1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

In the name of profit

Capitalism seems to induce in people a “problem fatigue”, a condition in which the myriad problems facing humanity result in an indifference born of an overexposure to shock reports and nightmare scenarios — a condition which leaves the sufferer with the opinion that nothing he or she can do can help matters and that sooner or later all will turn out right.

In a society in which most of us are taught self-contempt and distrust our own intelligence, this is hardly surprising. After all, capitalism depends for its continued survival on suppressing ideas that conflict with those that sustain it. So naturally the master class would rather we turned a blind eye to their excesses, even at the risk of some future calamity.

The publication of three recent environmental reports — reports that suggest global catastrophe is on the horizon — would appear to confirm this. Remember the Worldwatch Institute back in 1990 giving us just 40 years. 12,000 days, to make the transition to “an environmentally stable society” or else? Exactly.

In January of this year the Worldwatch Institute produced another report entitled State of the World. The statistics they quote are alarming: western governments spend $500 billion each year subsidising the destruction of oceans, the atmosphere and land. $100 billion of this goes to power stations that worsen global warming, $300 billion goes to the encouragement of destructive farming and overgrazing and $50 billion to overfishing.

A following report by the Panel on Sustainable Development, a government advisory body set up by John Major five years ago. attacks the British government for spending £20 billion on environmentally damaging industry, energy and agricultural grants, and over in Nairobi the UN Environmental Agency reported that almost three billion people will face water shortages within 50 years.

The latter also reported that if present policies remain unchecked, within the same time period some 36 countries will face flooding with the displacement of 100 million people; that in Africa, land twelve times the size of Britain is moderately to severely degraded; that 86 percent of Europe’s coastal ecosystems are at risk.

The industrial North, which contains only 20 percent of the world’s population, uses 85 percent of the world’s natural resources, 75 percent of the world’s energy, consumes 85 percent of the world’s food and in return produces 65 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases and 95 percent of the world’s toxic waste.

These figures not only suggest a growing disparity between the North and poorer South, but also help lay the blame for the environmental crisis on the doorstep of capitalism.

If you waiver on this point then contemplate a few facts gleaned from other sources:

  • An average US citizen consumes 12,000 tons of coal a year — an Ethiopian 551 lb.
  • Fuel used by the US army alone produces more toxic waste than the entire UK.
  • An inspector could visit a piece of industrially contaminated land in Holland every day for 1,640 years.
  • Supplying solar-powered electricity to one billion people in poorer developed countries could be carried out with six percent of annual military expenditure in one year.
  • Non-biodegradable plastic used in Western Europe in one year would outweigh a line of Eiffel Towers 32 km long.

At every turn we find that the drive for profit impoverishes the lives of countless millions and threatens to turn the world into a ginormous cess pit. Even the smallest chance to spread their festering tentacles forces the multinationals —who control 40 percent of world trade — to seek shorter returns on capital and to ignore long-term investment for the future, always to the detriment of the environment they operate in where production costs are cut to an absolute minimum.

Everywhere, from the melting icepacks of Antarctica to the oil-choked rivers of Nigeria, from the radiated no-go areas of the Nevada desert to the smog that hovers above Athens, we find evidence of a world facing catastrophe in the name of profit.

Governments may well introduce laws and implement plans to curb the assault on the environment — for instance introducing legislation on CFC emissions — and organisations may well campaign against the likes of Shell and Texaco. None is really addressing the problem the world faces at present. At best they can only palliate some aspect of the problem on a precarious and temporary basis. They most certainly cannot turn capitalism into some environmentally friendly society.


We are faced, on the one hand, with the reality that capitalism is incapable of solving one single social problem facing humanity, never mind the environmental one. while on the other confronted with the sad and terrible irony that the only problems we face are those we are already capable of solving.


We are more than capable of running our world on solar power, of feeding a world population twice the present size and housing and clothing every person on the planet, providing them with health care and education.


It is not enough to leave environmental control to governments or to hope that big business will sooner or later see sense and turn to environmentally friendlier production methods. To do so is to misunderstand what the capitalist mode of production is all about. If we care at all about the world we live in, if we are to meet our needs in an environmentally acceptable way, then we must be in a position to control production — to consciously control our interaction with the rest of nature — and the only basis on which this can be done is the common ownership of the means of production, by and in the interests of all people and the world they live in.


John Bissett