Issue 88 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 2000 Copyright © International Socialism
The relationship between human beings and our environment is a central question for millions of people across the world today. And no wonder. The last decade has raised the spectre of environmental disaster on a scale previous generations could barely have imagined.
The most serious issue is the threat of global warming. This seems to be occurring already, and many of the unusual weather patterns which have marked the last decade may be linked to the rise in global temperatures. The root of the problem is simple: the growth in emissions of so called greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, due to human activity. Unless this is halted and reversed the consequences could be catastrophic, even threatening the future viability of civilisation on the planet. Even the world's governments recognise, at least in words, that action is needed to avoid disaster.
If global warming is the most prominent and potentially disastrous of the environmental threats we face, it is not the only one. We still have the awful danger of nuclear weapons and the utter devastation to the planet and its people they could bring. We were told that this threat was over with the end of the Cold War. The reality has been that the world has become more unstable, more states have nuclear weapons, and more have been prepared to threaten their use. The danger of the world being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust is as great, if not greater, than ever. Nuclear power stations too still spread across the world, threatening more disasters like Chernobyl in the 1980s.
A new environmental threat which emerged in the 1990s is from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Multinational companies and governments hailed these as a breakthrough, a safe and better way to feed the world. Millions didn't believe them and the issue has become a key political battle.
There are many, many more environmental questions which concern people across the globe. In south east Asia logging and uncontrollable forest fires threaten rare species of plants and animals, and cause life-shortening poisonous smogs which blanket whole countries. Third World cities and their people are choked by fumes from ever increasing traffic. In Britain the pollution caused by transport chaos has led to an epidemic of children's asthma.
The turn of the century was marked by the worldwide emergence of a new popular mood against capitalism. The most visible expressions of this were the great protests against global capitalism and its institutions in Seattle, Washington and Millau. The same feeling has been expressed in countless polls and surveys, in electoral success for left wing or anti-capitalist forces in many countries, and has even forced its way into the mainstream media in a way that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. And, though less talked about in the mainstream media, the same revulsion at what capitalism does to people's lives is a key component of the revival of workers' and popular revolt in a swathe of countries from Latin America to Africa.
It would be a serious mistake to see environmental issues as the only concerns fuelling this anti-capitalist mood. People are just as sickened by other realities of capitalism, from war to famine, from fat cat salaries and corporate greed to the wrecking of people's lives by the growth of the new combination of 'flexibility' and exploitation, aptly dubbed 'flexploitation'. But there is no doubt that the threat to the environment, and issues like global warming, nuclear weapons, GMOs and others, are for many people central in fuelling anger at the social system we live under.
Twenty or 30 years ago, for right or wrong, 'green' issues and the environment were seen by many as 'marginal' or the preserve of fringe groups. There were exceptions, such as protests over nuclear power, but the general picture was of the environment as a secondary issue. That began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when Green parties in some countries--notably Germany and France--became important forces on the back of deepening popular concern about the environment. In the last few years the process has gone further still.
Issues like global warming and genetically modified foods have gone from being confined to small groups or specialist debates to front page news. Informed debate on such topics now takes place in every area from official politics, in the new wave of street protests and in workplaces, to colleges and living rooms. This has been accompanied by the growth of a wide range of forces which have taken up, in their differing ways, all these issues. Among many of these people, including socialists, there has emerged a consensus on many questions.
Most recognise the seriousness and scale of the threat to the environment. Most too recognise the culpability of the big corporations and governments in creating the problems and failing effectively to tackle them. The aim of this article is to build on that consensus in order to deepen the debate. It will focus on two key issues, global warming and GMOs, to put forward a particular argument.
The core of the argument is simple enough. It is that the roots of the threat to the environment, to the future of the planet and the people who live on it, lie in the capitalist system itself. I will argue that the environmental threats we face today are not some aberration which can easily be dealt with within the capitalist system. Rather they flow from the untrammelled logic of an ageing, crisis-prone system based on competition for profit. The slogan 'The world is not a commodity' has been popularised in many of the anti-capitalist protests of the last year. It aptly sums up people's rejection of what the world and everything in it, from people to the environment, becomes under capitalism.
I will also argue that Marxism and a socialist opposition to capitalism is the best basis on which to understand the threat to the environment. I will argue that environmental destruction is built into the logic of all class societies, but is taken to a new and terrifying level under capitalism. And I will argue that socialist opposition to capitalism provides the key to the kind of politics and struggles which can solve the crisis. In short, the most effective 'green' is 'red'.
Global warming is the most terrifying environmental threat facing the world today.
The scale of the threat is almost universally recognised. The biggest ever official study of climate change done in Britain, published in June 2000, concluded, 'Human-induced climate change is threatening to impose very significant shifts in temperature, rainfall, and extremes of weather and sea levels... The environmental and social consequences of such changes are potentially catastrophic...[the world] is confronted with a radical challenge of a totally new kind. Strong and effective action has to start immediately'.1
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an official body bringing together some 2,500 climate scientists from around the world, has systematically studied the evidence and produced a series of reports. It soberly concludes, 'The balance of the evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate'.2
Even the OECD club of wealthy industrialised countries has produced a series of reports warning of the threat from global warming as the 'ultimate challenge' facing humanity.3 Leading politicians in the world's major industrialised nations also agree on the threat and the need for urgent action. Al Gore, vice-president of the US at the time of writing, has written a book on the subject.4 Britain's deputy prime minister, John Prescott, argues that 'the research is no longer about whether but when' global warming will have dramatic impacts.5
Such a consensus has seen the world's governments twice gather at enormously hyped international conferences at which they have pledged action, first in Rio de Janeiro at the 1992 Earth Summit and then in Japan at the 1997 Kyoto climate conference. Neither these conferences, nor the politicians who warn of climate change, have produced the kind of action needed to head off disaster. But before looking at that it is worth discussing the facts behind, and the causes of, the threat of global warming.
The evidence that global warming is already under way is impressive. The average surface temperature of the earth has increased by around 1°C this century and sea levels have risen by 10-25cm as a result of the thermal expansion of the world's oceans. Ten of the warmest years on record have been in the last 15 years, and 1998 was the warmest year since reliable records began over a century ago. Evidence from ice cores, tree rings and other data suggests that the 1990s may have been the warmest decade in 600 years on a global scale.6
Most scientists predict that unless drastic action is taken the speed of global warming is set to accelerate. Some reports suggest that an increase in global average temperatures of 2°C could have occurred by the end of this century compared with a baseline of 1850. Others suggest the figure could be 8°C. And these figures are global averages masking much greater changes in particular locations.7 The reputable Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that 'in all scenarios the projected warming would probably be greater than any similar event in the last 10,000 years'.8
No one knows for sure what the consequences of such warming will be. The earth's climate is a complex system--one in which small quantitative changes can have sudden, dramatic and unpredictable effects--which is why weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable more than a few days ahead. It is an example of the kind of system studied in what scientists call chaos theory.9 This built-in uncertainty over the possible effects of global warming makes the threat even more worrying. Notwithstanding such uncertainty there is a consensus among scientists on the kind of dramatic changes and impact that could happen as a result of global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists sums up the picture:
The social consequences of such changes could be catastrophic. Cities and whole countries, from Holland to Bangladesh, could be submerged by rising sea levels. Populations could be devastated as disease patterns shift, bringing deadly diseases to areas where they have previously been unknown.11 The disruption to agriculture could provoke famine and social upheaval on an enormous scale. The impact of global warming could paradoxically see some areas, such as Britain, become much colder, not hotter, as a result of disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean current which warms north west Europe.12 Such changes would certainly cause immense human suffering, could provoke huge economic and social upheaval, global tension and the threat of large scale and devastating war. Taken together these impacts of global warming could even throw the sustainability of civilisation into question.
Many commentators point to the extreme weather events of recent years as examples of the impact of global warming--from storms and floods like those in Orissa in India to Hurricane Mitch in Central America, or the widespread unusual weather patterns associated with the 1997-1998 El Niño switch in Pacific Ocean currents. Whether these events are a consequence of global warming, or merely part of natural variation in the earth's weather, is as yet impossible to say. What is certain is that they give a glimpse of what could be to come with increasing frequency and severity unless action is taken to halt global warming.
It is probable that even without human activity the earth's climate will undergo entirely natural and major shifts in the future, as it has in the past. Hopefully these will be less rapid than that threatened today. It is the speed--in a geological timeframe--of the changes human activity is threatening that is so frightening. If serious changes in the earth's climate do occur naturally in the future, we have to hope that by then human knowledge and the organisation of society allow us to modify or adapt to such change. Today it is not nature but capitalism that threatens such dramatic change and prevents the kind of action needed to deal with it.
A minority of scientists challenge the consensus on global warming I have described. They take uncertainty over whether global warming is already having an impact, and genuine problems in the computer models used to predict the earth's climate, to argue that it is too early to conclude that the threat is real.13 It makes you a little suspicious, however, when you discover links between some of these scientists and the sections of big business which most strenuously resist action on global warming. Speaking of some of the sceptics the respected New Scientist magazine noted, 'They have also managed to secure some lucrative lecturing fees and consultancy deals with commercial concerns--such as the coal industry--who are anxious to undermine international efforts to control emissions of greenhouse gases'.14
The same is true of seemingly independent bodies which produce scientific sounding reports challenging the consensus on the reality of global warming. One example is the Global Climate Information Project. An independent enough sounding title, only it turns out to be backed by bodies such as the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the American Iron and Steel Institute and the American Trucking Associations.15
Of course there should be proper and rigorous scientific debate about the genuine uncertainties in our understanding of the earth's climate and global warming. But when the overwhelming majority of the world's climate scientists argue that the weight of the evidence is convincing it would be a mistake to ignore that view. The idea that we should do nothing and wait until the uncertainties are resolved is a recipe for disaster. By then irreversible climate change could be under way. The only sensible attitude in the face of the evidence is to acknowledge that the threat is real and, while continuing proper scientific research and debate, take action to try and deal with it.
If there is a consensus on the threat of global warming, there is a similar consensus on what is responsible--the emission into the atmosphere of so called greenhouse gases as a result of human activity.
The earth's climate, and all life on earth, depends on energy from the sun. An important feature of the earth's atmosphere is that some of its component gases allow the sun's energy to reach the earth's surface, but then prevent it being reflected or radiated back out into space. These gases work in a similar fashion to the glass in a greenhouse to raise the temperature on the earth's surface--hence the name. Without this 'greenhouse effect' life on earth would be very different and it is very unlikely that humans would exist as the earth would be some 30°C colder.16
The theoretical understanding of the greenhouse effect was first developed by the French physicist Jean Fourier over 170 years ago. We now know that there are several gases that contribute to the effect. The most important are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar gases known as HCFCs and HFCs. A rise in emissions of all of these, except for water vapour, is causing the threat of global warming. By far the most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which scientists believe is responsible for some two thirds of potential global warming.17
Carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere have risen for one simple reason: energy production based on the burning of fossil fuels. That this could happen and impact on the climate has long been known. The Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius warned in 1896 that industrial activity based on the burning of fossil fuels could increase the concentration of gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and trigger climate change.18 Since the industrial revolution carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by around 30 percent, methane levels have doubled, and nitrous oxide levels have increased by around 15 percent.19 In the 1940s scientists were already worrying that Arrhenius's fears could be happening, and by the 1970s most scientists were convinced. The last few decades have seen that concern translated into wider popular concern and a series of official initiatives. In 1979 the First World Climate Conference was held and in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established, beginning the process that led to the 1992 Rio and 1997 Kyoto conferences.20
There is no real argument about the fundamental source of the problem: rising emissions of carbon dioxide from an economy locked into the burning of fossil fuels and products based on them. Even the OECD concludes that 'fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than 90 percent of all anthropogenic [human caused] carbon dioxide emissions and this is the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions'.21
The overwhelming majority of such emissions come from the world's major industrialised countries. By far the biggest culprit in global warming is the world's biggest capitalist power, the US, which alone accounts for a quarter of all global carbon dioxide emissions. Europe is the second biggest culprit with around 20 percent of global emissions.22 Emissions from power stations and transport account for over half of all greenhouse gas emissions. The figures for Britain confirm this picture, with power stations and road transport accounting for some 52 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.23
The picture is clear. The world's major economies, based on burning fossil fuels and products which depend on these fuels, are threatening to destabilise the world's climate with potentially catastrophic global consequences. Why has this situation arisen and what can be done about it?
