Environment: Planning green growth

Tens of thousands of delegates will spend hundreds of millions of dollars junketing at the second UN summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg South Africa, one of the biggest international conferences ever held.

A socialist contribution to the debate on environmental sustainability


This important and timely new pamphlet (published on the eve of the ’Earth Summit’ in Johannesburg), analyses the causes and scope of environmental destruction across the globe and asks what is the way forward. ’Planning Green Growth’ is a personal contribution by Pete Dickenson to the debate on environmental sustainability.
The author is a researcher and lecturer at a university in Britain in the fields of environmental management and East European studies, particularly on the impact of the restoration of capitalism on the former Soviet Union. Pete is also a long standing member of the Socialist Party, section of the CWI in England and Wales.
Pete clearly indicts the anarchic market system of capitalism as the chief culprit destroying the planet’s resources and indeed threatening the existence of all life in the long-term. He provides a detailed look at the arguments put forward by the environmental movement, including the theories of the ’steady, state market system’ and ’hard’ and ’soft’ sustainability. He asks, can the advocates of the ’eco-socialism’ tendency provide a solution?
In the second half of the pamphlet, Pete argues the case for a socialist programme for the environment. He deals with questions such as, ’Where will the resources for sustainable growth come from?’ and ’What are the lessons from the Soviet Union?’. Only a planned economy, democratically controlled, can tackle the problem of global warming and other threats, and provide the basis for the ending of world poverty, hunger, disease and homelessness.
’Planning Green Growth’, backed up with facts and figures, is a vital contribution to the debate taking place on environmental sustainability.
Pete Dickenson’s contribution to this issue of global importance will be of huge interest to environmental, anti-globalisation and socialist activists, as well as to many workers, youth and students. CWI, 20 August 2002

To avoid embarrassment, at a time when famine is sweeping the region, some of the governments involved are making cosmetic cuts in their delegations and restricting extravagant consumption of luxury items. This hypocrisy however, will only be matched by the quantity of hot air and empty commitments generated, if the pattern of the first Earth summit in Rio ten years ago is repeated. The main capitalist countries have a cynical attitude to the summit, shown by the fact that although 100 world leaders will attend they are not expected to include Bush, Blair, Chirac or the Japanese Prime Minister. When the 65,000 delegates arrive they will find a country devastated by the neo-liberal agenda imposed by the IMF, World Bank and the Western powers, where the gap between the, still mainly white, rich and the poor is greater than under apartheid.

The run-up to the summit could hardly have been worse for those hoping for a clear lead to tackle the growing environmental crisis. Months before the delegates assembled in Johannesburg, the main imperialist powers were making it absolutely clear that they were not interested in making any binding commitments that would even begin to tackle the environmental threats facing us. In April the US successfully forced the ousting of the Chair of the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr Bob Watson’s crime, in George Bush’s eyes, was to support the idea that the US, since it accounts for 25 % of all harmful emissions, should pay more than underdeveloped countries towards mitigating damage caused by global warming.

"Voluntary partnerships"

In Bali at the end of May, the UN called a pre-meeting to thrash out an agreed agenda and action plan for the Johannesburg summit. After this meeting, the spokesperson for the pressure group Friends of the Earth (FOE) International, Daniel Mittler, said, "The US and its friends might as well come from Mars for all they care about the future of our planet." At the Bali meeting, the Bush administration successfully pushed for any deals on the environment to be based on ’voluntary partnerships’, consistent with its neo-liberal, deregulation, agenda. They also persuaded Australia and Canada to join them at the summit in opposing the Kyoto agreement to reduce global warming. While the Bali meeting was taking place, the Indonesian authorities intimidated a flotilla of local fishermen and forced them to abandon their protest against the ’free trade’ policies promoted by the Western powers at the meeting, which threaten to destroy their livelihoods.

The conference put forward a meaningless wish list of aims for the summit that will never go beyond the paper it is written on. One proposal is to reduce by half the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to clean water by 2015, another is to provide 2 billion people with electricity generated from renewable sources. Basic healthcare needs, such as immunisation and access to essential drugs, should be available to all and the 2.4 billion people currently without it, should be provided with proper sanitation. However the Western powers made it clear in advance that no more money will be available to achieve these targets and they will all be strictly voluntary. Although it is possible that relatively minor issues such as a clampdown on illegal logging will be agreed, this will not be able to disguise the fact that the imperialist countries are treating the Earth summit as a cheap public relations stunt. Even conservative commentators in the West have been forced to admit this glaring fact.

On all the key issues for environmentalists, including finance and trade commitments, health, education, debt reduction and above all, targets for renewable energy generation, the Bali conference broke up without agreement. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, was forced to call an emergency meeting in New York in late July, of the key countries, including the G8, comprising the leading capitalist powers, in an attempt to save the summit.

Environmental pressure groups and activists are pressing for the summit to adopt tough enforceable rules. The key priority for Friends of the Earth is to establish a legally binding treaty which requires international companies, wherever they operate, to adopt best practice and to be accountable for their environmental and social damage to citizens and communities. Daniel Mittler, the FOE spokesperson, has correctly said that voluntary partnerships will not deliver sustainable development.

