How capitalism is costing us the earth

Published: 24/05/2007

Written by: Liz Ross


Two issues: capitalism and the environment
Why Capitalism?
Demands socialists support
Further reading


Whether it's a suburban Melbourne protest about a toxic dump, township battles in South Africa over water supplies, thousands on the streets in Australia to save native forests, or the global rallies over climate change in 2006, millions of people world-wide have been demanding action to save the planet.

It's not hard to see why we're on the streets. The threat to the environment from a whole range of human activities could end life as we know it. Although the alarm bells had been sounding earlier, 1572 of the world's leading scientists were, by 1992, becoming even more concerned. Their warning was clear: "the environment is suffering critical stress" in such areas as the atmosphere, the oceans, water resources, soil, forests, and all life forms. They added, "the irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious."

We've already seen the devastation of mass pollution in places such as Papua New Guinea, where BHP's mine at Ok Tedi almost completely destroyed life for the local Indigenous people. Similar mining degradation has led to massive mudslides in Indonesia in 2006. Oil companies are now pressing ahead with plans to plunder pristine Arctic regions, while global warming - from burning the very fossil fuel they're extracting - is melting the region's ice caps threatening the survival of the polar bear, as well as low lying islands and human settlements around the world.

After the end of World War II, in the biggest boom capitalism has ever seen, the downside of capitalist expansion caught the attention of many wanting a better world. Protesting against nuclear weapons, pollution and water shortages during the 1950s, activists redoubled their efforts after Rachel Carson's warnings in the 1960s of the effects of pesticides on wildlife. Since then there have been millions acting on environmental issues, but there's no doubt that climate change, precisely because it is global, has united activists on a scale rarely seen before. Mirroring majority opinion all over the planet, poll after poll has shown Australians are deeply worried about the impact of this global phenomenon. A Lowy Institute survey in October 2006 revealed that 68 per cent of Australians regarded climate change as a "critical threat" over the next decade.

And all the science backs up the urgency of their concern. The rising proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, through feedback reactions, is pushing the earth's climate through a series of thresholds or tipping points that threaten to bring cataclysmic consequences. These could include a much more rapid melting of the Antarctic, Arctic and the Greenland ice sheets than previously predicted, the accelerated melting of permafrost, especially in Siberia (hence releasing even more CO2), the cessation of the Indian monsoon, a rapid dying back of forest in the Amazon and a halting of the sea currents that help bring warm weather to Europe.

Peter Smith, Special Professor in Sustainable Energy at Nottingham University, told the British Association of Science festival in 2006: "We could reach the tipping point within 15 to 20 years from now, which would give us just 10 years in which to determine the destiny of our planet."

As the mass demonstrations at the end of 2006 showed, most people do want action on the environment, with many calling for "bold responses" right now. Nearly 70 per cent surveyed in 2006 believed that it was essential to take action now even if this involves high costs. Over 90 per cent wanted Australia to shift its dependence from coal fired power stations to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy sources. [1]

With public opinion so strong, spilling out into mass demonstrations on the streets and governments' slow response - even denial in the case of the US under George W Bush's administration and Australia until late 2006 - it's no wonder the debate over what to do about the environmental challenges facing us is so fierce. After all, how humanity responds to the world's environmental problems could determine whether we have a future or not.

In this battle for our future, there are a mass of contradictory explanations and solutions. Let's take the big corporations' viewpoint on climate change. While some, such as ExxonMobil's chief, reckon they're not to blame for the problems - according to him it's the fault of consumers and governments - many are prepared to acknowledge some of their processes and products are contributing to global warming, pollution and other environmental hazards. And they say they're willing to change, to implement caps on carbon emissions, use more renewable fuels and the like.

But there's a catch - they're not prepared to pay for it. Or if they do have to put up some of the money, they only want schemes where they can still make a profit. So they favour carbon trading, already a $3 trillion futures market, or water markets, rather than a complete switch to renewable energy or effective recycling and sustainable industry and agriculture. Most of the world's governments back such limited changes, while giving lip service to the necessity of immediate massive cutbacks in carbon emissions. But with profit the determining factor, even where they've attempted to go further as with the Kyoto Agreement of 1997, it's ended in failure. All the emissions targets were already exceeded by the 2006 Kyoto Treaty conference and there was no consensus on future targets. Further European attempts at agreement in March 2007 have delivered consensus on targets but no resolution of the difficulties of getting there.

Market-based solutions have other flaws. Commenting on attempts to counter water shortages, Melbourne-based environmentalist Sharon Beder writes: "Ah yes, the magic of the Market. It can turn water scarcity into a myth with the cling of a cash register. Ask the Business Council. All you have to do is put a high enough price on it and there will be plenty of water to go around, well, at least plenty to go around to those who are able to pay for it."

Others - in the environment movement, some unions, a few governments and businesses - look to more far-reaching reforms of the system. One of the more contentious is an immediate end to using coal-fired power stations, coupled with retraining and re-employment schemes for coal miners and power station operators. Other measures would include urgent investment in renewable energy production, revamping the public transport systems around the country, converting petrol driven cars to hydrogen, electricity or natural gas, building redesign and provision of insulation, double glazing and solar panels and, on the water front, recycling water, restoring river flows and introducing sustainable agriculture and industry.

While there's no doubt that these solutions, especially if rapidly implemented, could have a dramatic impact on the environment, the catch is still that it has to be profitable or business will simply go elsewhere. Some of the green businesses springing up around renewable energy are quite open about the market potential ­- that is the profits they can make. When the Greens' leader Bob Brown argues for solar energy, he's as likely to point to the fact that Australian companies are losing out by being behind in the research and implementation stakes as to point to the benefits for the world or the possibility of cheaper energy. Many, especially in the environment movement, are prepared to accept higher "green" utility rates, user-pays insulation, domestic water tanks and car conversions. But this simply ensures that any cost of environmental clean-up falls squarely on the shoulders of consumers and not the corporations' bottom line.

So can we leave it to capitalism to clean up the planet? After all, aren't profit-making and higher charges a small price to pay if we can pull back from the brink?

There's no real argument that if we continue to go along the path we are travelling - indiscriminate use of fossil fuels, polluting, stripping resources, over-harvesting food supplies - we face a grim - or no - future. If the planet's environment doesn't go into total collapse, we're facing a battle for scarce resources, a war for water or oil, clean air or food between the rich and poor countries or the mega-rich backed by the state and the poor within the one country. Today's gated communities of the rich could become barricaded cities or countries, closing their borders to all others. As global warming forces up sea levels, whole countries could disappear under water and their homeless peoples could find themselves with nowhere to go. We just have to look at the heartlessness of the Australian government's response - backed up by Navy ships - to asylum seekers trying to reach land today to get a foretaste of what could come in the future.

However those arguing for the more far-reaching reforms of the system declare that it could be possible for capitalism to avoid destruction, or certainly to pull back from the worst effects of global warming. Time and again, they point out, capitalism has shown itself able to adapt to new situations with new technologies, raw materials and energy resources. And we can certainly see that in some of the solutions being proposed today.

So it may be possible that capitalism can spend its way out of a planetary meltdown, but the crucial question is: what will be the cost to humanity of its survival? Leaving aside the grim scenario painted above, restructuring the world economy to provide some level of sustainability is not going to be just a case of simply switching from one profitable enterprise to another or paying a bit more for energy and water. Because "we are where we are" we have a world system based on massive extraction of non-renewable energy sources and other resources generating enormous profits for existing companies, alongside a world arms race leaning more and more to nuclear weaponry and ratcheting up the pressure to mine uranium. None of these firms will give up their profitable enterprises without a fight, nor will governments simply drop the push to nuclear warfare without mass pressure from below.

We have seen how, just to protect its long term imperialist and energy interests, as well as the profits of American "big oil", the US State is prepared to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, spend trillions of dollars, kill hundreds of thousands of people - including thousands of their own citizens - leaving countries in shambles, the oil deals "safe" for oil mega-firms and US imperialism in control of strategic positions.

The response will be the same if these multinationals are challenged by rival renewable energy firms and the states that support them. The prospect of world war over scarce resources is certainly possible, but few talk about a similar prospect where rising rival firms challenge oil and coal for market dominance, or countries fight over access to food and water resources. In other words this means relying on market forces of capitalism - and its armed might - to bring about change.