The fossil fuel economy is dominated by some of the world's biggest capitalist corporations and supported by governments which see their role as serving these interests. These corporations depend on this way of organising society, and production, for their profits, wealth and power. The oil, coal and gas corporations, the car, road construction, rubber and associated industries are at the heart of the problem. These industries are central to modern capitalism. One study argues, 'The economies of the leading Western industrial nations today are determined to a large extent by the car, oil and oil processing industries... The corporate structure of [West] Germany, the most powerful economy in Europe, is one in which around 60 percent of the 12 biggest corporations are 'car society' corporations. France and Britain are in a similar position...[overall such industries account for] two thirds of the economic resources of the capitalist economy'.24 The same study concludes that today the world is seeing 'an ecological crisis which is, to a large extent, a direct product of this car society'.25
The fossil fuel corporations have worked throughout this century to create a political, economic and social environment locked into relying on their products--and so boosting their markets and profits. This, rather than any supposed consumer choice, is responsible for a world which is locked into a fossil fuel economy. A cynical example of how the corporations created this situation came in a 1974 US Senate report. It documented the systematic destruction of electric rail, tram and trolley bus transport systems in 45 US cities by General Motors, assisted by Standard Oil of California and the Firestone Tire Company. The alliance of car, oil and tyre corporations literally ripped up the tracks to ensure people were forced onto the roads and into dependence on their products. The Senate report describes how this was done in Los Angeles:
The unholy trinity of GM, Standard and Firestone was, in 1949, convicted of criminal conspiracy. Yet the punishment shows how even when confronted with such crimes governments refuse to stand up to big business--General Motors was fined $5,000 and its treasurer a laughable $1.27 A similar process is under way today as part of the transition to the market and 'liberalisation' in the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, where public transport is being systematically dismantled to ensure the car, oil and rubber corporations have a clean run.28
The responsibility of the fossil fuel giants for the threat to the global climate is understood even by some politicians who have made a career out of serving the interests of big business. At the 1997 Kyoto climate change conference the British Tory politician and former government minister John Selwyn Gummer presented a list of those most responsible for the threat to the global climate.
Top of the list was the Global Climate Coalition, a body I will return to later. Second place went to the Exxon oil multinational, third was the power company Tokyo Electric, and then came the car companies Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, followed by the multinational oil giant Shell.29 Whether the precise ordering of Gummer's list is correct is unimportant. The nature of the culprits is clear. David Cromwell used to work as a researcher for Shell before switching to become an academic campaigning over global warming. Based on his inside knowledge he concluded simply that 'powerful corporate interests are leading us to disaster'.30
Those at the heart of these 'corporate interests' work to resist any serious change to the way of organising production, which is the basis of their power and wealth. Anyone who doubts this should listen to the chilling account environmental campaigner George Monbiot gave of a debate he took part in at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders:
An insight into how the 'corporate interests' work to block serious change can be gleaned from the body cited by John Selwyn Gummer as one of the principal culprits, the Global Climate Coalition. This was founded in 1989 by a string of fossil fuel corporations including Shell, Texaco and Ford. It has spent millions on producing material designed to discredit the fact that global warming is a reality and that burning fossil fuels is a primary cause. It has also worked overtime to ensure politicians bend to the interests of the corporations behind it. In the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto conference the Global Climate Coalition spent $13 million on an advertising campaign against action on climate change. It gave $50 million to each of the Democratic and Republican parties to help get the White House, US Congress and Senate behind its project.32 That fact helps explain why Al Gore has long forgotten his own book warning of the need for action on climate change. His cooling on the threat of global warming may also be connected with the $500,000 worth of shares the Gore family now has in oil firm Occidental.33
In case anyone was in any doubt, the coalition's spokesman at the Kyoto conference spelled it out. The spokesman was John Grasser, then vice-president of the US National Mining Association. The coalition's aim, he insisted, was 'to prevent any numbers, targets or timetables to achieve reductions in gas emissions'. And he chillingly replied to John Selwyn Gummer's charge that the Global Climate Coalition was top of the list of those threatening the climate: 'We regard this as an honour. It shows we are an effective lobby group'.34
In the light of such talk Denis Hayes, chairman of the enviromental Earth Day Network campaign, is right to argue that 'the global coal industry and most of the world's oil companies and electricity utilities have sought to obfuscate, manipulate, spin or crush' attempts to force action over greenhouse gas emisssions.35
Some of the corporations have sought to change tack in recent years, partly in reaction to growing public concern. Shell, BP and Ford have withdrawn from the Global Climate Coalition and joined the more green-sounding Business Environmental Leadership Council.36 Certainly this move is reflected in a change in style. Ford's chief executive, Bill Ford Jr, says he wants to 'green' his company and 'tell the truth about our most pressing environmental crisis'. He even demonstrated his new concern by letting it be known that he is a keen environmentalist who likes hiking and who joined some Ford workers in cleaning up a river. The chair of the committee of managing directors of Shell, C A J Herkstreter, says climate change is 'potentially the most serious and intractable environmental issue facing society'.
Such words may or may not be sincere at a personal level, and for all I know Bill Ford Jr may indeed be a nature-loving hiker. But these people have one overriding purpose in life--to maximise the profits of the corporations they head. That purpose means, as with old-time environmentalist Al Gore, that their green words are contradicted by their actions. Bill Ford Jr says that climate change is 'our most pressing environmental crisis' but then insists that there will not be 'any radical changes' in the company's policies. By its own admission Ford's contribution to targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is 'small'.37
The point is best illustrated by the company which has gone furthest in its change of style, BP. In July 2000 BP unveiled a major rebranding in a deliberate attempt to 'green' the company. From now on it would be 'BP: Beyond Petroleum' and an insistence that 'we are not an oil company'. BP says it is investing in renewable energy and has ambitions to be the world's biggest producer of solar power. The new company logo, a green fringed sunburst, could have been taken directly from some environmental campaign.
BP's chief executive, Sir John Browne, is by far the 'greenest' of the fossil fuel barons and has gone out of his way to cultivate this image. He argues that 'it would be unwise and potentially dangerous to ignore the mounting concern' over global warming.38 Browne also delivered one of this year's BBC Reith lectures--on an environmental theme--alongside Prince Charles and environmentalist Vandana Shiva.39
Yet BP's fine words and new logo cannot hide its ruthless expansion to produce and sell ever more oil and gas to be burnt and so fuel global warming. So despite the new logo and talk of being 'beyond petroleum', after a $120 billion series of mergers and acquisitions BP is now the world's single biggest seller of petrol. And the figures tell a different story to BP's claims to be moving into clean, renewable energy. The company spent $7 million to launch its new image--and has set aside $100 million a year to develop it. Roy Gueterbock, a climate specialist at Greenpeace, points out, 'They spent more on the logo this year than they did on renewable energy last year. Given that they spend $8 billion a year on oil exploration, BP stands less for beyond petroleum and more for burning the planet.' By BP's own admission, solar power is 'such a minute part of our business that we don't put a figure on it'. Meanwhile it is committed to a 40 percent expansion of its oil and gas exploration programme, including a major expansion into nature reserves in the fragile environment of Alaska.40
On the very day it unveiled its new 'green' image BP was fined $10 million by the US Environmental Protection Agency for violating air pollution laws at its US refineries. And behind the environmental rhetoric, Sir John Browne told the money markets about the real aim of the rebranding: 'It's all about increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs'.41It is possible that a combination of the threat of global warming, popular pressure and government actions may produce some changes in the way the fossil fuel corporations operate. But all the evidence so far suggests that at best they will drag their feet and resist change of the scale and pace required. And all of them, while making noises about and even some limited moves to invest in renewable energy, still insist on driving their fossil fuel products into new markets. Virtually all the major global car corporations are rapidly expanding into China, often through joint ventures with Chinese state capitalist car manufacturers. The Financial Times writes of 'enthusiasm among international automotive companies for the China market'. It also noted, 'The battle for India's motorists has begun... A queue of foreign car makers have either created or expanded joint ventures with Indian partners to enter the market'.42
Being capitalist corporations with an eye to profit, some of these companies may decide there is money to be made from developing energy technologies and products based on cleaner, renewable sources which do not contribute to global warming. But it would be foolish to gamble that the logic of profit and the vagaries of the market will somehow reshape the core of the world's economy in time to head off disaster.
The pressure from these corporations on governments is huge and effective. The fossil fuel giants are at the heart of the world's ruling class. Many of the politicians in the world's governments need little encouragement to pursue policies in the interests of big business in general and the fossil fuel giants in particular. These politicians and their parties share the same worldview--pro-business, pro-market, pro-profit system--as the corporations. They instinctively act in line with what such corporations feel is in their interests.
But just to ensure this solidarity of instinct is cemented, the fossil fuel giants oil the wheels of politics generously. The Clinton-Gore White House in the US has received at least $12 million in election contributions direct from the fossil fuel corporations. The oil, gas, coal and electricity utility companies are estimated to have given the two parties some $63.4 million between 1992 and 1998. Those politicians in the US Congress and Senate who have been in the forefront of resisting action on climate change are assisted in their endeavours by generous handouts from the fossil fuel barons. Among them are Representatives McIntosh, Knollenberg and Barton, who received $159,557, $75,390 and $251,921 respectively in the year leading up to the Kyoto climate change conference. Senators Byrd and Hagel pocketed in the same year $199,700 and $148,000 respectively from fossil fuel related companies. The mentality such money guarantees is summed up by Brent Blackwelder of the US Friends of the Earth: 'These people are out to destroy any effort to deal with global warming because they think it's an attempt to destroy industrial civilisation.' For such people, as Daphne Wysham of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies puts it, 'Climate change is like the new communism'.43
The results of the pressure from big business and the fossil fuel lobby are evident in the US's appalling record on climate change. In the figures that follow a benchmark is important to keep in mind: most scientists, such as the IPCC climate change body and the eminently respectable British Royal Commission, argue that emissions of carbon dioxide must be cut by some 60 percent over the next 15-20 years to head off serious climate change.44
Contrast this with the record. After much foot dragging the US pledged at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to peg (not cut) its carbon dioxide emissions at the 1990 figure by the year 2000. It failed to meet even that miserable target. In the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto conference it admitted its emissions had actually increased by 11 percent since 1990 and were on course to increase by some 14 percent by the year 2000.45 In the OECD industrialised countries as a whole emissions, far from falling, grew by an overall 4 percent between 1990 and 1996.46
There was much huffing and puffing at the 1997 Kyoto conference before a new round of pledges was finally made. But three years on the Kyoto agreement is still not in force as not enough countries have ratified it to trigger the deal as a binding international agreement. The US finally agreed at Kyoto to a 7 percent cut below 1990 emissions levels by the years 2008-2012. Even this is worse than it seems, as the US government itself helpfully pointed out: 'The 7 percent target represents at most a 3 percent real reduction...the remaining 4 percentage points result from certain changes [the US made at Kyoto] in the way gases and sinks are calculated and do not reflect any increase in effort'.47
Even such a miserable pledge is, if I can be excused the pun, so much hot air as, in fact, the US will not ratify the Kyoto agreement at all. In June 1997 the US Senate passed unanimously, by 95 votes to none, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, sponsored by two senators who we have already seen are well paid by the fossil fuel companies. This incredible piece of legislation bars US ratification of the Kyoto agreement, or any international climate change agreement.48 The pretext was an insistence that unless developing countries like China agreed to slash their emissions the US would not. This is an outrageous attempt by the biggest criminal in the neighbourhood to shift blame onto a petty thief. The US, with just 4 percent of the world's population, is responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. It emits eight times as much carbon dioxide per capita as China. Opponents of action on climate change also argue that emissions curbs could cost US jobs, and use this to try and win support from some trade unions. This too is brazen hypocrisy. In the four years before the Kyoto climate change conference the member companies of the Global Climate Coalition sacked 84,000 workers in the US whilst their profits rose by 117 percent.49 The simple fact is that without serious cuts in US emissions levels there is little prospect of dealing with the threat of global warming.
To match the refusal to act, the US government continues to pour enormous subsidies into the fossil fuel economy, helping ensure that society is locked into the products the fossil fuel corporations depend on for their wealth. The US subsidises the fossil fuel industry directly by some $18 billion a year, not counting tax breaks and military back up for operations outside the US.50 For every dollar of government funds that goes towards public transport, the government gives $7 to the car. The same is true on a global scale where direct government subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries in the last 20 years are estimated in one United Nations report to have added up to a staggering $300 billion.51
Even in those countries which do plan to ratify the Kyoto deal the cuts planned are inadequate and there are so many loopholes in the deal that there is little guarantee of any real action. Matthew Spencer of Greenpeace calculates that these loopholes could see global carbon dioxide emissions actually increase by up to 15 percent by 2010.52 Among the loopholes are plans for 'emissions trading' in which a global market of permits to emit carbon dioxide would be developed. Apart from the insanity of placing the future of the earth's climate in the hands of financiers gambling on the price of these permits, the plan is so vague that some commentators think it could allow all sorts of bogus deals which allow countries to increase their emissions.53 Yet emissions trading, not action on cutting emissions, is the key focus of intergovernmental climate change discussions today. Daphne Wysham points out that climate meetings 'now resemble trade shows in which instead of focusing on how to prevent global warming, attendees jostle to get a piece of a lucrative emerging market'.54 The kind of madness to which this can lead is illustrated by TransAlta, a major Canadian energy utility. In March this year it announced plans to feed cows in Uganda a special diet supplement to curb their methane emissions instead of slashing its own carbon dioxide emissions. Under capitalism stopping cows from farting is preferable to dealing with fossil fuel burning and the greenhouse gas emissions it causes.55
Other key loopholes include the exclusion of greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and shipping from all the Kyoto targets. These already amount to some 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and emissions from aircraft are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases.56
Some countries, notably Britain and Germany, say they are leading the world in cutting emissions and planning further real reductions. Britain's New Labour government says it will go beyond the 12.5 percent cut from 1990 levels it agreed to at Kyoto and cut them by 20 percent by 2010. Germany pledges a 25 percent cut by 2005. But this is a sleight of hand. As the Royal Commission report on Environmental Pollution points out, the falls in both Britain and Germany are due to one-off factors: in Britain the deliberate rundown of the coal industry under the Tories and the 'dash for gas' in power stations (gas produces greenhouse emissions, but slightly less than coal), and in Germany the massive shutdown of industry in the former East Germany following reunification. The underlying picture on emissions in both countries is much less rosy.
