1990s >> 1996 >> no-1098-february-1996

Ecology and Science

    We conclude our criticism, began last month, of Sandy Irvine’s pamphlet “Red Sails in the Sunset? An Ecopolitical critique of the Socialist Inheritance”

As a science — the study of the inter-relationships between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment, ecology has no particular political or ethical lesson to teach. Its essential role is to explain and predict. It is true that implications for human behaviour can be drawn from its findings. Humans are living organisms and as such are part of particular ecological systems and of the whole biosphere; so human behaviour does have ecological implications. In fact ecology as a science has identified particular forms of human behaviour (without going into their causes, which fall outside its field of study) as the major disturbing force upsetting ecological balances, the result of which is pollution and environmental destruction.

The implication that can be drawn from this is that, if pollution and environmental destruction are to be minimised then human behaviour — human productive activity, to be precise — must change, in such a way that what humans take from nature, the amount and the pace at which we do so, as well as the way we use these substances and dispose of them after use, should be done in such a way as to leave the rest of nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing them.

It’s a tall order, but it is also a very general statement that leaves open the question of what specifically should be done. It can’t be otherwise since ecology as a science is concerned with analysing the effects of particular forms of human behaviour on ecosystems without going into what causes those forms of behaviour. That is a matter for other fields of scientific research, such as sociology and economics.

Here Socialists have their point of view and people like Irvine theirs. We say that the ecologically-unbalanced behaviour that humans at present engage in is due to the socio-economic system under which we live, namely the profit system, or capitalism. He attributes it to something else: human greed or permissiveness or a wrong attitude to nature or an unreasonable desire to have too many children. We call for a change of social system. He calls for “changes to human values and lifestyles”, without a change of social system. (Actually, it’s not quite as simple as this, as the predominant values in society tend to reflect the needs of the socio-economic system, so a change of system will involve a change of values too.) But ecology has nothing to say on this particular argument. Which is why Irvine’s appeal to it to back his view is as invalid as would be an appeal to it by us to back our view.

Socialism is human-centred

Irvine goes further and, again accuses Socialists of a human-centred approach as opposed to an Earth-centred one which he claims derives from ecology:

    “Socialist theory has been deeply embedded in a thoroughly cornucopian and human-centred view of life. It has never got to grip with the realities of ‘limits-to-growth ‘, believing instead in the existence of Aladdin’s Lamp which, if rubbed by the right people, can release a cornucopia of goods and services. Indeed, in some classic socialist texts, notably Robert Tressell ‘s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it is suggested that under socialism, people would simply take whatever they wanted from gigantic warehouses. Amongst the radical groups that blossomed in the wake of the May ’68 events in France, a popular slogan was: ‘What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!’ The Marxist tradition has been little different promising an open cheque marked ‘to each according to his needs’.”

We plead guilty to this charge of being human-centred We do have a human-centred approach: we want a socialist society primarily because it will be good for human beings. It will also be good for the biosphere but, then, what is good for the biosphere is also good for humans. Oddly, since it is a human-centred argument, Irvine also makes this last point, arguing that unless humans take into account the good of the biosphere things will be bad for them too (“the Earth must come first for, without the planet’s life-sustaining ecosystems, all human aspirations and goals are doomed”).

We have indeed spoken of socialism in terms of abundance, less so today perhaps than in the past. Irvine — influenced no doubt by the falsehood taught by conventional economics that human wants are “infinite” — interprets this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more food, to take more and more holidays, and to acquire more and more material goods.

If humans wants were “infinite” then this would be the result of a society based on free access and geared to meeting human needs, but human wants are socially-determined and limited. Humans can only consume so much food, for instance, and only seek to accumulate more and more material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In a society, such as socialism would be, where people could be sure that what they required to satisfy their needs would always be available in the “warehouses” then we would soon settle down to only taking what we needed and no more.

This is all we meant by talking of socialism as a “society of abundance”: that enough food, clothing and other material goods can be produced to allow every man, woman and child in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It was not a reference to some orgy of consumption, but simply to the fact that it is technically possible to produce (more than) enough to satisfy everyone’s material needs, thanks, we might add, to industrialisation. Despite Irvine’s claim to the contrary, industrial processes of production are not in themselves the cause of pollution and environmental destruction; it is their application under capitalism in the pursuit by separate, competing firms and states of relatively short-term monetary profit that is the cause.

Increased consumption

Meeting everybody’s likely material needs will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the one-in-five of the population of Britain who need state handouts to bring them up to the poverty line; it will also be the case for about the same number who live without state handouts not far above the poverty line; and it will obviously be the case for the millions and millions of people in the so-called Third World who are suffering from horrendous problems of starvation, disease and housing.

So, yes, Socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world’s population. Impossible, says Irvine, this would exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse. Not necessarily so, we reply.

Irvine’s mistake is to confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total electricity or oil consumption or whatever and then divide it by the total population. But this doesn’t give a figure for what people consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is in fact compatible with an increase in personal consumption.

This in effect is what Socialists (real Socialists that is) propose: to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just of arms and armies but of all the overhead costs involved in buying and selling. It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce are engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity (some estimates go higher). In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head.

This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who need it to be increased to a decent level. Diverting resources to do this — and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a decent standard of living will be the primary, initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtaining under capitalism.

When socialism reaches cruising speed, after clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off and something approaching a “steady-state economy” reached. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.

It is true that this assumes that population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption, and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, in the most developed capitalist parts of the world of Europe, North America and now Japan. Population growth is a feature of the poorer parts of the world, suggesting a link between it and poverty and the insecurity that goes with it (the more children you have the more chance there is of someone to care for you in your old age). If this is so, the way to end population growth is to eliminate poverty and economic insecurity, which in practice can only be done by socialism.

Irvine vigorously disagrees with this analysis. But he himself has no answer to the problem since he is against increasing personal consumption levels as in his view this would overload the Earth’s carrying capacity. But, unless the personal consumption of the people in the poorer parts of the world is increased, then population growth there won’t slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation or letting starvation, disease and wars take their course (as Malthus advocated).

Socialists emphatically reject such an anti-human approach. If that’s what an “Earth-centred ethics” teaches then we want nothing to do with it. We’ll stick to our human-centred approach, which embraces the view that the balanced functioning of the biosphere is something that humans should try to achieve since, as part of the biosphere, it is in our interest that it should function properly. There is in fact no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the biosphere.

In adopting an anti-humanist stand (Irvine calls it “post-humanism”; it used to be called misanthropy) people like him are in fact doing damage to the cause of finding a solution to the current ecological crisis. They are undermining any good work they might be doing in drawing people’s attention to the need for a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the biosphere. They put people off and they give ecology a bad name. And they impede the growth of the understanding of what social and economic changes are needed to create the framework in which the mess can be cleaned up and a sustainable balance with the rest of nature created.

Adam Buick

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