I. Root problems
The root cause of environmental problems is capitalism, the private ownership of the means of production by a relative handful of people. This essence of capitalism is one reason why capitalism creates environmental problems: while the majority of the world's people have a material interest in maintaining a healthy planet, the small capitalist ruling class is not accountable to this majority, except in the indirect sense that the ruling class seeks to co-opt the demands of the majority in order to maintain the capitalist system. A second reason why capitalism creates environmental problems is that although the world's resources are controlled by a relative handful of people, planning is not centralized under capitalism. Instead, production is anarchic; it is centered around making profits, not around meeting basic human needs in the short or long runs. Much of what is produced by the capitalist system is unnecessary and wasteful, and the system is not fundamentally capable of incorporating long-term human survival as a need. Finally, the capitalist system does not distribute resources equitably. Under capitalism, many people do not have adequate resources for survival. Many environmental problems stem from this root problem.
Furthermore, capitalism is not static. It has changed since Marx's day. Today, it has developed to its highest stage: imperialism.(1) Under imperialism, the capitalists carve and recarve the world. The unequal distribution of resources takes on a distinctly national flavor, with a division of the world into imperialist countries on the one hand and colonies and neocolonies on the other hand. Imperialism exploits both the natural and the human resources of its colonies and neocolonies. In their attempts to recarve the world, the imperialists invest heavily in ever-more-powerful weapons of mass destruction. The production, testing, and use of these weapons is yet another way in which capitalism wreaks havoc on the environment.
Capitalism does not just dominate in the economic, military, and political spheres. It also propagates its own ideology and culture. Capitalism promotes individualism, an ideology that values individuals and small groups (romantic couples and nuclear families in particular) over larger collectives of people, let alone the majority of humanity. This ideology, too, is harmful to the environment.
"Since the '70s, the imperialists and their retinue of bourgeois scientists, ideologues and publicists have adopted environmentalism to [accomplish various aims including] to make the people in the industrial capitalist countries think of clean air and clean water and good health in a self-indulgent way."(2)
II. Surface manifestations of the root problems
The capitalist system of production for profit creates a number of environmental problems which are often understood and discussed in isolation from their root causes. Key among these is pollution of air, water and land. Pollution, like all else under capitalism, is unequally distributed. On a world scale, waste from the imperialist countries is dumped in the neocolonies. A leaked internal memo written by Lawrence Summers, the chief economist of the World Bank at the time and a spokesperson for all imperialists, reveals the dumping of imperialist-country waste on neocolonized land to be conscious imperialist strategy. The memo, which also reveals the crass nature of the reasoning behind production-for-profit, read:
"Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less-Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:
"(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
"(2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable fact that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
"(3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmospheric discharge is about visibility-impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare-enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.
"The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalisation."(3)
Note that the first line of Summers' memo acknowledges that his proposal for "more" dumping on the neocolonies would only be an escalation of current policy. Other reports confirm this. One from India reads: "India has become a major dumping ground for rich countries' wastes. In 1993 alone, India imported 74,000 kgs of plastic waste. US dumped 7.8 million kg of lead ash and 14,500 kg of lead-acid batteries. UK shipped 2.5 million kg of lead waste. Canada sent 96,000 kg of copper waste, 1.2m kg of ash, 1m kg lead waste and 106m kg ferrous waste. Germany dumped 2m kg metal waste. Every year this dumping is increasing."(4)
The situation in the Philippines is similar: "In a recent published report, Ibon Databank, Philippines, a local research agency, says TNCs [trans-national corporations] have always been the top contributors in the production of toxic and hazardous wastes in the country. The Philippines produces about 80-150 million tons of hazardous waste per year, the primary sources of which are industrial and manufacturing plants."(5)
Additionally, chemicals which are considered too harmful to the ecology, human health, or both for use in the First World are foisted upon the neocolonies. "Out of the 145 banned pesticides listed in the UN's 'Consolidated list of products whose consumption or sale have been banned, withdrawn, severely restricted or not approved by governments,' the production of 103 of them has gone up now!"(6)
The 1984 Union Carbide Corporation gas leak in Bhopal, India is yet another example of the environmental effect of imperialism on the people of the neocolonies. This pesticide formulation unit's gas leak killed 16,000 people, and affected hundreds of thousands more.(7) Due to the nature of the system of production for profit, Union Carbide did not warn the people of Bhopal about the dangers of the chemical plant in their city, and continued to repress the information after the disaster. When doctors called the plant medical officer for advice the following morning, he informed them that the leaked gases were similar to tear gas and that all the exposed people needed to do was wash their eyes out with water. In fact, the gas was much more threatening.(8)
Within U.S. borders, the indigenous peoples of the First Nations are subjected to the effects of radioactive contamination. The Lakota Nation is subjected to radioactive waste dumped by uranium mining corporations.(9) The Western Shoshone Nation is subjected to the effects of U.S. nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site on their land. Waste incinerators are often located in Black and Latino-populated ghettos and barrios where the people are relatively disenfranchised politically, and less prepared than wealthy white communities to prevent incinerator construction.
