Marxism and the Environment

Kimball Cariou

In our enthusiasm to get back into action quickly, our 30th Convention adopted a Plan of Work covering what we considered the essentials. Since then, we have carried out a good part of that Plan ... but not all of it. Unforeseen developments (especially the Election Act amendments) forced us to change some priorities, and we have gained a stronger appreciation of the difficulties in carrying out political activities on a Canada-wide scale with a handful of staff.

In my opinion, one of the most unfortunate consequences has been the slow progress toward a new draft programme. In retrospect, the warnings that our target of a 1995 special convention to adopt such a draft were unrealistic were probably right. It is apparent now that unless we leave the drafting in the hands of a very small number of comrades, that date is impossible. And in any event, such a procedure would leave most of our members out of a valuable part of the process, i.e. the stage of researching concepts, writing up their views on what should or should not be in the programme, etc. I think we should bite the bullet and admit that to do this work properly we will need 2 or 3 more years.

That said, I want to submit some views on what should be included in a new programme, in particular a Marxist analysis of the environmental crisis.

Looking through the volumes of our press, we can see that Communists were involved in many environmental struggles, going back decades. In B.C., for example, Communists in the UFAWU presented the first public brief against Alcan’s devastation of the Nechako river system. What we failed to do, however, was to make a systematic study of the growing global crisis of the environment, or to develop a serious policy to resolve the crisis.

Our 1971 programme noted that “Poverty, urban blight, air, land and water pollution and lack of decent housing are becoming more acute. These are the social consequences of monopoly capitalism.” True enough. But virtually the only mention of the issue came in the chapter on “A Democratic Anti-Monopoly Government,” which would “undertake ... environmental and pollution control.”

It’s true that environmental struggles were less widespread at that time. Still, this gaping hole in our programme rapidly became more and more obvious. The programme discussions of the latter 1980s started to deal with this gap; now we have to address it properly, or risk permanent political marginalization, in my opinion.

Our previous concept on this issue was (roughly speaking): pollution and environmental degradation are mainly a product of the corporate drive for maximum profits, not the result of industrial activity and human consumption in general. Therefore, capitalism is the culprit, and we need strict controls on the corporate offenders. That approach had some merit, since under capitalism it is absolutely true that the corporations bear the responsibility for the worst forms of industrial pollution, and for promoting wasteful consumption patterns, all in the name of higher profits. We were right to take a class position, placing the blame on the corporations, not individuals.

But this position was also too limited and narrow. It led us to downplay reports about environmental problems in the socialist world, for example. In the debate over the impacts of large-scale industrial projects under socialism, we usually (myself included) argued that since profit incentive was absent under socialism, there was no inherent factor blocking attempts to carry out such projects in a non-environmentally-destructive manner. Well, the complete story of existing socialism and the environment remains to be told. There were genuine successes, including nature preserves, the struggle to save Lake Baikal, etc. Socialism allowed many creative innovations, such as central heating systems in major cities. Many consumer products lacked the fashion flair to be deemed attractive, but they often lasted nearly forever; built in obsolescence to increase sales was unheard of.

But there were also many failures. Some day scientists and economists may be able to reckon up the costs and benefits of the Caspian Sea water diversions, for example. Were the wealth and jobs created by using that water for cotton production worth the eventual price, such as the shrinking and salinization of that body of water, the loss of its thriving fishery, and the current economic problems of the region?

There were many reasons why such projects were a major feature of socialist construction. Imperialist boycotts and economic blockades, and military threats and attacks, especially the Nazi invasion, forced the CPSU and the Soviet people to develop the economy as fast as they could. Some environmental damage was inevitable in the process; if that was part of the price necessary to defeat fascism in World War II, I for one would argue it was worth paying. Similarly, some environmental degradation was unavoidable during their necessary process of building new industries and raising living standards across the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the tendency to build on a vast scale without looking for ways to minimize the environmental impact became the norm, even when socialism was not facing a life-and-death crisis. Was the scale of ecological damage worse than under capitalism, as our opponents claim? Right now, there seems to be no certain answer. All we can conclude is that while socialism offers the opportunity to reduce the impact of industry on the environment, it requires conscious effort and planning to translate this opportunity into reality. Future socialist revolutions will have the tremendous advantage of knowing the scope of this problem, and some of the possible solutions.

In the meantime, our coming programme needs to contain a clear Marxist position on this issue, to help guide us through the difficult, often contradictory questions arising today. Our position should be based on the fundamental need to combine both the short and the long-range interests of working people. Abandoning one or the other will lead us astray.

On the contentious issue of logging practices, for example, most agree that the forestry corporations have a wretched history of wasting the resource, clear-cutting on a hugely unnecessary scale, damaging valuable streams and rivers, and allowing countless loggers and mill-workers to meet with injury and death through shoddy safety standards. Everyone is aware that technological changes in the industry are by far the main cause of job losses. If we took into account only the short-term interests of forestry workers, we might agree with the companies’ approach, pushing for maximum logging in the most profitable areas, regardless of future consequences. Ten or twenty years down the road, that would leave the MacMillan Bloedels ready to finish transferring their forestry operations to other countries, having harvested the most profitable forests; but the workers and their families would be left surrounded by a far less productive landscape, stuck with homes they couldn’t sell, in communities with no future.

This nightmare scenario is precisely why we advocate a wide-ranging alternative: investments in secondary processing and manufacturing of wood products, a ban on exports of raw logs, preservation of key old-growth forests and watersheds, an end to the tree-farm license system which turns the resource over to the corporations, stricter adherence to high environmental standards, a stop to clear-cutting as the main form of logging. If adapted as a package, this alternative would minimize job losses, preserve crucial watersheds, create new employment opportunities, and put more control of the resource into the hands of working people. It makes no sense for Communists to argue for anything less than the whole set of demands; picking out one or two is inadequate.

But we need to go further. We need to advance a perspective of socialism that takes account of the contradictions threatening the future of the human race. Industrial and other forms of economic activity cannot expand indefinitely without endangering the biosphere in which we live, and exhausting our finite supply of resources. Nor is it tenable to allow the present global imbalances of resource consumption and waste emissions to continue.

While many environmentalists have led valuable struggles on particular issues, coming up with a wealth of creative proposals to reduce ecological degradation, this is not enough. Individual capitalists may adopt useful environmental techniques, and local initiatives can help to point the way to a sustainable future, but the private-profit system will inevitably overwhelm these efforts, for example by moving ‘dirty’ industries to countries where people have less opportunity to object. Our responsibility is to integrate the best environmental ideas into a socialist alternative, including a shorter workweek. We need to develop a concept of socialism which is not based on an ever-increasing accumulation of material goods, but rather on providing a minimum standard of living, with free, high-quality education, health care, child care, cultural programs, full employment, clean air and water.

Our party has never backed away from a difficult struggle. This is a crucial one. We don’t need to drop everything else, or spend all our time studying the details of particular proposals. But unless we have a solid analysis of this critical problem, and become more involved in environmental struggles, it will be virtually impossible to convince young people that we take their future seriously. We have to be both frank about the environmental shortcomings of socialist societies until now, and firm in our conviction that only socialism offers the human race a chance to avoid global catastrophe.

Spark! #3, pgs. 2-7