The crisis facing what has become known as ‘the environment’ is one of the most prominent subjects on the global news agenda today. And rightly so. Amongst many other disturbing trends, the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen drew attention to recent dramatic changes in ‘global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events’, adding that ‘there is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climactic shifts’. Indeed, while scientists may disagree about the timescales involved, there is no serious doubt that the global environment is facing a crisis that will massively impact upon its ability to support human life unless it is urgently addressed. There is also little scientific doubt that this crisis is largely the result of human activity (and even where this is not so – as in the case of the planet’s natural emissions of the greenhouse gas methane – human action is nonetheless required to prevent further environmental damage).
News and current affairs media have not always embraced these arguments. The theory of man-made global warming, for example, has been fiercely disputed in a number of television documentaries. The BBC2 series Scare Stories (1997) accused global warming campaigners of being ‘driven by passionate belief rather than verifiable fact’. In the same year, Martin Durkin’s Channel 4 documentary Against Nature compared environmentalists to Nazis and described them as enemies of science – even if the broadcast was later found by the Independent Television Committee to have misrepresented the views of its interviewees. Ten years later, Channel 4 broadcast another Durkin documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007), which again attempted to discredit the theory of anthropogenic climate change. The programme’s arguments and methods were vigorously contested by several scientists, some of whose complaints were upheld by the media regulator Ofcom. The power of the media to misinform the public about environmental issues should not, therefore, be under-estimated. Nevertheless, despite the continued opposition to environmentalism by many vested capitalist interests, explicitly enviro-sceptic arguments are increasingly rare in the contemporary media and, as the reaction to Durkin’s documentaries shows, do not go unchallenged by scientists. As the scientific consensus over global warming and other environmental threats has consolidated, the bourgeoisie has mostly come to recognise the material and ideological advantages of making the public pay for the cost of environmental destruction and of exploiting the public’s growing environmental awareness through the promotion of ‘green’ goods and services. In the media, this new consensus is reflected across the ideological spectrum: even the conservative Express (13 May 2006), for example, details ‘50 Ways to Go Green’. Generally speaking, then, contemporary journalism does not reject scientific evidence about global warming or pollution; rather, it assigns the responsibility for solving these problems to the capitalist state and the lifestyle choices of individual consumers.
In the summer of 2010, CNN’s environmental series Going Green broadcast a horrifying report on the Bangladeshi ship breaking yard at Chittagong. The report noted that unsafe practices at the yard are contaminating the soil and polluting fish stocks, while the workers who carve up the freighters and tankers for scrap metal inhale asbestos and suffer appalling injuries owing to a lack of basic health and safety provision. But while the report served as a powerful reminder of the human and environmental impact of capitalism, particularly among poor and working class people, it failed to set the environmental chaos being wrought in such settings within the wider context of the global capitalist economy. It did not mention, for example, the complicity of Western states in the EU and US in outsourcing dangerous and polluting work to poor countries with laxer safety regulations and did not propose a structural solution to the problems it highlighted; to have done so would have undermined Going Green’s avowed remit to showcase ‘how businesses are balancing their environmental responsibilities with the need for profit’ and to profile entrepreneurs ‘who fight on the side of Mother Nature’. Like almost all media coverage of environmental issues, Going Green can conceive of environmental ‘solutions’ only within the framework of the profit system.
The pitiful example of Chittagong reminds us that capitalism’s degradation of the environment is inextricably bound up with its exploitation of humanity. Class struggle and serious ecological action are thus inseparable – a perspective typically obscured by liberal environmentalists. In his essay ‘Victim of Success: Green Politics Today’, Paul Kingsnorth endorses Jonathan Porritt’s view that both capitalism and communism espouse a productivist paradigm in which ‘increasing centralisation and large-scale bureaucratic control’ contribute to a view of the planet as ‘there to be conquered’. This view of communism is shared by many environmentalist writers; yet it relies upon a conflation of communism with Soviet-style state planning that is quite misleading. The Stalinist Soviet Union, with its social classes and wage labour, surely represented a statified form of capitalism rather than communism. Far from regarding nature as a resource that must be subordinated to humanity’s Promethean will, communism has always appreciated the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. In his book Marx’s Ecology, John Bellamy Foster notes that capitalism’s tendency to alienate man not only from himself, but also from nature, was understood by Marx, who wrote in volume I of Capital that ‘all progress in capitalist agriculture is progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil’. As for the charge of Marxist productivism, Engels wrote in The Origin of The Family that ‘we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature – but […] we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst’. Indeed, an understanding of the inter-relationship between humanity and nature is a fundamental to Marxism’s dialectical method. One could even argue, with Žižek, that the ecological crisis is another form of proletarianisation, through which we are deprived of the substance of our existence. At all events, for communists, the environment is emphatically not a resource to be ruthlessly exploited; that view, if anything, is proper to capitalism.
