Friday, August 10, 2007

Ecological Concerns

Another extract from the 2002 Production for Use Report

Socialism and Resources – Mike Foster.

The subject is extensive and in view of this I will focus on 4 aspects: fish production, deforestation, our use of fossil fuels, and food production. For each, I will describe how capitalism dictates their production or use and compare this with how they could be managed in socialism.

FISH STOCKS. Fish provides about a fifth of the animal protein in our diets worldwide. In total it exceeds that of poultry, beef and pork combined. Globally, the marine fishing catch almost doubled between 1975 and 1995 when demand was for 75 million tonnes a year. This is expected to rise to 110 million tonnes in 2010 Over fishing has led to declining yields requiring more intensive fishing methods.

In socialism, it may be necessary to make plans to allow the number of fish in the sea to increase. One possibility would be to produce more from fish farming. Democratised versions of capitalist fisheries could transfer some of their workers and equipment to organisations managing fish farms. In 1994, fish caught from the sea accounted for around 72% of the total fish harvest, with only 15% from fish farms, and 13% from freshwater. It would benefit marine ecosystems if our intervention in the seas are reduced, allowing species time to repopulate. With a transfer of emphasis away from marine fishing to fish farming, fish yields could potentially be maintained at sufficiently high levels. In the short term, food could be diverted to communities heavily dependent on sea fishing.

The mentality encouraged by capitalism is to strive for profits at the expense of long-term consequences. The warnings raised by the environmentalists and scientists are muffled by the demands of economic exploitation. Following a socialist revolution, the wealth of knowledge and skills held by those who work in the fisheries could be applied to a conservation based use of sea marine resources. The expertise and technology provide could be acted on, without the constraints of the market.

DEFORESTATION. Another example of a vital resource plundered for profits is our forestland. Between 1960 and 1990 Asia lost a third of its forest, and Africa and Latin America lost 18% each. Overall, this amounts to the destruction of one fifth of all tropical forest cover in just forty years. By the end of the twentieth century, an area the size of the United Kingdom was being cleared every year. The reason for deforestation is spiraling demand for timber and paper. Multinational companies tear up the rainforests, sell their trees to Europe and North America, and then sell the cleared land to ranchers. Plants and animals are being made extinct, native tribes are being made homeless, and cleared land is suffering from soil erosion. With fewer trees and plants to hold the soil together falling rain washes the topsoil away. This wastes vital nutrients and spreads desertification. At the same time, landfill sites across the globe are burying our waste paper and leaving it to rot amongst the wasted glass, metal, plastics and drums of hazardous waste. Recycling paper has long been an alternative to using wood pulp from freshly felled trees, but it is usually considered too costly and inconvenient. Faced with the choice of paying for recycling plants or keeping that money as profits, capitalist companies have to go for more profits. In socialism the barriers preventing more recycling wouldn’t exist.

There is widespread concern for the state of the rainforests. We all think it’s bad for ecosystems to be decimated, for wildlife to become extinct and for the planet’s lungs to be chipped away. In socialism, with democratic control of resources and production solely for need people would be able to do something about it. Deforestation could easily be reversed. One option would be to go in for reclamation of soils and extensive tree planting programmes. These could be carried out on the land created where capitalism’s office blocks and sub-standard houses would be cleared.

FUEL AND POWER. Deforestation also means there are fewer trees and plants to absorb the carbon dioxide we are producing by burning fossil fuels. In the mid-nineties, coal, oil and gas provided 90% of our power and these fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide. By the late 1990s, emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere were four times greater than in 1950. Consequently, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached their highest level in 160,000 years. This has led to the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere allows radiation from the Sun to pass through and reach the Earth, but it doesn’t allow heat coming from the Earth to travel into the upper atmosphere. So, the planet slowly heats up. It has been predicted that the planet’s average surface temperature will warm by 1.0c to 3.5c before the year 2100 – this would be a more rapid change in climate than has occurred for the last 10,000 years. With such a rise in temperature, the polar ice caps will start to melt, causing sea levels to rise, and weather patterns will be disrupted. The recent flooding in Europe may have been caused by the greenhouse effect.

From the environmentalist’s point of view, alternative sources of energy to fossil fuels are better because they impact less on the environment. They don’t produce the carbon dioxide which is smothering our planet. But one barrier preventing the development of wind power, solar power and power from the sea is their expense compared to burning fossil fuels. In most countries, fossil fuel prices are kept low by state subsidies. And because alternative sources of energy require new technology, research and development of infrastructure they are expensive and financially risky. Capitalist companies need to keep costs low in order to maximise their profits, and so the costs of alternative sources of energy plus their threat to existing energy interests makes them less attractive, for the capitalists at least.

But of course, protecting the environment isn’t our only consideration. The needs of people have to be met. But in socialism, it would be more straightforward to balance the needs of people with conserving the environment than it is in capitalism. Once the profit motive no longer operates, different sources of power can be judged not on their financial cost and the likelihood of a profitable return. Instead, they can be judged on their real merits; the pollutants they release, whether the fuel is plentiful or not, and whether its extraction damages the environment. Another important consideration is the efficiency of the fuel. Fossil fuel burning power stations are usually less than forty percent efficient. By this I mean that in each tonne of coal or oil, less than forty percent of its mass is available as energy when it’s converted to electricity. By contrast, with hydroelectric power stations, where water flows through turbines, ninety five percent of the mechanical energy created when the turbines turn can be converted to electricity

In socialism, people would have more control over their lives and this will include the vital work of energy production. This would be reflected in the community, and there might be trends towards communities having more autonomy, in some respects. And so in some places, power production might become more localised. A town might have its own wind generators, for example, and it could still be connected to a national (sic) grid to transfer power in if there was a local shortage or out when there was a surplus.