Or we have the prospect of the push to go nuclear. This industry, with no proven safe solution for waste disposal - an ecological nightmare all of its own - is being touted as the green solution for our coming energy needs. Apart from the fact that those claiming its green credentials don't factor in the emissions generated during uranium mining and transport, the idea that Australia should rely on a power source that requires such enormous supplies of water is simply farcical.

The fact is, as our leaders know, going nuclear is just the fig-leaf for stepping up the push for nuclear weaponry. As critics point out, most nuclear power stations can be transformed into weapons grade production units within months, even where the latest technological fixes have been installed. So we could be left facing a farcical - but very real - race to destruction between climate collapse and nuclear war, or some awful combination of the two.

And in reality, a strategy of relying on capitalism to provide the answers can only bring us more of the same - shortsighted policies, the quick fix, the possibility of further war, famine and life-destroying pollution. After all, while capitalism is the most productive of all systems to date, showing the enormous potential for humans to fulfil our needs, it is also the most destructive, with the bloodiest wars in human history, mass starvation, disease and grinding poverty.

Capitalism is the greatest threat to the planet's wellbeing, and the biggest barrier to attempts to save it. The only lasting solution to the environmental crisis is the socialist alternative. We need to harness the strength of the world's millions, those who march on the streets today, or who take action in their workplaces, to bring about a completely different world, one where human need and ecological sustainability, not profit, determines what we do.

Fighting for reforms that can make a real difference now, that are in the interest of the mass of humanity rather than the corporate bosses and their profits, is our starting point. A campaign demanding government control of a free public transport system, with massive investment in new stock - using the millions now going into freeways - could dramatically reduce car use and cut back on the social isolation of far-flung suburbs. Or take the simple example of insulation. Local councils in Britain found that by insulating housing, electricity bills were cut by 20 per cent. Or energy, where houses with solar panels actually put energy back into the power grid. When the Victorian government planned a toxic waste dump in the middle of working class western suburbs (home to Melbourne's market gardens) a coalition of workers, unions, local residents and the market gardeners ran a state-wide campaign and forced the government to ban future land-filling of hazardous waste. As well there was a complete overhaul of hazardous waste management, including recycling, waste reduction and the long-term containment of unavoidable waste in scientifically engineered containment facilities. [2]

It's in the process of building the campaigns, fighting around demands that challenge the logic of the system we live in, that we begin to see how we can build a different world, how, to echo the slogan of the anti-globalisation movement, another world is possible.


Life and the planet

It's clear from the record of human history that, over time, we have caused environmental disasters and unforeseen havoc to the world's ecosystem, as well as being a threat to our own health and well-being.

The extinction of many large mammals and birds through unsustainable human hunting, and the destruction of whole ecosystems, such as on Easter Island, are some early examples of tribal society damage. One of Marxism's founders, Frederick Engels, pointed to the destructive practices of early class societies in The Dialectics of Nature. "The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries.

"When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula [a disease of the lymph glands]."

And this kind of damage has continued to the present day, escalating in its effects. And from this angle, it can even seem common sense to argue that humans are a plague on the planet, that the only solution is to rely on what is "natural", cut population numbers and turn our backs on progress - to "live simply, so that others may simply live" - as one popular slogan has it.

However, taking the view that humanity is somehow a permanent blot on the landscape or that "nature knows best" is only possible if you take a view of the planet as being some sort of unchanging paradise, a perfect harmoniously balanced world or that humans are somehow an unnatural addition to the world's living species.

The reality is very different. To begin with, every life form, including humans, radically and mutually interacts with the environment, creating, as Rachel Carson once wrote, a fluid, ever‑shifting, constantly re-adjusting world.

While many accuse us of being the most destructive of the world's inhabitants, life as we know it today would not exist without the mass extinctions, five in all, and dramatic climate and geographical change that has marked the four billion year life span of the planet.

Just take the very first such exchange not long after life began. The earliest microorganisms thrived in a world without oxygen, but to live meant producing oxygen - just as most plants do today. And like plants they pumped oxygen out, producing an environment richer in the gas and deadlier for them. If some of these organisms had not also developed the capacity to survive these rising levels through genetic mutations, life on this planet would have died out then and there.

And for all humanity's destructive activities, other natural causes have wreaked more havoc so far. All the nuclear weapons that exist today, as potentially world-destroying as they are, have only a fraction of the power of the 10km-wide asteroid that probably triggered the end of the dinosaurs and over 60 per cent of all species. Without this extinction, however, the expansion of mammals and the subsequent evolution of humanity would have been unlikely.

But on a less catastrophic scale, just to live means interacting or interchanging with the surrounding environment. Even the tropical forests that so inspire many who want to save the planet, create their own environment that shuts out many species - ground dwelling lions cannot live there, while other big cats do. Or take the pine forests of Europe where few other plants except pine trees can grow. Some Australian native plants are so adept at capturing water that few other plants can grow in their immediate vicinity. Any notion of "preservation" or "non-interference" with the environment as it is now would spell certain death for all species.

In other words we live on a constantly changing planet. A world where most of the species that have ever lived are now extinct and whose environment changes from glacial to tropical; where deserts and river systems come and go, mountainous land masses appear where once there were oceans, and continents merge, split and shift around the globe. In our world plant and animal life continues to evolve and become extinct, but always interacts with all the species and environment around it.

Human beings have no control over such natural changes, which will continue to be the main factors determining the future of the planet. However, as the most recent example of humanity's impact - global warming - shows, we can similarly, dramatically alter the world's environment. And if left unchecked could tip the planet into a spiral of destruction, causing as some scientists suggest, a sixth extinction.

But, precisely because humans are a natural part of the environment, not just some a-historical extra on the planet and because we have, as Engels pointed out, the advantage over all other life of being able to learn and apply nature's laws, we now have the power to bring the world back from the brink of the results of our own destructiveness. Humans are the only species for whom the possibility exists of living without plundering nature, of controlling and limiting how much we use. We are even capable of putting back more than we take out through such technologies as recycling, renewable energy, nanotechnology, sustainable agriculture and manufacturing goods without pollution, poisons and waste.

But is this possible under capitalism?


Two issues: capitalism and the environment

If we take a look at just two issues facing the planet today, global warming and hunger, we'll see that it's not just that capitalism causes the environmental problems we face, its market solutions are fundamentally incapable of fixing them.

1. Global warming/Climate change

Although scientists have been warning of the potential threat from global warming for over 20 years, reports in the early 2000s from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Britain's Stern report have finally put the world on full alert over the catastrophe facing the planet from rising carbon dioxide levels.

A so-called greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), acts as a blanket in the atmosphere, trapping heat, thereby causing the planet to warm. And, as all the studies convincingly show, the rapid rise in CO2 to the current damaging levels - not to mention the projected even higher levels - is due entirely to human activities, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels. More damningly it is, as the Stern report admits, "market failure on the greatest scale the world has seen", in other words a complete failure of capitalism to deal with the consequences of its productive processes.

"What we are doing now to the Earth is unprecedented," says Professor Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey, "so we cannot rule out the possibility that we are doing something that will create a strong positive feedback, which will push the Earth into a domain where things will happen that have never happened before." [3]

According to Stern and many other reports, to stabilise the climate, let alone halt any further damage or pull us back below danger levels, what we need is an immediate and significant reduction in carbon emissions - up to 80-90 per cent in some Western countries such as Australia.

With a report card like that, you would expect Stern's recommendations to have demanded dramatic cutback in emissions in ways that did not rely on the selfsame market forces that delivered the disaster in the first place.

But no. Apart from insisting that it is only through market mechanisms that emission levels can be brought down, he actually argues for an effective rise in atmospheric carbon levels - from 440ppm now to 550ppm by 2030, although even to achieve that will require substantial cuts starting now. Apparently 550ppm would give the world a 50:50 chance of keeping average temperature increases below 3C, despite the fact that even a 1C rise could tip the world beyond a critical threshold. As George Monbiot explains, with even the lowest increase "some of the most dangerous processes catalysed by climate change could become irreversible and climate change may tumble out of control".

And despite calling for the development of renewable energy sources, there were few mechanisms proposed to achieve the necessary changeover. Instead a major focus was for market mechanisms that "put a price on carbon" as an incentive for polluting companies to reverse their carbon dioxide emissions. Companies that pollute indirectly, for example using electricity from coal generated power plants, would also be encouraged to cut their usage and look for alternate renewable or "cleaner" sources as the price of carbon emitting power would rise.