Capitalism is a spectacularly wasteful system characterised by what Marx termed the ‘anarchy of production’. In the system’s regular periods of crisis, it is common for commodities to be massively overproduced; but rather than being given away for free, these commodities are stockpiled or destroyed in order to maintain price levels. Not only are these commodities themselves wasted, but the process of producing the wasted goods contributes to global warming. Moreover, as many studies – from Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers to Giles Slade’s Made to Break – have documented, companies deliberately produce goods with built-in obsolescence in order to maximize profits and increase capital accumulation. Slade points, for example, to the Depression-era marketing campaigns in the US that encouraged rapid automobile replacement. Today’s advertisers, meanwhile, seek to stimulate demand for useless or unnecessary products or encourage us to replace ‘uncool’ consumer goods, such as mobile telephones, before the end of their useful life (‘ashamed of your mobile?’, asks one British television advertisement). Maintaining the production cycle in the interests of profit rather than human need thus comes at a huge environmental cost. It might be added here that capitalism also generates a plethora of socially useless, but environmentally damaging jobs in fields ranging from banking to military ‘defence’, which would be dissolved in a communist society.
The corporations responsible for damaging the environment have every interest in avoiding the costs involved in preventing accidents and minimising pollution. Installing equipment that might prevent or limit environmental damage incurs costs (‘externalities’) that capitalists naturally prefer to shift onto consumers in the form of pollution. This was horrifically illustrated by the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which left 11 men presumed dead and resulted in a huge spillage of crude oil that profoundly affected the ecology of the Gulf Coast. BP had a track record of such ‘accidents’. An explosion at a Texas City refinery in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured 170 others; investigators later determined that a warning system had been disabled. A congressional committee report on a leak discovered in BP’s pipeline at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska in 2006 also blamed the company’s cost-saving shortcuts. Yet BP was not solely to blame either for these disasters or for the Deepwater tragedy. Although US media reports about Deepwater were quick to emphasise that BP is a British company, the US government bore considerable responsibility for the disaster: in 2009, for example, the US government had exempted BP from an environmental review mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Sometimes the state plays an even more direct role in ecological destruction. The manufacture and testing of weapons needed by capitalist states in pursuit of their imperialist ambitions are hugely destructive of the environment – as is warfare itself. Michael Parenti notes in his book To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia that the depleted uranium shells used by NATO in the 1990s Balkan wars have caused widespread contamination and human illness over many years: the bombing of a fertilizer factory and a petrochemical plant in just one Serbian city, Pančevo, released into the atmosphere huge quantities of chemicals dangerous to human beings and contaminated the drinking water of ten million people. In the Middle East, to take another example, the inhabitants of the Gaza strip and West Bank – who are among the most defeated working class people in the world – are forced to wash, cook with and sometimes drink untreated water. They are further subjected to regular bombardments by the Israeli army, which tests its drones and other weapons on the area, contaminating the land with phosphorous and heavy metals, which leads to cancers, deformities and other health problems. Similar phenomena have been observed following the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003; for example, child mortality and cancer rates have skyrocketed in Fallujah since the US attacks on the town.
As these examples suggest, it is not the working class, but the ruling class, through its pursuit of profit and war, that destroys the environment, together with its human inhabitants. For communists, there can be no serious attempt to address the environmental crisis without the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a society in which production and consumption are collectively organised for human need rather than private profit. Predictably, however, the capitalist media strive to deny this conclusion and to shift the responsibility for capitalism’s devastation of the environment onto workers. News and current affairs media tend to generalise the problem of the environment as the responsibility of ‘ordinary people’ through appeals to become more ‘environmentally conscious’ or to ‘do one’s bit’ for the environment by recycling and making ‘ethical’ consumer choices. The public is upbraided for using plastic shopping bags, for buying environmentally ‘unfriendly’ light bulbs or for excessive air travel. To borrow Judith Butler’s phrase, there is a sustained campaign to ‘responsibilize’ the public for global warming and environmental pollution. The gap between the actions and the public pronouncements of the US politician Al Gore indicates something of the hypocrisy of this crusade. Gore asks the audience of his environmental film-lecture An Inconvenient Truth (2006): ‘are you ready to change the way you live?’. Yet the Clinton/Gore administration failed to ratify the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gas emissions or to take any serious action on climate change in the 1990s.