Horse trading, back room deals and bullying

The prospects for the summit delivering commitments with real teeth are almost non-existent. A statement issued by, among others, Greenpeace, Oxfam and FOE, before the meeting in South Africa, was clearly sceptical. It said that it was embarrassing, in watching the build up to the summit, to see different nations and blocs single-mindedly pursuing their own narrow interests at the expense of poor people and the planet’s future. Furthermore they stated: "The system of horse-trading, back room deals and bullying by powerful blocks is becoming common practice in international negotiations. Rarely has it produced so little by way of firm results. We have been appalled to watch governments renege on commitments made at Rio ten years ago…" Although socialists share this scepticism, we think it is necessary to draw all the necessary conclusions that flow from past experience, particularly as regards the role of the capitalist, market, system in the degradation of the environment and as the main barrier to sustainable development.

When the Bush government in the US dumped the Kyoto agreement, which aimed to reduce global warming, millions of environmental activists throughout the world were enraged. The message was loud and clear: that the interests of the multi-national corporations- represented by the White House-come before the looming environmental disaster caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Bush’s blatant policy of defending the profits of US companies has brought into question the credibility of international agreements between rival capitalist powers and prompted a debate among left wing environmentalists about the way forward. A socialist alternative to the destructive anarchy of the market system is needed, which will give a path to environmental sustainability- a term that has been defined as the establishment of conditions for life on earth to continue into the distant future. Socialists agree with most environmentalists that sustainability issues cannot be separated from economic, social and political questions, but we think understanding the class interests involved is central to finding a way forward.

According to most environmental activists reducing global warming and other environmental threats to sustainable levels is not just a technical issue, but is closely tied to the question of reducing or reversing economic growth. Since this has great implications for the possibility of abolishing poverty throughout the world, which is a pre-requisite for building socialism, a different strategy needs to be explored. An important aspect of this debate, which is only just beginning to be considered, is proposing an alternative to the market system, whose single-minded quest for profit is the prime cause of unsustainable environmental destruction. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the degradation of the environment in Eastern Europe during the Stalinist period, appeared to discredit the ideas of planning as an alternative to capitalism, the planned use of resources, as compared to the anarchy of ‘free enterprise’, will be the essential tool to tackle the problem of global warming and other threats. Such a planned economy, if it is democratically controlled, is an alternative both to capitalism and to the perversion of socialism practised in the former USSR.

A social system based on need not profit would have enormous inherent advantages from the viewpoint of saving energy. For instance, it would avoid the duplication of resources, planned obsolescence and wide-scale destruction of factories, plant and machinery in slumps, characteristic of the capitalist profit system. Eliminating these features of the system will have a significant impact in increasing the efficiency of energy usage and therefore reducing pollution. However, the biggest environmental advantage of a socialist society, where production is driven by need not profit, is the ability to tackle the threats facing us using democratic planning, compared to the inevitable environmental degeneration linked to the anarchy of capitalist production.

The developing world economic crisis, perhaps the most serious since the Great Depression, could divert attention from the problems of the environment, because the output of some forms of pollution will temporarily fall, along with the decline in economic activity. However, the history of capitalism shows that after even a deep crisis, with its resulting suffering and devastation, a recovery eventually occurs and a new phase of unplanned anarchic growth ensues, leading to a further twist in the spiral of environmental degeneration.

The Nature of the Problem

Few, except for George Bush and his carefully picked ’experts’, who speak for the interests of the oil companies and other multinationals, argue against the view that we face an impending environmental crisis. So, while it is not necessary here to prove that a catastrophe is looming over us- the evidence is now compelling- it is useful to give a quick summary of the key threats, in order to put the arguments about sustainability into context.

The main symptoms and causes of unsustainability are summarised in table 1. To eliminate the effects of all these symptoms will be a massive task, something the anarchy of the capitalist market has been incapable of getting to grips with. All the factors shown in table 1 pose major threats to sustainability and many of them are linked to each other. For instance, deforestation contributes to global warming because the reduced amount of vegetation is no longer able to absorb as much carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. There is not space to describe all the headings in the table, but three of the most intractable and difficult areas, the greenhouse effect, nuclear waste contamination and ozone depletion need some further explanation in order to understand the scale of the crisis.

Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect is where certain gases (e.g. CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere are more transparent to the short wave radiation from the sun than the longer wave re-radiation from the earth’s surface. The result is that some of the heat from the sun is trapped inside the atmosphere, a similar effect to that occurring in a greenhouse. The greater the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, the more heat is trapped and the tendency for the average temperature of the earth’s surface to go up is established.



Main Causes


Greenhouse effect/climate change

Nuclear waste contamination

Ozone depletion


Non-nuclear toxic contamination


Emissions of Carbon Dioxide, CFCs and Methane

Production of nuclear reactor by-products

Emissions of CFCs

Emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide

Sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone

Renewable resource depletion

Species extinction


Land degradation

Fishery destruction

Water depletion


Land use changes, future climate change and ozone depletion.

