1990s >> 1992 >> no-1054-june-1992

Editorial: Saving the Earth

Will capitalism bring the world to the brink of ecological disaster? It is certainly having a good try. Its pursuit of profits and its competitive pressures to keep costs down have led to all sorts of inappropriate methods and materials being used in production.

Two of these in particular are threatening the stability of the biosphere as the environment that sustains life on Earth. One is the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are known to have caused holes in the ozone layer. The other is the burning of fossil fuels which releases abnormal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and which could cause a global over-warming.

The ozone layer is vital to life on Earth since it protects the life-forms that have evolved here from ultra-violet rays from the Sun. So the appearance of holes in the ozone layer is a serious matter. It is in the vital interests of us all that everything be done to stop them growing and then to close them. In concrete terms, this means immediately stopping the production of all CFCs.

A rise in the world’s average temperature would have disastrous consequences on the present patterns of human life. The sea level would rise, flooding areas which now supply much of the world’s food would no longer be able to do so. Once again, what must be done is known. Steps must be taken to reduce current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. First, by dramatically cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels in power stations and in cars, trains, ships and planes. Second, by stopping further deforestation as trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

So will capitalism step back from the brink? Will it be able to prevent its drive for profit from destroying the environment? At least the two problems are recognised. At least a world conference has been called. But recognising a problem and calling a conference is one thing; agreeing on and implementing effective measures to remedy the situation is another.

The Conference that is taking place in Brazil this month has been hyped by the media as “the Earth Summit” but is nothing of the sort. It is merely a conference of the leaders of the various capitalist states into which the world is artificially divided. All those present are supporters—indeed administrators—of the capitalist system which caused the problems in the first place. Each of them is there to defend their own particular sectional, national capitalist interests. In these circumstances whatever is decided will be totally inadequate.

Look at the record so far. In 1987 twenty-three industrialized countries met in Montreal and agreed to phase out the production of CFCs by 1999. The United States was the keenest—because it had a virtual monopoly on the production of substitutes. The other countries wanted time to catch up with this technology. Hence the delay to 1999. But many countries, particularly in the co-called Third World, refused to sign, on the grounds that they couldn’t afford the substitutes (estimated to be at least three times more expensive). Some of these states can be expected to eventually begin production of CFCs themselves.

It’s the same story with the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Here it is those countries with above average dependence on coal- and oil- fired power stations who, led by the United States, have been dragging their feet. Paying for filters or building other types of power stations would raise their industrial costs and put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their competitors on world markets. So any treaty on global warming that might emerge from Brazil will be an inadequate compromise between rival capitalist states full of loopholes and get-out clauses to protect vested interests.

Before anything constructive can be done, capitalism must go and, with it, the artificial division of the world into separate, competing states. The Earth, and all its natural and industrial resources, must become the common heritage of all humanity. A democratic structure for making decisions at world as well as at local levels must come into being.

When such a united world has been established (or is about to be established) a real Earth Conference can be called to decide how to repair the damage capitalism has done to the biosphere. Then what scientists already know should be done can be done, and humanity can begin to organise its relationship with the rest of nature in a genuinely sustainable way.