The idea behind carbon trading, one of the market solutions proposed, is that if you're releasing more CO2 than allowed (or continuing to buy energy from high CO2 releasing sources), you can buy "credits" from companies who are producing or using below the quota, or are carbon-absorbers or "sinks". For example a coal fired power station, one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions, could buy "credits" from a forest plantation or orchard, a carbon "sink" where the trees absorb CO2.

One scheme that's already in place, the European Emissions Trading Scheme, demonstrates why it can do little to actually solve the problems. The EETS is based on governments granting polluting companies permits to emit CO2 based on how much they have released in the past. In the first phase - January 2005 to the end of 2007 - governments have already handed out too many permits, so companies are actually allowed to increase carbon emissions! And it has been immensely profitable for these firms. One of Britain's biggest polluters was estimated to have made a windfall profit of about $1792 million in the first year of the scheme, without dropping its rate of emissions.

The glut of permits meant their "value" on the market crashed, making carbon - and hence pollution - cheap again. The crash came within ten days of Britain's then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, making a strong pitch at the United Nations "for a global trading market as the best way to protect the endangered environment while spurring economic growth."

Most of the data from Europe was already available to Stern before he wrote up his report.

Or take the situation in Australia. The Labor Party's Wayne Swan argues: "By supporting carbon trading, social democrats want to use the state, not to override the free market but to create a new market that will allow decisions about which low-emission technologies will succeed to be left to the rational decisions of investors and consumers, not powerful lobby groups..." Well given that it's the so-called rational decisions of investors that have landed us in the mess we're in now, why will they be able to get us out of it?

And as for the consumers, since when have we had a say in the way companies run? Who in Victoria, for example, supported the Kennett Liberal government's mass privatisation of utilities in the 1990s which, while making millions in profits, has not seen the development of new sustainable energy sources? Or the handing over of public transport to private companies, whose incompetency has gutted the system, led to chronic overcrowding, seriously defective infrastructure and driven more people back onto the roads with petrol guzzling and polluting cars?

Labor states have been quick to announce emissions trading schemes, but the governments have made it clear there'll be no cost to the electricity companies affected, while annual household electricity bills would increase - by up to $122 in NSW alone. But even if the companies were forced to pay, Irwin Jackson, adviser to Australia's Climate Institute points out that business has a record of overstating the costs of change and underplaying the benefits. "There was a similar outcry from the chemical industry when CFCs were banned, but in reality adjustments were made with minimal financial impact." (CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons are pollutants that destroy the ozone layer and were used most often in refrigerators.)

Jackson also argues that "it is no longer credible for any business to do nothing". So should we take heart when companies like Rupert Murdoch's News Limited or resources giant Rio Tinto weigh in on the side of reform? Not likely! Rio Tinto's submission to John Howard's climate change taskforce said the company wanted action. But this is no real concern for the environment. They know there'll be some form of carbon reform and they just want to protect their bottom line. As their submission spelt out, the mining firm's "investments and operations are affected by market uncertainty that surround the future of greenhouse gas emissions policy."

The same can be said about Rupert Murdoch's recent conversion, uncritically welcomed by the Australian Greens. While we're all for corporations taking responsibility for their waste, this move by the News Limited boss to "Go Green with the Sun", as its advertising claims, is just another business decision. As Murdoch himself said "I am no scientist but I do know how to assess a risk... As many companies have learned, acting on this issue is simply good business."

The peak bodies trying to coordinate such climate change strategies openly admit that the companies they rely on are "usually strongly motivated by the ‘bottom line' - minimising costs in order to gain market share and maximising profits." But their solution isn't to force companies to pay for climate change strategies, but to suggest to the companies that they adopt policies which mean "wages adjust flexibly." So not only will workers have to face higher utility bills, they'll also get their wages cut - while the companies rake in the profits. Murdoch would know all about this. Most in his print empire have never forgotten his union smashing at "Fortress Wapping" in the 1980s, where police and barbed wire protected the scabs, while unionists lost their jobs.

One example from China shows just how easy it is to make money, not only by doing nothing to stop pollution, but in fact encouraging it. The chemical factory concerned uses outdated technology, producing refrigerant gases that will soon be banned, as well as belching out even more greenhouse gas. It would cost $US5 million to install an incinerator to burn off the waste gas.

But rather than building an incinerator, or even closing down the factory, European and Japanese companies are paying $US500 million so that the company can keep pumping out the gas, and keep making the refrigerant gas - to allow the overseas firms to continue producing climate-changing gases themselves!

The company is not the only beneficiary of the cash. The half billion dollars is divided up between the chemical factory, the Chinese government (who supposedly will use it for energy-saving projects) and the bankers and lawyers who set up the deal.

Carbon trading is simply a market in pollution which allows polluters to continue spewing out toxic substances as long as they can pay. Daphne Wysham, from the website CorporateWatch said, even before the emissions trading scheme got under way, that Climate Control meetings resembled "trade shows in which instead of focusing on how to prevent global warming, attendees jostle to get a piece of a lucrative emerging market." Already called the "green gold rush", investors are drooling over what will soon be a $13 trillion (already $22 billion in 2006) emissions futures market on which to gamble.

But even if these problems could be resolved, there are other fundamental flaws in the scheme. And this comes from the source of the credits, the "under-polluting", carbon neutral or carbon sink companies. Trees are a favourite source of carbon credit, even though any actual measure of carbon absorption and emission from trees is problematic, especially when taking into account the impact of land clearing before creating the monoculture plantation "credits". One example of this is the Plantar industrial timber site in Brazil where the company's plan is to clear tropical forest, force the indigenous population off the land and replant the area with single species harvestable trees. There's an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and the indigenous activists to stop this plantation scam.

Nonetheless, let's just accept for the moment that trees are the carbon sinks they're claimed to be. A quick look at the figures will show just how farcical this solution is. According to Anna Reynolds from the World-Wide Fund for Nature Global Climate Change Program, an estimated three tonnes of carbon is absorbed and held in an average hectare of forest each year, but the average coal-fired power station pumps out around ten million tonnes every twelve months. Reynolds explains, "that's roughly 3.3 million hectares of forest that needs to be planted per year, per power station".

And in Britain, even if the Emissions Trading Scheme had worked to drive down emissions, already rising temperatures have meant that natural organic decomposition in the soil - and release of CO2 - is more rapid than earlier times. Since 1978 CO2 emissions from this source have been estimated at an extra thirteen million tons a year, more than the 12.7 million tons a year Britain saved by cleaning up its industrial emissions.

Then there are the companies which are given exemptions. One such is Bluescope, the biggest steelmaker in Australia and a subsidiary of BHP-Billiton, Australia's largest company with a recent half-year profit of $8 billion. Bluescope, which plans a $1 billion development at its Port Kembla plant, has already been excluded from NSW's emissions trading scheme because of its exposure to the world market. The claim is that the costs of the scheme would unfairly eat into profits of the Australian company, making it uncompetitive with overseas firms not subject to such emission control costs And in 2007, a state and federal election year with 6000 new jobs promised from the development, the company has a written agreement with the NSW government that it will be quarantined from another proposed carbon pricing mechanism, a carbon tax.

Bluescope claims to be doing its bit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saying its new gas co-generation plant will cut its carbon output by 800,000 tonnes a year. An impressive amount, until you discover that the company has an annual 10 million tonnes of emissions coming from the rest of its operations.

Big oil companies will also continue to pollute at the level they always have. In July 2000 BP announced they were no longer British Petroleum, but Beyond Petroleum. With their new logo, a green fringed sunburst, the company claimed to be turning to renewable energy, aiming to become the world's largest producer of solar power. In fact the company went on a mergers and acquisitions spree, spending $120 billion to become the world's single biggest seller of petrol. And it's still expanding its oil business, planning a major expansion into nature reserves of Alaska. And as for its spending on renewable energy? The company has spent over $100 million on marketing and developing its new logo, but admits solar power "is such a minute part of our business that we don't put a figure on it." And on the very day it launched its green sunburst it was fined $10 million by the US Environment Protection Agency for violating air pollution laws at its American refineries!