Land use changes, future climate change

Unsustainable agricultural methods

Overfishing, habitat destruction

Unsustainable use, future climate change

Non-renewable resource depletion

Depletion of various resources


Extraction and use of minerals and fossil fuels

Table 1 Symptoms and causes of environmental unsustainability

Since the industrial revolution began over 200 years ago, CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels have increased by about 25% and the concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, has more than doubled. CFCs, the gases released by aerosol sprays, are also major contributors to greenhouse gas (GG) emissions, although their contribution is likely to slowly fall due the very belated international government actions to phase them out. The effects of the rise in emissions of GGs have still to be experienced, but the potential for disaster is clearly there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that sea levels could rise by up to 1 metre this century. This would devastate the inhabitants of the flood plains of Bangladesh and Egypt, and world-wide, hundreds of millions of the very poor would be displaced. Extending the prediction of the IPCC to 250 years gives a sea level rise of up to 4 metres (12 feet), which would make significant areas of the earth’s surface uninhabitable, including large parts of north-west Europe.

Even these figures are probably conservative, since they were based on data drawn up in the 1980s. There is much evidence that global warming is accelerating shown by the fact that the three hottest years since records began in the 1860s occurred in the 1990s. The IPCC calculated that CO2 output must fall by 60% to stabilise the situation, whereas it is was growing at 0.5% in 1992, the year for which figures were given.(The current economic crisis will probably lead to a small decline, but this will not alter the long term trend).

Nuclear Waste Contamination

Sections of the capitalist class realise that a climate change disaster is looming and are looking desperately for a cheap way to solve the problem. An answer from their point of view would be to expand nuclear power, since the technology exists and is relatively cheap, and it does not produce greenhouse gases. It would be completely wrong to assume however, that this option does not pose a serious threat to environmental sustainability, in particular linked to the problem of toxic waste.

A direct consequence of producing electricity with nuclear reactors is the accumulation of radioactive waste, uranium and plutonium. There is also a significant amount of plutonium produced for military purposes which has to be stored. Taking the example of the waste stored in the USA in 1991, it comprised of 4900 cubic metres with a radioactivity of 24000 MCi (A Curie is a unit of radioactivity, MCi is one million Curies). To get a measure of this figure, a typical radioactive source used in a classroom for a science experiment has an activity of one millionth of a Curie.

An average sized 1000 MW nuclear power station reactor has a total radioactivity of 70 million Curies (70 MCi) in its spent fuel one year after discharge. After 100,000 years this figure will fall naturally to 2000 Curies, still 2 billion times more radioactive than the typical source used in a classroom mentioned above.

The implication of this data is that a safe storage method must be found that can be guaranteed to be secure for more than 100,000 years, a task which poses huge uncertainties and problems because it is difficult to predict what natural conditions will be after that time. If the material is buried, the onset of earthquakes in previously unaffected areas is possible, as is a meteor strike. If the radioactive spent fuel is put at the bottom of the sea the integrity of the materials used as a storage medium must be uncertain after such a long time, possibly leading to seepage. Also undersea volcanic activity could start, producing the same result.

The technical difficulties and understandable opposition from local communities where it has been proposed to dump the wastes, has meant that there will be at least another ten years delay before any supposedly safe site is ready in the USA and another 20 in Europe. In the meantime, the dangers go unchecked, shown by the clusters of child leukaemia cases occurring in the vicinity of the current British nuclear waste storage site at Sellafield.

Ozone Depletion

The layer of ozone gas in the atmosphere protects humans and the ecosystem from the harmful effects of the sun’s radiation. It has been damaged by the release into the atmosphere of CFCs, which was a chemical used to propel aerosol sprays and also occurs in packing materials. The Montreal Protocol was designed to cut and eventually eliminate the production of CFCs and has had some effect, since their output fell by 77% between 1988 and 1994. Incidentally, this may appear a successful example of international capitalist co-operation, but actually the USA held back for years against the Montreal protocol and only signed up when it was clear that US corporations had the lead in developing alternative aerosol propellants.

The result of the delay is that the full recovery of the ozone layer will not take place until the 22nd century, because there is a long delay before the levels of chlorine, produced by the CFCs, in the stratosphere, will start to decline. This means that the benefit of the first reductions in CFCs that took place in the 1980s will not be apparent until 2005, in the meantime the ozone layer will continue to be destroyed. The 3% loss of ozone noted in 1991 over the USA was expected to produce 12 million extra skin cancers in that country alone

The Scale of the Problem.

The scale of the environmental threats facing us need to be understood, so that the difficulty in mitigating and then eliminating them can be estimated. The solution to the issue of nuclear waste storage will require huge resources to find a safe method of disposal. Even though governments round the world currently have no answers, they continue to pour out more and more toxic waste, content to leave the problem to future generations. The depletion of the ozone layer is a question of coping for a 100 years with the effects of a 20th Century disaster, a legacy of the free market system. Although nuclear waste disposal and ozone depletion both pose a threat to our long-term future, ranging in time from 100-100,000 years, the question of global warming is potentially even much more serious. One expert has warned that: "human induced global warming, then, could possibly start a chain reaction of events that could lead to the extinction of civilization or even humanity. This is a remote possibility, but it exists" (quoted in ’Counting the Cost of Global Warming’, by J Broome, White Horse Press, Cambridge, 1992, page 16).