The Royal Commission warns that even the British figure of a 20 percent cut will not be achieved by current government policies, and says 'there is, then, something of a hole in the government's climate change programme.' And, it sarcastically notes, 'this, we presume, is why...[the government] speaks of "moving towards" the domestic goal of a 20 percent cut'.57 The Commission itself insists that at least a 60 percent emissions cut is needed in the next 20 years to begin to tackle the problem. Yet New Labour's environment minister, Michael Meacher, dismisses such talk as 'not real politics'.58
Real politics for New Labour means making concessions to big business and the fossil fuel corporations. There is still five times as much spent on fossil fuel related research in Britain as on renewable energy.59 The government even appointed the former boss of BP, Lord Simon, as a government 'minister for competitiveness'. If further confirmation of the government's attitude were needed, its ten year transport plan, unveiled in July 2000, was hailed by the Confederation of British Industry as 'a monumental victory for the business community'. Its £21 billion road building programme will, according to the government's own figures, boost road traffic by 17 percent by 2010.60
Bodies like the OECD and Royal Commission recognise the need for radical action on global warming. Yet their proposals for action are woefully inadequate because they accept the same market logic as the politicians referred to above. The OECD, for instance, cannot see any other mechanism to try and deal with the problem than the market. Its reports contain page after page of graphs and equations all firmly rooted in the logic of 'competitiveness' and the profit system. These may impress at first glance but on any serious study amount to wishful thinking.61 At one point it recognises the problem that the behaviour of the capitalist firms it relies on for dealing with the threat of climate change 'are usually strongly motivated by "the bottom line"--minimising costs in order to gain market share and maximising profit'.62 But it then returns to its hopeful graphs and the belief that this problem may be offset by policies which mean that 'wages adjust flexibly'. Profit is sacrosanct, so make workers pay.
A similar problem is at the heart of the Royal Commission report. After excellently charting the scale of the problem its proposals for action are laughable. It hopes the City of London may become a centre for emissions trading, praises the 'privatisation of energy industries and the liberalisation of energy markets' and insists that the impact on business 'competitiveness' of any measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions must be offset 'by cutting employers' National Insurance contributions'.63 Once again profit is untouchable, so cut welfare.It is not just traditional politicians (or bodies like the OECD and the Royal Commission) who fall down because they accept the limits of capitalism. Some people who started off fighting against the system and won influence on the back of taking up environmental issues can end up administering that system with all its horrors. This has been the fate that has befallen the leaders of Green parties now in office in European countries like France and Germany. You have had the sickening spectacle of German Green leader Joschka Fisher urging on NATO's filthy war in the Balkans, and of the Greens in government abandoning even their pledge to insist on the scrapping of nuclear power. In France Green MEP and former leader of the 1968 student revolt Daniel Cohn-Bendit supported the Balkan War, while Green environment minister Dominique Voynet ended up being rightly attacked for her weak response to devastation caused by the 1999 TotalFina oil spill on France's west coast. And none of these Green politicians is pressing for or delivering the kind of action needed over global warming.
The real solutions to the terrible threat of global climate disaster are simple, on one condition--challenging the logic of a world where profit comes first and everything else, from people to the environment, last. On this basis there are immediate measures which could deliver the kind of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required to stave off disaster. To deal with the long term problem requires going further. It means breaking the hold of the fossil fuel corporations on the world and radically reorganising production and society to satisfy current human needs while guaranteeing the long term sustainability of society.
While local or even national measures and tax changes are necessary and useful, to limit the challenge to the threat of global warming to such a perspective is doomed to failure and hits the wrong targets.
This is the perspective argued, for example, by Colin Hines in his very influential Localization: A Global Manifesto64--a book praised by a broad range of campaigners against the effects of global capitalism, from Vandana Shiva to food campaigner Tim Lang and Jubilee 2000 UK debt campaign director Ann Pettifor. Hines very effectively attacks what global capitalism is doing to the world's people and the environment. Yet when it comes to what to do about it, the result is tame. On global warming he calls for 'taxing products and activities which pollute, deplete or otherwise degrade the environment' in order to 'cause some environmental costs to be taken into account in commercial or private decisions'.65 There is no hint of challenging the logic of capitalism itself, rather the aim is to 'improve the functioning of the market'.66 Indeed he presents his measures as the way to save the system from itself, the only way to 'provide the secure demand levels needed to bail out the market'.67
There are also some things Hines argues that are profoundly misguided, such as calling for a world which is 'more labour intensive'--not a view many who actually do the work the world depends on for its food and products would share. The reality of the world we live in is one where overwork for many is matched by the misery of unemployment and enforced idleness for others. The answer is not to look to a more labour intensive world, but rather to use the enormous productive capacity of modern society to slash working hours, and share work and leisure equally. The contrast between Hines's passionate and convincing criticism of the existing world and the remedies proposed is best illustrated by a section headed 'Dismantling Corporate Rule'. The only concrete proposal is 'legislative action to eliminate all forms of corporate financing for political parties and election campaigns, impose tight rules on big business lobbying and think tank operations, whilst ensuring greater access to citizens groups and their think tanks'.68 It is like Karl Marx's metaphor of someone who has 'sown dragon's teeth and harvested fleas'.69
Al Gore, of all people, once wrote on tackling climate change that 'minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programmes, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change' are not enough, but that instead 'a wrenching transformation of society' was necessary. Gore is certainly a hypocrite, but he was right.70 A wrenching transformation of society is needed to deal with the threat, one which challenges head on the domination of the world by big business and the profit system by which it lives.
Such a transformation cannot be achieved by a romantic nostalgia for a world that never really existed, a supposed pre-industrial, more natural idyll of peasants, artisans, small producers and consumers. Environmental campaigners like George Monbiot, who powerfully attacks the fossil fuel (and other) corporations--and the New Labour politicians who bow to them--sometimes fall into this trap. Monbiot is always very careful to distance himself from the mysticism and anti-science irrationalism of figures like Prince Charles, and those environmentalists like Vandana Shiva and Mae Wan Ho who associate with Charles's views. Monbiot is a passionate and effective defender of science and rightly rails against the way it is increasingly moving out of the public sector and into the hands of the corporations.71 Nevertheless he seems to dream of a return to a harmonious world of small producers and consumers, as an alternative to the growing domination of the world by giant corporations and governments subservient to them. He fears a 'future without small shops', suggests 'farmers markets selling local produce' as the alternative to the power of the supermarkets, and recommends people invest as shareholders in small organic farms where they can work in their holidays. If the last is just George's way of escaping the pressure and alienation of modern capitalism then fine, and I would no doubt enjoy such work myself occasionally for the same reason. But it is hardly the stuff that is going to challenge the ruthless power of the corporations that are wrecking the world and the lives of its people in the way that George himself so ably demonstrates.72
More detailed criticism of the flaws in such approaches to challenging capitalism are the subject of Chris Harman's article in this International Socialism. Here I want to contrast all such approaches to the measures which could, and must, be taken to deal with the threat of global warming. These measures point in a quite different direction to a retreat from global capitalism, or to an imagined, more natural precursor, or to simply tinkering with the system. Rather they amount to fighting to go beyond global capitalism on the basis of using human knowledge and technology and our collective ability to reorganise production.
There are many simple and immediate measures that could drastically and quickly slash carbon dioxide emissions. One is to use the technology that already exists to clean up power station emissions--one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. There is no reason why any power station should emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Three experts in the field recently wrote that 'the technology works well' but 'only a handful of power plants capture carbon dioxide from their flue gases'.73 The Royal Commission on Climate Change insists, 'Technologies for recovering carbon dioxide are well developed and could be incorporated in new combustion plants or retro-fitted to existing plants'.74 The reason such technology is not used is simple: it would cut into the profits of whichever company seriously adopted it. Such a company fears that its rivals would then drive it to the wall, or that it could be the subject of a takeover bid as its lower profits lowered its share price relative to hostile competitors. The problem is profit. The same is true of technology which exists for storing or 'sequestering' carbon dioxide in the oceans or under the seabed, where it cannot escape into the atmosphere. Some pilot projects are under way, such as in the Sleipner natural gas field off Norway. But, again, fear of competitive pressure means such technology is not being used in way it could and should.75 The answer is for governments to order companies to use all such technology, but that would mean standing up to big business not bowing to it.
By far the biggest measure that could be taken to immediately curb carbon dioxide emissions from transport, another major source, would be a massive expansion of public transport. In cities like London, for instance, to have a free 24-hour and hugely expanded public transport system could drastically slash car usage--and in the process encourage more cycling and walking. This could easily be financed, but not through a tax on car journeys--which amounts to rationing by wealth, allowing the rich and business men to speed along roads that ordinary people with far more need to travel have been priced off. Instead a huge tax on business profits, and price controls to prevent them responding by jacking up prices, is needed.
A simple but effective measure that could really cut energy use, and so greenhouse gas emissions, would be a major programme of better insulation of buildings and houses, a measure which would help the poorest with their fuel bills too. The Royal Commission on Climate Change estimates that such measures could cut household energy use by over a third.76 But that would require a major public investment programme, and would again mean taxing the rich and big business to finance it.
In none of this is it a matter, as some environmentalists argue, of workers in countries like Britain lowering their living standards or of sacking workers in the car and other such companies. The idea that if workers accepted lower living standards and wages the big corporations would then use the extra money in their pockets to deal with climate change is a poor joke. They would simply give their executives and shareholders bigger payouts, and continue to behave exactly as now. And if Ford, for instance, gets away with sacking workers in Dagenham in Essex will this do anything to get a single car off the road or to curb greenhouse gas emissions? Of course not. Ford simply intends to churn as many cars as possible using factories elsewhere, but hopes to make even more profit in the process.
Were some of the measures outlined above undertaken then car sales and use would decline, and less energy would be used. But that does not mean fewer jobs. Such measures would also demand work in construction, manufacturing insulation materials, in building trains, buses and laying tracks. Many of the workers who now have no choice but to earn a living producing cars could use their skills to carry out such work instead. Governments could ensure workers were guaranteed jobs amid such a massive public works programme, and, if necessary, nationalise the factories needed to shift production towards what is needed.
The key to such a change is to shift away from the fossil fuel economy. That demands a shift to energy production based on renewable, non greenhouse gas producing sources. The technology already exists--principally wind, wave and solar power. It is a myth, one fostered by the fossil fuel lobby, that these could not supply the energy society needs and that they are too technically difficult or costly to be useful. For example, the British Department of Trade and Industry study points out that offshore wind turbines alone could provide at least double and possibly up to 40 times the country's current peak electricity use.77 Yet the government has no plans to develop offshore wind farms. Another government report argues that both offshore wind turbines and wave power could meet our current energy needs three times over.78 The British government also says that solar energy photo-voltaic cells in wall and roof tiles have the technical potential to produce some 12 percent of all the country's electricity needs within a few years. Contrary to popular myth such cells depend on light, not heat or direct sunshine, for their functioning. So while they would prove even better in sunnier countries they are perfectly usable even in Britain.79 The truth is 'the potential for the effective use of renewable sources of energy in this country is huge, but its implementation is poor'.80
It is not even that such technologies are very expensive. Already wind power can generate electricity at around 2.9p per kilowatt hour, compared to 2p for gas-generated electricity. Wave power currently works out at around 4p per kilowatt hour and solar at some 7p.81 That is without the kind of massive investment in research, development and resulting economies of scale that could make them much cheaper. Even without such major investment, the price of wind-generated electricity has fallen by some 10 percent a year on average over the last 15 years, while photo-voltaic cells are falling in cost by some 15 percent a year.82 The fossil fuel companies are dabbling with all these technologies, but they refuse to undertake the massive investment and shift away from their current practice needed to deal with the greenhouse effect. They are addicted to the flow of profit from fossil fuels and products which use them, and demand government policies which continue to favour that. In Britain between 1990 and 1995 alone the government poured in another £4.5 billion into subsidising the fossil fuel industries.83
As well as the kind of changes outlined, other measures are, of course, needed to end the threat of global warming and environmental destruction. In a sustainable world much of the absurd waste under capitalism--on arms, advertising, the gambling of the banks and finance institutions and much else--would be eliminated. This would free up resources that could be used for more useful purposes in an environmentally sustainable fashion. A sane society would also end the madness of millions of people travelling vast distances simply to get to work each day--work should be put where people want to live. And with modern communications and free fast public transport there is no reason why the absurd and alienating distinction between giant cities and rural areas could not be radically transformed too.
