Ecology and Politics
Strictly speaking, ecology is a science and not a party-political point of view. But as the science of the relationship between organisms and their environment it has clear social implications when the organisms in question are human beings. Whatever we might like to think, we are not the species that has “conquered” nature and freed itself from its laws; we are a part of nature and cannot, without serious consequences, permanently infringe the laws governing our relationship as an animal species to the rest of nature as our environment.
Basically, ecological science teaches that .an ecosystem, as a pattern of relationships between various different plant and animal organisms and their common physical environment, can only survive over time if a certain equilibrium is established and maintained –what has been called “the balance of nature”. If this balance is not respected, then the ecosystem begins to break down with serious consequences for all the organisms involved.
Although there are still some completely self-sufficient tribes and communities in various parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America –which, incidentally, have only survived, apart from their isolation, through being perfectly integrated into their ecosystems –the ecosystem of which humanity is part now embraces, and has done for about a hundred years, the whole globe. A moment’s reflection on what goes into making the articles we use every day is sufficient to demonstrate this: they are made of materials –of metals like steel, tin and aluminium or of plastics derived from oil –that come from all parts of the world. The same applies to much of the food we eat. The environment on which we depend, then, is the whole world, its atmosphere, its natural and industrial resources –in short, all that is in and on the Earth. The equilibrium which ought to exist between us and our environment is thus an equilibrium between us, as a species, and the whole of the rest of nature, an equilibrium which would allow us to use nature to satisfy our needs without upsetting the ecosystem to which we belong.
Yet, if we look around us, it can clearly be seen that no such equilibrium exists or is being respected. The Earth is being plundered and polluted: non-renewable resources are being used up in a reckless manner while other parts of nature are being rendered unusable through pollution by non-biodegradable and toxic wastes. What makes this worse is that this does not even ensure the survival of the human race in adequate, decent conditions: millions of members of our species suffer from hunger, lack of shelter, disease and ignorance. Even those of us in the so-called developed parts of the world, though not suffering from problems of material survival to this degree, still do not consume proper food, nor have adequate housing, education or health care, and generally lead unsatisfying, stressful lives. Clearly something is radically wrong with the way we relate as a species to our environment.
The way humans are organised to obtain their material means of survival both as individuals and as a society is in fact the basis of any form of human society. All other aspects of human social life –decision-making procedures, art, religion, morality and ideas generally –are ultimately determined by this basic social relationship of how human beings get their Irving. So, if we are to understand why present-day society is so anti-ecological we need to begin by examining its basis.
The first point is that natural resources, the ultimate source of our means of material survival, are not owned in common, but are the property of individuals or groups of individuals. This seems to be quite normal, even natural, but in fact it is a quite irrational and abnormal way for human beings to organise their access to the fruits of nature and their own labour. For it means that a section of society monopolise the means whereby the rest of society live. It means that this minority can hold the rest to ransom and exact a tribute from them in the form of a privileged non-work consumption. It thus rules out co-operation to produce what is needed and makes exploitation and conflict the basic social relation of production.
So abnormal did this seem that a whole series of thinkers since ancient times have seen common ownership (the absence of property, or no-ownership) as being “natural” and property as being “unnatural”. This was expressed in such popular sayings as “the Sun shines for everyone”, or, in religious terms, as God having given the Earth and its fruits to all humanity to be enjoyed by them on an equal basis. And every time that the excluded, non-owning class has revolted against its exploitation by the propertied class the demand for a return to common ownership, regarded as the natural state of humanity, has been raised. In fact the whole of political philosophy, as still taught in schools and universities to this day, can be seen as a permanent attempt to justify property and refute the more reasonable common ownership.
In any event, natural or unnatural, property in the means of production is the basis of present-day society as of many past societies and this has certain serious implications for human relations with nature. For where there is property nature cannot be regarded as the common heritage of all, to be respected and looked after in the common interest. There is no common interest and the sectional interest of the property-owners is to utilise the part of nature they monopolise for their own personal benefit, without concern for the rest of society and future generations. So, already, an anti-ecological bias is built-in to any property society.
Another, even stranger, feature of present-day society is the fact that items of wealth are produced, not to satisfy human needs, but to be sold on a market with a view to obtaining a monetary profit. Not even previous property societies had this feature since, although they were based on exploitation, the aim of production was still use even if that of the ruling class. Generalised production for sale too seems normal today, but is really quite odd for it means that the main reason food is produced is not to be eaten, nor houses to be lived in, nor clothes to be worn; everything, literally everything, is produced for its exchange-value, not its use-value. The aim of production today, far from being the natural one of producing useful things to satisfy human needs, is to accumulate more and more capital in the form of exchange value. In fact production today is governed by an economic mechanism –the accumulation of capital –that is beyond human control and forces humans to obey and apply it even though this clearly does not serve human interests.
The combination of property and production for sale means that each property owner, or rather these days each property-owning establishment or capital-accumulating enterprise, whether private or state owned, is seeking to maximise its own monetary profit. Each enterprise is a separate profit-and-loss accounting unit seeking to maximise its relatively short-term economic gain, once again without concern; either for the common interest or for longer term ecological considerations.