All economic activity requires from the environment raw materials and energy as factor inputs, and an ability to deal with wastes and maintain a global balance (e.g. in surface temperature). Although these functions have been under pressure since the mass production of commodities ushered in the modern capitalist epoch over 200 years ago, only recently has evidence emerged that they are breaking down completely.

Reducing environmental intensity is the key factor in trying to deal with the polluting effects of increased consumption. Environmental intensity is the pollution produced per unit of consumption (e.g. the amount of carbon dioxide produced in making a tonne of steel), and it has been suggested that there are three ways a reduction in its value can be achieved. The first is changing the composition of output to less damaging products, the second is to substitute harmful economic inputs such as fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, and the last is to develop new technology to increase the efficiency of the use of resources. A fourth possibility is to decrease environmental intensity by changing not just the technical aspects of production, but also the social, an issue that will be explored later.

It has been calculated that the impact on the environment resulting from all sources of pollution must be reduced by 50% to ensure sustainable growth. This means that environmental intensity must be reduced by more than 10 times if it assumed that consumption and population increase significantly. Detailed calculations are given in the Appendix. (Some environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth put the needed reduction in environmental intensity up to five times higher than that stated above).

Is sustainable growth possible on a capitalist basis?

Most capitalist politicians now pay lip service to sustainability, so what are the prescriptions they are putting forward to achieve this? Before considering the solutions put forward by the neo-liberal theorists, it is worth emphasising further the scale of the task they are facing. On the crucial question of global warming, the US Department of Energy estimated in 1998 that the cost of cutting CO2 emissions to 7% below their 1990 levels would rise to 4% of US GDP by 2010, or in money terms $400 billion per year. Although this figure is certainly exaggerated as a result of scare-mongering by the US energy lobby (other calculations put comparable GDP figures rising to 1%-3% after a much longer time) the general scale of costs is clear, and would lead to massive tax rises for the multi-nationals.

Property rights

The classic method put forward by the neo-liberal school to take account of environmental damage is the property rights approach, which relies on direct negotiations between the parties affected to resolve the issue. This requires that the property rights to the use of environmental resources are defined and owned by someone. It is easy to see the practical difficulties in implementing this scheme. For instance, it is hard to see what system of private ownership could be imposed on the stratosphere, and even if it was, the number of people affected by its malfunctioning runs into billions, all of whom could seek redress from the owner, making the method unworkable.

Tradable permits

This practical difficulty in using the property rights approach has even struck some die hard free-marketeers and an alternative system based on controlling pollution through the price mechanism has been worked out, the so called ‘make the polluter pay’ principle. The preferred route this takes is by the trading of pollution permits, issued by a government at a price reflecting the environmental costs and covering a specific geographical area. Leaving aside for the moment the fiasco of the Kyoto permit trading experience, it is not difficult to see that this scheme would be ineffective. For instance, the cost of building flood defences in Bangladesh in 20 years time, needed because of global warming due to emissions by US corporations today, would not be included in the permit price, meaning that the polluter is not really paying at all.


An alternative to the permit system is the introduction of an eco-tax, although this is regarded as a dangerously ‘socialist’ idea by the neo-liberals, compared to the free trading of permits. The principle however is the same, that by increasing the price of polluting resources, there will be an incentive created to use them less and seek substitutes. Evidence to show this works is put forward by comparing the experience of the USA and some other advanced capitalist countries. Energy prices in the US are a third of those in countries like Norway, whereas their emissions of carbon are about three times greater per unit of GDP (quoted in ’The North, the South and the Environment’ Edited by V Bhaskar and A Glynn, Earthscan, 1995. p139), thus the tax mechanism seems to work.

The issue is not so simple however when examined in more detail. France, for instance, has a relatively good greenhouse gas performance because she introduced nuclear power on a massive scale, which purely coincidentally does not produce greenhouse gases. This was done for political reasons, not because the price of fossil fuel was high, therefore questioning the link between high fossil fuel cost and low pollution emission. Also, the evidence shows that key economic factors that help create sustainability, e.g. the development of new non-polluting technology, would not be promoted to a significant extent by adjusting prices through eco-taxes.

Even if taxes could play some role in reducing pollution, there is the question of scale to be considered. The cost to the US, given earlier at $400 billion per year, for significant cuts in greenhouse gases shows that for such a programme to be effective tax increases would have to be huge, more than a 100% according to some estimates. This would devastate the profits of big business and make them politically impossible to impose. It is significant that in Scandinavian countries where some form of eco-tax has been implemented, companies are specifically excluded from paying, and the whole burden is put on individuals. Another consequence of eco-taxes is that the poor are hit hardest by their introduction because the cost of warmth and cooking, usually provided by fossil fuels, is a large proportion of their income. On a different level, this regressive effect also applies to congestion charges, such as those proposed by the London Mayor in Britain, Ken Livingston, to promote the use of public transport.

Cost-Benefit Analysis.