Corporate contempt for any threat to the environment from their emissions can be seen from ExxonMobil, a company that made a record $US37 billion profit in 2007, the largest of any US company ever. Since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, the first global attempt to deal with greenhouse gases, this oil giant has dished out at least $19 million to fund an elaborate network of over 75 industry front groups to cloud and mislead the world over global warming. While claiming they accept the reality of the greenhouse gas impact, they continue to fund at least 40 global warming sceptic organisations, still using the kind of deceptive tactics perfected by the tobacco industry.

And anyway none of it is their fault! Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson, told the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2007 that oil companies should not be held responsible for global warming. The blame, he argued, rests with consumers and government officials. Anyone who knows how big oil scuttled America's public transport system will find this claim frankly laughable. [4]

While countries like Australia and the US have refused to sign global agreements (weak as these agreements are) until developing countries such as India and China do, the facts show that it is the big firms and the richest countries that contribute most to our environmental problems. Jeremy Leggett from Greenpeace points out that the top 122 corporations emitting carbon are responsible for 80 per cent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some of the biggest polluters in China are those selfsame firms, based in countries such as the US, but opening up in India and China to escape even the minimum requirements of their "home" base. It is the US with 4 per cent of world population that produces 25 per cent of greenhouse gases, while Africa at 14 per cent, produces just 3 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Australia, while it is low on total emissions produced, is in fact, one of the world's highest polluters per head of population.

In the meantime the level of CO2 continues to rise. No wonder so many accuse world leaders and companies of fiddling while the world burns.


2. Food, population and genetically modified organisms

What may seem to be a less pressing problem, genetically engineered or modified organisms (GMOs) give us a separate glimpse into capitalism's impact on the environment, and one that is not much better for our future than global warming.

The claims for this technology are nothing less than awe-inspiring. New GM crops will solve world hunger, they will benefit the environment and human health, are safe and fully tested. A brave new world indeed.

However, as opponents point out, every single one of those claims are false. But, like the tobacco and asbestos industries which hid behind similar deceptions, this hasn't stopped the biotechnology industry barrelling along, generating massive profits for the companies that have cornered the markets.

Beginning in the 1970s, genetic modification has developed at a meteoric pace. The first successful modification of a plant occurred in 1983 and, says Paul McGarr, "the 12 years that followed saw a frenzy of development with the modification of over 60 plant species and nearly 3000 field tests of GM crops. Most of those were experimental, however, and it is only since 1996 that large scale commercial use of GM plants and products has developed." By 2000, less than 20 years since the first engineered plant, half of all soya beans planted and a third of corn fields in the US were genetically modified.

Not only do these companies totally own the plants they modify by patenting them, they also scour the globe for potentially useful plant genes and bring them under the firm's control. Monsanto employs over 100 scientists whose sole job is to discover and patent these genes.

The GM business is huge - and as in any other global market it is dominated by a handful of companies, most already agribusiness or chemicals giants. Just five multinational companies - the so-called Gene Giants - control nearly 100% of all GM seed markets and these firms are looking at lucrative mergers with each other, as well as transport and storage or drug multinationals. The market for GM seeds has already reached $23 billion.

As McGarr writes "GMOs can only be understood as part of the drive of these giant companies to increase their markets, profits and power. All the scientific and environmental arguments have to be seen in this context." [5]

Put another way, these companies aim to control the market for one of the most basic of human needs - the need to eat - and to amass the profits from it. The real issue behind GMOs, argues George Monbiot, is "the corporate capture of the food chain." It's something companies like Monsanto boast about. Writing about a proposed merger, the company explained: "What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies - it is really the consolidation of the entire food chain."

By using GM seeds, for example, the Gene Giants not only aim to lock farmers into using their seeds alone, but also to encourage greater dependence on the agrochemicals - pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilisers - they produce. (GM seeds are genetically modified to have greater resistance to the poisons used in farming, but also rely on fertilisers to increase their yield).

Monsanto takes its claim of ownership of natural resources to a whole new level, even saying that nature itself stands in contradiction to the natural right of capitalist profit. The firm accuses bees of "usurping pollen" from "their" genetically engineered plants in the fertilisation process and other Vitamin-A producing plants of "stealing the sunshine" from its "golden rice". (See below for golden rice.)

Other multinational firms in the "food business" are always on the lookout to link up with - and lock up the food chain - these Gene Giants. One such firm is US-based Cargill which is the world's biggest grain trader. Its global revenues are over $US50 billion a year as they dominate beef packing, flour milling, cattle feeding, turkey processing and phosphate production in Northern America especially, not to mention their world-wide interests in salt, peanuts, cotton, coffee, truck transport, rubber, citrus - and the list goes on.

While there's clearly no doubt that GMOs feed the profits of the world's largest companies, as we'll see, their record on feeding the world's starving is less impressive. But what about their claims to benefit human health?

Monsanto's "golden rice" is a classic example. Vitamin-A deficiency is a serious problem in some countries with staple rice diets leading to problems with vision, even blindness and reduced resistance to infection. Monsanto's quick-fix GM solution is to take the Vitamin-A gene from a daffodil plant and insert it into rice, turning the seeds yellow in the process. The new variety of rice is, of course, fully owned by them.

But vitamin-A deficiency in these countries doesn't occur because rice is the staple diet, rather it's the fact that they can't afford the varied diet that would provided adequate vitamin‑A from other food sources. In Australia, for example, where consumption of rice is high, we have not seen an accompanying rise in vitamin-A deficiency or the diseases associated with it, because Australians can afford to buy other food sources such as carrots, eggs and the like.

Seeing nature simply as an object to use for future profit, as capitalism does, has many research institutions and companies just looking for the immediate fix rather than see the issue as a multifaceted, interconnected one with multiple solutions. Longer term consequences of such technologies are rarely considered. Again looking at golden rice, the problem with artificially dosing up rice with vitamin-A is that too much of the vitamin is toxic and it is known to build up in the liver. Not only will this affect humans, but other animals which feed on rice. Cross pollination with other food sources, which has already occurred in other species despite the companies' insistence otherwise, could lead to fatal concentrations of vitamin-A in other plants.

As the example of golden rice demonstrates, such "progress" in capitalist science, the so‑called "victory" over nature, is illusory. Frederick Engels spelt it out when he wrote: "Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen, effects which only too often cancel the first."

None of this is to say that we should shut the door on new technologies and more research. They are vital to develop agricultural productivity so we continue to be able to feed, house and clothe everyone on the planet. What we don't need are the profit-driven solutions that cause more problems than they solve.

Another claim for GM crops is that they can actually end world hunger. Somewhere, sometime, genetic engineering (though not as it is practised now) could be part of the answer to starvation and famine, but right now GM is the wrong answer to the wrong question. And that's because human hunger has nothing to do with a shortage of food, population levels or lack of a technological fix.

Based on the most recent figures available, the Institute for Food and Development Policy in the US points out that: "The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough is available to provide 4.3 pounds [meat, grains, dairy, fruit and vegetables] to every person, every day." Another study shows that just on the basis of worldwide grain production, every human being could be provided with 3,500 calories a day. Enough, say the authors, to make most people fat.

As report after report shows "abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today." And the real causes of hunger are "poverty, inequality and lack of access. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available, or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves".

But isn't it still the case that the most populous countries are the poorest, their agriculture the least productive and what's needed is both population control and new technology?

Often the discussion about solving food shortages is posed in terms of the unsustainability of the sheer numbers of humans on the planet. With many of the poorer, high population nations experiencing malnutrition and even starvation, unable to provide enough food for themselves or afford to import it, it can seem that reducing the population is the obvious long-term solution. Usually some form of female contraception is proposed, but more recently, companies such as Monsanto have stepped in, saying that their genetically engineered, high yielding crops can provide food for all. [6]

Much of the argument about population size still relies on the discredited ideas of a 19th century British cleric, Thomas Malthus, who claimed that while population increased exponentially, food supplies only increased arithmetically (a lesser rate of increase). To feed everyone, it was argued, meant population numbers had to be kept down. As it was the working class and the peoples of the colonised nations whose numbers far outstripped that of the ruling class and its supporters like Malthus, they were the obvious target for population control.

Even if the original assertion about the differing rates of increase of food supplies and population were true - and they weren't - human society has actually transcended the barriers of natural production. (See John Bellamy Foster for the latest refutation of Malthus' notions.)