FOOD. – Since news-reel, cinema and television first showed pictures from around the world, the inequalities which capitalism creates everywhere have been brought vividly to life.. Any news bulletin shows us pictures of starving children in Somalia, and obese children in California. More and more people in developed countries are suffering from obesity, while globally, one in five of the population suffers from serious hunger. But even in developing countries, enough food is being produced for between 1.6 and 9.3 times the actual population there, depending on yield. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, food production has more than doubled - a faster rate of growth than that of the population, especially in Asia and Latin America. However, the food which is being produced in developing countries doesn’t always go to feed the people living there. Instead, it is being exported to places like North America, where food supply exceeds requirements by almost fifty percent.

But the explanation for this isn’t to be found by looking for physical differences between countries. Instead, the problem is in differences in wealth. Most of the world’s capital is to be found in North America, Europe and Japan, so that’s where the food goes. Food and other commodities follow capital like birds follow a trawler. The minority of capitalists in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia never go without.

After a socialist revolution, capital would become obsolete. So, the reason behind the problems with food distribution would no longer operate. Instead, the problem would become a short-term, practical one. Workers in Africa would probably be reluctant to continue exporting the vast majority of their produce. Instead, they might want it to be distributed more locally, to areas which might still be at risk of shortages.

But this wouldn’t necessarily cause shortages for people in the areas which are now called the developed countries. Many of them would have a background of working for organisations which would have no place in socialism: banks, insurance companies, loan companies. These people would need to find new ways to spend their time. And food production is both an essential and fulfilling occupation. Business parks and office blocks could be bulldozed to make way for plantations and food factories. People in Europe and North America could start to produce more food for themselves, and the areas of the southern hemisphere which currently produce food for export could keep more of their produce for themselves. Globally, food production might became more localised, while still allowing for products to be exported if they couldn’t be grown elsewhere. In socialism there would no longer be any need for a community to import wheat from thousands of miles away when it can be grown nearby.

In capitalism, natural resources such as land, as well as means of production are used for the production of commodities which are sold on for profit to the consumer through the markets. This means that the potential of resources to be used for enjoyment and the satisfaction of needs is subordinate to the profit interests of their owners. If the production of something is profitable, then it continues, and if it is unprofitable, it stops. The profitability of a product is linked to the cost of its being produced, and the extent to which it can be sold. In order to maximise profits, companies produce as cheaply as possible. This means that corners are cut and the methods and techniques used are those which bring in short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability. Labour and resources in developing countries are exploited to the hilt because they are cheaper. This is why children in Korea and Indonesia are stitching footballs and trainers like slaves, and why cheap forestland in South America and Africa is being decimated. In order for production to be of minimum cost to the company, it often ends up as being of maximum cost to the environment, and humanity. This doesn’t mean that all cost-saving techniques are necessarily more harmful than the techniques they replace, but simply that their effect on people or the environment isn’t the main consideration in adopting them. And if a company adopts a method of production which is environmentally safe, for example, but expensive in terms of labour or materials, it will become uncompetitive. A rival organisation producing a similar product cheaper will have the advantage, no matter what the ecological or human cost.

Eventually, capitalist organisations have to take notice of the state of the environment, but it is usually a case of too little, too late. They only take notice once the damage has been done - once a resource has become scarce, once a reserve of needed water has become polluted. And if the environmental cost doesn’t raise production costs, then it is often ignored.
After a socialist revolution, when common ownership of resources and production processes replaces private ownership, when the profit motive has become irrelevant, the factors to consider in production will change. When it comes to our use of natural resources, we could consider how much of the resource would be needed, whether it is scarce or abundant, whether that resource replaces itself over time or is in fixed supply, whether its extraction upsets the ecosystem, whether its production or use releases pollutants, whether the resulting product is durable or not, whether or not it is biodegradable. All these are considerations in capitalist production, but now they are subordinate to the need to minimise financial costs and maximise profits.

When land, resources and factories are owned communally and controlled democratically, there will be no them-and-us. There will no longer be a privileged elite who own the means of production, so there will be no-one to sell our time and energy to, no-one who would live off our labour and pay us peanuts in return. And if and when this change in ownership happens, the existence of money will become an anachronism. There will no longer be any need to buy goods from someone else or sell them to someone else, because you would have as much of a claim of ownership on them as they would. This would mean that we could just take what we need from the distribution centres.

Whilst the means of production are owned by a minority, the motivation for production is to make a profit for that minority. Satisfying the needs and wants of humanity and protecting the environment is incidental to this, so no wonder many people are left without enough food and other goods, and no wonder resources are scarce or polluted.

Profit and the Environment by H Stone and J Washington-Smith (John Wiley and sons, 2002). p.12
Global Environmental Outlook 2000, United Nations Environment Programme / Earthscan.
World Resources 1998-9, World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Collins Pocket Planet Earth factfile (Collins, 1995)
Environment Dictionary by David Kemp
Teach Yourself Conservation by N and R Foskett (1999).
Times of Hunger, by R W Kates, in Person, Place and Thing, S T Wang (ed), (Baton Rouge, GeoScience Publications, 1992).
Land, Food and People (FAO, 1984) (September 2001)

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