Cost benefit analysis (CBA) is potentially a powerful tool to assess environmental risks and to reach a rational decision about future investment. Its success depends however, on defining clearly what the costs and benefits are, and for all the parties involved to agree on these definitions. Where profit is as stake this is easier said than done. In capitalist terms, risks must be expressed in money terms and probabilities of future adverse events clearly determined. When this cannot be done, which is the usual case, environmental risks are ignored, and a system of ordinary discounting is used. Using this method, it has been calculated that the cost of a nuclear accident, 500 years in the future, costing £10 billion at current prices to future generations, would be 25 pence, discounted at 5%. In other words, if a CBA was made now about building such a power station, 25 pence would go in the costs column to allow for a future accident.

Constraints on capitalism

All these capitalist theories to achieve sustainability: property rights, tradable permits or eco-taxes, remain just that-theories. The reasons why none of them have ever been implemented on any significant scale are much more important than the individual criticisms that can be made of each. The thinking elements of the capitalist class internationally realise that an abyss is looming, so why can’t they take really decisive action?

The central contradiction of capitalism from the beginning of the 20th Century till the present day has been its inability to resolve the conflicting needs of profit driven production and the continuing existence of nation states. In their quest for profit, the capitalists are forced to look for new markets beyond their borders as their own market becomes saturated, bringing them into conflict with rivals from other countries who are under similar pressures. In abstract terms, the rivals could co-operate to more efficiently exploit the rest of the world if the market was continually expanding, but this is never the case for long with capitalism, as bust always follows boom. When the market turns down, the tensions grow between the international rivals and the big corporations look once more to their own governments to protect their profits. This cycle will occur again soon as the drive to globalisation is undermined by the developing downturn.

Any genuine solution to the environmental crisis must be international since all the main threats, such as global warming, ozone depletion, or nuclear toxic waste contamination affect the entire earth or large parts of it. However, the main capitalist countries that account for the majority of pollution will never meaningfully co-operate if the profits of ‘their’ multinationals are significantly affected. This is particularly true in a recession, and is the problem that lies at the heart of the environmental crisis.


The fiasco over the Kyoto agreement is a good example to demonstrate the inability of the capitalist system to tackle the crisis. Kyoto is intended to tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by a small amount in order to go back to the 1990 level, in itself a modest target. The justification was that this was the maximum that was politically feasible, but even this tiny and cheap step forward, done at a time of economic boom, proved to be totally unacceptable to the USA. The agreement was fixed so that no actual reductions in greenhouse gases in the advanced capitalist countries (ACCs) were called for. Instead, a system of tradable permits was introduced, the preferred ‘free market’ mechanism, where the ACCs could buy the rights to pollute from other countries that were below their quota. This was possible because, very conveniently, the base year from which calculations were made was 1990, just before the economic slump in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe caused their greenhouse gas output to fall by 50%. This meant that East European states would have a large ‘surplus’ of tradable permits to sell to the ACCs, probably at very reasonable prices considering their desperate plight.

Why did the US Congress vote virtually unanimously to reject this almost completely cosmetic deal? It was probably not because the immediate price was unacceptable, since they had reached an agreement, although belated, on the Ozone issue that incurred costs to US companies. It was because they regarded this as the thin end of the wedge, where, eventually, meaningful cuts would have to be made. Since the US produces 25% of all greenhouse gases, almost twice as much as their principal rivals in the EU, their profits would be disproportionately hit by meaningful cuts. The lesson here is that if small sacrifices only are needed, and they can be evenly distributed between rival capitalists, as in the ozone case of CFC reductions, then limited agreements can be made (although it is doubtful that even this would apply in conditions of recession or slump). However, if profits are seriously under threat, then even limited agreement is impossible, and this particularly applies if the dominant world power, the USA, is the biggest potential loser.

Direct state intervention

Direct state intervention to reduce pollution, although still operating within the framework of a market driven society, has been largely discarded as an option by the dominant neo-liberal alchemists, who dismissively label it ‘command and control’. Some pro-capitalist commentators though are beginning to reconsider this attitude, because they think direct intervention may actually work, in contrast to neo-liberal theorising. A strategy that they propose is to impose a legally enforceable set of standards to control emissions, but other options could also include more radical measures. For instance, to redirect production to non-polluting sectors, to restrict consumer choice to eco-friendly products or to prescribe that energy should be produced by renewable sources.

As the environmental crisis deepens, the attractiveness of this approach will grow, particularly to those on the left or active in the green movement who can see the impotence of purely market based ideas. Although state intervention could have an effect if it was applied in the all the major polluting countries in a large-scale manner over the long-term, the question is-will it be? It is possible that an individual country will begin to implement small-scale environment-friendly measures, such as in Germany now, or in Scandinavia. However, as soon as the level of investment by the state threatens profits through higher taxes, as it must if the measures are to be sufficiently large scale to be effective, the big companies will scream that their international competitiveness is being undermined. Since in the context of capitalism, the priority of the government of each country is to protect the interests of the multi-national companies based inside their borders, any meaningful environmental programme will then be dropped.

The requirement to solve the crisis, which is to have international agreements capable of tackling the scale of the problem, remain the same, as do the reasons why they will not happen.