Another surface manifestation of the underlying problems of the capitalist system is the overconsumption of resources by the world's privileged classes and nations. The 20% of the world's population from the U.$. and Europe consumes 80% of the world's resources. This is related to the fact that this top 20% receives 83% of world income.(10) The combination of excessive wealth and the capitalist culture of self-centered individualism leads to overconsumption by the people of the imperialist countries. This overconsumption brings destruction to natural habitats and their inhabitants, and thus to the world's biodiversity. Deforestation in particular has these effects and one more: it contributes to global warming. Often this question of dwindling resources is presented as a problem of "overpopulation." On behalf of imperialism, the World Bank and the United Nations have promoted this notion as a way to further shift the burden for First World overconsumption onto the people of the neocolonies.(11)
Another phenomenon which is often not recognized as preventable is "natural" disasters, such as floods, volcano eruptions, and earthquakes. Sure, these are "natural," but why are they disasters? The answer in many cases is that the majority of the world does not have the resources to deal effectively with nature's surprises. Many communities cannot be warned to evacuate when necessary, because they do not have television sets or radios. Once such communities are destroyed by natural events, the neocolonies' poverty prevents the reconstruction of the infrastructure - if there was an infrastructure to speak of in the first place.
Some disasters were never actually "natural" in their origins: "Negros Occidental in central Philippines was hit by a flash flood on Oct. 30 due to the overflowing of two major rivers in the wake of typhoon Pepang which hit the Philippines in mid-October. The flood claimed six lives with 10 others missing. Flood-waters also washed away 404 houses, rendering thousands homeless. Government officials blame deforestation and the obstruction of river mouths by prawn farms for the flood. The National Federation of Sugar Workers said that landlords must be held responsible for the 'anti-environment and anti-ecology plunder and devastation of natural resources in the province.'"(12)
III. False solutions
There are numerous mistaken ideas about how to solve environmental problems. The most blatantly mistaken is the solution put forward by those who represent the imperialist system which is responsible for many of the problems in the first place. The World Bank and the United Nations take an approach based on the notion that Third World "overpopulation," not First World overconsumption, is responsible for resource depletion. Their prescription sounds innocent on the surface, because they call it "sustainable development." However, not far behind the noble-sounding rhetoric lies the imperialist agenda :
"The WCED [World Commission on Environment and Development, which was set up by the U.N. General Assembly in the mid-1980s] report said: 'If needs are to be met on a sustainable basis, the earth's natural resources must be conserved and enhanced.' This statement is not so innocent as it appears, for it conceals an overriding concern for population growth in the poor countries that may curtail the reckless use of global resources by the imperialist powers. It also keeps silence on the existing non-viable socio-political structures and the 'non-sustainable' resource use by the world's capitalist powers. To be precise, the very idea of sustainable development is put forward to ensure the sources of raw-materials and an expanding market for MNCs [multinational corporations] on a continuous basis thereby expanding the neocolonial global order as it is."(13)
Like "sustainable development," the "green revolution" has in practice been an ideological smokescreen for Western dominance over the neocolonies. The "green revolution" succeeded in increasing food production in the Third World. At the same time, it did nothing to increase food consumption in the Third World, as the new food surplus was grown for export to the imperialist countries. Furthermore, the "green revolution" has greatly reduced the diversity of crops planted. This is a likely recipe for future famine. The "green revolution" also depends heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.(14) The "green" revolution is in fact highly toxic.
