Skip to Content

The Stern gag - capitalist policies for capitalism's problems

At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing over nature - but that we, with flesh and blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. We are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our productive activity, and so are afforded the opportunity to control and regulate these effects well. This regulation, however, requires a complete revolution in our existing mode of production . . . in our whole contemporary social order”

You could be forgiven for thinking the above quotation came from a modern-day ecologist or environmentalist, commenting on impending global ecological catastrophe and drawing upon the myriad reports currently in existence, written by concerned scientists, that portend cataclysmic changes to our life-styles if we don’t stop abusing our natural environment immediately. The quote is in fact 131 years old and is taken from Dialectics of Nature, written by Frederick Engels (1875).

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Socialists have been warning about the effects of capitalism's penny-pinching production methods and how they impact on the wider environment for well over a hundred years, and it is often with despair that we reiterate Engels' message from the later 19th century, more so now that state-of-the-art technology exists that provides hard evidence as to the exact effects of capitalist production.

Global disaster

It was, therefore, not with any great sigh of relief, or with shock and disbelief, that socialists received the findings of the much-trumpeted Stern report on climate change and indeed the government’s reaction to it. It does make for grim reading, suggesting that time is running out to really address the environment question previous opportunities having been pathetically squandered at the Hague and Kyoto Summits and that the possibility of preventing a global disaster is "already almost out of reach".

The 700-page report, commissioned by the Treasury and carried out by the former World Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, argues that environmental problems will be "difficult or impossible to reverse" unless something is done now. It paints a disturbing picture of the future of the planet if overall global temperatures rise by just two degrees Centigrade. It suggests that four billion people could face water shortages, that sixty million Africans would be exposed to malaria and that forty percent of the world's species would face extinction.

Two-hundred million more people, it goes on, could be exposed to hunger and that figure could rise to 550 million if the temperature rose one extra degree because of a knock-on 34 percent drop in crop yields across Africa and the Middle East. Australia's arable land would become simply too hot to sustain cereal crops. Another couple of degrees rise in temperature would, according to the report, see the ice glaciers of the Himalayas melt, depriving 300 million Chinese of a water supply. Rising sea levels would inundate half the world's major cities, creating more homelessness, and increased ocean acidity would result in a serious decline in fish stocks.

The report further informs us that “changes in weather patterns could drive down the output of the world's economies by an amount equivalent to up to £6 trillion a year by 2050, almost the entire output of the EU.” But all is not lost, believe Chancellor Gordon Brown and Environment Secretary David Miliband. They point to the 'positive message' arising from the report; this being that the world has the means to avoid the awaiting cataclysm. Money can be thrown at the problem - the earth-shattering sum of one per cent of Global GDP should suffice; a figure, incidentally, which is dwarfed by global military spending.

Whiff of profits

Responding to the report, Miliband sounded quite optimistic. Interviewed by the Independent (30 October), he said: "The second half of his message is that the technology does exist, the financing, public and private, does exist, and the international mechanisms also exist to get to grips with this problem - so I don't think it's a catastrophe that he puts forward. It's a challenging message."

What we are offered are capitalist remedies, and to make it all the more attractive there are profits to be had - well, the master class has to have some damned incentive before they act. As the Independent reported: “Combating climate change could become one of the world's biggest growth industries, generating around $250bn of business globally by 2050.” Providing, that is, that we still have a planet worth saving in 50 years time.

Environmental disaster and the best capitalist politicians can think up is to tempt the master class with the whiff of profits to come if they agree to mend their ways! Indeed, the report is punctuated with terms such as “cost-effective” and “profitability”. Well, Stern is after all a leading world economist so his thoughts are naturally with his associates in big business. The very people who have disregarded the effects of their production methods on the natural environment for hundreds of years are now being asked to show it some mercy! Global environmental catastrophe can be halted by throwing money at the problem!

