Under socialism, what is to prevent the worker-owners of the industries from polluting the environment just like the capitalists?

The People, August 10, 1991
QUESTION PERIOD

Under socialism, what is to prevent the worker-owners of the industries from polluting the environment just like the capitalists? I realize that there would no longer be profits, but it would still cost less to just dump pollutants than to safely contain or neutralize them. Therefore, wouldn't the worker-owners still have a material incentive to continue polluting?

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Socialism would put an end to pollution (or at least reduce it to i a harmless level) because the totality of the social interest would determine production decisions, not the narrow, material self-interest of a minority of society that is under the gun of competition.

Under the present system, material self-interest compels capitalists to maximize profits, to the detriment of the social interest-not simply because they desire ever greater wealth, but because competition constantly threatens to knock them out of their privileged class position. The occasional gadfly capitalist or corporate director who attempts to act in a benevolent manner generally doesn't last too long, as the firm in question will fall behind its competitors if it spends significantly less on improved productivity, to remain competitive. Accordingly, except in cases where a pollution control measure substantially improves productivity or otherwise promises a substantial increase in profits, capitalists are virtually driven to use the least expensive method of waste disposal-dumping it into the air, water or land.

Simply dumping wastes into the environment would still be less "expensive" -- in terms of the labor time necessary to dispose of them -- in a socialist society. But in the cooperative-based economy of socialism, the compelling antisocial force of competition would be absent. Moreover, with the end of exploitation, workers would be able to satisfy all of their material needs with but a fraction of the present workweek. And with employment opportunities and economic security guaranteed to all, no worker would have to fear the economic consequences of a particular workplace or area of production being shut down due to environmental considerations.

With their basic material needs so readily and assuredly met, the liberated people of a socialist society will have every incentive to devote a considerable quantity of labor time to improving the quality of life in other ways. Certainly the desire to live in a clean, healthy, spacious and aesthetically pleasing environment, and an appreciation for the wonders and beauty of wilderness environments, are fairly universal among humankind, ranking only a few rungs below the need for food, clothing, shelter and other basic material things.

Indeed, the despoliation of the environment under the present system has made the reversal of present waste disposal practices a matter of human survival almost as urgent as the daily need for food, clothing and shelter, etc.

Though we do not presume to say how workers would vote on the finer, details of socialist society, it is an entirely safe assumption to say that they would vote in favor of their own collective self-interest. Therefore, insofar as there is a collective self-interest in breathing clean air, drinking clean water, eating clean food, living a long, healthy life and enjoying both the scientific and aesthetic bounty of nature, it is safe to predict that workers would vote to allocate the labor time necessary to virtually eliminate pollution at the point of production.

Thus, while in an abstract sense it is true that the self-governing producers of a socialist society could democratically decide to continue polluting the environment, it would defy all reason and human nature to project such a decision. It is no more valid or credible a supposition than supposing that everyone under socialism could decide to burn down their own home or commit suicide some day.

The gist of the matter is this: Under capitalism, the profit motive and competition form a systematic barrier against the protection and restoration of the environment. In socialist society, that barrier will be destroyed and humankind's common needs and wants will guide economic decision-making. Since those needs and wants include a clean and healthy environment, a socialist society will take the steps needed to create one.