To seriously implement the measures needed to tackle global warming would mean taking money from the corporations and challenging their power in order to direct investment into where it is needed--regardless of profit. That would run into fierce resistance from big business and from the states which serve their interests. The answer to such resistance is not to back away from such a confrontation and seek an impossible compromise. It is instead to look to the forces that can both beat back the resistance and lay the basis for a more radical transformation of society, one that can end the threat of global warming and environmental destruction for good.
There is only one social force that has the potential and power to win such a confrontation--the people who do the work the whole system depends on for its daily functioning. This working class--in the factories, offices, schools, hospitals, and much else besides--provides the daily labour society depends on and without which the corporations cannot function. And among the most powerful sections of that class are those who do the work the global fossil fuel corporations depend on for their wealth--the coal, oil, gas, car and other such workers. All these people, this now worldwide working class, are the key to winning the transformation of society needed to really 'dismantle corporate rule', a rule that now threatens the earth's climate and with it the future viability of civilisation.
Global warming illustrates how a basis of production that forms a core part of the ruling class's wealth and power can threaten environmental and social disaster. Capitalism produces other environmental threats too. A central feature of capitalism is that it constantly seeks to develop and profit from new products, to carve out new markets and extend the power of those at the head of the competing centres which dominate the system.
This has repeatedly led to environmental and human damage. Consider the way business profited from asbestos production, thinking only of their balance sheets and shareholders. And when its awful dangers became apparent covered them up and resisted attempts to deal with them.84 Or think of how three major corporations saw the chance of lucrative profit in lead additives in petrol. These corporations, General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil, knew full well the dangers back in the 1920s. They also knew that safer alternatives were known, such as alcohol, which have the same effect of reducing 'knocking' in engines. But alcohol could not be patented while the lead additive could. So as they raked in their profit the corporations covered up the dangers of lead for decades with terrible environmental and human consequences.85 A similar horrific story could be told of the tobacco giants and many others.
In recent years a new threat of this kind has emerged--one which is truly global in its implications and in its threatened human and environmental impact: genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, organisms.
The speed and scale of this development is astonishing. Genetic engineering only began in the laboratories of scientific institutions in the 1970s, building on breakthroughs in molecular biology which followed the discovery of the basic structure of the genetic material DNA in 1954.86 The first successful genetic modification of a plant did not occur until 1983. The 12 years that followed saw a frenzy of development, with the modification of over 60 plant species and nearly 3,000 field tests of GM crops. Most of those were experimental, however, and it is only in the last few years--since 1996--that large scale commercial use of GM plants and products has developed.87 Now 'across the world, thousands of varieties are being tested. Within a few years most of the world could be awash with GM food'.88 Already half of all the soya beans planted in the US are GM, as are a third of the country's cornfields.89
GMOs have moved out of research labs and become big business. The global market is already worth about $3 billion and is estimated to be heading towards some $25 billion by 2010.90 That kind of money, and with it the smell of profit, has seen a host of 'biotech' corporations develop--some with scientists turning into business men and women, more often old established chemical companies reinventing themselves. As with the dot.com frenzy, it has also seen wild speculative share dealings. Share values leapt on the promise of products and profits in the future, even before a penny of that profit had been realised. As with the dot.com bubble too, many have come crashing down when the losses mounted or when the promise of profit seemed to recede further and further away.91 The frenzy has given way, as so often in the history of capitalism, to a few survivors who now dominate the global market.
Just five huge multinational companies now control virtually 100 percent of the GM seed market. The five 'Gene Giants', as they have been dubbed, are, at the time of writing, AstraZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Aventis. Further mergers are likely. Novartis and AstraZeneca plan to merge their agrochemical and seed divisions to form Syngenta, and Monsanto plans to merge with drugs company Pharmacia and Upjohn.92 GMOs can only be understood as part of the drive of these giant companies to increase their markets, profits and power. All the scientific and environmental arguments have to be seen in this context.
GMOs are only one part of these corporations' strategies. The same five Gene Giants also control two thirds of the global pesticide market and over a quarter of the non-GM global seed market.93 The five plus a handful of other companies, such as Bayer, Dow and American Home Products, also dominate over 90 percent of the $31 billion a year agrochemical market.
The Gene Giants have their roots in chemical production. Monsanto, for instance, was the company which produced the infamous Agent Orange defoliant used by the US in its war in Vietnam, with horrendous human effects which are still being felt today. In recent years its key products have been agrochemicals, above all its patented Roundup herbicide.94 Some 85 percent of Aventis's £11 billion a year sales are in herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.95 The drive into GM crops and seeds is an attempt by such companies to control the kind of seeds used in agriculture. They aim to use GM seeds to lock agriculture into dependence on the agrochemicals they produce. All these companies have also expanded at a furious pace into non-GM seeds, buying up the companies which dominate that market. Monsanto has spent over $8 billion in the last five years buying up seed and related companies.96 In 1999 DuPont spent $7.7 billion to acquire the then largest seed company in the world, Pioneer Hybrid. Aventis has taken over Granja 4 Irmaos, Brazil's largest rice seed producer, and Proargo, India's second largest seed group.97
The non-GM seed market is much bigger than the GM market at present, worth an estimated $23 billion. The Gene Giants' expansion into this area is aimed at expanding the dependence of agriculture on GM seeds and their associated chemicals. They are all developing new varieties of GM seeds, which they then aim to use their market domination to force onto the world, and which of course are patented. A staggering 40,000 new patents a month on biotechnology products were being filed in the late 1990s.98 Monsanto employs over 100 scientists whose sole job is to scour the globe for potentially useful plant genes and then patent them.99 The aim of the Gene Giants is to lock the satisfaction of the most basic human need--to eat--into a global structure whose function is to pump profit into their coffers. 'The real issue' behind GMOs, argues George Monbiot, is 'the corporate capture of the food chain'.100 Monsanto has acknowledged, 'What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies--it is really the consolidation of the entire food chain'.101
The Gene Giants are not the only players in the game. They have close links with the huge corporations which dominate global trade in basic foodstuffs. Just five companies control the bulk of the world's trade in grain, for instance. In 1998 the biggest such company, the US-based Cargill, bought up the second largest, Continental, making this secretive private company the single biggest factor in the world grain trade. Cargill's global revenues are over $50 billion a year, and as well as dominating grain it is 'the largest beef packer in Canada; the third largest beef packer and flour miller in the US; the fourth largest cattle feeder and sixth largest turkey producer in the US; and the second largest phosphate producer in the world. Cargill is also a major power in salt, peanuts, cotton, coffee, truck transport, river/canal shipping, molasses, livestock feed, steel, hybrid seeds, rice milling, rubber, citrus, chicken, and fresh fruits and vegetables'.102 Cargill has a string of deals with the Gene Giants to use GM products. It sums up how it sees the stakes:
This web of giant companies form what biologists Richard Lewontin and Jean-Pierre Berlan have aptly dubbed 'the genetico-industrial complex', one which aims to control the food chain 'from the seed to the plate'.104
Of course the arguments put forward to justify the rush to GM crops by these companies and their supporters are usually a little different. They argue that their new products are crucial in solving world hunger today, and to feed the growing world population in the future. They also insist that their GM products will benefit both the environment and human health, and that they are perfectly safe and properly tested. Every one of these claims is false.
The argument that ending famine is only possible with GM crops is one pushed hard by the corporations. 'Biotechnology is a key factor in the fight against famine,' states EuropaBio, the trade association of European biotechnology companies.105 Monsanto argues, 'Worrying about future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will'.106
Such arguments are wrong. People are not hungry in the world today because of a lack of food in the world. And the GM corporations' products will do nothing to tackle the problem of hunger. The Institute for Food and Development Policy argues:
Another important study concludes:
The most serious study of GM crops yet published in Britain also rebuts the corporations' arguments on world hunger, arguing, 'Malnutrition is essentially caused by poverty...[and] in some cases transgenic crops are part of the problem of, rather than the solution to, poverty in the Third World'.109
Some argue that even if world hunger today is not due to a shortage of food, the projected growth in the world's population in the decades ahead cannot be fed by current levels of production. Monsanto argues, 'The world's population is growing rapidly, adding the equivalent of a China to the globe every ten years. To feed these billions more mouths, we can try extending our farming land or squeezing greater harvests out of existing cultivation... Food biotechnology is a better way forward'.110
It is true that more food would be needed to meet a growing population. But there is no simple connection between the density of population in any country and food production. Holland is one of the world's most densely populated countries, yet no one talks of overpopulation causing food shortages there.111 Social and economic factors, not natural factors, also mean that far less food is grown in many hungry parts of the world than could be. One study argues:
An important study of the Machakos area of Kenya showed that underpopulation can in fact be a major problem in limiting food production. British colonial administrators had blamed 'uncontrolled development by natives whose multiplication and the increase of whose stock have been permitted' for the area's 'miserable poverty', which had reduced the 'land to a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand'. The reality was quite different by the 1990s:
In short it is quite possible that a growing world population could be fed without recourse to GM crops. In fact there is little evidence that GM crops will actually increase yields of key crops at all. One study reports, 'Recent experimental trials have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase the yield of crops'.114 If the aim really were to increase yields in order to feed more people, then genetic engineering is inferior to traditional breeding techniques. The Union of Concerned Scientists points out:
There are, I will argue later, good reasons why the application of science to agriculture is needed to both feed a growing population and deal with the environmental problems caused by existing agricultural practices--many of which flow from the very same corporations who now tell us that their latest products are the key to solving world hunger. I do not share the romanticism often expressed for 'traditional' agriculture that many environmentalists express. We need science to satisfy both current and future human need in a sustainable way. The question is what science, for whose benefit, and under whose control?
The Institute for Food and Development Policy argues:
Another study agrees: 'Multinationals have concentrated on developing crops that will earn high profits, not crops that could make the best contribution to solving the world's food problems'.117
Such comments, and growing public opposition to GM products, has led some of the corporations to change tack. They have launched a new wave of 'second generation' products which they hope will soften opposition to their plans. These products, they claim, will bring real health and nutritional benefits to people. In a rallying call to the industry DuPont argues that with 'second generation' products 'it is time to get out there, roll up our sleeves and communicate these benefits to consumers'.118 The star of the second generation GM products is undoubtedly 'golden rice' and the claims this will solve Vitamin A deficiency. The Rockefeller Foundation, which funded much of the work behind golden rice, argues, 'It is going to be harder for the environmentalists to say they are battling for the poor if they're fighting something that benefits the poor'.119
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a serious problem in many parts of the world. It can cause partial or total blindness and reduce resistance to infections. Its effects are particularly severe in children. The World Health Organisation estimates that 230 million children are at risk of VAD and that it is a contributing factor in over 1 million childhood deaths a year. The deficiency is particularly severe in countries where rice is the staple diet. Rice contains beta-carotene, a key source of Vitamin A, in its leaves and in the rice husk. But the husk is removed by milling and polishing in processing. This is done because in tropical areas rice with husks can more easily go rancid during storage. Golden rice claims to deal with VAD through genetic engineering. Scientists have taken genes from a daffodil and incorporated them into rice. The result is a yellow coloured rice that contains beta-carotene in the dehusked grain.
Yet there are both problems with this approach to dealing with VAD, and other far more direct solutions. In large doses Vitamin A can be toxic and can build up in the liver. Whether incorporating it into the staple diet consumed in large quantities is a good idea is thus debatable. Secondly, investing a fraction of the money that has gone into GM crops into developing better methods of storage might remove the need for dehusking. Finally, and most importantly, the problem with VAD is not the rice. It is the lack of a varied diet among millions of people because they are too poor. People in Britain, for instance, do not generally suffer from VAD through eating polished rice. Vitamin A is found in eggs, milk, butter, meat and oily saltwater fish. Beta-carotene is found in many plant foods, especially green leafy vegetables, carrots and fruit. Giving people a better and more varied diet containing some of these food sources could easily and swiftly eliminate VAD. In fact the corporations which now push GM are in some parts of the world responsible for creating the conditions in which VAD has grown. In India the drive to monocultural agriculture for export, and its linked high inputs of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, meant that in many areas the vegetable bathua, which contains high levels of Vitamin A, was eliminated as a 'weed'.120
The key to tackling VAD, argues one study, is tackling 'the underlying cause of poor nutrition, namely poverty. Encouraging the growing and consumption of more fruit and vegetables, and animal products such as eggs and cheese would have wider nutritional benefits than the GM rice'.121 Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists argues:
The GM corporations have also sought to reinvent themselves as an environmentally friendly force, claiming that their products will in fact benefit the environment by leading to lower use of herbicides and pesticides. This is highly unlikely, as Stephen Nottingham's excellent Eat Your Genes points out:
The corporations know this. Monsanto has made applications to the Australian and New Zealand governments to increase the permitted levels of herbicide residues in soybeans.124 The implications for humans are serious as soya is used in some 60 percent of all processed food and in products like toothpaste.125
Roundup is based on a chemical called glyphosate, which is also used in a wide range of other pesticides. In Britain the Tory government in office until 1997 passed legislation at the promptings of Monsanto raising the permitted levels of glyphosate residues in soya by 200 times. New Labour has not repealed this legislation.126 Glyphosates can have horrendous impacts on the environment, killing not just plants but also damaging soil fertility by disrupting the functioning of crucial soil fungi. As Stephen Nottingham argues, 'Glyphosate herbicides, including Roundup, are not environmentally friendly chemicals. Increased glyphosate use might also have direct adverse effects on human health. In a Californian study, glyphosate was identified as the third most common cause of pesticide poisoning among farm workers'.127
A crucial claim of the GM corporations and their government backers is that the products are safe for humans and the environment. This is the biggest and most worrying lie of all.