The simple fact is that businesses will not take the risk of falling behind in the struggle for profits and nor will any government enforce policy that will result in a drop in the profits of its respective capitalist class. This is exactly what President Bush cited when he pulled the USA out of the Kyoto Agreement. He is no doubt aware that the USA consumes more than one quarter of global oil production and is accountable for one quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while being home to only 4.5 per cent of the world’s population, but his remit is not to protect the environment, nor the millions who would suffer as a direct result of environmental chaos. His job is protecting US interests all over the world, interests which are inseparable from profits.

Capitalist businesses survive by forcing out their competition, by cutting costs and sidestepping policies that hinder their expansion. They seek new outlets for their wares, to sell more and more, because this is the law of capitalism, and it is a law antagonistic to ecological concerns. It is the crazed law of capitalism that compels the big oil producers to pay teams of scientists to prepare reports that refute the findings of environmentalists who forewarn of the dire effects of current production methods.

The market economy demands that businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interests. Pleasing shareholders takes far more priority than ecological considerations. The upshot is that productive processes are distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by anarchic market forces which compel decision-makers, whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste. They may well be loath to contaminate ecosystems, but the alternative is closure should they invest in costlier eco-friendlier production methods. Little wonder then that nature’s balances are upset today, and that we face problems such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels, acidic oceans and the like.

All Greens now

The Greens have long insisted that things could be put right with a change of government policy, which is exactly what Labour now proposes. The problem, they believe, can be rectified by governments forcing through laws and imposing green taxes on air travel, motoring and high emission vehicles - to protect the environment. Even the Conservatives, with their new infantile eco-logo, and the Liberals have jumped on board the green bandwagon. Shadow chancellor George Osborne promises a whole swathe of green taxes. All are seemingly convinced the problem facing the environment is an economic one insofar as the world's governments can spend their way out of environmental catastrophe.

Governments, to be sure, exist to run the political side of the profit system and, no matter how well intentioned, do not have a free hand to do what is sensible or desirable. They do not control the market-driven profit system it controls them and shapes their policies. Which government is going to tell its oil companies to produce less oil, when these same oil producers are under constant pressure to pump more out of the ground and as cheaply as possible? Within three years annual car sales are set to hit 60 million per year, 10 million up on 2004. Which government will dare threaten these car sales with its eco-policies? At the very best their eco-policies can only slow down the speed of environmental decay, not halt it in its tracks at some future date.

Socialists are no different from others in desiring an environment in which the safety of all animal and plant species is ensured. Where we differ from our political opponents is in recognising that their demands have to be set against a well-entrenched economic and social system, based on class privilege and property and governed by the overriding law of profits first.

It has long been our case that human needs can be satisfied without recourse to production methods that adversely effect the natural environment, which is exactly why we advocate the establishment of a system of society in which production is freed from the artificial constraints of profit. We are not talking about nationalisation or any other tinkering with the present system, but rather its entire abolition and replacement with a global system in which the Earth’s natural and industrial resources are commonly owned and democratically controlled; a society in which each production process takes into consideration not only human need but any likely effect upon the environment.

One does not need a mastery of Earth sciences to envisage types of farming that preserve and enhance the natural fertility of the soil, the systematic recycling of materials obtained from non-renewable energy sources while developing alternative sources that continually renew themselves (i.e. solar energy and wind power); industrial processes that avoid releasing poisonous chemicals or radioactivity into the biosphere; the manufacture of solid goods made to last, not planned to break down after a period of time.

Once the Earth's natural and industrial resources have been wrested from the master class and become the common heritage of all humanity, then production can be geared to meeting needs in an ecologically acceptable way, instead of making profits without consideration for the environment. This the only basis on which we can meet our needs whilst respecting the laws of nature and to at last begin to reverse the degradation of the environment caused by the profit system. The only effective strategy for achieving a free and democratic society and, moreover, one that is in harmony with nature, is to build up a movement which has the achievement of such a society as its objective.

JOHN BISSETT