1970s >> 1972 >> no-812-april-1972

Capitalism Causes Pollution

Many opinions voiced on the resources/population/ pollution problem are in direct conflict with the Socialist claim that, with the present state of our knowledge, and with the present level of technical development, the world is capable of abolishing scarcity. That of course is hardly surprising. Socialist ideas are in conflict with generally held opinion on most things — war, poverty, human nature, leadership, nationalism — even on “socialism”. That does not make our ideas wrong — or right.

Briefly the argument runs to the effect that pollution is caused by an expanding population acting and reacting on an expanding technology. The human race is heading for various forms of disaster unless population is either reduced or stabilised and technology halted or reversed.

Now it is not necessarily the case that where two phenomena occur together that one is the cause of the other. It may be that both, or either, are caused by some other phenomena not taken into account. We argue that the present environmental crisis arises not from population or technology but from the nature of capitalism, the world society in which we live.

The driving motive for production in capitalist society is the hope of making a profit from the sale of commodities on the world’s markets. The surplus value produced by working people and realised by sale is appropriated by the owning class and accumulated as capital which is, by and large, re-invested for the further exploitation of human labour power. Anything which interferes with or diminishes this accumulation is to the detriment of the capitalist class.

When we say that capitalism causes pollution we mean that because production is for profit there is an artificial (economic) barrier to the implementation of known solutions. Technologically, the problem should no longer exist; but solutions cost money and as such bite into profits since increased costs, if taken in isolation, can lead to disadvantaged positions in the never-ending struggle for markets. That this is so has already been admitted by politicians and businessmen alike. For example, Lord Kennet, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government under the Labour government, said: “The techniques are already available by which contamination of air, water and land can be avoided; all that is needed is the will and the money to apply them . . . However politicians are most unlikely to insist on firms spending money on preventing pollution if this means the loss of their competitive position in world markets” (The Times, 5 July 1969). The Confederation of British Industry put their point this way: “If consumers like certain commodities at a certain prices — a low price — they cannot expect industrialists to spend vast amounts of money on environmental controls”; and, wrote Industrial Management in October 1971, the conservationists “do seem blind in many cases to the cost factor; in short, if they want to preserve and save they will have to pay more for the goods. Such moves, unless enforced on a worldwide basis, would make our products uncompetitive abroad. The economy would creak and crash.”

Some frightening predictions have been made as to what might happen if nothing is done pretty soon. “The crisis will be upon us in the next 25 years . . . The self purifying process will be stressed to destruction” warns Barry Commoner at a conference on The Future of Man’s Environment (Soil Association press release 30 July 1969). Nixon’s advisor on Urban Affairs, Moynihan, was even more alarming when he stated, “We may have even less than a 50-50 chance of living until 1980” (The Times, 22 October 1969).

Things look pretty bleak then — which doesn’t say much for capitalism. But what nearly all the prognostications, and most of the criers of doom assume, and what they fail to question, is the continued existence of capitalism, of production for the market, of buying and selling. When confronted with all the evidence for the need for a new way of life all Paul Ehrlich, the shrillest of the population scaremongers, can offer is the observation that “It will involve governmental intervention, changes in tax structure, and formidable changes in attitude” (in Harold W. Helfrich The Environmental Crisis, 1970).

We are due, it seems, for another bout of political reforms. Tough legislative measures have been promised to curb and reduce the menace of pollution. This is nothing new; we have heard it all before. It is in fact the treatment as before. There have been twenty or more Acts of Parliament dealing with water pollution but there are still 950 miles of “grossly polluted” river in England and Wales and it is reported that years of intensive effort are still needed. Some local authorities have recommended the use of pure bottled water for babies as the mains supplies are heavily contaminated by nitrate from agricultural runoff (The Times, 8 January 1969). A survey by two scientists from the University of Liverpool found, in tap water taken by random samples from an area with a population of seven million, that phenolic substances were at concentrations of more than 16 times the World Health Organisation maximum; and that that lead and cyanide were also to be found at dangerous levels.

The fact is that governments cannot legislate capitalism out of business. If the laws are too harsh, or if the cost involved is too heavy, they will be either circumvented or ignored. A World Health Organisation committee of experts who looked into this matter came to the conclusion that “Countries with severe laws against pollution have not in fact avoided the occurrence of wide spread pollution” (Use and Conservation of the Biosphere, UNESCO, 1970).

Yet in all this there are hopeful signs. There is a growing awareness that pollution is a world problem and that as such needs world answers. Effective action however is hampered by the existing division of the world into competing and often mutually antagonistic nation states.

Dr. Kenneth Mellanby, of the Nature Conservancy, is in no doubt that our environment could be safeguarded and improved if we gave it our full attentions and energies: “The same technology that is causing so much destruction could, properly used, safeguard the future” (Soil Association).

Frank Fraser Darling argues:

The deterioration of the quality of the environment may be easily explained, if not excused. It should not however be equated with doomsday . . .  A rationalisation of use of the resources of the biosphere on a world-wide scale is imperative if satisfactory living conditions of future generations are to be guaranteed . . . The problems which mankind faces in this area cannot be tackled piecemeal. The biosphere, and man’s place in it, must be envisaged as a whole (UNESCO, our emphasis).

It is precisely this that the establishment of Socialism will bring about: a society based on the satisfaction of human need (both present and future) through the rational application of human knowledge and energies on a global co-operative scale. The spectre of pollution will then be finally laid.

Gwynn Thomas