Revolution #52, June 25, 2006

Capitalism, the Environment, and Ecology Under Socialism

Important questions are being raised about the dire state of the Earth’s ecosystems. I would like to emphasize several points about how ecological problems would be dealt with differently by socialism:

We need to have a global perspective, understanding revolution and revolutionary transformation as a world process. Ecological issues must fundamentally be dealt with on a world scale. But that can only happen on the basis of a social and economic system—socialism—that does not treat the environment simply as a means by which to accumulate wealth.

Eighty percent of the world’s resources are absorbed by the advanced capitalist countries, which make up 15 percent of the world’s population. Imperialism has produced a wasteful and destructive pattern of economic activity and industrial development. The “greenhouse” problem is primarily the result of capitalist-imperialist development.

So a big issue that proletarian revolution has to address is the unequal concentration of wealth and absorption of resources of the world by the imperialist countries. But you also have to reckon with these global environmental issues. And only socialism and communism can really address them.

I believe economic development cannot be separated from issues of ecology. The answer is to overturn imperialist power relations but at the same time to recognize much more profoundly that we have to develop sustainable socialist economies that are sensitive to these ecological questions. This is a very important new challenge before us in the 21st century.

Capitalism cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable and economically rational way for three basic reasons:

First, its logic is “expand-or-die”: to cheapen cost and to expand in order to wage the competitive battle and gain market share. And unplanned, large-scale, globally-interconnected production poses grave threats to the environment.

Second, the horizons of capitalism tend to be short term. They seek to maximize returns quickly. They don’t think about the consequences in 10, 20, 30 years. We see that in the U.S.—they build a nuclear power station because it looks profitable and then, ten years later, they realize, uh-oh, their investment isn’t paying off. And so then they spend more money to try to undo it, and then go in for another big short-term gain somewhere else.

Third, capitalist production is by its nature private. The economy is broken up into competing units of capitalist control and ownership over the means of production. And each unit is fundamentally concerned with itself and its expansion and its profit. The economy, the constructed and natural environment, and society cannot be dealt with as a social whole under capitalism. It’s all fragmented into private parts. And each part looks at what lies outside itself as a “free ride.” An individual capitalist can open a steel mill and be concerned with the cost of that steel mill. But what they do to the air is not “their cost,” because it’s not part of their sphere of ownership. In mainstream economic theory, this is called “externality.”

So capitalism is incapable of addressing environmental issues outside its framework of private ownership and production for profit, and its blind logic of expansion. And on a world scale, we see the effects. But socialism can address environmental issues in a sustainable, rational, and socially just way: because ownership of the means of production is socialized as expressed through the proletarian state and this makes it possible to consciously plan development; and because economic calculation is radically different.

Economic calculation under socialism is not guided by profit but by social need, achieving rational balances between industry and agriculture, reducing gaps between town and country, factoring in the short-run, medium-term, and long-term, etc. And socialist planning is able to take into account non-economic factors: like health, the environment, alienation that people may experience from jobs. And all of this must be consciously serving the advance of the world revolution towards a communist world.

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