The claim that GM products are safe rests on a series of arguments. The first is that genetic engineering of plants is not radically different from traditional plant breeding which has gone on for thousands of years. The second is that all the genetic engineers are doing is putting a new gene into a plant which then in a simple and straightforward way gives that plant a desirable trait, and that there are no other implications. The final product, they insist, is 'substantially equivalent' to the non-GM original and therefore just as safe. All these arguments are seriously flawed.
Humans have always changed the genetic make-up of plants and animals. That is what traditional selective breeding does, and most of the plants and animals we depend on today are the result of a long process of such modification. But all such modification involves only species which can breed naturally with each other. It also takes place on a limited scale and speed, with time for any potential dangers to be spotted and halted. Things are quite different with genetic engineering. As the Union of Concerned Scientists argues, 'Genetic engineering is not a minor extension of existing breeding technologies. It is a radically new technology for altering the traits of living organisms...genetic engineering permits combinations of genes and traits not found in nature... Novel organisms may, however, bring novel risks. UCS advocates caution'.128
And Stephen Nottingham underlines that 'genetic engineering usually involves the transfer of foreign genes not previously present in a species' gene pool, into an organism...the integration of foreign genes is more likely to have unpredictable physiological or biochemical effects than' traditional plant breeding.129 Such dangers are exacerbated by the rapid and worldwide deployment of GM crops by the corporations. By the time any dangers become apparent it may be too late to reverse or contain them.
The argument that there are few such risks because scientists are simply inserting a gene for a specific trait which has no other effects is profoundly misguided. This attitude is summed up by the British Food and Drink Association which 'explains', 'Research scientists can now precisely identify the individual gene that governs a desired trait, extract it, copy it and insert the copy into another organism. That organism (and its offspring) will then have the desired trait'.130 If only life were so simple! This approach rests on a fundamentally wrong, if fashionable, understanding of biology and genetics, one that has been labelled 'reductionism'.
A brief discussion of this is worthwhile. Genes are simply chemicals that occur in every cell in the bodies of living organisms. They are made up of long strings of a chemical called DNA. The totality of genes in an organism is called its genome. Genes play an important role in the development, functioning and reproduction of living organisms. They are not a 'blueprint', nor do genes 'determine' physical characteristics, or still less behaviour, in any simple way. They do play a crucial role in the complex chemistry of cells, involving a vast array of processes and other chemicals, which shape life. That whole process also takes place in a constant interaction with the wider environment. Any serious understanding of life must involve a proper investigation of this totality, and must include a proper understanding of how genes work too. But this is not what is being done by the 'reductionist' view that drives genetic engineering. It takes a simplistic assumption that individual genes determine the characteristics of living organisms in a straightforward way. All you have to is take a gene which 'does' something, pop it into another organism and it will, without any other consequences, operate in the same fashion there, runs the argument.
This is bad science--the same bad science that underlies the arguments about genes for intelligence, crime, violence and much else that has been so widespread in recent years. Geneticist Mae Wan Ho rightly argues, 'Genetic engineering technology is really bad science working hand in glove with big business for quick profit'.131 Science itself has shown that genes are far more complex and less understood than the simplistic claims of the genetic engineers working for the GM corporations. We now know that the environment can actually modify genes, for example.132 This and a host of other recent developments have shattered the reductionist view. A full discussion of these points is beyond the scope of this article, but anyone interested can follow the references given in the notes. The picture that is being developed by the best science today is one of a 'fluid genome' which is much more complex and subtle in its workings than the GM advocates pretend.
The point is of crucial importance, because it means that all the claims about the safety of GM products rest on unscientific foundations. Moreover there is now increasing evidence that all the things the GM corporations told us could not happen, do happen. The first people to warn of the dangers were in fact scientists who worked on genetic engineering. In the 1970s:
Such exemplary caution was soon swept aside as big business pursued the chance of profit. They bought up scientists by the bucketload, and some scientists were only too quick to join the rush to turn themselves into business men and women too. Other scientists found themselves under increasing pressure as government cutbacks in research funding meant they had to rely more and more on business funding. Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard argues:
One of the dangers of GMOs is the risk of new food allergies. This is not a minor matter, as anyone who has a child who is allergic to nuts, with potentially fatal consequences, can testify. All genes work by helping to create proteins. GM products will thus have different proteins in them. But the complex functioning of genes means it is not just a simple process, by which whatever protein is associated with the transferred gene is found in the GM product. This has major implications for creating new allergies. The Union of Concerned Scientists warns, 'Transgenic crops could bring new allergens into foods that sensitive individuals would not know how to avoid. The problem is unique to genetic engineering because it alone can transfer proteins across species boundaries into completely unrelated organisms... Recent research substantiates concerns about genetic engineering rendering previously safe foods allergenic'.135 In a similar way new toxins could be produced in plants: 'Plants contain inactive pathways leading to toxic substances. Addition of new genetic material through genetic engineering could reactivate these inactive pathways'.136
A major danger of GM products is the risk of an increase in antibiotic resistance. This is already a growing problem, with new strains of deadly bacterial diseases appearing which are resistant to many antibiotics. The problem has been caused by the overuse of antibiotics, both medically and more so through their widespread and unnecessary use (except in the interests of profit) in agriculture to boost animal growth. Bacteria can quickly evolve resistance to antibiotics if they are constantly exposed to them. Any sane policy would be seeking to reduce the use of antibiotics only to those cases where they are needed, in order to preserve their effectiveness.
Instead GM products are designed in such a way as to increase the risk of widespread resistance to antibiotics. When genetic engineers try and insert a new gene they do not know if this has been done in the way they hoped (which is incidentally a result of the more complex functioning of genes than their simplistic model allows). So they hit on a way to get round this problem. To the gene they are trying to insert they attach another gene which confers antibiotic resistance. If their gene is taken up by the target organism it is likely that the antibiotic resistance gene will be too. The scientists then douse all the target cells or plants with antibiotics. Those that die were not successfully modified, those that live have been.
The problem is what happens next. The Union of Concerned Scientists points out:
Another danger is the likely transfer of genes from engineered crops to other plants: 'Novel genes placed in crops will not necessarily stay in agricultural fields. If relatives of the altered crops are growing near the field the new gene can easily move via pollen into those plants. The new traits might confer on the wild or weedy relatives of crop plants the ability to thrive in unwanted places'.138 The prospect of creating superweeds, resistant to herbicides, is real. A further danger is that of increasing pesticide resistance among insects: 'Bt crops are genetically engineered to contain a gene for the Bt toxin. Because the crops produce the toxin in most plant tissues throughout the life cycle of the plant, pests are continually exposed to it. This continuous exposure selects for the rare resistance genes in the pest population'.139 Such Bt crops are central in all the GM corporations' plans.
Perhaps the most worrying danger of GM products is the threat of new viral diseases:
If that is true for plants, the implications for human health if GM animals are developed by the corporations are chilling.
We are told that all these risks are hypothetical and that there are proper safeguards in place to deal with them. Again these claims are false. Almost all of these risks, and others, have been shown to happen in practice.
Last year it was found that pollen from Bt maize could kill Monarch butterflies.141 Similar results have been found for lacewings. In Scotland ladybirds fed on aphids that had eaten GM potatoes died earlier and reproduced less than ordinary ladybirds.142 The last case underlines the importance of investigating the whole environment when undertaking attempts to change part of it. Plants and animals are part of complex ecosystems and altering one part can have unexpected effects. The point of modifying the potatoes was to help control aphids. But another crucial role in aphid control is played by ladybirds. If the genetic modification affects ladybirds the net result could be to actually make aphid infestation worse than before. Such considerations are usually far from the minds of the GM corporations who only want to hear how they can manufacture a commodity they can sell for profit.
Earlier this year pollen from GM crops grown in Britain was found in honey produced by bees in the area, making a mockery of claims that the GM pollen could not spread very far.143 A leaked memo from a Monsanto adviser shows that the company knows full well that its claims that GM material cannot spread are false. 'There is probably little [Monsanto] can do,' to stop this, it noted, but argued that for political reasons they should 'at least appear to be working on a programme to tighten up monitoring of GM field trials'.144
Finally, in May this year German scientists warned that they had evidence that genes from GM crops could jump species. If this turns out to be true the implications are horrendous. Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz of Jena University found genes from GM oilseed rape in the bacteria and fungi in the gut of honey bees which had fed on the rape's pollen. The research is still being checked at the time of writing but Professor Kaatz says his preliminary results suggest that 'these genes...were in the bacteria in the intestinal tract of the bees and seemed to have been taken up into their own genetic make-up'.145
The only rational response in the face of such dangers is to ban GM products until much more research and testing is done, and by publicly funded, independent scientists, not the corporations. Instead the corporations and governments are pressing ahead with what amounts to a dangerous worldwide experiment with potentially severe environmental and human consequences.
In February this year the US government was accused of suppressing advice from its own scientific experts on the dangers of GM products. A central part of the GM corporations' case is the doctrine of 'substantial equivalence'. This amounts to saying, for example, that a GM carrot is still a carrot and so 'substantially equivalent' to a product that is already on the market and known to be safe. There is therefore, they argue, no need for any more stringent controls or tests. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has used this doctrine to give the corporations the green light to push through the marketing of their products. Lawyer Steve Druker examined the 44,000 pages of documents on which the FDA based its conclusion and found a very different tale. In fact 11 of the 17 scientific experts on the FDA's GM taskforce had expressed disquiet over this notion of 'substantial equivalence', for the reasons outlined earlier about how genes work in a more complex way than admitted by the corporations. One of the FDA scientists wrote, 'There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic breeding [which] may be more hazardous'.146 Yet the US government simply ignored such objections and declared itself satisfied.147
It also emerged from the same documents that scientists had real worries about the safety of GM foods. The worries focused on a 1993 study of the GM 'Flavr Savr' tomato produced by Calgene. Memos, only made public this year, reported that 20 percent of rats fed the tomatoes suffered 'gross stomach lesions'. Calgene decided the lesions were 'incidental'. Scientists worried about whether this conclusion was justified, but again were overruled.148 It is not just in the US that this kind of thing occurs. In August 1998 Dr Arpad Pusztai, working in Scotland, claimed to have found evidence that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered health problems. He was pushed into retiring and his research suppressed by his employer, the Rowett Research Institute, which it later turned out received funding from Monsanto.149
The point is not whether all such claims of GM products doing harm are true. It is that they are not being properly investigated, and the climate is one in which the GM corporations and governments seek to discredit and pressure those who raise such questions. Occasionally the real attitude of the 'genetico-industrial complex' emerges. Phil Agnell, a Monsanto executive, put it bluntly: 'It's not up to us to guarantee the safety of GM food products. Our interest is to sell as much as possible of them'.150
The GM corporations press for national and international rules and institutions to serve their interests. In Britain, for example, New Labour claims it will rely on independent, objective advice in making policy on GM products. Yet the government's science minister, Lord Sainsbury, has 'major interests in companies developing the technology for GM foods. He has promised not to get involved in policy making on GM food. But he has already been criticised for leading a biotechnology trade mission to Korea and for sitting on a cabinet sub-committee dealing with the issue'.151 The government takes advice from its 'independent' Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. Yet in 1999 eight members of that committee had interests in biotech, seed, food processing and retailing companies.152
The picture is even worse in the US, where:
Mickey Kantor was the chair of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and was the US Chief Trade Negotiator. He went on to join Monsanto's board.154
Such links, coupled with the corporate mindset in the governments of the major industrialised counties, means they frame laws and shape the rules of international institutions to smooth the way for the GM corporations, and to punish those who stand in their way.
So the US government has resolutely resisted attempts to force the segregation of GM and non-GM soya beans, and has also resisted attempts to force the compulsory labelling of GM products.155 The European Union brushed aside objections to GM products to allow their importation from 1996 onwards.156 The process ran into some difficulties, however, as public objections mounted. The French government in particular was under pressure from farmers, environmentalists and a wider mood in society to stand up against the GM corporations. As a result, despite objections from Britain's New Labour government--which as ever was the corporations' best friend--in 1999 the EU imposed a moratorium on further approval of GM products. But in July 2000 the European Commission signalled that it was bowing to the continued pressure from big business, and the US and British governments, and planned to rush through a proposal to scrap the moratorium.