New Technology

Although it is theoretically possible that the bacon will be pulled out of the environmental fire by a fortuitous new invention, for example, a technology like nuclear fusion that promised to produce large quantities of energy cheaply and without pollution, there is nothing viable on the horizon. The market system has been unable to provide the scientific breakthroughs that are needed. One of the reasons is that under monopoly capitalism, new technology is the result of long-term incremental advances by teams of scientists and engineers working for big bureaucracies in multi-national corporations, where to change course to a radically different direction is very difficult due to bureaucracy. Furthermore, the huge costs of developing the new approaches that are needed in the energy field deter most companies from entering the market. Also since the lure of profit is still ultimately the reason for investment in new technology, it will be introduced in those sectors that are most profitable in the short and medium term, i.e. for fossil fuel technology rather than renewable energy generation.

Sustainable growth on a capitalist basis is not feasible, partly because the methods it can employ to achieve this are inadequate and flawed, but mainly because imperialist rivalry will prevent the international co-operation that is essential to make progress. The result is that the world will continue to hurtle headlong to disaster since the environment will still be treated as a ‘free good’ by the multi-nationals that dominate production and will be exploited at no cost to themselves.

The Green Movement Agenda for Sustainability

There are many variations of the Green and environmental movement agenda, so any categorisation must be approximate and recognise that there is overlap between them. Bearing this in mind, it is still possible to identify three basic trends or approaches. The first two are models based on market solutions, albeit with significant state involvement and the third is sometimes called eco-socialist, where market forces are not the dominating feature.

The ‘mainstream’ market approach asserts the central need for a steady state economy. Steady state was defined by its initial proponent and guru of the movement, Hermann Daly, as fixing absolute limits both to human population and to the ‘population’ of artefacts (goods). The question of population control is controversial but putting a limit to the production of goods is a common feature of most green policies. The programme of the Greens in Britain includes import/export controls, control on multi-nationals through exchange controls and control on speculation through the Tobin tax, limits on the size of monopolies and tax breaks for new small firms entering the market. At the centre of the programme though is a complex system of eco-taxes and permits to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour which, it is claimed, will lay the basis for a steady state economy.

What would be the implications of a steady state economy? If steady state is defined as zero consumption growth from present levels, a 66% reduction in environmental intensity would be needed for sustainability. This assumes the widely predicted large population increase in the ‘South’ and a small one in the ‘North’. However, if it is true, as most greens believe, that this level of reduction in environmental intensity is not feasible, then consumption will have to fall to close the gap. If consumption must decline, what implications does this have for the green programme to redistribute the ‘surplus’ from the North to the South to establish a fair and equal world? If we assume, on the grounds of fairness and equality, that cuts are limited to the main polluters in the industrialised countries, consumption per head will have to be reduced significantly. In these circumstances the scope for redistributing the industrialised countries’ ‘surplus’ consumption to the rest of the world would be very limited, since it would have shrunk enormously. This is true with steady state defined as here, as meaning zero consumption growth, most greens advocate a cut in consumption, which would reduce the surplus even further.

The Greens correctly make the point that definitions of consumption are based on GNP (Gross National Product) calculations that are boosted by the costs of clearing up environmental damage. The argument goes that since growth in GNP is a policy objective of all governments there is no incentive to cut pollution, because the pollution itself is contributing to GNP growth. The conclusion made by the Greens is that if the definition of GNP is changed to eliminate this effect, governments will change growth policy in an environmentally friendly way. Apart from the technical difficulties in doing this, the reasoning assumes that government policy can fundamentally control economic growth. Capitalist states all have a desire for growth, since growth boosts profits, but making desire become reality is not so easy, because the market system is out of the control of any firm, however big, or country, even the USA. Since the system has its own internal logic based on the international competition for markets and the quest for profit, governments can affect what happens only to a small extent. This is graphically shown by the current economic downturn that is resolutely refusing to respond to the recipes of the capitalist experts. However, the question of compensating for the ‘polluting’ effect of growth projections will need to be addressed when society really is in control of the economy, i.e. in a non-capitalist system.

Small, steady state market

Socialists and greens agree that the exploitation of the environment is linked directly to the activities of the monopoly corporations, 500 of which dominate the world economy. Is the answer, as the greens claim, to go back to societies where small local firms operate in a steady state market system? Leaving aside the impossibility of turning back the wheel of history in this way, if such a system was created, the fundamental law of the market would still apply, i.e. a need for continuous growth and an unlimited increase in production. This is because the capitalist market is anonymous and dominated by the laws of competition. Each industrialist tries to grab as large a share of the market as possible, but to do this requires cutting prices without threatening profit. The only way to achieve this is to reduce the cost of production by cutting the value of commodities, via reducing the labour time necessary to produce them, in order to produce more commodities in the same length of time. To bring about such an increase in production, capital must be invested to rationalise the labour process, and the only source of this capital, in the final analysis, is profit. In other words, the dynamic of the system is the constant accumulation of capital, driven by competition, and paid for by the surplus value (profit) produced in the course of production itself. This feature of the capitalist economy, analysed by Marx, fundamentally undermines the proponents of the small, steady state market economy, because the absolute need will always be there for it to grow and break out of any controls on economic expansion that might be imposed by a green government. In such circumstances, monopolies would eventually emerge, as Marx predicted they would when analysing the dynamics of growth of pre-monopoly capitalism in the nineteenth century.