In fact, the most densely populated country in the world today is Holland, yet no-one talks of overpopulation causing food shortages there. Where there is hunger, it is not the lack of resources that restrict food supplies. As the authors of World Hunger: 12 myths point out, it is social and economic factors that mean, for example, that far less food is grown than could be. In Africa much of the arable land is simply not farmed - in Chad only 10% of potential farmland is utilised.

They go on to argue that in Africa it can actually be under-population that causes food shortages. The Machakos area of Kenya had become a desert of rocks, stone and sand under British colonial rule, with the administration accusing "uncontrolled development by natives" and increasing population for the area's "miserable poverty". But the state of the land in the 1990s shows something totally different was the cause.

What was needed to make the land more productive, World Hunger authors explain, were techniques such as terracing, small scale irrigation, intensive crop rotation and the like, all of which are labour intensive. With only 24 people per square kilometre in sub-Saharan Africa (as opposed to about 108 in Asia), there simply weren't enough people to farm using these methods. And nothing the British had done had encouraged such sustainable development.

However, the population in the region did begin to increase from the 1950s, meaning that the more labour intensive farming became possible and by 1999 Machakos was green and relatively prosperous with a population density of 110 per square kilometre. Terracing and other techniques virtually stopped soil erosion and corn production rose from 350 to 1200 kilos per person, per year. And in another part of Africa, simply keeping the trees in the fields and planting around them, transformed part of the Niger delta into one of the most productive regions on that continent by early 2007.

When we clearly have enough food already and even greater potential production from sustainable farming, why do we need GMOs? To paraphrase Australia's peak anti-nuclear body's comments about John Howard's push for a nuclear solution to energy needs, if GM crops are the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question in the first place.

To see what's really behind the GMOs, we can get it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Cargill, one of the giants of the industry, says:

Biotechnology provides the capability to revolutionise nutrition and food in a way that will make the industrial revolution pale by comparison. We will be part of that revolution and plan to come out as a winner. Biotechnology will have a crucial role in meeting Cargill's stated goal of doubling in size every five to seven years.

What we don't need are GM crops that do not, in fact, maintain any initial high yield, monoculture farming necessary for GM planting that reduces diversity, crops that increase the risk of antibiotic and pesticide resistance amongst other health issues and a food supply chain firmly locked into profit-making rather than providing enough food for everyone. (See Paul McGarr for the detail of this argument.) [7]

While we can see from these examples that capitalism both gives rise to the problems of global warming and hunger, and provides solutions that only compound the catastrophes facing the world (profit-making carbon trading and GMOs) why exactly is it that capitalism creates such global crises?


Why Capitalism?

Perhaps one of the most chilling statements about the environment and the future of this planet - but, paradoxically, one that can point to the way out of the mess we're in - comes from the Marxist environmentalist Paul Burkett:

We may not like it, but the fact is that capitalism can survive any ecological catastrophe short of the extinction of human life. [8]

A grim prospect indeed. Because, as Burkett goes on to argue, it's not just that capitalism could survive such environmental damage, it is directly responsible for the scale of destruction and if left to continue, will drive us ever closer to annihilation. He writes: "This [capacity to survive catastrophe], combined with its tendency to intensify and universalise the processing of natural wealth, is precisely why capitalism's potential for generating environmental crises surpasses that of all other socio-economic systems..."

Enough of an argument to get rid of such a system once and for all, especially given the latest threat facing us today - global warming.

However capitalism is not wholly about destruction. It has also harnessed human creativity, scientific knowledge and labour power, combining them with the world's natural resources, and thereby unleashing the greatest productive bonanza the world has ever seen. This has made it possible for the first time in human history to potentially feed, clothe, house and provide education, leisure time and the like for every single person on the planet.

Commenting on this contradictory situation, Karl Marx wrote: "On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and [enriching] human labour, we behold starving and overworking it...."

So maybe rather than just dump capitalism, we can reform it. After all, life in modern Western societies is a vast improvement on 19th century Britain's "dark, satanic mills". Implementing all the proposed environmental measures, such as changing from fossil fuels to renewables, transforming our cities into public transport and bike heaven, turning pesticide and fertiliser dependent agribusiness into sustainable organic farming and the like, could change the world for the better. It is, we know, what most people want and we've got the technology and the material wealth (dollars) to do it.

Or as Engels put it, the development of human productive forces

alone make possible a state of society in which there are no longer class distinctions or anxiety over the means of subsistence for the individual and in which for the first time there can be talk of real human freedom, of an existence in harmony with the laws of nature that have become known.

However , while humanity has, as he pointed out "the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn [nature's] laws and apply them correctly" and be "in a position to realise and hence control even the more remote natural consequences of capitalism's production activities", it doesn't mean that this potential to live sustainably can be realised under capitalism.

What matters, he wrote, is how the knowledge is used, whether the social organisation of society enables such know-how to be used for the good of humanity and the surrounding world - or not. Knowing about asbestos, for example, certainly wasn't enough to stop companies like James Hardie exposing millions of workers to its harmful effects. What counted was whether such companies could make a profit or not.

Looking at the world from this perspective begins to shed some light on why capitalism cannot operate a sustainable world. This led Engels to argue that rather than trying to reform the system, it was up to humanity to undertake "a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production and simultaneously a revolution in our whole economic social order," to deliver a world with the social framework to actually apply nature's laws correctly.

However correct Engels is, we haven't really answered the question why, despite the environmentally damaging practices of earlier human societies, it is only capitalism that can tip the planet over into uncontrollable crisis. And as a consequence, if it is capitalism, why a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism to bring in a socialist society is both necessary and possible.

We need to start, as Marx and Engels did, with an examination of what it is to be human, what is the nature of our interaction with the world around us.

Human life, as Karl Marx outlines, "involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing... The first historical act is thus the production of means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself..."

To do this Marx argues, necessarily involves the "appropriation of the natural world for human needs", whether it is, for example, eating a fish, or using tree branches and grasses to make the nets or fishing lines to catch the fish in the first place.

And it is human labour "a process in which both man and Nature participate" that makes this appropriation possible. But human labour is also social, a process between ourselves, as he goes on to explain:

In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner... they enter into definite connections and relations to one another and it is only within these social connections and relations does their influence on nature operate, i.e, does production take place.

As any glance at human history will show, the manner of humans working together has changed and with it the society or social relations between people. Overall these social changes have enabled humanity to increase its productive capacity. While early human history was constrained by limited resources, both natural and human, there was little in the way of a surplus produced and everyone had to contribute. However the first societies, probably agricultural, where population increase and the further development of technology or tools, allowed a division of labour and produced a surplus, also allowed for some in the group to be free of the daily work routine. The continued increased productivity from a more effective harnessing of human labour power created a wealth in the society that entrenched these emerging class divisions where the labour of the majority supported a non-labouring minority.

And as class society developed, the division of labour intensified and the production process became "more and more distinguishable" from the natural world (and consequently less constrained by the world's natural limits, though of course not entirely, as we are witnessing today). It is the capitalist way of production that is the ultimate in this separation of humanity from nature, what Marx called the "metabolic rift", the historic "separation between town and country" and the subsequent alienation of the mass of humanity from the products of its labour and its world.

So for Marx the issue isn't the interaction of humans with nature that needs explanation, because "man lives from nature - i.e., nature is his body - and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die...for man is a part of nature."

Rather it is the uncoupling of human production from nature's limits, the changing way in which humans organise production, the labour process, which has increasingly separated them from the natural world - that must be understood.

While all class societies have caused environmental degradation and crisis, as the cases Engels outlined above, what is it about capitalism that has brought us to the brink of a disaster that threatens the whole planet?

The driving force of capitalism, the inbuilt stimulus for continued innovation and expansion - and potential total exhaustion of the planet's resources, is the need to make a profit. Profit, that as a determining factor in production and an expression of society's wealth, results from the specific way capitalism organises the whole production process. Dividing society into two main classes, the ruling class (eg, factory owner, banker) and the working class, capitalism combines one of its two sources of wealth - the mass "socialised" labour power of workers in large-scale factories, farms, offices and the like, and associated machinery with the second source - the world's natural resources - to produce goods at a level never seen before.

As Karl Marx put it,

The division of labor is necessarily followed by greater division of labor, the application of machinery by still greater application of machinery, works on a large scale by work on a still larger scale. That is the law [driven by competition] which again and again throws bourgeois production out of its old course and which compels capital to intensify the productive forces of labor, because it has intensified them . . . the law which gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear ‘Go on! Go on!'