There has been a series of other clashes between the US and Europe over GM products, with Britain usually lining up with the US. This reflects a complex mix of European trade rivalries with the US and also the fact that popular pressure against GM products is stronger in Europe. A recent poll showed two thirds of people in Europe opposed GM products.157 In Austria 1.2 million people signed a petition demanding GM products are banned.158 In many European countries, including Britain, protests have targeted GM crop sites too. Governments which need to get re-elected cannot simply totally ignore such popular feeling.
Under pressure from scientists and public opinion the European Union eventually banned hormone-treated beef and the BST 'growth hormone' milk. The US got the World Trade Organisation to rule the beef ban illegal, a barrier to 'free trade'. The US imposed punitive sanctions over the beef ban, including on France's Roquefort cheese. This case saw farmers in the south of France, organised by the Confédération Paysanne and led by José Bové, dismantle the McDonald's in the town of Millau in the summer of 1999. The case came to trial in Millau in June 2000 and became the focus for an enormous 100,000-strong protest, one which married together a feeling against the institutions of global capitalism and anger at the way the corporations are taking over the world's food.
The US attempt to use the World Trade Organisation to declare the milk ban illegal ran into difficulties, however, when the US government admitted that it had allowed the sale of the BST hormone without having actually seen any safety data, but had instead relied entirely on a summary provided by... Monsanto! For probably the first time in its history the WTO ruled against the US.159 Whether this ban will be upheld is open to some doubt.
At the time of writing a new row was brewing between Europe and the US over the issue of labelling GM products. The US is adamantly opposed to it, while under public pressure the European Union wants at least some labelling. The US is again threatening to use the WTO to impose sanctions if it does not get its way.160
The rows between Europe and the US are serious. But they largely concern the manner and speed with which the GM corporations introduce their products. It would be a mistake to see Europe as a benevolent force. Anyone who thinks so might like to know that in Britain people have already been subjected without their knowledge to BST milk. In 1987 and 1988 under Margaret Thatcher's Tory government BST milk from some 3,000 cows was mixed in with general milk supplies.161 And, more recently, in April 2000 the European Parliament voted through a resolution which 'ruled that big GM producers, such as Monsanto, should not be held legally responsible if their food turned out to be harmful for humans or the environment'.162
Beyond the rows between Europe and the US, they are both united in using institutions like the WTO to clear the way for these products in the rest of the world.163 The process is not always smooth, and the corporations have had to make some gestures to head off opposition. As well as the European opposition mentioned, there have been large scale and militant protests in many Third World countries, most notably India. The most serious concession by Western governments faced with such opposition has been the Protocol on Biodiversity adopted in January 2000 at an intergovernmental conference in Montreal. Even the US had to accept the 'precautionary principle' under which governments could place some restrictions on imports of GM products on health and environmental grounds--though it could be years before this agreement is translated into any legally binding form.164
But under pressure from the corporations, governments in the industrialised countries still find ways to press poorer countries to allow GM products in: 'Biotech is also becoming an "aid" component. Western governments, together with multilateral donors such as the EU, are beginning to allocate public money to its [GM crops] development in poor countries... The World Bank is looking at ways it could assist the development of agricultural genetic engineering'.165 When such 'legal' methods fail, there are always other options. Olga Berlova, a Russian environmentalist, says, 'In Russia we know from UN organisations that GM soya beans are growing, yet even Russian officials are unable to get information from companies. The corporations are paying Russian institutes to do the trials and bypassing the regulatory system'.166
The vision of the GM corporations is to control the entire food chain 'from seed to plate'. The decisive step in this project is the control of seeds. This is the rationale behind the GM corporations' rush to buy up seed companies. A key problem is how to stop farmers from doing what they have done for thousands of years--using seed from one year's harvest for the next year's planting, and also sharing, exchanging or selling such seed to fellow farmers. Unless this can be blocked there will be a limit on the reach of the corporations. The corporations' response has been to systematically work to achieve this aim.
There are several key elements in their strategy. One is to patent seeds, and indeed individual genes (and the same process is at work with human genes in the Human Genome Project). They claim that GM seeds are not the same as non-GM seeds, ignoring their own claims that they are 'substantially equivalent'. They argue that their genetic engineering has created a 'new' product which can be patented, and anyone wanting to use it has to pay the corporations. To enforce this they use international bodies like the WTO and its TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) agreements that, in essence, make such patents global in scope and so 'criminalises seed saving and seed sharing'.167 This is used even to allow the corporations to patent plants that have long been grown. The most extreme example is the patenting of basmati rice by the Texas-based RiceTec. Indian farmers who developed and have grown basmati for centuries may face having to pay the US corporation to continue to do so.168
The ultimate dream of the GM corporations is to create, and force farmers to use, seeds that will grow into a plant one year but whose seeds will themselves be sterile come harvest time. A first step towards this aim was taken earlier this century with the development of hybrids for many staple crops, first in corn and then others, and later even animals such as chickens and pigs. These hybrids produced bigger yields than earlier varieties, which is the basis on which farmers were pushed towards using them. Though there were other methods that could have produced the same increased yields, hybrids had one big advantage. They are crossbred from 'inbred' lines and are sterile, forcing the farmer to buy new seed each year.169
With GM crops, though, the aim is to go much further and have an agriculture in which all crops grown in the world produce sterile seed. That is the logic of the drive to develop 'Terminator' technology, genetic modification of seeds to render the plants they produce incapable of producing fertile seed.
In March 1998 the US Delta and Pine Land company patented this Terminator technology. Two months later the firm was bought up by Monsanto. The threat of this technology provoked a furious worldwide response. Even keen supporters of GM products feared it could stoke up opposition that could cause immense problems. So in April 1999 Monsanto and AstraZeneca publicly declared that they were dropping plans to commercially develop Terminator technology.170 But celebrations proved premature. The corporations are continuing to develop Terminator, and the associated Traitor technology which means a plant's traits (including fertility) can be 'turned on' only by the use of specific chemicals, which of course can only be supplied, or withheld, by the corporations. As the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) campaigning organisation warns:
In March 2000 Harry Collins of Delta and Pine admitted, 'We've continued right on with work on the Technology Protection System [Terminator]. We never really slowed down. We're on target, moving ahead to commercialise it. We never really backed off'.172
The GM corporations aim to negate the most fundamental property of all life, the ability to reproduce, in their drive to turn the world and everything in it into a commodity from which they can profit. As biologists Richard Lewontin and Jean Pierre Berlan argue, for the corporations 'nature stands in contradiction to the "natural right" of profit'. So their aim is 'the confiscation...of this unfortunate ability of the living organism to reproduce and multiply' in order to 'extract even more profit'.173 The same sick logic is spelled out in the GM corporations' own publicity. Monsanto accuses bees of 'usurping' pollen, and Vitamin A producing plants which could prevent blindness in children of 'stealing the sunshine' from its GM crops.174 Anything that stands in the way of them turning the world and everything in it into a commodity is an enemy to be crushed. And in their drive to turn life itself into a commodity and to control global food production, the corporations are willing to run the risk of the most appalling environmental and human disaster. That is why all those who protest against and oppose the GM corporations are right to do so, and why they are right to call for a ban on the introduction of GM products.
There are, however, serious debates and differences among those who oppose GM products which need a brief discussion. Some, most notably in Britain Prince Charles, use opposition to GM crops to push for a rejection of all science and a retreat into the 'irrational', arguing that GM crops are 'usurping God' and 'tampering with nature'.175 Unfortunately some leading environmental campaigners backed Charles's arguments. Scientist Mae Wan Ho, a leading critic of GM products, said she was 'quite comfortable' with Charles's arguments, his attack on 'scientific rationalism' and his stress on 'our sense of the sacred'.176
This is a profoundly mistaken attitude. George Monbiot rightly attacks Charles and his supporters, and puts the argument excellently:
The fact that some environmentalists can fall into apologising for a super-rich reactionary like Prince Charles reflects a wider weakness in some of their arguments. They tend to idealise 'traditional' peasant agriculture and slip into rejecting science as an attempt to 'dominate' nature. They often link this to an attempt to present this stance as somehow 'feminist', on the grounds that traditional agriculture was one in which women played a greater role, whereas science and industrial agriculture are somehow a reflection of male dominance. So Mae Wan Ho, amid making many excellent arguments on genetics and against GM products, counterposes them to the supposed 'universal wisdom of traditional indigenous cultures'.178 Vandana Shiva, again in the midst of making excellent arguments against the corporations, lapses into mysticism and approvingly quoting the alleged wisdom of Hindu religious texts.179 She argues that 'for more than two centuries patriarchal, Eurocentric and anthropocentric scientific discourse has treated women, other cultures and other species as objects', and counterposes to this 'ecological feminisms' which 'recognise the intrinsic worth of all species'.180
In the course of their arguments these writers make many valid criticisms of industrial agriculture. But the alternatives they put forward are riddled with contradictions and profoundly mistaken arguments too. There are certainly immense problems with, even non-GM, industrial agriculture which capitalism has developed in the course of this century. A key feature of this is the drive to cultivate large areas devoted to a single crop (often to fit in with the neo-liberal argument that countries must above all produce cash crops for export to the world market), a practice called monoculture. This has important consequences. The Union of Concerned Scientists points out:
This is exactly what modern capitalist agriculture has done across large parts of the world. It is of course one which fits the interests of the large agrochemical and other such corporations. And it brings with it all the well documented dangers of environmental destruction. It also contains other serious dangers. Large scale monocultures rest on an ever smaller number of varieties of each crop. In the US, for instance, two varieties of peas account for 96 percent of the crop. Most tellingly on a world scale over half the global potato acreage is now planted with just one variety...the Russet Burbank favoured by McDonald's.182 But 'growing thousands or even millions of acres of crop plants that are genetically similar makes the food supply extraordinarily vulnerable to disease...a genetically uniform crop base is a disaster waiting to happen'.183
It is also true that industrial agriculture has widened social inequality and driven many small farmers and peasants to bankruptcy, destitution and suicide. Socialists stand unequivocally with the struggles of all such people when they fight to defend their livelihoods against the dismal alternative offered by a world dominated by corporate, capitalist, industrial agriculture.
Set against all this, though, there is the fact that the methods of 20th century agriculture have increased production immensely. In the US, for instance, corn yields have grown over 300 percent this century. 'Traditional' methods did not, and could not, produce the amount of food needed in the world today. The sharpest example of the contradiction is the 'Green Revolution', which transformed agriculture in the Third World during the period roughly from 1950 to 1984. New hybrid strains of crops like rice and wheat produced much higher yields. They also depended on massive inputs of chemicals supplied, at a price, by the agrochemical corporations, and with that went a drive to large scale monoculture. One result has undoubtedly been enormous environmental degradation for the reasons outlined above. Another has been to widen economic inequality, as small farmers and peasants are pushed aside by large landowners, or into debt to large landowners and companies with the money to buy and supply the seeds and chemical inputs.
This leads some to argue that the Green Revolution was a failure. 'Counterproductive', Vandana Shiva calls it.184 Mae Wan Ho talks of 'the failure of the Green Revolution'.185 Even Susan George has talked of the 'now discredited Green Revolution'.186 But without the increased yields the Green Revolution brought it would not have been possible to feed anything like the current populations in many parts of the world. The trebling of wheat production in India between 1966 and 1981 and the doubling of rice yields have meant more people can eat. And, while hunger is still real, the famines that were once common in the subcontinent have, for now, disappeared.187 The answer to this contradiction is not a retreat into 'traditional' societies and agriculture. Such societies were prone to famine, contained widespread poverty, and rested on the brutal exploitation of the mass of peasants and agricultural labourers, including women who were often systematically oppressed. Life expectancy, to use one important measure, has increased dramatically compared with 'traditional' societies. And would 'traditionalists' really argue for a return to 'traditional' methods of healthcare which condemned countless women to die as a result of childbirth?
The answer to the contradiction at the heart of the Green Revolution is to recognise the problem as rooted in the one-sided way capitalism develops production. It creates in the same movement progress and its opposite, more food alongside hunger, poverty and environmental destruction. To resolve this contradiction we need a different kind of agriculture, one which draws on the best of 'traditional' methods but is combined with the application of science freed from the dictates of profit. George Monbiot, in his answer to Prince Charles, puts the argument precisely. And Susan George rightly argues that 'we are not advocating a museum conservation approach to traditional systems, however good, nor a goal of simply replicating them, but rather a creative blend of local expertise with Western scientific knowledge'.188
This is not to downplay the importance of learning from the agricultural practices developed on the basis of thousands of years work by farmers across the world. It is a question of blending what is rational in that, separating it out from the host of other, often misguided or mystical notions it can be wrapped in, and fusing it with the genuine application of modern science with the aim of benefiting human beings today, and creating an agriculture sustainable for future generations. José Bové, when in the dock in France for destroying stocks of GM maize, put it well:
GM technology as being developed by the corporations is certainly 'possible', as are other ways of using our knowledge of biology and the world around us. The question is what we choose to develop, and that depends on who controls society and to what purpose.
