and organized testimony at public hearings. They have demanded admission of joint corporate and government guilt, clean-up of toxic sites, and punitive damages for injury to their health and well being—often succeeding.
Most of these struggles have taken years to wage, yet local activists have doggedly persisted in their efforts to get out the truth and achieve environmental justice for themselves and their families. In many cases, women have led the way. The members of these groups have withstood tremendous pressure to conform and remain silent and have shown a willingness to risk ridicule from the media and others.
Their focus has been on the common welfare of the community, employing strategies based on their collective abilities while building a culture of
solidarity among fellow citizens who are faced with a common threat. They have also forged strong alliances with other groups who have supported their cause. They have bravely challenged head on corporate greed and the profit motive and have had to circumvent the established political process through protest actions—even picketing CEOs’ offices and homes or sitting-in at government buildings.
Illusions in capitalism
Despite these militant kinds of actions, however, grassroots activists, with only a few possible exceptions, have failed to come to class conclusions
about the nature of capitalist society. They stop short of questioning what is fundamentally wrong with a social system that consistently puts profits before
human and planetary needs and willfully destroys Earth and the life on it for the sake of economic expediency.
There has been much discussion of late as to the fate of the environmental movement. Given that we are faced with global warming and galloping runaway climate change, the sheer magnitude of the problem can be
Climate change is the decisive issue facing our species. The very survival of humankind is at stake, and time is running out. We will be fortunate if we
have until the end of this century to grapple with this immense difficulty before things get completely out of control.
Therefore, what strategies, tactics and program the movement adopts are becoming a crucial question. The sooner this debate is settled, the better, so we can begin to put things right.
If one reads the literature, one finds there are many good ideas about how to do that, but all of the authors assume the continuation of a market economy
based on commodity production and driven by the profit motive. Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, for example, writes the following: “The market is a remarkable institution. It allocates scarce resources with an efficiency that no central planning body can match. It easily balances supply and demand, and it sets prices.”
He then adds, “It does have three fundamental weaknesses….” But before examining these troublesome “weaknesses,” let’s look at his claims for this
“remarkable institution.” How efficient is a system that breaks down periodically with crises of overproduction—a condition of too many goods for too few markets? When one considers the vast hunger and want in the world, what kind of sense does that make? The demand is satisfied, of course, only if you can afford to pay for the goods. Plus, these periodic breakdowns throw millions of people out of work. How real is his brilliant balance of supply and demand?
Capitalism uses advertising and psychological manipulation to create false needs in consumers of the advanced nations, causing them to consume resources beyond what Nature provides and out of proportion to the actual needs of the rest of the world’s population. Millions must go without the bare
necessities of life so a privileged few can live high off the hog.
How well does the market set prices? As capitalist competition has intensified, monopoly conditions have arisen in which smaller proprietors are savagely driven out. Merger is the name of the game these days. Huge conglomerates have come into existence, which have the power to fix prices, charging all the traffic will bear.
This is especially true of drug prices, which have skyrocketed. The pharmaceuticals routinely jack up the prices on their products several times per year. The annual rate of increase is 12 percent. The price of Scherin-Plough’s top-selling allergy pill, Claritin, was raised 131 times over five years for a cumulative increase of 50 percent—over four times the general inflation rate.
This had nothing to do with the actual cost of producing the medication. The industry claims it needs funds for research and development, but this mysterious R & D often involves nothing more than repatenting, renaming, remarketing, and repricing already existing products so they can further gouge the patients who need them.
Flaws in the system
Brown defines the first little flaw in the system as the inability of the market to include in the price of a gallon of gasoline the expense of treating respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air, the repair bill from acid rain, or the costs of current or future property damage from climate change.
As the market is now organized, the motorist using the gasoline, sadly, does not bear any of these residual costs. But if he or she did, the real cost of a
gallon of gasoline would lead to such extreme distortions that eventually the economy would go bankrupt. Poor Lester Brown never bothers to consider
that the alternative to punishing the consumer with astronomical prices at the pump is to tax the energy giants and corporate polluters clean out of existence.
Another shortcoming of the market, in Brown’s view, is that it takes for granted the many vital services Nature provides when it converts salt water to fresh, pollinates crops, recycles nutrients, and delivers moisture to the land. The destruction of natural systems deprives society of these services. This lack of appreciation is pervasive.
So what governments need to do is adopt policies that assist Mother Nature in bringing her ecological systems back to a healthy state. But first (Brown
points out) they have to be convinced of the cost-effectiveness of such policies. Instead of spending billions to repair flood damage, it makes more sense to stop clear-cutting trees, replant them, and secure the watersheds. Indeed.
Another way in which the market is inept is in not recognizing the sustainable-yield thresholds of natural systems. When fish stocks begin to decline, fish prices rise. So the market’s response is to invest in more super-trawlers, which only ensures the collapse of the world’s fisheries, which is currently underway.
