Earths last best hope

Last week’s column examined why capitalism has not stopped environmental destruction, despite protests, local victories and treaties like Kyoto. Profound economic, political and social forces make capitalism incapable of doing so, just as they block its ability to end hunger.

Deepening poverty in most capitalist countries, an inherent inability to plan and organize on the necessary scale, and a refusal to fund or insure unprofitable remediation projects (many essential projects will not be profitable) are among the factors behind capitalism’s inability to solve the problem.

If not the capitalists, then who? Our confidence is in the workers of the world and their organizations. Socialist revolutions have provided glimpses of environmental accomplishments possible after workers take power. Because capitalism has a profound interest in undermining workers’ confidence, it denies and mocks such achievements.

The Soviet Union took (and China and Cuba, among others, are still taking) steps that demonstrate their capacity to scientifically and comprehensively address environmental problems. Examples of achievements include integrated ecological agriculture in Cuba, urban planning and mass transit in the former USSR, and reforestation and development of ecological housing in China.

There is no need to exaggerate these accomplishments, or deny problems and limitations. On the contrary, we must learn from all three.

Many necessary tasks follow a socialist revolution — environmental tasks as well as addressing poverty, gender and national oppression, and defending socialism against hostile world capitalism. These are not in automatic harmony. After the working class takes power, it needs to learn to govern and effectively harmonize these necessary tasks.

Important lessons can be learned from Soviet weaknesses and the resulting counter-revolution. Not only did the government disintegrate, but so did the Communist Party, the trade unions, youth groups, and organizations dedicated to equality, peace and environmental protection.

To be effective and develop their strength, these organizations needed relative independence from the government and from each other. Simultaneously, mechanisms had to be developed to periodically harmonize their respective emphases. Such harmony is possible among organizations that share, even in continual discussion and struggle, the aim to strengthen socialism.

History teaches us that planning and execution are only effective with corresponding interest and control from below. Capitalism by nature is hostile to control from below. After a socialist revolution, control from below is possible, not automatic, and difficult to achieve and sustain, especially in the face of poverty, inequality and constant threats from capitalism. The alternative, a relapse into capitalism, is far worse, as attested by the human and environmental disaster following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Limitations of domestic environmental achievements are also evident. Pollution does not stop at borders. Global pollution affected Lake Baikal, and today endangers China’s remarkable reforestation efforts. In ecology as in political economy, the forces, equilibria, and solutions are global.

Workers can face the truth. The capitalists cannot — they must hide the real source of their wealth. Their system is profoundly hostile to whole-system science. Capitalism sponsors one-sided development of fragmented disciplines that are rational at the level of the laboratory, but irrational at the level of science as a whole. Capitalism sees science as a business opportunity, and as a means for exerting control and waging war. It views people and the environment as resources to be exploited, while denying any responsibility for social and environmental harm.

Within the world communist and workers’ movement, clarity on the severity of environmental damage, clarity on capitalists’ incapacity to stop this damage, and work on winning other classes to unity on the necessary tasks are essential.

Communist parties in power, and scientific and environmental organizations in states such as China, Vietnam and Cuba, have the organizational and scientific potential to achieve clarity and take leadership on environmental tasks. This power is generally unavailable to workers and their parties under capitalist rule.

The working class has a direct interest, along with the potential, to align the interests of society, science and the environment. Such alignment can bring unimaginable progress on the environment as well as on hunger.

Workers of the world, unite!

economics @cpusa.org Richard Levins, Marc Brodine and Sandy Rosen contributed to this column.