Revolution #83, Special Online Edition


Capitalism and the Consequences of Biofuels

About the time when capitalism was first putting humanity on the road to the global warming we face today, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “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 a sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Over 150 years later, the truth of this statement still stands out sharply when confronting the issue of global warming and the particularities of the deal between BP and UC Berkeley. The workings of the capitalist/imperialist system, with its lopsided and distorted social relations, private ownership, and its relentless drive for profit stands in the way of using scientific knowledge to address the needs of humanity.

Biofuel, the subject of the UC Berkeley/BP venture, refers to fuels derived from recently living organisms, or their metabolic byproducts. Today this is mostly in the form of ethanol that can be produced from plants such as sugar cane, soybeans, and oil palm. While there are many technical problems in the production of biofuels—specifically they often use more energy to produce than they contribute—many scientists hope that these problems can be solved and that biofuels can replace much gasoline used today. Because the carbon (the substance that causes global warming) in biofuels comes from CO2 that is taken out of the atmosphere by the living plants, some scientists argue that biofuels could contribute much less to global warming than fossil fuels. And, unlike oil, the supply of which is limited, biofuels could be grown year after year.

Other scientists question the sustainability of biofuels saying that they require the use of fertilizers, which increase CO2, replace other plant life that were also using CO2, deplete the soil, and are very water intensive.

Regardless of the debate over the sustainability of biofuels, in today’s world the use of biofuels has led to horrific consequences for the people of the world and the environment.

A key feature of imperialism is the division of the world between a handful of rich imperialist countries and the rest of the world. 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.

This division of the world has meant, and will almost certainly continue to mean, that the growing of crops for fuel—mostly for export to Europe, Japan and the United States—is being done on large-scale plantations in the third world. In order to make room for these plantations ancient forests are being cut down, threatening extinction for many species. Reduction of greenhouse gases is lost when carbon-capturing forests are cut down to make way for biofuel crops, worsening the problem of global warming.

In Malaysia, the production of palm oil for biodiesel is a major industry. According to a recent report by Friends of the Earth, "Between 1985 and 2000 the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia." In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia.

In the Guardian newspaper George Monibot writes: “Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.” (Guardian, 12/6/2005)

And in an editorial in the Berkeley Daily Planet, UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez of the group Food First wrote: “Hundreds of thousands of small-scale peasant farmers are being displaced by soybeans expansion. Many more stand to lose their land under the biofuels stampede. Already, the expanding cropland planted to yellow corn for ethanol has reduced the supply of white corn for tortillas in Mexico, sending prices up 400 percent. This led peasant leaders at the recent World Social Forum in Nairobi to demand, ‘No full tanks when there are still empty bellies!’”

These peasants, along with those displaced by other forms of imperialist domination and environmental devastation, are then forced to become virtual slaves on these large-scale plantations.

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. Companies like BP are locked in fierce competition with other companies. An article in the business section of the New York Times writes, “For investors in alternatives to oil and gas, the driving force has been the belief that whoever develops the next great energy sources will enjoy the spoils that will make the gains from creating the next or Google seem puny by comparison.” (3/16/2007)

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. In the development of biofuels this means that they do not pay attention to long-term effects like soil depletion, water usage, and cutting down ancient forests, or even increasing global warming.

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.

In the article “Capitalism, the Environment, and Ecology Under Socialism” in Revolution #52 (6/25/2006) Raymond Lotta wrote, “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.”

The debate over these issues—how the world has gotten to the point where the very survival of our species and the planet is being called into question, and what must be done to change this—is too often ruled out of order. In the name of realism, opponents of the system too often end up in debate over how to work within a system that is itself the problem. The debate over these issues needs to be pried open as a crucial part of the struggle to save the planet.

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