Another mistaken approach to solving the problems of environmentalism is the backward-looking neo-Luddite approach favored by Mohandas Gandhi, Murray Bookchin, the Unabomber, and many other utopian types. Many neocolonized people, however, do not wish to abandon the project of self-reliant development, as the Communist Party of the Philippines declares:
"The worst propaganda of the pro-imperialist environmentalists idealize[s] underdevelopment as the healthy preservation of the natural environment and obscure[s] the unhealthy conditions and consequences of underdevelopment and poverty as well as the vulnerability of the underdeveloped and poor countries to imperialist plunder and pollution."(15)
Opposing industrialism per se falls into the neo-Luddite category. Those who take such a position have to explain how non-industrialized economies will defeat imperialists in wars - as well as provide desperately needed improvements in healthcare and other living standards. If imperialists can march right in and take over non-industrialized utopian communities, these communities will have failed in their liberation struggles. And if there are no medical supplies, tools, electricity, or other necessities for survival, then the "victory" of liberation will be just as bankrupt. Unlike imperialists, socialists will not override national sovereignty for purposes of industrial development. But they will struggle for the correct line to prevail if that issue arises. And contrary to the essentialized notions of some idealists, we believe most indigenous peoples will welcome industrial development that serves rather than undermines the people's needs and interests; in the Americas, at least, such an option has never been presented.
Another incorrect approach to the environmental problems is the liberal strategy of reformism. This comes in many guises. There is the straightforward approach of Ralph Nader's Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which suggests that people should lobby capitalist politicians for environmental reforms. There is the militant reformist approach of Greenpeace and the Sea Shepard Society, which suggests that civil disobedience will help to pressure capitalist politicians for reforms. Then there is the consciousness-raising approach put forward by ecofeminists, New Age "deep ecology" types, and others. This typical reformist approach suggests that individuals should spread environmental (or feminist, or spiritual, depending on the version) ideas to other individuals. This approach has the problem of assuming that the attitudes of average individuals are the problem, not the practices of multinational corporations and imperialist states. For this reason, in addition to the well-meaning liberals, multinational corporations like to spread the idea that "everyone is responsible" for environmental degradation. One manifestation of this is the push to get everyone to recycle. Another manifestation is the corporate-sponsored Earth Day events which push the individualist reformist theme. The reformist approach also fails to address the problem that it is material interest, not a lack of consciousness, which causes imperialists to carve up the planet and its resources. Lawrence Summers, the World Bank chief economist quoted above, was aware of the "moral reasons [and] social concerns" against his proposals, but this didn't stop him from proposing them.
IV. Real solutions
The best way forward for the environment is socialist revolution. The capitalist system of production for profit clearly needs to be replaced by the socialist system of production for human needs. This will eliminate the motive for overproduction, overconsumption, and socially-destructive production. Genuine socialism cannot be brought about through reform, because the capitalists will not give up their power voluntarily; they will defend their power by any and all means necessary, including military means. Genuine socialism is less detrimental to the environment, since the absence of the profit motive under socialism eliminates the need to produce many useless products, and since centralized planning eliminates the need for overproduction. Note, however, that to measure the environmental impact of capitalism versus socialism we have to look at total pollution, not just local pollution. Even if a Chinese city had more smog than a U.S. city, for example, Chinese socialism was still better for the environment than Amerikan imperialism, which (as seen above) causes pollution and degradation all over the world at once. Likewise, evidence for the environmental destruction of the Soviet social-imperialist empire (1954-1991) tends to show that the worst pollution was in the satellite states of the empire rather than in the empire's core.