The green macro-economic programme is based on limiting the operation of the market internationally through exchange controls, limiting capital flows and speculation and imposing import-export controls. Despite the internationalist outlook of most greens, this programme points in the opposite direction, towards a siege economy which will foster national prejudices and preclude the international co-operation needed for sustainability.

Also, the plank of the green programme to ensure international co-operation, i.e. imposing tariffs on countries that refuse to implement environmentally friendly policies, would lead to conflict. The USA has the most to lose, since it is the biggest polluter, and it would use its dominance to punish any international trade body or country that attempted to go down this path.

It might be argued that the large degree of state control necessary for a siege economy could lead to the establishment of a steady state environmentally friendly society, albeit only on a national basis. However, even if a government went a long way down the road of state control, if the market remained, the growth dynamic would eventually reassert itself. In these circumstances, if the state continued to stand in the way of expansion and profits, conflict would be inevitable. During the Labour government in Britain in the 1970s, there was ferocious resistance by the capitalists, including the plotting of a coup by some elements, when the Prime Minister, Wilson, took half a step in the direction of a programme that had some similarities to that of the greens. In the end, a ‘green’ government would either have to capitulate to the demands of the market or move to abolish it. Even if an eco-capitalist siege economy could maintain itself for a period, the measures in the green programme to reduce pollution, based on market mechanisms such as eco-taxes and permits, would be inadequate. They would also lead to more inequality, contrary to the stated aims of the Greens, since eco-taxes hit the poorest hardest.

The Green Growth Agenda

Green growth proponents can be divided into two camps, those advocating ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sustainability. Soft sustainability provides little more than a fig leaf for firms or governments to pretend they are taking some action on the environment, backing Kyoto would fit into this pattern. The advocates of hard sustainability, on the other hand, are sincere in wanting to tackle environmental problems, and in particular, see that steady state green policies will make it impossible to eradicate poverty in the so called Third World. It is clear to them that even if some of the green scenarios calling for cuts in Southern consumption, from its already near subsistence level, are not implemented, the scope for redistribution of ‘surplus’ consumption in the North will be small.

Most advocates of green growth say that it is possible to reduce environmental intensity sufficiently to allow the sustainable expansion of consumption using market methods. The problems with such a programme were analysed earlier, where the conclusion was reached that the market tools available are inadequate for the scale of the task of reducing environmental intensity by 90%, the minimum necessary consistent with even modest growth in the ‘South’. Furthermore, the introduction of even these weak methods would slash the profits of the multi-nationals, particularly in the USA, and would therefore not be implemented.


Eco-socialism is still marginalised in the Green movement, but as the total inability of capitalist solutions to solve environmental problems become more apparent, interest in it will inevitably grow. Eco-socialists share many of the criticisms made here of market-led environmentalism, but at the same time most, but not all, reject the possibility of growth in consumption due to the assumed bio-physical limits of the earth’s resources, and therefore advocate a steady state economy. In this context, Marx is often criticised by eco-socialists both for his ideas on ‘super-abundance’ and because his thought, in particular his theory of value, did not encompass an environmental dimension. The issue of super-abundance will be taken up later, but the other questions can be answered now. Marx’s discovery of the laws of capital accumulation and expanded reproduction, discussed earlier, pointed to capitalism’s need for permanent growth in order to maintain profits, an insight of great value in the green debate today. The implication of this theory is that an ecological crisis could eventually emerge under certain circumstances, but in the middle of the 19th century the level of pollution was a fraction of that today, and a threat to sustainability on a world scale did not exist. Marx correctly argued that there were no naturally ordained barriers to plenty and abundance, in answer to Malthus’ idea that generalised poverty was an inevitable and permanent feature of the human condition.

Criticisms of the labour theory of value reveal a lack of understanding of Marx’s concept. The debate here concerns the calculation of economic growth in capitalist society using Gross National Product statistics, which provide governments with an incentive to pollute, as discussed earlier. The implication is that any economic calculation based on Marx’s concept of value would have a similar effect. There are two points to make. The first is that his theory of value cannot be a tool of economic calculation, because value is only revealed in the market after the production of the commodity; it is impossible to predict whether the labour time embodied in the commodity was what Marx called ‘socially necessary’. Without having such knowledge in advance, value theory cannot be used for planning purposes. Secondly, since it is only revealed in the market, the concept of value will cease to have validity in a fully developed socialist society, because the market will no longer exist. It will be explained later how a socialist society could organise planning so that the ‘polluting’ effects of growth targets are eliminated.

The most positive aspect of the development of the eco-socialist movement is that planning is now being seriously debated as a tool to organise production, as is the possible danger of the degeneration of a future planned socialist society into a totalitarian state such as happened in the Soviet Union. This serious discussion of planning in environmental circles is a harbinger of a wider debate that will develop in the anti-capitalist movement in the next few years. However, it is important to understand the implications for future society of what many eco-socialists are saying about the requirement for massive cuts in consumption.

