Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

It's only natural

Is it possible to be a 'caring capitalist'? With huge profits to be made out of people's concern for the environment, Chris Nineham examines the trend for eco-friendly products and looks for the truth behind the slogans

Journalist Jon Entine's investigation into the Body Shop and its practices has caused furore.

Since the report the spotlight has been on the Roddicks, the Body Shop's owners. All the writers have been asking the same question; is Anita a caring capitalist who has made mistakes, (she's only human after all), or was she out to con us all from the start? But personalising the issue misses the point.

One lifestyle solution to the pollution problem
One lifestyle solution to the pollution problem

The fact is that capitalism can never be 'green' or 'ethical' and shopping around can never save the world. The green capitalists came up with a simple sounding equation. People are more and more concerned about their health and the environment. If we supply healthy and natural goods, they will pay the extra. As Friends of The Earth put it: 'They know it makes commercial sense to be as environmentally sound as they can.'

Firstly, a business, well intentioned or not, cannot escape market pressures. With any business, once profits have proved there is a market for supposedly 'eco-friendly' goods other companies move in. A US conglomerate has already teamed up with the Next clothing chain to launch a 'green' challenge to the Body Shop.

Competition squeezes profits and strangles ethics. While the market forces standards down it keeps the consumer in the dark.

The ordinary shopper is completely powerless. There is no way he or she can be sure what they are really buying. Bogus claims about products go unchecked and unpunished. Bathroom cleaners have been advertised as 'nitrate-free' when no such cleaners have ever contained nitrates.

At the centre of the 'green' myth is the belief that trade can be an eco-friendly solution to the problems of traditional communities living at the edge of capitalism. The idea behind 'Trade not Aid' is to establish 'sustainable' trade relationships that do not destroy the environment or local communities. The classic example is the 'rainforest harvest'. If we can market the produce of the rainforest, so the notion goes, it will survive.

In fact, the capitalist market never creates stable, sustainable relationships. Because it is unplanned and because it is driven by the crude search for profits, the short term interests of particular capitalists will always prevail over the welfare of communities and countryside. If a particular rainforest product is found to be more valuable on the world market than others there will be a rush to cultivate and exploit that particular product--never mind the cost to the local environment. In the late 19th century the Congo basin was brutally 'harvested' of its rubber and ivory. The result was the virtual extinction of the elephant and the eradication of the rubber vine over huge areas.

The South American rubber boom in the early 20th century was even more distinctive. Indian slaves were used to extract rubber in the Amazon and thousands died. In just one of the exploitation areas--the Putumayo--80 percent of the Indian population was destroyed and several tribes wiped out.

Capitalism has not got any kinder. Brazil nuts are one of the principle rainforest products today. They are cultivated by unskilled workers on starvation wages, mainly for multinational companies. Attempts at unionisation are often brutally suppressed, while plantation techniques lead to the further erosion of the rainforest. The last line of defence for 'green capitalists' is the desperate claim that 'at least they are doing something'.

Yet the kind of lifestyle solution promoted by 'green capitalists' betrays a deep pessimism about the environment. It suggests the problems are too big and complex for a real, organised solution. The only hope is that by buying eco-friendly shower gel you are putting off armageddon for a few days.

This pessimism, though widespread, is misplaced. Capitalism is damaging the environment. Offshore oceans are filthy, atmospheric pollution is eroding the ozone layer and causing illness in many cities. Greenhouse gases threaten global warming, while profit mad speculators are tearing strips out of our vital rainforests.

These are serious problems, even threatening. But we are not yet on the verge of catastrophe. Ever since the 1960s doom merchants from within the Green movement have claimed the earth's resources are exhausted and the atmosphere terminally poisoned. In fact, the environment has proved to be much more robust than the pessimists thought.

Scientists already know of conventional energy sources that will last till the end of next century. Global warming, if it is a definite trend, is an extremely slow one, and though the criminal destruction of the rainforest continues, 90 percent of the Amazon is still intact.