While workers produce the goods the factory owners sell, they are not reimbursed for the full value of their work, in effect for part of their day they work for nothing - what is known as surplus labour. When the company owners sell the goods for more than it cost to make, it is this surplus labour that the sale of goods transforms into a monetary profit for the capitalist class.

Unlike natural resources which can completely run out, and cannot be accumulated, the goal of monetary profit, as Paul Burkett notes, is quantitatively unlimited. "Regardless of environmental impacts, capital can and will continue to accumulate both materially and socially so long as it can access a supply of living, exploitable labour power [workers] and material conditions [natural resources] amenable to the production of [saleable goods]."

However it's not just a matter of making a profit and then coasting along. Every firm is in a highly competitive market trying to undercut and outsell the others. In this market, with profit-making the only measure of success (and survival), the company that can make more items, more cheaply, or produce entirely new items will be the one making the greatest profit. It is this need for greater and greater profit that drives the constant search for new and cheaper ways of manufacturing goods, the search for new "needs" to be satisfied. Just think how computer technology has spurred the production of a vast array of new goods, not to mention delivering billions in profits from the new markets.

On top of this, because the ultimate source of profit is human labour, as firms mechanise and automate, the amount of human labour required to make the same amount of goods falls - and therefore so does the amount of profit. So there is the constant pressure to make more goods, to drive down costs to extract profit out of an ever-decreasing source.

As a consequence capitalism is a system that can never stand still, is forever expanding. It is this drive for profit that also leads to the recurrent economic crises that capitalism cannot escape, a drive that forces ever greater production until there are market gluts, falling prices, plummeting profits and financial collapse of the system. While every other human society faced crises of scarcity, capitalism is the only one that has crises of over-production, where we see the obscenity of wholesale dumping of fresh fruit in the ocean because it cannot be sold for profit, while millions starve. In fact, it is this very destruction of goods and the means to produce them (factories) through war and world-wide depressions and recessions that is the "madness" of capitalism's mechanism for restoring profitability.

And it is such a drive for profit that also leads to environmental crises as the world is plundered. The twentieth century Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

From the very beginning, the forms and laws of capitalist production aim to comprise the entire globe as a store of productive forces. Capital, impelled to appropriate productive forces for purposes of exploitation, ransacks the whole world, it procures its means of production from all corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilisation and from all forms of society.

One of the classic examples of this "robbery" comes from British and US agriculture in the mid-1800s. As over-farming depleted the soil of essential nutrients such as nitrates, the British dug up the Napoleonic battlefields and catacombs of Europe for bones to replenish the soil, then began ransacking islands off Peru for guano (bird droppings rich in nitrates), followed by the importation of Chilean nitrates (after the War of the Pacific in which Chile seized parts of Peru and Bolivia rich in guano and other sources of nitrates).

John Bellamy Foster details how, facing a similar crisis, the United States sent out ships throughout the oceans searching for guano, and ended up seizing ninety-four islands, rocks, and keys between 1856 and 1903, nine of which remain U.S. possessions today. Australia similarly appropriated and then denuded Nauru. The shortage of nitrate was only solved in part with the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer early in the twentieth century, which as Foster points out, led to another major environmental problem from massive overuse.

But it's not just the wealth of nature that is looted by capital. As Paul Burkett points out,

Marx often notes the parallel between capital's depletion of the natural force of labour power by extension of work-time beyond the limits of human recuperative abilities and capital's overstretching of the regenerative powers of the land by its plunder...

Marx, he adds, points out that under capitalism natural conditions, rather than adding to quality of human life, instead "appear directly as weapons", which with the help of capital's appropriation of science, "are used partly to throw the worker onto the streets, to posit him as a surplus object, partly to break down his special skill and the claims based on the latter, partly to subject him to the thoroughly organised despotism of the factory system and the military discipline of capitalism."

Capitalism thus converts the development of the conditions of labour, what should be a process that adds richness and freedom to the producers into "an alien circumstance to the workers..."

Marx's own memorable description is of capital's relation to human labour: "vampire like, only lives by sucking labour and lives the more, the more labour it sucks."

And looking at Australia under the neoliberal WorkChoices legislation, where workers are stripped of their rights and conditions, where we're working longer and for even less pay as company profits and CEO payments soar, where control of the working day, even our future working life is firmly in the hands of employers, it's not hard to see the truth in Marx's comments.

With immediate profit as the driver of the system, not the real needs of humanity, capitalism is, in fact, indifferent to the fate of humanity and the world we live in. Marx wrote that capital is "moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun." You only have to see the ruling class's response to Iraq, as just one example of the multiple wars for oil that have killed, maimed and displaced millions in the defence of profit. US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, when asked whether the death of an estimated half million children in Iraq as result of the sanctions imposed in the 1990s, was a price worth paying, she replied "...the price - we think the price is worth it."

But it's not just that capitalism is bad for humanity and the world we live in, it is now putting a brake on any future sustainable development.

As the name suggests, global warming indicates that there are only global solutions, but like earlier international trade agreements, any collective solution is hedged around with a multitude of exemptions to protect private profit making - and effectively undercut any combined world-wide effort. One of the proposed "solutions", carbon trading, not only allows pollution at the same, or even higher rates, it protects the profits from the polluting technology as well as opening up a whole new market from which to profit. In the meantime there's no agreement on targets, dates, or even methods and so CO2 emissions continue to rise, bringing the world ever closer to disaster.

The madness of the market is further emphasised by the fact that we already have proven renewable energy technology, which if intensively phased in to replace current carbon emitting technology, could actually reduce CO2 release by the necessary amount within a short period of time. But their use is determined by how profitable they are, not by how much human society needs such technology, right now, to head off climate catastrophe.

Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine a capitalism that lived off the profits based on the production and sale of renewable energy. Right now there are companies growing rich on renewable energy, organic farming or environmentally sound building practices. After all, there's no law that says for capitalism to survive it has to rely on fossil fuel sources, that it has to have plastic or die.

It's even conceivable that in the face of an immense global crisis brought on by climate change, where the social upheaval and instability threatened the survival of key sections of global capitalism, that some dramatic shift to sustainable production could happen.

The reality is that capitalism can derive a profit from anything it can turn into a commodity. And the history of capitalism is one of showing a remarkable facility for turning everything imaginable into commodities, whether it's sustainable energy sources or the canned "fresh air" that is sold to tourists in the country Queensland town, Toowoomba.

However the problem is not one of principle or logic, but rather that we are where we are. For historical reasons we have a capitalist society where the fossil fuel corporations lie at the heart of the production for profit on which the whole system depends. This fact has shaped everything about the world we live in. It means that there are real vested interests that can block challenging developments - the oil companies campaign against public transport or the electric car come to mind - and also influence the ideologies and policies of the world's political parties and politicians and the governments they run.

So we are still faced with the contradiction that lies at the heart of capitalism, a system that can, on the one hand produce enough of everything to make the world a liveable place, to satisfy the needs of all, but on the other hand has production determined not by these needs, but the imperative to make a profit regardless of need or sustainability. Capital takes control of the production process, the decisions about what society needs to produce, away from the people who actually make the goods - as Marx puts it "alienates" the "community of producers" or working class from the society they have helped make - and places it in the hands of that small section of society, the owners of production whose sole motive for production is profit.

While capitalism, as Paul Burkett noted, will continue to survive whatever happens to the planet, so long as there is human labour power and some natural resources to exploit and profit from, this means, ultimately, that capitalism itself puts a brake on future human development and cannot become a society run for human need, for sustainable living and the survival of the planet.

For that other world to be possible it will take more than reforms to capitalism, no matter how radical they are. In their devastating critiques of capitalism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were clear that capitalism could not operate a sustainable world and that only "a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production and simultaneously a revolution in our whole economic social order," could deliver a world fit for all to live.

And today, 150 years later, John Bellamy Foster's stark words tell us we've got no other choice: "Such a revolutionary turn in human affairs may seem improbable. But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible - if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained."

It's time to look at the forces than can change this situation in the interests of the whole of humanity and the world we live in.

A sustainable future

Writing from prison in 1915 and facing the horrors of World War I, Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius pamphlet famously said that humanity faced the choice between socialism or barbarism. "We stand today," she wrote, "between the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism."

Just as capitalism brought the world to the eve of destruction in World War I, a war that was ended by the workers' revolutions of Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918, so we look to workers' revolution - and socialism - today to end capitalism's threat of total annihilation.