In other words, present-day capitalist society is constitutionally incapable of regarding nature as anything other than a resource to be plundered for short-term, sectional economic gain. It is true that from time to time the state does step in to prevent excesses but this does not alter the basic mechanism of capitalism. Indeed, as William Morris pointed out with regard to food adulteration, laws against this are only necessary in a society where the economic tendency is to do this, since in a rationally-organised society it just would not occur to anyone involved in producing food to deliberately adulterate it. Similarly, laws against plundering and polluting the environment are only necessary where the tendency to do this is built-in to the economic system. It also means that such laws, besides being frequently broken, can only be palliatives, attempts to deal with effects while leaving the cause intact.
Politically-oriented ecologists thus have a tactical choice to make. Either they go for more laws and restrictions to try to protect the environment or they go for a radical social change to bring about a society in which the environment wouldn’t need protecting. It’s the same dilemma that the early socialist movement faced: reform or revolution? Trying to patch up and change the spots of present-day society or working to establish a new society as a preliminary to being able to do anything lasting and constructive? Experience has shown reformism, in whatever field, to be basically a futile exercise: at best it is only running fast to stay still, at worst it is only solving one problem at the expense of creating others.
The nature of the only social framework within which human beings could live in harmony with, not at the expense of, the rest of nature is easy enough to discern: it would have to be a society based on common ownership not property and a society in which the aim of production was to satisfy human needs, not to make and accumulate profits. In short, communism in its original sense, what the Socialist Party today calls “socialism” (and which of course has nothing to do with the various states and regimes throughout the world which are falsely labelled socialist today).
Respecting ecological principles does not involve a “return to nature” in the form of a return to primitive agricultural and artisan techniques. Agriculture, even in its primitive forms, has always presented an interference with nature and upset the pre-existing balance. Humans have to do this in order to obtain their material means of survival. But the point is to establish a sustainable balance between our use of nature as a source, of wealth and nature’s ability to keep on supplying us on a self-regulating basis because we allow it to recreate what we take from ft.
What respecting ecological principles involves is, first of all, a recognition that there is a balance of nature which can be upset by the choice of techniques of food, energy and industrial production. It involves choosing techniques in the light of this knowledge, including developed industrial techniques since nothing prevents these from being in principle integrated into a sustainable ecosystem. Change, involving upsetting a particular balance, is not at all ruled out nor is it necessarily undesirable in itself but, once again, it must be realised that change can upset the existing balance of nature and that steps must therefore be consciously taken to help a new, different balance to be found. Having said this, however, it is likely that, after an initial increase in food, energy and industrial production to help overcome the problems of world hunger, destitution and disease which socialism is bound to inherit from capitalism, production levels will become stabilised in socialism and be tied to population levels (which will also be stabilised). In other words, socialism will eventually become a society with a stable level of production, integrated into a stable relationship with the rest of nature; a particular balance with nature will be achieved and sustained.
In this sense, and even though our choice of words would be different, socialism will achieve the first of the principles on which the Ecology Party says in its leaflet Politics for Life that its policies are based:
“to ensure basic material security for all, putting people before profit within a stable economy, based on sustainable alternatives to the Insane rat race of economic growth.”
We would in fact go further and say that this aim can be achieved only in a society based on the common ownership of natural and industrial resources in which production could therefore be oriented solely towards satisfying human needs. In any event, it is quite incompatible with the existing capitalist system which, because of its very nature, will never “ensure basic material security for all”, cannot put “people before profit” and is in fact “the insane rat race of economic growth” –the blind mechanism of capital accumulation out of profits realised from sales on a market.
Some ecologists would seem to be on the way to realising that the achievement of an “ecological society” Involves a complete change of economic and social system. Thus, one ecologist in a recent letter to the Guardian (21 September 1985) expressed herself as follows:
“Green politics is concerned with a materially realisable future, not with a mythical past, and is actively working towards a more equal and more humane society. A non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society is a practical goal not an ideal, one which necessitates a social order based on the common ownership of natural resources. This is not a matter of sprigged muslins, spinning-wheels and wholemeal porridge but of uses of science and technology (“soft” rather than “hard”) which will enable us to realise our full human potential.”
A non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society based on the common ownership of natural (and, to be absolutely clear, industrial) resources enabling us to realise our full human potential is not a bad description of socialism as we understand it.
It would, however, be going too far to say that any more than a tiny handful of the Ecology Party think along these lines. In practice, the Party concentrates on pushing its programme of reforms to be realised within the money-wages-profit system that is capitalism and published elsewhere in its leaflet under the heading A Ten Point Action Programme. These include such measures as “a National Income scheme to remove the poverty trap”, “phase out National Insurance, introduce a Natural Resources Tax”, “abandon all plans for more nuclear power stations”, “set up an Environmental Protection Agency”, “ban lead in petrol, the asbestos industry and cigarette advertising”, etc, etc, etc.
In other words, the Ecology Party seems to be unaware of the tactical dilemma faced by all those advocating something that is incompatible with capitalism and are becoming bogged down in “green” reformism. Already at their last Conference in May there were complaints that parts of their programme were being stolen by the established reformist parties. But this is only possible because the party’s list of reform demands can be accommodated within capitalism – and it was of course these demands that the other parties have stolen and not the idea of “a stable economy, based on sustainable alternatives to the insane rat race of economic growth” and certainly not that of “a non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society . . . based on the common ownership of natural resources”.