A similar situation exists with our aquifers. As the demand for water increases and supplies diminish, what do they do? Drill deeper, sucking more out with diesel-powered pumps, which further depletes the ground water.
Lester Brown’s solution? An enlightened regime could intervene by establishing the sustainable yield of the aquifer and auctioning off the rights to gig pump only that amount of water. That’s right. Everything is for sale. It’s not worth anything without that price tag! The whole notion that we can own anything is inherently wrong. We do not own the land, we live on it. We do not own the air, we breathe it. We do not own the water, we use it. We are merely the caretakers of the planet, not its owners.
The concept of ownership contradicts the one of stewardship. It is the whole idea of private property—that everything has to be parceled up, bought
and sold—that has gotten us into this mess in the first place!
Lester Brown feels that governments should intervene in the market to get prices to tell the ecological truth. He fails to recognize that the capitalist class
controls our government and telling the truth about the ecological costs of their policies is the last thing they have in mind since they are for the unbridled, laissez faire exploitation of Earth’s resources. They’ve been hiding the truth about global warming and climate change from the American people so they can wage costly and bloody wars over the world’s declining oil reserves.
Does Brown propose that we appeal to the better nature of the capitalists? After all, don’t they have children and grandchildren who are going to find
themselves in the same sorry state as ours will in future?
It is patently wrong to assume that rich and poor, capitalist and worker, have something in common. Do we find toxic waste dumps in the exclusive enclaves of the wealthy? Do they have trouble getting adequate clean water to drink and bathe in? Do they notice the choking exhaust their limousines spew forth when they are driving about town?
No, their wealth and the privileges it buys insulate them from all of the miseries they force upon the rest of us. Capitalist production is unecological because it is unplanned, anarchistic, and extremely irrational. It has nothing to do with human need.
Huge multinational corporate entities are kept afloat by massive subsidies and tax breaks born on the backs of the workers who must sacrifice their pensions in order to keep them going. The costs in the post-colonial world are even greater with the destruction of indigenous agriculture, the imposition
of monoculture and one-crop economies, massive commercial deforestation, indebtedness, privatization of resources, and general maldevelopment.
In its death agony, capitalism is like a starving beast that is driven mad with hunger and devours itself in order to survive. That is precisely what it is doing as it contaminates beyond redemption our soil, air, and water, consumes the last of our energy and mineral resources, exhausts our fisheries and forests, and drives the human race into the ground with slave labor, super-exploitation, hunger, privation, ignorance, and disease.
Human needs before profits!
My advice to Lester R. Brown and other environmentalists like him is: Stop trying to fix capitalism by applying a bandage to a stinking corpse! Socialism is the only answer, and yes, that would include the social planning he so dreads.
It need not be the mismanaged, bureaucratic distortion that existed in the Soviet Union and other workers states. We cannot ensure the survival of humanity and save Earth from ecological collapse with police-state methods. If anything, the lessons of the Soviet Union and the unfortunate degeneration of the Russian Revolution can teach us how not to do things. So let’s learn from the experience and move forward.
Social planning must be conducted entirely democratically with masses of people participating through elected councils that exist on every level from local to national. In order to make informed decisions, they must be educated about the severe problems we face and how Earth’s physiology functions when allowed to do so properly.
Along with that, we must educate our children and prepare them for wise and prudent stewardship and husbandry of Earth’s resources. We must instill in
them the notion that Earth is our home, our only home, the womb from which all life has sprung, and that it must be respected for the sake of all life.
The only thing that will ensure the survival of our species is a social revolution that ends capitalism once and for all. We need a higher social order, one that puts human and planetary needs before profits. But first, we must build a new environmental movement, one that has no more illusions in the maintenance of capitalism.
Our job is not to save this horrible, rotten system but to save Earth. In order to do that we need a radical ecology, a program not of piecemeal reforms to
patch up an ailing system and planet but one that puts Earth and the life on it first. We must sweep away the old world order by adopting class-struggle methods that can conclusively bring down the capitalist class.
To accomplish this, the new environmental movement must be militant, combative, uncompromising, and revolutionary. It will have to be led by working people, immigrants, and the oppressed nationalities, the social layers that understand the need for international working-class solidarity, that goes beyond the superficial political boundaries that have been used to carve the planet up into economic spheres of influence.
Because capitalism has stretched its destructive tentacles across the globe, the ecological problems we face are not simply national but planetary so they
must be solved through international cooperation. The rest of the world is looking to the working men and women of the United States to help get our common oppressor off their backs so they can be free to repair the damage done to their local ecosystems.
The new environmental movement must demand no more wars for oil; no more nukes, either weapons or power plants; clean energy from renewable sources; the retooling of all industry, including transport, with clean energy, making everything we produce carbon-neutral; reducing, reusing and recycling at the source of production for Zero Waste; and switching to
completely organic, sustainable agriculture.
Once we get wind farms and solar parks going in the U.S., we can export those technologies to developing nations for free. Earth’s resources can be shared according to human need, not individual greed, and the human family can finally begin to live in true peace and harmony.