What sort of society can save the planet?
A sustainable future requires a radical break with capitalism,
argues Martin Empson
There is no doubt that capitalism is bad for the planet. Multinationals exploit natural resources in the interest of profit, pumping their waste into our rivers, oceans and atmosphere.
Vast regions of the world are stripped bare in the search for coal and other minerals. Entire ecosystems are destroyed in the hunt for profits. And the problem of climate change threatens the planet as a whole.
Capitalism isn’t the first economic system to exploit the natural resources of the planet. However it is the first to do so on an industrial scale, using advanced technologies to maximise profits. This relentless drive to make money out of the world’s resources means there is no chance for the planet’s ecosystems to recover naturally.
In the past natural mechanisms would break down greenhouse gases before they would even approach a level that could trigger climate change. But ever since we started systematically burning fossil fuels, the amount of these gases pumped into the air has increased dramatically.
We now produce more greenhouse gases, and as their concentrations increase, they threaten to destabilise the world’s environmental systems to such an extent that life as we know it may be endangered.
What is true of climate change is also true of many other aspects of the environment. Capitalism’s short term interests are incompatible with the preservation of the natural world upon which society rests.
Capitalism is also tremendously wasteful. It is more profitable for companies to manufacture single-use packaging than reusable materials. Colossal amounts of money and resources are wasted on advertising. Bureaucrats and managers waste their lives working on jobs that have little social benefit. Inefficiency is built into the system.
And meanwhile we see the obscenity of massive overproduction of goods existing side by side with people starving because they don’t have the money to access the basic necessities of life. Capitalism is an unsustainable and unjust economic system.
Karl Marx described a “irreparable rift” between the natural world and humanity under capitalism. He argued that this relationship could only be restored through the rational organisation of society in the interests of people today and of future generations:
“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”
But what would a sustainable society look like? If capitalism cannot exist in balance with nature, how would we organise an alternative society that could?
Some aspects of what such a society would look like are quite straightforward. Instead of relying on fossil fuels, a sustainable society would generate the bulk of its energy from renewable sources. Such a society would need to use dramatically less energy in total.
Houses and offices would be properly insulated. Wasteful industries would either be made more efficient or be eliminated altogether.
Combined plants would produce both heat and power. Instead of venting waste heat into the sky, as they do today, this energy could be used to heat local buildings. Such a scheme at Battersea power station heated homes for 11,000 people at the end of the Second World War.
A sustainable city would have massively improved public transport systems. We would reduce reliance on cars, which are inefficient, dangerous and polluting, with better provision for cyclists and pedestrians. Over time we would redesign our towns and cities to ensure that the era of the long commute was over.
Longer distance transport would be shifted towards fast, efficient and cheap railways. Current airport expansion plans are thoroughly unsustainable – but this shouldn’t be a barrier to travel abroad.
Finally, a sustainable society would be one where collective social institutions, such as creches and laundrettes, would be much more common.
It’s not impossible to imagine many of these changes taking place under capitalism. But the problem is that production under capitalism is organised in the interests of profit, irrespective of the interests of people or the planet.
Indeed capitalist production often runs directly against the needs of society as a whole. In recent years, vast tracts of agricultural land have been shifted to the hugely profitable business of the growing of biofuels, rather than being used to produce food that could feed the starving.
In contrast, a sustainable society would be one where production is rationally and democratically organised. Every aspect of production, from the goods manufactured in factories to the design of computer software, needs to be collectively planned.
For many people, the idea of a planned economy brings to mind the bureaucratic command structures of the former Soviet Union, where a few unelected and unaccountable individuals made all the decisions.
Rather than produce for people’s needs, this system usually led to inefficiency, pollution and, at worst, terrible environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
The socialist vision of a planned economy is entirely different. Genuine planning can only occur in the context of informed debate over every aspect of production.
Production decisions at each workplace would be made in conjunction with overall strategies on a city-wide, national and even international level.
Under capitalism each country tends to organise its own production in its own interest. But a more rational society would recognise the unequal distribution of natural resources and ensure that every region of the world had access to the materials it needed.
If we want to seriously deal with the problem of climate change and its consequences, then we need this kind of planning on an international scale. While the United Nations might come up with targets for carbon emissions today, there is no mechanism for implementing or enforcing these.
A rationally organised world would be able to decide what reductions were required and then ask every industry, city and workplace to come up with strategies for reducing emissions.
Every individual would be involved in deciding how to implement the required changes. Planning would eliminate overproduction and concentrate resources on developing better goods rather than chasing profits.
Planning requires social ownership – but the logic of capitalism is to divide the world into private property.
The people who own and control the factories and workplaces, the mines, forests and farms, won’t give them up easily. They will want to hold on to their wealth and power.
So this ruling class will have to be challenged by a mass movement determined to redistribute the land and the factories – a movement for the revolutionary transformation of society.
People have challenged the existing system in the past, and in those attempts we can see the potential for a new, rational society that is organised and run by the mass of people who create all the wealth in society.
From the 1871 Paris Commune to the 1917 Russian Revolution, and in many struggles since, working men and women have invented organisations that have helped them take control of their own lives.
In the midst of revolution, bodies such as workers’ councils have sprung up to organise strikes and demonstrations. But these bodies have also organised production to look after the distribution of essentials to ensure that people don’t starve and are kept informed of all the latest news.
For a brief period of time after the Russian Revolution, before its isolation and defeat in the 1920s, workers ran their own factories and workplaces in the interest of the collective.
But the overthrow of capitalism won’t create a sustainable society overnight. Marx predicted that after a successful revolution, a “new society will have emerged from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.
The productive apparatus of today has been created and designed in the interest of generating profits. It would have to be radically altered and rethought. Some industries are incompatible with a vision of a long-term sustainable society – the nuclear or the arms industries, for instance.
There would be much work to be done to create this new society.
We would need to ensure it is run in the interests of the majority of people and the future of the planet. But it is only after we have removed capitalism that we can fully explore this potential to create a sustainable future.