Why the working class?

We've seen that along with the development and socialisation of industry under capitalism, as Marx says, "grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation" of workers. Today many workers mine the very coal, uranium and oil that are polluting our planet, or build the bombs and weapons or fight in the wars that have pitted worker against worker around the world.

Marx himself sometimes paints a picture of a working class seemingly incapable of resisting capitalism's attacks, where "the dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist."

But this would be to take a totally one-sided view of workers, to deny the potential of this class to change the world, a potential demonstrated in its full revolutionary expression in the Russian Revolution of 1917, but on a lesser scale ever since in the revolutions, uprisings and mass industrial action in every country in the world. [9]

And it is not a view that Marx took either. While he did not hesitate to describe how capitalism did cause mass misery for workers - his life-long colleague Engels' masterpiece On the Condition of the English Working Class tells it in all too graphic detail - Marx made a crucial addition to his analysis. Alongside the oppression, he writes, "grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself."

One of Marx and Engels' most memorable descriptions of capitalism is in the Communist Manifesto where they describe how the system contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, it has called into being its own gravediggers - the working class.

But with the development of industry the proletariat [working class] not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it feels that strength the more... The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination due to association. The development of modern industry therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundations on which the bourgeoisie produce and appropriate products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, is its own gravediggers.

The two most important points for our argument here are how the competition of the market place drives the workers into combination (trade unions) to defend themselves against the ravages of the system. A "triumph of association over competition" as Paul Burkett describes it. But more than that, such combinations can illustrate the possibility of cooperative, democratic control of production, the direct opposite of capitalist competition. In other words it is not enough to simply organise together and fight the system. Out of that struggle must come both the revolutionary organisations of workers that can overthrow capitalism, and a class schooled to build a new society, a "community of producers" cooperatively and democratically controlling production.

Marx is clear that workers' organisations won't survive, let alone take power, if they are limited to a struggle for a bigger slice of the capitalist pie.

If in the associations it really were a matter only of what it appears to be, namely the fixing of wages, if the relationship between labour and capital were eternal, these combinations would be wrecked on the necessity of things. But they are the means of uniting the working class, of preparing for the overthrow of the entire old society with its class contradictions.

Of course the day-to-day struggle around wages and conditions are crucial, for if workers were to abandon such struggles, Marx added, "they would be degraded to one level mass of broken down wretches past salvation." Moreover "by cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital" workers "would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement."

So, Marx told delegates to the First International, that to maximise "their power of acting against the system of wage slavery itself", that is to overthrow capitalism, workers' combinations (unions and political parties) should not be "too much aloof from general social and political movements" and indeed "must learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interests of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction."

One struggle, one fight!

It's just such combinations the ruling class clearly acknowledge as a threat to their system. At the 2007 World Economic Forum, speaker after speaker pointed to the growing disparity between rich and poor, how the share of national income going to labour is at historic lows, while that going to capital is at historic highs. Though Stephen Roach, chief economist with investment firm Morgan Stanley, was restrained in his comments, merely suggesting that "there is potential for a shift in the relationship between labour and capital," other commentators urged that the ruling class had "to do something or the backlash is going to be very severe."

One example that would have been at the forefront of their minds was in Brazil towards the end of 2006, where the Via Campesina and the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST) occupied land illegally planted by agribusiness giant Syngenta with GM soybeans. The occupation stopped all of Syngenta's activities at the site, and has cost the multinational millions of dollars. In 2007 the company was threatened with fines and the state governor moved to expropriate the site.

Another would have undoubtedly been the victory of the Ogoni women of Nigeria against the petrol multinational Shell. The firm's practice of wastefully burning off usable gas, a by‑product of oil extraction, was not only producing more greenhouse gas than all of sub‑Saharan Africa combined, but also a cocktail of toxins that were causing premature deaths, respiratory illnesses and cancer amongst the Ogoni people.

After the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerian anti-Shell activists in 1995, women of the Ogoni villages took the lead. Despite continuing violent military repression, it was their direct action combined with the international solidarity which they had organised, that led to victory in 2006 - an end to Shell's licence over Ogoni land.

In Australia environmental campaigns involving unions have been amongst some of the most inspiring and successful.

For example in 1972, alongside protest movements, several unions mobilised against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. The most active were the Seamen's Union, the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union and the Waterside Workers Federation, with the latter putting on industrial bans. Even Bob Hawke, whose ALP government later sold uranium to France during the nuclear testing of the 1990s, spoke out - as ACTU leader - against the 1972 tests at the International Labour Organisation. In September 1974, unions covering the NSW State Electricity Commission voted not to work on nuclear power stations, constructing or operating them.

But it wasn't just protests against the French tests that spurred the unions on. With Australia containing one of the world's largest uranium deposits, mining was also the focus of opposition groups. The Railways Union (ARU) put bans on uranium transport in 1976 and when one of their members in Townsville refused to couple carriages going to one of the mines, he was sacked, sparking an immediate walkout by railworkers across Queensland. The dispute escalated until a national rail strike, involving a number of rail unions, won his job back. It was the first national strike over nuclear energy anywhere in the world.

It was such union action and the sight of tens of thousands on the streets across the nation protesting against uranium, which prompted then National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to ban street marches in Queensland in 1977, sparking a mass civil liberties campaign which lasted for two years. Attempts to march brought the unions on board, tens of thousands struck and the ban was defeated. Summing up the impact of the campaign the state secretary of the Building Workers Industrial Union was spot on when he said "movements like this can not only beat laws, but they can bring power to the genuine people and develop real social change."

The first march after the ban was lifted was for the Nagasaki Day protest, a telling symbol of the campaign's success, not just for civil liberties but against all uses of uranium too.

Union pressure combined with the mass mobilisations on the streets saw the ALP and ACTU take a stand against uranium mining, with the Labor Party voting for a complete moratorium at its 1977 conference. Waterfront unions took the strongest stand. At Melbourne docks the union rank and file placed permanent bans on all ships carrying uranium and wharfies at all major ports voted unanimously to reject all uranium shipments. Although the ALP watered down its total opposition when it had federal power in the 1980s, the strength of feeling against uranium mining forced them to adopt a three-mine limit. And while Liberal Prime Minister John Howard pushed hard for nuclear power in Australia in 2006, painting it as a "clean" energy source, the groundswell of opposition put the government on notice, pressured the ALP to come out against uranium-fuelled plants and made its introduction almost impossible. [10]

Unions took a stand on local "quality of life" issues too. The now famous union Green Bans started in Melbourne in 1971, when the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF - now part of a combined construction union, the CFMEU) banned redevelopment of a North Carlton factory site in Melbourne. The local residents' group wanted more open space and parks in the inner city suburb and the union stepped in to back them. For standing up to the developer, union secretary Norm Gallagher was jailed, but the factory was never built. The residents and union won - the area was turned into parkland, and remains so to this day, with a section named after Norm.

The ruling class was further outraged when the union's members took it upon themselves to decide which heritage buildings would be preserved around the country. We now have the Victoria Markets, the Princess and Regent Theatres all in Melbourne, the Rocks area in Woolloomooloo in Sydney, and many others in both those cities and around Australia, thanks to the actions of rank and file Builders Labourers. The union also supported Aboriginal land rights, the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the anti-apartheid campaign demonstrations against the touring South African Springboks rugby team. As the leaders of the NSW branch said "the workers' movement...must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole."

In the 1990s building unions backed Indigenous groups in Asia protesting over forest clear‑felling, refusing to use rainforest timber in Australian construction. The Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) was one of the most active in anti‑globalisation protests in the early 2000s and the mass demonstrations before the 2003 Iraq war - a pollution nightmare if ever there was one. And from 2006 the mining division of the CFMEU began pushing the government to take a stand on climate change, as well as demanding the resource giants "clean up their act". While there has been no talk of banning uranium mining (mostly covered by the Australian Workers Union, the AWU), acknowledging that their members are in the thick of the resources industry, the union's 2006 position paper nonetheless argued that "there is a greater responsibility the union needs to respond to".