The recent ‘ban the bag’ campaign in Britain illustrates some of the limitations of green initiatives. In 2007, Rebecca Hosking became a minor celebrity in Britain after launching a campaign to ban plastic shopping bags. The campaign inspired admiring articles about Hosking and eco-campaigns in the British press. For £1.25, the Daily Mail (27 February 2008), for example, offered readers an Eco Bag, bearing the sanctimonious legend ‘Bags of Ethics’. Yet the environmental impact of the bag ban is highly questionable. According to many commentators, plastic carrier bags, as well as being conveniently re-usable in themselves, are produced using a part of crude oil – naphtha – that if not used to produce bags, would mostly be burned off into the atmosphere. What is undeniable is that the bag ban, as Rob Lyons has noted in spiked magazine, has boosted the ‘green’ credentials of the politicians who have supported it. Clearly, too, making the public pay for plastic bags or reusable ‘eco bags’ boosts the profits of the supermarkets.
The sense of personal responsibility for climate change inculcated by such green initiatives also helps to engineer consent for a reduction in living standards. Not only are workers exhorted to undertake unpaid environmentalist labour – such as sorting and driving their household waste to a recycling centre – but they are asked to reduce their consumption. Writing in The Sun (12 June 2010), Robert Winston endorses Prince Charles’s view that people should ‘consume less’ in order to save the planet. In similar mode, Jeremy Leggett writesin The Guardian (23 January 2010) that we need ‘to consume less “stuff” and to seek a type of prosperity outside the conventional trappings of affluence’. As well as ignoring the reality that the average worker earns less in real terms than he or she did three decades ago, such moralistic attacks on working class consumption are highly congenial to ruling class interests, since they bypass the more fundamental question of capitalist production and prepare the working class for austerity.
That workers tend to suffer disproportionately from the implementation of green taxes and other environmental levies is often overlooked in environmentalist discourse. Media anxieties over the easy availability of ‘cheap flights’ illustrate this point well. Writing in the Express (13 May 2006), Penny Poyzer advises flyers to calculate the CO2 cost of their trips and ‘to invest an equal amount in renewable energies’, while George Marshall in The Guardian (13 September 2007) rightly criticizes the tokenism of the plastic bag ban and other green strategies and observes that flying causes far greater environmental damage. Marshall is, of course, quite right; but it is also necessary to consider who flies and how often. Most of those who pay for cheap flights are working class people who fly infrequently and who are in no position to ‘invest in renewable energies’. The most frequent flyers, meanwhile, are typically well-paid business-people and politicians the cost of whose flights is usually defrayed by expense accounts and who often ‘buy’ their ‘right to pollute’ through carbon offset schemes. Raising the cost of air travel therefore punishes most heavily those who contribute the least to environmental damage through flying.
News and current affairs media thus help to condition the working class to accept responsibility for – and absorb the costs of – environmental damage, allowing capitalists to profit from the sale of prestigious and often expensive ‘environmentally friendly’ products. At the same time, the discourse of ‘ethical consumption’ tends to reduce action over environmental issues to a series of personal lifestyle choices. As Jodi Dean notes in her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, framing the solution to environmental problems as questions of consumer choice only serves to reproduce capitalist ideology:
"How would climate change, for example, be rendered into the terms of political identity? Is it a matter of lifestyle? Of being the sort of person who drives a Prius and carries an attractive nylon bag to the grocery store? Such a reduction to an imagined ‘green identity’ formats climate change as an issue of individual consumer choice, as a fashionable cause."
As Dean continues, such formatting is premised ‘on the exclusion of collective approaches to systemic problems’. The challenge for communists is to replace these individualized and fetishistic responses to environmental crisis with collective action against capitalism.
It cannot be denied that the left-wing media often articulate valuable environmental critiques. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage, The Guardian’s John Vidal (28 May 2010) pointed out that BP could probably have avoided bad publicity if the disaster had occurred elsewhere, since
"there are more than 2,000 major spillage sites in the Niger delta that have never been cleaned up; there are vast areas of the Columbian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon that have been devastated by spillages, the dumping of toxic materials and blowouts. Rivers and wells in Venezuela, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Sudan have been badly polluted […] The only reason oil costs $70-$100 a barrel today, and not $200, is because the industry has managed to pass on the real costs of extracting the oil."