At the same time, although socialist revolution is necessary, it is not sufficient. The genuine socialist states which existed prior to 1976 existed in a world which for the most part had not been influenced by the modern environmentalist movement, which got off the ground around 1970. So the historical socialist models may not provide the penultimate examples of socialist environmentalism in practice. Since no country since 1976 has been genuinely socialist, we must look at a socialist movement which does not yet hold state power to get an idea of what self-consciously environmentalist socialism looks like in practice.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) is a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party which leads a broad anti-imperialist movement for National Democracy. This movement encompasses many organizations, some legal, and some underground. Chief among the underground organizations are the CPP, the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the New People's Army (NPA). The CPP has issued a statement on the environment that not only articulates a position, but sums up a practice which, among other successes, has been successful in stopping the destruction of rainforests in the Philippines, despite being implemented by forces which do even not hold state power:
"In areas and roads under their control, the revolutionary forces have enforced the law of the people's democratic government. They require mining companies to adopt antipollution measures and pay social compensation for damage they have caused or else close down. They have combated the landgrabbing operations of agrocorporations and real estate speculators and have scuttled several hydroelectric and other power generation projects which deprive the peasants and indigenous people of land without sufficient compensation and without provision for alternative sources of livelihood.
"In recent times, the most outstanding policy adopted by the CPP is to impose a 25-year complete ban on logging for export. At the same time, this policy allows in certain areas limited logging, provided the logs are for domestic housing and other end uses and local processing (including furniture making, plywood manufacturing, pulp and paper manufacturing). A campaign is now being undertaken to confiscate and prevent the use of logging equipment and facilities by the log exporting firms. At the same time, the revolutionary forces promote reforestation and the development of livelihood projects to improve the social conditions of the people and provide alternative sources of livelihood for the logging workers displaced by the log ban."(16)
The documentary video "Green Guerrillas: The Fight for the Philippines' Rain Forest," directed by Rod Prosser, covers the work of the New People's Army among the indigenous people of Mindanao and how the people's guerrillas work hand in hand with the indigenous people to protect their environment.(17)
In sum, capitalism is the root cause of the world's environmental problems. Environmental "solutions" which leave capitalism intact cannot be expected to resolve the problem of environmental degradation. Socialist revolution is needed throughout the world to rid the world of the root causes of pollution and overconsumption. However, even more than that is needed. The people who make the socialist revolutions must also struggle to ensure that revolutionary environmentalism is incorporated into the socialist struggle. The Communist Party of the Philippines and its allied organizations serve as a model in this regard.
1. See V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
2. International Department, Central Committee, Communist Party of the Philippines, "On the Issue of the Environment in the World and in the Philippines," 31 March 1995, p. 1.
3. The Economist, 8 February 1992, p. 66. The Economist's response was similarly disturbing: "The language is crass, even for an internal memo. But look at it another way: Mr. Summers is asking questions that the World Bank would rather ignore - and, on the economics, his points are hard to answer. The Bank should make this debate public."
4. Red Star: Platform for Communist Revolutionaries, March 1996, p. 5. Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag. Available from Red Star, Thaikkattussery PO, Thrissur 680 322 Kerala, India.
5. Liberation International, May-June 1994, p. 5. A publication of the International Office of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Available from the NDF International Office, Postbus 19195, 3501 DD, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
6. Red Star, March 1996, p. 5.
7. "Anniversary Notes," published by Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) and Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), p. 5.
8. Ibid, p. 21.
9. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, South End Press, Boston, 1990, p. 129.
10. Red Star, March 1996, p. 5.
11. On the "overpopulation" myth, see Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1986; Red Star, October 1994, pp. 17-19; Red Star, November 1994, pp. 7-9; Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, Harper & Row, New York, 1987; Betsy Hartmann, "Population Control as Foreign Policy," Covert Action Information Bulletin, #39, Winter 1991-1992, pp. 26-30; New Internationalist, October 1987, pp. 8-9, 16-17; Vandana Shiva, "Population growth wrongly blamed for ecology problems," Third World Resurgence #16; Joseph Hansen, "Too Many Babies?: The Myth of the Population Explosion" (pamphlet), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1987.
12. Liberation International, Nov-Dec 1995, p. 8.
13. P. J. James, Non-Governmental Voluntary Organisations: The True Mission, Mass Line Publications, TKMC (P.O.), Kollam 691005, Kerala, India, 1995. (U.S. $5)
14. Lappe and Collins, op. cit., pp. 47-66
15. International Department, Central Committee, Communist Party of the Philippines, op. cit., pp. 1-2.
16. Ibid, p. 5.
17. The film is available from the NDF International Office, Postbus 19195, 3501 DD, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Also available from this address is the NDF pamphlet, "On the issue of the Environment in the World and in the Philippines." (U.S. $1.50).