And more in the conservation movement are looking to link up with unions. Cate Faehrmann, Director of the Nature Conservation Council, told Workers Online in 2006 that the fight for the environment and the opposition to WorkChoices were part of the same struggle. "A happy, healthy workforce operating in a clean and healthy environment is the only way... if you trash workers' conditions, turn people into numbers and expect them to thrive in a world with prolonged drought, disease, flooding and intense bushfires, my guess is that society will unravel pretty quickly." [11]

But it's not just a question of linking up. The unravelling won't happen automatically. As the earlier examples of the Waterside Workers and the Builders Labourers show, when workers have strong combative unions, where they win better wages and conditions on the job, it means that they are prepared - and able - to take on the ruling class over other issues. Taking on the asbestos companies, for example, was possible because construction unions were strong enough to place bans on all the other products made by these building firms. And they led combined union rallies all round Australia and in the Netherlands outside the companies' offices. If the finance and insurance sector unions had been equally as strong, then the attempts by James Hardie to skip their compensation responsibilities could have been nipped in the bud. Just imagine if the company couldn't transfer a single cent anywhere round the world or had its Australian funds frozen by workers in the banks.

This again points to the real answer to those who argue that it's up to us, as individuals, to make the world a better place. The argument can seem persausive. One columnist in The Age wrote "..never has an issue been so amenable to individual action as climate change. If people don't put their own houses in order, how can they demand governments do the same?" Britain's Economist magazine even suggested that "consumers, fed up with their limited and too infrequent influence at the ballot box, have decided to make shopping a political act; one they can make on a daily basis."

People are disillusioned with ballot box politicking and millions have real concerns about the state of the world and want to do something about it. Some feel that the organisations they traditionally look to, unions and political parties such as the Labor Party, aren't doing enough and this can make them turn to more individual solutions. Or they look to parties like the Greens for answers, hoping against hope that a different political party in government just might make the difference.

But precisely because the global threat to the environment comes from the operation of capitalism itself, we're going to have to take on the might of the corporations and the state that is hand in glove with them. And this means our first step must be a collective fight, one that can spread across the globe, harnessing the strength of the organised working class, to shut down the polluting companies and force governments to act, rather than a mass of concerned citizens individually rationing their water and electricity use, paying more for "green" alternatives or buying organic.

This is why it's so crucial to have a mass movement led by the working class; it determines how we struggle and what we demand. If we look at how the battle against uranium mining was waged, it's clear it was through collective action, the combined mobilisations of the anti‑uranium movement, Indigenous groups and the unions, that we won what we did. Mobilising around working class demands such as "Black Ban Uranium" or "land rights, not uranium", kept the movement focused on the need to tackle the bosses and the government, not just do deals with them or even see them as our allies.

Otherwise we risk tailing the ruling class agenda as many do today, becoming a cheer squad for the Rupert Murdochs of the world. What is actually happening in our world is a ruling class lining up to slash workers' wages and conditions, with solutions to the global environmental crisis that mean more cuts and costs for us. Green taxes such as individual carbon emissions targets they are proposing in Britain, hiking up energy prices for households because of failures of the privatised energy suppliers to plan for a sustainable future or higher water prices because governments gave unfettered water usage to business and agriculture are all part of the ruling class agenda to make us pay for their stuff-ups.

So when governments and corporations "play with my world like it's their little toy" as Bob Dylan charged in his song Masters of War, it is the combinations of "teamsters and turtles", unionists and environmentalists, anti-war activists and global poverty campaigners who joined forces in Seattle in 1999 that can - and did - put the ruling class on notice. Chanting One World, Our World they inspired millions around the world to see that another world was possible.

However this is just the beginning. Mass mobilisations and union pressure can start to shift the corporations, but to really be effective, we need to go further. Out of the struggle must come both the revolutionary organisations of workers that we build in the here and now to overthrow capitalism, and a class ready to build a new society - a socialist society.

John Bellamy Foster paints a picture of just what it is we can win:

In a society that is organised to work together to produce enough to comfortably ensure people's physical and mental well-being and social security, and in which technological advances benefit everybody without costing the environment, a new social definition of wealth will evolve. In the words of Marx and Engels, it will be defined by the degree to which it provides the means for ‘all members of society to develop, maintain and exert their capacities in all possible directions' so that ‘the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms', is replaced ‘by an association [society] in which the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all'.

And that is a future worth fighting for - today!

Demands socialists support

Some demands that show what a sane, humane society in which production was for human need would do, demands that challenge the logic of the capitalist market today.

** Free, extensive 24 hour public transport, run on renewable energy.

** Nationalise all utilities.

** Tax the corporations to pay for R& D, energy-saving projects which should be government run and not for profit.

** Buildings that use less power and cost no more for workers, offices like the Green Building in Melbourne which uses recycled water, insulation, solar power, environmentally sound heating and cooling.

** Instead of GMOs - end the companies monopolies, stop food dumping, introduce sustainable farming practices around the world.

Given that climate change will happen and sea levels will rise, we need to act now to:

  • build levies.

  • start moving, building new cities

  • provide for refugees. Australia should offer to take Pacific Island populations before their countries are drowned.


Two references that stand out for a Marxist interpretation of the environmental challenge are Paul Burkett's Marx and Nature and Paul McGarr's articles in International Socialism.

24 April 2007.

Mick Armstrong Leave it in the ground! The fight against uranium mining. Melbourne, International Socialists, 1978

Sharon Beder: Environmental Principles and Policies: An Interdisciplinary Approach. University of New South Wales Press (Sydney, Australia) 2006.

Sandra Bloodworth, ed Workers Revolutions of the Twentieth Century. Melbourne. Socialist Alternative, 2006.

Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann Green bans, red union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation. Sydney, UNSW Press, 1998

Paul Burkett Marx and Nature: A red and green perspective. NY. St Martin's Press, 1999

17, no. 2 (34), (summer-fall, 2003) pp. 41-72

57 (5) October 2005

Steve Connor Review of the year: "Global warming: Our worst fears are exceeded by reality". 29.12.2006

John Bellamy Foster The vulnerable planet. A short economic history of the planet. NY Monthly Review Press, 1999

John Bellamy Foster Marx's Ecology. NY Monthly Review Press, 2000

John Bellamy Foster Ecology against capitalism. NY Monthly Review Press, 2002

and JB Foster at

54(2) September 2002.

58(8) February 2007.

88: 67-126. Autumn 2000

107 Summer 2005.

Isabella Kenfield "The Struggle for the Expropriation of Syngenta: Showdown Between the Social Movements and Agribusiness in Brazil" 7.1.2007 by Isabella Kenfield

Volume 10, Number 4, Summer 1982, pp. 26-35, also at:

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Coming to Terms with Nature. Socialist Register 2007 (Merlin Press, 2006)

Liz Ross Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! The story of the deregistration of the BLF 1981-1994. Melbourne Vulgar Press, 2004.

Jeff Sparrow "The workers flag is deepest green. Class struggle and the environment." In Rick Kuhn, ed Class and Struggle in Australia, Sydney. Pearson Longman, 2005. pp 195-212

Socialist Alternative

International Socialist Review.

For full and detailed discussion of the science of global warming see the series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists website

[1] 2006 Lowy poll.

[2] See for an update of the campaign, with the failure of the Bracks' ALP government to carry out all the promises.

[3] As quoted by Steve Connor

[4] See for all the dirt on this giant polluter.

[5] It's not just Marxists such as McGarr who argue this. The Age editorial of 13 May 2007 was headlined "Remember GM is bankrolled by big agribusiness"

[6] The Monsanto solution, profiteering from world hunger, is just one in a long line of many such proposals to resolve issues of hunger and population. The growing world population was viewed as a threat to America's security and prosperity in the early 1970s. Then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, discussed using food as "an instrument of national power", asking "is the U.S. prepared to accept food rationing to help people who can't/won't control their population growth?"

88 Autumn 2000,

[8] In this section the quotes from Marx and Engels are as quoted by Paul Burkett in Marx and Nature: A red and green perspective.

[9] See Sandra Bloodworth, ed, Workers Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

[10] Long-time Australian nuclear hawk Leslie Kameny still insists that uranium is safe, but is now jumping on the green bandwagon to claim it's pollution free too. But you get the sense that he's lost touch with reality even more when he finishes his article: "Perhaps that intellectual giant Homer Simpson has got it right after all. Here is someone who works in a nuclear power station in proximity to his own backyard. Yet he is able to pray ‘And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the safest, cleanest energy there is.' Except for solar, which is just a pipe-dream." (Australian Financial Review 6.1.07)