The Guardian’s George Monbiot (29 September 2009), meanwhile – one of the most incisive environmental journalists – dismisses plans hatched by a billionaire’s club to curb population growth on environmental grounds, noting that it is the rich rather than the poor who despoil the environment most comprehensively, while another report in The Guardian (31 March 2010) cites evidence from the environmental campaign group Greenpeace showing that an oil company had funded an anti-environmentalist group. What even The Guardian’s journalists cannot concede, however, is that since the competitive forces driving environmental devastation are inherent to the capitalist mode of production, it is this system that must be destroyed.
On the contrary, the ‘progressive’ media tend to foster deep illusions about the redemptive possibilities of ‘green capitalism’. Writing in New Statesman (21 June 2010) about the prospects for international environmental co-operation, the leftist environmental activist Bibi van der Zee argues that
"the US and Chinese negotiating teams are made up of those who take the same approach to Mother Earth as a record company takes to a young band starting up: how can we milk this for maximum profit? It’s pointless to hope we can make these people more cuddly – we can’t. How can we make it financially imperative for them to get real? Some proper strategic thinking, please, so that we can get this army all fighting the same enemy."
Van der Zee is quite right to note that the ruling class will exploit the environment for profit to the fullest extent possible; but she is surely wrong to hope that national bourgeoisies can unite to solve environmental problems. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen environmental summit to even begin to tackle the problem of global warming – a failure acknowledged even by many mainstream journalists – suggests the untenability of this position. Global co-operation to solve human problems is impossible in a system based upon exploitation and international competition for profit. For all their faults, conservative commentators are often clearer on this point than their liberal counterparts. Despite holding a range of dubious enviro-sceptical views, the conservative columnist Dominic Lawson, for example, has rightly pointed out in his articles for The Independent that the profit motive is ultimately incompatible with serious environmental action.
The impossibility of a truly ‘green capitalism’ is further indicated by the protectionist responses of capitalist states to the threats posed by the escalating environmental crisis. A secret Pentagon report obtained by The Observer newspaper in 2004 warned that climate change had the potential to wreak global environmental catastrophe within decades, concluding that the issue should ‘be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a national security concern’. Clearly, while the capitalist state perceives the peril of environmental destruction, it processes this menace not as a challenge facing humanity and requiring international co-operation, but as a threat to the security of the nation state, which must in turn prepare for struggles with other nations over the world’s dwindling natural resources. Already the post-Cold War notion of a multi-polar world has acquired a dismal double meaning as the melting ice cap at the North Pole leads to bitter struggles between Canada, Russia, the US, Denmark and Norway, all of whom have made claims to the underlying seabed, which is suspected of containing vast quantities of undiscovered oil and gas. There is keen competition, too, over the ownership and control of the new shipping routes created by the thawing ice.
Bibi van der Zee’s seemingly pragmatic call to find ways of spurring the ruling class into action thus misses the point that capitalism cannot muster the concerted action required to avert climate change. ‘Getting real’ about the environment requires us not to incentivise the ruling class, but to abolish it, while struggling to create a new society in which the chaos and waste of competitive capitalist production is replaced with the collective and organised production of goods and services aimed at satisfying human need rather than increasing profit. In this sense, we can readily agree with Al Gore that in order to survive as a species we must ‘change the way [we] live’ – albeit rather more radically than Gore envisages.
The time available to effect this change, however, is limited. In order to restore the conditions for capital accumulation in increasingly difficult conditions, capitalism more and more resorts to the destruction of value – whether in the form of human life, infrastructure or the natural environment. Indeed, the effects of climate change and other environmental damage cannot be separated from capitalism’s other ravages. In 2010, a large area of Pakistan was devastated by severe flooding whose onset seemed to confirm scientific warnings about the links between global warming and the increased incidence of intense rainfall; yet many of those affected were already suffering from the effects of dire poverty as well as the state’s ongoing war against the Taliban and US drone attacks. The floods also provided a valuable opportunity for the Taliban – the only organisation distributing aid to many flood victims – to gain new recruits to its cause. As Naomi Klein notes in The Shock Doctrine, capitalism’s disasters concatenate, so that a profits-oriented economic system, ‘while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters […], whether military, ecological, or financial’. Day by day, these disasters are also jeopardising the potential for the communist transformation of the planet. In the meantime, it is not the discredited enviro-scepticism of the conservative right, but the liberal fantasy of ‘green’ capitalism that represents the most pernicious mystification of the environmental challenges we face today.