Some supporters of eco-socialism advocate a cut in consumption of 10 times, including massive cuts in the Third World . The political form such a society would take, which would have a material basis at a feudal or pre-feudal level, would be eco-Stalinist, a totalitarian police state that would make Stalin’s Russia seem benign. To talk about such a society being based on fairness and equality is a mockery, although to be fair some of its advocates are frank enough to concede that repressive measures may be necessary. (Ironically, this nightmare regime would probably not even have sufficient resources to operate the apparatus of a police state necessary to maintain itself in power). How such an eco-society, based on near subsistence consumption, could come about is left somewhat vague by its advocates, which is not surprising since it is hard to see who it would appeal to. The mostly unspoken perspective is that it will emerge after a collapse of the present world order, due to environmental catastrophe. Even this hope though is probably forlorn, since such a state would adopt some pre-capitalist form of organisation, corresponding to its low material base, meaning the whole rotten cycle would begin again.

A Socialist Programme for the Environment

The earth is clearly on the path to ecological catastrophe. This road will be marked by, amongst many other examples, the destruction of large areas of the inhabitable globe due to global warming, the chemical degradation of the atmosphere leading to an epidemic of cancer and bequeathing the problem of toxic waste disposal to future generations, for up to 100,000 years.

The responsibility for this situation lies at the door of capitalism, a system, controlled by the infamous ‘hidden hand’ of market forces, and driven by profit. The market economy has an in-built need for permanent growth, propelled by competition and the quest for profit, but at the same time, apparently paradoxically, suffering from regular slumps in production. Both tendencies lead to waste and environmental degradation, as does the anarchic, unpredictable nature of the market economy. The alternative is a socialist society, which because it does not have the need for permanent growth of capitalism, will be able to adopt, in its fully developed form, a sustainable steady state economy. A socialist society as well as avoiding the waste inherent in capitalism, offers the overwhelming environmental advantage of providing conscious democratic control through planning. Democracy is not mentioned here accidentally, it is essential if planning is to be run efficiently. Lack of democracy was the main reason for the ecological devastation in the bureaucratically (mis-)planned economy of the former Soviet Union.

If conscious democratic control is the key to managing the environment what are the pre-conditions needed to make this possible? The first, of course, is to eliminate the anarchy of the market, but just as important, is to provide the mass of people with the ability to run society. Above all this means giving them the time and the knowledge to be able to participate actively in decision making, which can only be done if enough leisure time is available, away from the drudgery of work, to attend meetings, and undertake educational activity and personal development. In its turn, this will only be possible if there is a transformation of economic productivity so that sufficient free time is available, something that will require big growth and investment. Although it might be argued that an alternative would be simply to cut production to such a level that enough leisure time would be freed up, the outcome would be counter-productive. Standards of living would fall, scarcity would increase and all the spare time created would be taken up in a battle to make up for the lost resources. It would set person against person and ‘human nature’ would quickly degenerate into the worst manifestations seen under capitalism; in Marx’s phrase, ‘all the old crap would return’. The co-operation needed, particularly internationally, to tackle the environmental crisis would be impossible.

Freedom begins where necessity ends

Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring that the realm of freedom begins where necessity ends, which means that it is necessary to satisfy all material needs in order to achieve both individual freedom and it could be added now, the freedom to effectively intervene to avoid ecological breakdown. Marxists consider that plenty is a necessary condition for the coming of a fully developed socialist society. Removing want will eliminate the causes of inequality, exploitation and conflict, and thus lay the basis for the co-operation needed for environmental regeneration, but to do this will require growth and investment.

Most greens argue that any growth is unsustainable, never mind the amount needed to completely remove scarcity and want throughout the world. Marxists put the argument round the other way, that it is impossible to tackle environmental problems without effective international planning, a prerequisite for which is eliminating the conflict that results from scarcity. Satisfying needs does not mean, however, that they are infinite and will continue to expand indefinitely. The basic needs for the majority of the world’s population are stable, i.e. clothing, food, shelter, health-care, etc, and account for the majority of consumer expenditures. In the industrialised countries, with high pressure selling and marketing, it can appear that there is an infinite demand for the latest unnecessary gizmo. However, there is actually a trend away from conspicuous consumption among the affluent middle classes, where leisure time for personal development is increasingly being put above further consumption, as for example, in California. Under socialism, as the levels of wealth of the majority rise up to these heights a similar trend will appear. Also the acquisitive habits of individuals fostered by the market economy, which are the driving force of economic behaviour in a society based on scarcity, will gradually disappear as uncertainty and worry about the future recedes and high pressure selling is removed.

Steady state equilibrium

These factors indicate that the possibility will exist for a gradual levelling off of consumption, albeit at a much higher level than exists today, into a steady state equilibrium. It is impossible to define exactly what this higher, equilibrium, level of consumption will be because it will depend on a multitude of unpredictable factors, not least how quickly human psychology adjusts to the new conditions. For arguments sake, and to make the position as concrete as possible, assume that consumption under socialism will be 50% higher than the current level in the advanced industrial countries, which will provide a standard of living currently en

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August 2002