Some elements of a sustainable agriculture are clear, others will have to be worked out in the crucible of practice. There is, for instance, nothing wrong with wanting to increase crop yields. This can allow people a better and more varied diet, and can also reduce the amount of labour needed to produce the food we need. This last is an important point, and one where I disagree with those campaigners with whom I agree on almost everything else. George Monbiot and Susan George, for instance, sometimes hold out a vision of a more labour intensive world. Susan George has argued that the key to 'the creation of wealth and a decent livelihood for all is through...labour intensive technologies'.190 I doubt this view is one shared by people who have had to work, whether in back breaking shifts in a factory or in the drudgery of endless labour in rice paddy fields. The alternative to the capitalist system is not one of more and harder work. It is to use the potential of human understanding of nature to free people from the need to work eight or more hours a day. That can then allow people the opportunity to develop their full talents and personalities in cultural, educational, political and other directions.
But while I would argue that we should fight for a less labour intensive agriculture, this must also be a different agriculture to that developed by modern capitalism. A genuinely sustainable agriculture would use other methods than those, one-sided and ultimately destructive, developed by capitalism.
Simple measures could and should be taken, and are well understood by serious scientists. Instead of pesticide dependent monocultures, using crop rotation to control pests is one good example: 'Crop rotation...can play a major role in pest control because many pests have preferences for specific crops...growing different crops interrupts pest life cycles and keeps their populations in check'.191 Biological methods of pest control, using birds, insects and the like, are well understood, very effective, and enhance rather than destroy the environment. Mixed cropping, where more than one crop is grown in the same field at the same time, is another well understood method of using the complex interactions in an ecosystem to increase overall yields.192 Traditional plant breeding offers immense scope for improving the productivity of agriculture too. There is even good evidence that small, diverse plots (as opposed to small farms, which are a different matter entirely--there is no reason why large scale agriculture cannot incorporate smaller, more diverse plots) are actually more productive in the long run than large scale monocultures.
It is also a false debate to counterpose 'organic' with other agriculture. What is needed is the best agriculture possible, grounded on a rounded scientific knowledge of nature, and whose aim is both to satisfy human needs now and in the future. This will certainly mean learning from 'traditional' methods and 'organic' farming. But this cannot be in some mystical fashion which elevates such an approach to an act of faith. It must be based on real knowledge. And such an agriculture would also learn what is valuable and useful in other methods, including 'industrial' agriculture. An objection to using 'chemicals' in agriculture is simply mysticism. All life, all we eat, is nothing other than chemicals. Organic farming uses plenty of 'chemicals' and 'artificial' fertilisers were originally derived from 'organic' and 'natural' products, principally bones and bird shit.193 The question is what chemicals, for what purpose and with what effects, both now and in the future?
Within such a sustainable agriculture there is no reason in principle why our knowledge of genes and molecular biology should not be used for human benefit and in agriculture. It is possible that some GM crops may at some point prove useful. For this to be possible, though, would require a radically different approach to that which genetics is being put to today by the capitalist corporations. It would mean a far more rounded understanding of how genes work, and a much more rounded integration of that within a scientific ecology. And above all it would require full public debate and discussion, and prolonged and exhaustive testing based on the principle of the most excessive caution.
A precondition of that, and any kind of genuinely sustainable agriculture, is to break from a society in which profit is the pulse which dictates all the rythyms of the world. Stephen Nottingham writes specifically about GM crops, but his words have a wider relevance in how the rule of the corporations can be beaten: 'A massive social protest could slow the rapid spread of this technology in food production. However, nothing short of a social revolution would be needed to stop it'.194
Such a social revolution is needed to ward off the threats to human beings and the environment which capitalism brings, whether it is through GM products or global warming. Such a revolt will, of necessity, have many strands, but at its core if it is to succeed must be the class which is central to the functioning of capitalism, the global working class. Were such a revolt to succeed in wresting control of society and production from the ruling class, what would that mean for agriculture?
Some things are easy to foresee. It would mean taking all the land and production now owned by the corporations and large landowners under collective democratic control. The basic decisions about how to organise production would be taken by the workers who do the work on such lands, through democratic decision making in collaboration and consultation with similar workers' organisations across society.
What of the small farmers and peasants? Any genuine social revolution would immediately hand the land to those who worked it, or to landless labourers or displaced peasants who seized land from large landowners. All debts, a crucial factor in many parts of the world in crushing peasants, would be scrapped immediately. And a genuinely democratically controlled society would provide the tools, machinery, scientific back-up and expertise, and the like, free to such farmers. Such a transformation would, as Tony Cliff argued over 40 years ago in his Marxism and the Collectivisation of Agriculture, 'probably give the private farm a new lease of life'.195
But that is only a start. Socialists do not idealise small scale property owners, or peasant life. There can, of course, be no question of the obscenity of 'forced collectivisation' that happened in Stalinist Russia or Mao's China. That barbarity had nothing to do with building a democratic society, but was part of the drive by state capitalist ruling classes to screw a huge surplus out of the mass of people to build up heavy industry and a military machine. Stalin, Mao and others like them may have used the language of socialism to mask their real aims. In reality they behaved exactly as the heads of the worst global corporations in the West.
In a genuine socialist society there would be encouragement towards a more collective way of working the land and organising agriculture. Through sharing of equipment, pooling of resources, provision of infrastructure and the like, the aim would be, over time, to encourage peasants to see their future not as small individual property owners. It would be to encourage such small property owners to begin instead to see their future as in being a full and genuine part of a democratic and collective society of producers, owning all property in common, in which all worked together to ensure the present and future of society. People cling to individual private plots of land and property because under capitalism the alternative can be destitution and poverty. The aim of a decent society would be to create the conditions in which there was a real alternative. As Cliff argued, 'Under capitalism the private ownership of the farm, the feeling of being independent, provide a certain security of employment and income, and security in old age... [Socialism], by raising living standards all round, assuring security of employment, and comprehensive pensions for old age and sickness, will deflate the value of economic "independence" represented in the private ownership of the farm'.196
Socialism is about creating a world in which the fate and full development of each individual is bound up with that of society as a whole, a society whose cornerstone is collective democratic control by those who do the work. How long such a transition may take the future will tell, and however long it may take there cannot be any question of forcing the pace:
The world at which socialists aim is one in which the absurd distinction between work to produce food and that to produce all the other necessities of life is ended. It is a world where the division into worker or farmer makes no sense, as little as will the divide between town and country, or between human beings and nature.
Global warming and GMOs are two of the most serious environmental threats facing humanity today. But, as I argued earlier, they are far from being the only ones. I have tried to demonstrate how these two threats flow from the very logic of capitalism, and that tackling them demands a challenge to that logic. I now want to turn to a wider discussion of the environmental threats we face. I believe that the best way to grasp these lies in locating them within a broader analysis of the relationship between human beings and our environment.
Among some who are concerned with the environment there is a view that the environment is a fixed and static thing. What we have to try and do, runs this argument, is simply to preserve things as they are, not to 'interfere' with nature.198 This is a profoundly wrong understanding of the earth and the species--plant, animal and human--that live on it. The earth is a dynamic place which has undergone enormous and entirely 'natural' transformations through its history. The climate, the environment, the species that inhabit the earth have changed dramatically and repeatedly since our planet's formation some four billion years ago. There have been times when the earth was much hotter than now, and times when it has been far colder. Today's continents have come into existence relatively recently, geologically speaking, as the result of billions of years of shifting of the 'plates' which make up the earth's crust. The mountains, seas, islands, rivers and deserts we have today are also relatively recent in the earth's history.199
All that is even more true of life on earth. Most of the plants and animals alive today are fairly recent developments in the history of life on earth. That life has evolved from simple organisms through a series of great transformations. Species have come into existence, and died out, sometimes in waves of mass extinction, as the earth's climate and environment have changed. This fact and understanding is the essence of the theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin and confirmed by a vast weight of evidence since.
This is not a one-way process, of the changing environment affecting life. Life in all its forms cannot exist other than by interacting with and changing the environment. This two-way relationship is central to any rounded understanding of living organisms.200 To take one example, for more than half the earth's existence it had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Life itself was responsible for dramatically changing the earth's atmosphere to one containing oxygen. Some 2 billion years ago micro-organisms evolved which began producing the oxygen in the earth's atmosphere as a by-product of their own metabolism. That oxygen in turn destroyed many other organisms which had adapted to the previous oxygen-free atmosphere.201
Environmental change has continued to impact on living organisms throughout earth's history, and those organisms have continued to have important impacts on the environment. The mutual and radical transformation of living organisms and the environment is one built into the historical development and nature of our planet.
Environmental changes played a key role in the evolution of humans. And ever since humans have existed they have interacted with and transformed the environment.202 Humans cannot exist other than by working on the environment, through socially organised labour, to gain the food, clothing, shelter and so on necessary for existence.203 In doing this humans have always modified, to a greater or lesser extent, the environment. And through such activity humans have often transformed the environment to the point where--given the prevailing level of knowledge, technique and social structure--it is no longer capable of sustaining the existing way of life.
This was even true of the pre-class foraging societies that were the typical form of human society for the vast majority of the existence of our species. In such societies environmental degradation was usually local, the exhaustion of the supplies of food in a particular area, and the solution simple--move to a new area.204 A similar pattern is true of more structured horticultural societies which later developed in many areas, with their 'slash and burn' methods.205 Even in such pre-class societies, human activity aimed at securing the means of subsistence can radically transform the wider environment. The use of fire by Aboriginal Australians had such an effect. In America humans almost certainly hunted to extinction the continent's large mammals some 11,000 years ago, radically altering the environment and the future development of human societies.206 In several parts in the world 'in the neolithic period...forest areas were reduced because they had been used in shifting cultivation and spoiled partly by too short fallow periods and partly by the use of fire for hunting purposes or because the fires used for land clearing got out of control.' In Africa, for example, 'a large share of the savannahs and other apparently natural grasslands owe their origin to similar changes in prehistoric times'.207
With the development of settled agricultural societies and with them the division of society into structured classes a new form of this pattern emerges. The archaeological record is littered with examples where complex societies emerge, develop often impressive 'civilisations', and then collapse. In many cases the degradation of the environment on which the society depended for its subsistence seems to have been an important factor in precipitating the crisis.
A few examples will illustrate the pattern. Probably around 750 AD the Teotihuacan civilisation in Mexico's central valley collapsed. It was centred on what was by far the largest city in the American continent at the time, with some 100,000 people in the city and some 500,000 more directly under the control of its rulers. Yet within the space of a few years it collapsed, the city itself was looted, burned and abandoned. The immediate cause was probably some major internal social upheaval, perhaps 'citizens protesting an overbearing state apparatus'.208 Archaeologists also believe that environmental degradation was probably one important factor in creating the conditions which led up to the eventual collapse:
There is evidence of a similar interplay between environmental degradation due to overly zealous agricultural development and social factors in the collapse of the Mayan civilisations in the eastern lowlands of Central America in the years between 800 and 900 AD.210
Easter Island provides a classic example of the interplay between environmental destruction and social disaster. The island was colonised some 1,300 years ago, and was then lush with trees and vegetation. A complex culture developed, one which built the impressive stone head statues, called Moai, that still stand. Wood was central to the civilisation: 'Trees were cut for lumber for housing, wood for fires and eventually for the rollers and lever-like devices used to move and erect the Moai.'
Then, in a pattern we will come across again, more and more of society's resources seem to have gone into the construction of the giant statues. No one knows why, but they clearly played some role in legitimating the existing social structure and probably had an ideological or religious significance. The result of this frenzy of statue building was to undermine the material basis of the whole society by cutting down trees faster than they could be replenished. Yet the rush to disaster continued:
Eventually this seems to have led to an enormous social implosion and the total collapse of society: 'The Rapa Nui [Easter Island] culture collapsed. Their island was in shambles, and their villages and crops destroyed'.211
Deforestation and resulting soil erosion also seem to have been one factor in creating the conditions which led to the decline of many of the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean basin:
A similar point was made over a century ago by one of the founders of Marxism, Frederick Engels, who was at pains to stress that human beings and their society were a part of nature:
Engels argues that modern scientific developments made it possible for humans to 'perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature' and hence to control 'the more remote natural consequences of at least our day to day production activities'.
Such a possibility, for Engels, raised the prospect of creating a world in which people will 'not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature'.213
Engels was right to point to the key role of ignorance of the workings of the natural world in environmental destruction in previous societies. But both that ignorance and the pattern of degradation, crisis and collapse can only be fully grasped as part of a wider argument put forward by Marx and Engels, and developed by Marxists since. The core of the argument was summed up by Marx:
The basic argument is this. To understand the workings of any society you have to grasp how that society produces the necessities of life. As Engels put it, 'Mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc'.215
Marx argued that there are two elements in how the production at the core of any society is shaped. One is what he called the 'material productive forces' or the 'forces of production'. This is not simply the tools and machines available in a given society, though that is one crucial element. It also includes the natural environment and human labour itself. And such human labour is not simply raw muscle power, but also the level of knowledge and skill embodied in that labour at a given time.