More important, there are solutions to all these problems. The emission of the CFCs that erode the ozone layer could be stopped tomorrow. Fairly simple measures could be taken to halt the build up of greenhouse gases. Decent public transport systems and the introduction of electric engines that have already been developed by many companies would have an immediate impact. Simply growing more trees could absorb the excess carbon dioxide that threatens our future. Just a one percent increase in the amount of carbon in live vegetation would offset the current release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

The destruction of environmentally important areas of our planet is not caused by scarcity or overpopulation as some experts suggest. The World Health Organisation estimated in 1987 that there was already enough food in the world to sustain the population twice over. The problem in large areas of the globe is not over exploitation but under investment. In Africa only 10 percent of farmland is properly irrigated, and the amount of arable land there could be increased by 50 percent.

'Criminal destruction of the rainforest'
'Criminal destruction of the rainforest'

Environmentalists often claim that economic growth, or even human society itself, is innately hostile to nature. The End of Nature, a bestseller in the 1980s, went as far as suggesting that people, particularly poor people, were a form of pollution. This kind of simple opposition between 'man' and 'nature' is meaningless. Human activity has already changed most of the earth's surface beyond recognition. A few thousand years ago Britain was covered with forest while what is now Mediterranean Europe was a malarial swamp. In fact, humans are both part of nature, and capable of mastering it. Frederick Engels caught this relationship perfectly:

Human beings have the unique ability to transform the world consciously, according to a plan.

Modern technology is not in itself destructive. The new micro-electronics industries are much cleaner than previous technologies. In the last 15 years Japan has managed the world's fastest hi-tech growth while actually cutting energy consumption. The technologies that have developed under capitalism have widened the experience of millions round the world, drawing them away from the narrow drudgery of peasant existence. Mass production has improved clothing and housing in vast areas of the globe, and made different ideas and culture available almost everywhere.

Without modern technology it simply would not be possible to feed current population levels. In the 1960s, the 'green revolution' led to a tenfold increase in the grain yield of large areas of India and the Middle East. In Japan in the 1950s the introduction of simple pesticides quadrupled the rice harvest at a time when the population was rising fast. For the 30 years up to the mid 1980s similar measures in other parts of the world lead to an annual increase in world food production, 16 percent greater than population increase. All of these programmes had their problems. The multinationals who financed the green revolution also reaped the profits and forced thousands of poor peasants off the land. New plant strains were introduced without sufficient attention to preserving genetic diversity. But they give us a glimpse of how our problems could be solved.

The fact that such measures have not been used to abolish hunger once and for all, that investment in new 'clean' energy sources is being scaled back, and that public transport systems are being run down rather than developed, leads us to the central problem. Ordinary people are concerned about the environment. It is workers, after all, who suffer most from the fouling of the environment. It is workers who live in polluted inner cities and industrial districts, workers who handle toxic chemicals and risk contamination in nuclear power stations. But workers are excluded from any real control of the environment.

Capitalism compromises our relation to nature. All production decisions are made by a tiny handful of capitalists, not in the interests of humanity, but purely for profit. Environmental concerns are ignored in the short term scramble for profit. The vast majority of the population who want to live in a safe, healthy world, and to enjoy nature, have no control over decisions that affect our lives. Even at our own workplace we have to struggle for the most meagre health and safety measures.

The market can never be harnessed to develop a harmonious relationship with nature. Because it depends on the exploitation of most of humanity, it must keep us subjected. Because its motor force is profit, it will result in the blind destruction of the environment.

Workers, however, have an interest in halting the ravages of the market and fighting for a safer, cleaner world. As consumers we are isolated individuals, at work we have more power. In 1989 Liverpool dockers refused to unload a cargo of toxic PCBs. Their action forced the Canadian government to ban further exports to Britain. A campaign of action by trade unionists in the civil service in Britain in the 1970s forced the government to take action against asbestos. The National Union of Seamen succeeded in getting nuclear dumping at sea banned. When workers' struggle widens, so do their demands. During the massive struggles of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, workers managed to force the complete closure of some of the most toxic factories. These are modest victories. But they point to a real strategy for saving the planet.


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