For Marx, no understanding of a society was possible unless it was grounded on the natural environment in which that society was seeking to exist. He was scathing about those who ignored this elementary fact. The very first point he made in his 1875 criticism of the programme of a German socialist party was precisely this. The programme opened with the statement, 'Labour is the source of all wealth.' Marx commented, 'Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of...material wealth.' He insisted again and again that 'Labour depends on nature',216 and stressed the importance of the 'natural conditions of labour, of the earth as the original instrument of labour, both laboratory and repository of its raw materials'.217
But the combination of these three elements--nature, labour power and the knowledge embodied in it, and the tools, machines and the like--which Marx together called the forces of production, was only one part of the key to understanding the workings of any society. All human production is social, it involves relationships between human beings in the course of carrying out the work needed. Marx calls these the 'relations of production'. Such relations exist in all societies. Even in the foraging societies which existed before classes there were definite relationships between people centred around the organisation of securing the necessities of life.
But once you get the development of more structured class societies, with the development of agriculture and 'civilisation', these relations are not just between individuals or small groups. They come to be based on society-wide relations between classes, groups within that society defined precisely by their position in relation to production. In class societies these relationships are fundamentally based on exploitation. One group, the ruling class, exploits the labour of others. This ruling class owes its position to its role in exploiting the labour of others in the course of a definite way of organising production. This organisation of production is the foundation of its wealth, power and privilege.
In Marx's metaphor this totality--class exploitation founded on a particular way of organising production--constitutes the 'base', 'the economic structure of society, the real foundation', on which arises a whole 'superstructure', the state form, the legal, political, religious, moral, ideological and cultural fabric of society.
This is not a one-way process. The superstructure intervenes in and affects the productive basis of society in many ways.218 The primary way in which it does so is to fix and preserve the economic basis of society, and in particular the position of the existing ruling class within it. The ruling class and its institutions owe their power to their position within a particular way of organising production, and so have an interest in preserving that organisation and resisting changes to it which might undermine their position.
This is why the typical pattern throughout the history of class societies is one of a new ruling class and civilisation arising on the basis of new ways of organising production and society. Once established such class societies become more and more conservative, innovations both in production and in the wider culture decline, and the whole of society becomes more rigid and ossified. Typically, a greater and greater part of the production of society is consumed by the ostentatious lifestyle of the ruling class and the various ideological means of shoring up and justifying its position--religion, ritual, ceremonials, warfare and the like.
This process can then place a greater and greater strain on the whole of society. Social tensions, within and between different classes, can grow. Impoverishment of the mass of producers, malnourishment and disease often occur too. In the first urban class societies this pattern was pointed out by the great archaeologist V Gordon Childe:
The same seems to have been the pattern in both Teotihuacan and the Mayan civilisations discussed above. Despite the impressive culture, the temples and monuments, both failed to produce any significant advances in the basis of agricultural production on which ultimately everything depended. Instead the temples and the ruling class soaked up more and more resources, the environmental basis of production was eaten into, and social tensions grew to the point where disaster threatened.220
The general point is underlined in Chris Harman's A People's History of the World: 'A ruling class that had arisen out of advances in human productive powers now prevented further advances. But without such advances its own rapaciousness was bound to exhaust society's resources'.221
This crunch can produce immense crises in which the whole of society is dislocated and thrown backwards for long periods. This, for example, seems to have been the pattern of the repeated crises in Ancient Egypt. It was also the underlying reason for the great 14th century crisis of European feudal society. As one historian notes, 'The stagnation of productivity during the last centuries of the Middle Ages, its inability to support the increasing cost of the non-productive expenditure of the ruling classes, were the fundamental reasons for the crisis of feudal society'.222
In these last two cases society eventually recovered. But there have been, as we have already seen, cases where the crisis developed into the total collapse of a civilisation, with only 'lost cities' left for later civilisations to wonder at.
If persistence in the same way of producing can begin to 'exhaust society's resources', among the most important of those resources is the ability of the underlying natural environment to support that way of producing. That is why environmental crises are often part of a wider crisis in society. You can get a combination of social and environmental crises coming together threatening to tear the whole of society apart. Unless a force, a new class, arises within society that is capable of breaking the hold of the old ruling class, reorganising production in a new way and so taking society forward, society can stagnate, be thrown into crisis and even collapse.
A typical feature throughout history too is that the old ruling class will persist in hanging on to its power, and the way of organising production that underlies it, even when that threatens to pull down the whole of society. For example, accounts of the collapse of the Maya in Central America describe how despite the looming crisis the 'Maya elite persisted in its traditional direction up to the point of collapse'.223
The same picture emerges from other collapsed civilisations, where there is little evidence of the ruling class being willing to carry through the fundamental changes needed to avoid disaster. This is what Marx and Engels meant when they talked of crisis having two possible resolutions, either 'a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes'.224
Marx pointed to the way this process of crisis could unfold in relation to the environment. He argued that any society depends 'on the climate, the physical properties of the soil, the physically conditioned mode of its utilisation' and how if that society 'is to continue in the old way, the reproduction of its members under the objective conditions already assumed as given is necessary'. But such reproduction of society in its existing form, with its existing class relations and way of organising production, has the seeds of disaster built into it: 'Production itself in time necessarily eliminates these conditions, destroying instead of reproducing them, etc, and as this occurs the community decays and dies, together with the property relations on which it was based'.225
The grip of the old ruling class leads to an increasing inability to sustain the needs of society on the basis of the old way of organising production. Persistence in a particular way of organising society and the production it is based on produces social crisis and environmental crisis, the two go hand in hand.
When such crisis has led to the collapse of previous societies the impact has, no doubt, been huge for those in the society concerned. One can only imagine the upheaval caused, for example, by the fall of Teotihuacan, as a city of 100,000 and a wider society of 500,000 people tied into it utterly disintegrated. But the impact of such collapse was necessarily limited. Even the most impressive of previous societies covered a relatively small area of the world. Their collapse and impact on the environment was therefore limited by their own size.
With the development of modern capitalism the pattern of previous societies is preserved, but takes a radically new form. As in previous societies the new ruling class, the capitalist ruling class, develops society up to a point. But as it and the wider institutions of society it shapes then act to preserve its powers, the very organisation of society acts as a 'fetter' on further developments. It acts to preserve the existing way of organising society and production in order to maintain the position of the ruling class and the basis of its power. The result once again is social tension, upheaval and crisis, along with environmental destruction. But under capitalism the form of this crisis is different.
Unlike previous societies capitalism is not simply based on preserving the old ways of producing. It is based on preserving the essential class relationship of exploitation at the heart of production. But the competitive drive for profit at the heart of the system means there is a built in pressure to constantly innovate and expand production. This explains why capitalism is the most dynamic and revolutionary form of society in human history up until now. It has produced the most immense strides forward in production, knowledge, communication and much more. For the first time in human history there is no reason, other than the class organisation of society, why all the world's people cannot enjoy the fruits of that progress, and live healthy and fulfilled lives.
Marx and Engels wrote 150 years ago, 'The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce 100 years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together...what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?'226 A century and a half later such progress has been amplified a thousandfold.
And yet, the very organisation of society produces alongside such immense progress almost unimaginable horror--economic and social crisis, famine, war and the threat of barbarism on a scale which no 'earlier century' could have had 'even a presentiment of'. The 20th century saw giant leaps forward in human understanding and ability to create a decent world, but also two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima and, today, famine amid plenty and the threat of global climate disaster.
Marx and Engels captured the picture in a famous metaphor: 'Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world who he has called up by his spells'.227
They argued that the repeated crises capitalism produced as a result had a peculiar feature, one that will ring true for many in the world today:
Such crises are built into the logic of a system based on the relentless competitive drive for profit. They are the particular form in capitalist society in which the relations of production, the exploitation of the labour of the majority by a ruling class competing among themselves to accumulate and to profit, become a block on the very production it has developed and is based on. Instead of using the development of knowledge to produce in such a way as to satisfy the needs of society and ensure its further development we get repeated crises, and the attendant horror of war, famine and the rest. Part of this horror is, as in previous societies, that this organisation of production also threatens the material basis of all production, the environment. Yet, as Engels pointed out, this environmental threat happens in ways particular to capitalism too:
Under capitalism ways of producing new products are developed and persisted in with a view only to the profits of that section of the ruling class in control of that element of production, regardless of the long term social or environmental consequences. This is precisely the logic that underlies the drive to, and awful danger of, GMOs today.
Even where some sections of the capitalist class develop a longer term view, looking to guarantee their future profits, there are severe limits on their willingness to act to head off disaster. They always have an eye over their shoulder to their competitors and will not spend or invest if they think this will undermine their 'competitiveness'. The fear of every capitalist is of being driven to the wall in the competitive market they so praise. If that means action to change the way things are produced in order to safeguard the material (including environmental) basis of production and society is half-hearted then so be it. Even where the threat to capitalism's long term ability to make profit, or pressure from below, pushes governments or companies to take some measures, the same limitations come into force. Governments bend to the demands of business that nothing must be done to undermine their 'competitiveness' or interfere with their ability to chase profit. They refuse to challenge the central logic of a system in which profit is the god to which all else, whether people or nature, must be sacrificed. And dare any government attempt to defy this central dogma the full fury of the ruling class, its financial, economic and, if needed, military power will be unleashed to crush the heresy.
An additional feature of ageing capitalism in the era of 'globalisation', a world marked by the concentration of wealth and power in giant multinational corporations, is worth noting. It is one that bears similarities to the pattern of previous societies where ways of producing become rigid and ossified. And it is the key reason why we face the terrible threat of global warming today.
It is that the giant centres of capitalist power, the giant corporations and government policies designed to help them, become locked into a definite basis of production. All their wealth and their power is dependent on an interlocking network of production based on certain methods and products--above all in today's world fossil fuels and products based on them. These centres of the capitalist ruling class's power refuse to shift from that, and work to block attempts to shift from it, because this is the basis of their wealth and profit. They do so even in the face of mounting evidence that such persistence threatens disaster. Like the Mayan elite, the ruling class today threatens to 'persist in its traditional direction up to the point of collapse'.
Only now such collapse does not just threaten local devastation and a few lost cities waiting for later civilisations to wonder at. For capitalism is different to previous societies in one more crucial respect. It has remade the whole world in its image, fashioned for the first time a single world system. This is the reality behind talk of a 'global village' and of 'globalisation'. And it means that the reality too is one in which the environmental and social disaster threatened today is global, threatening the very basis and sustainability of civilisation on a world scale. For capitalism, the world, its people and environment are 'a commodity'--and one which left to its own devices the ruling class would sooner destroy than surrender their position, power and privilege. As Susan George, one of the foremost critics of the impact of global capitalism today, rightly puts it, 'Transnational capitalism can't stop... It has reached a kind of malignant stage, and will keep on devouring and eliminating human and natural resources even as it undermines the very body--the planet itself--upon which it depends'.230 The challenge for all those who want to win a better world today and to safeguard the planet and the future generations who will live on it is to stop that disaster before it is too late.
The aim of this article has been to argue that environmental destruction can only be fully understood as one part of a wider social crisis. That has been true in previous class societies, and it flows from the way that ruling classes lock society into specific ways of organising production which eventually eat into the very material and environmental basis they depend on.
The same pattern is true, with some important specific characteristics, under capitalism. Only today with a global system the threat of crisis and environmental destruction is global too.
I have tried to show how two of the most important environmental threats we face today, global warming and GMOs, flow from the logic of capitalism. The problem is not industry or science, but the organisation of production under the control of a minority which lives by the creed of profit before all else. This dogma threatens environmental and social catastrophe on a scale previous generations could not have imagined, and could even threaten the viability of civilisation itself.
The answer to this terrible threat is to build on the spirit of the revolts against capitalism and its institutions that have erupted so wonderfully over the last year. Such revolts have, and must, involve a diverse range of social groups and movements. But to go from protest and revolt into a social revolution that ends the threat of human and environmental disaster demands that the class on whose labour the whole system depends is at the centre of the fight. The future of society, and the environment, depends on whether such a fight, one in which the global working class, alongside peasants, students and many more, wrests control of society and production from those who control it now.
If we do not succeed in doing that the future is bleak indeed. If we do then we have the chance to reorganise production, using the fruits of a scientific understanding of the world of which we are part, and so build a world whose beauty we can enjoy today and safeguard for future generations.
Much of the discussion and debate on the topics covered in this article take place on the internet. Some of the organisations referred to, for example, only publish their material in this form. The material referred to was available on the websites cited at the time of writing in August 2000. I cannot, however, guarantee that such sites will not be modified and material available altered in the future.