Profit vs. Earth


From the New Unionist, March 1995, pages 1,3

Profit vs. Earth

By Leonore Carpenter

It is to the advantage of the ruling powers of our modern world to promote the idea that environmental problems, as well as all the other problems facing us, are caused by "human nature." If the majority accepts this fatalistic view, all efforts for change are fruitless.

But a look at history shows that people's beliefs and feelings toward one another, and toward the environment, are conditioned by the society in which they live. And those beliefs and feelings change as society changes.

For thousands of years of tribal society, before the coming of civilization divided people into antagonistic classes, humans lived in basic harmony with each other and with their environment. Cooperation was the key to their survival and their advancement. Greed was unknown. The earth and its animals were worshipped as sacred beings. Even the necessary killing of game for food had to be justified through tribal rituals.

Although civilization took a mankind-centered attitude toward the environment, environmental destruction was at first incidental and occasional, until the period when capitalism, with its industrialization, became dominant. Also, the environmental damage of pre-capitalist societies was done in ignorance and had no overall long-term global impact.

Today, while millions of dedicated individuals try to protect plant and animal life, and public opinion polls show that the majority is deeply concerned about the continuing destruction, the carnage continues. Why?

The presence of masses of people crowded into environmentally-sensitive areas of the world creates the impression that overpopulation in itself is the main reason behind destruction of the environment. And without a doubt, there are too many people crowded into cities like Mexico City, and living in and near wilderness areas, which creates difficulties in many of the third-world nations.

But overpopulation is a consequence of the workings out of capitalism, and is not the main reason for environmental stress.

For example, in vast areas of the third world, international agribusiness has thrown formerly self-reliant peasants off the best land in order to produce cash crops. Those who can't find work at poverty-level wages on the land they formerly owned have no choice but to migrate to cities where they hope to hire themselves out to industrial capitalists. Others are shoved out into the diminishing rain forests, which they try to make suitable for farming. These poor peasants are simply trying to survive and feed their families.

Profit, not the earth's survival, is what motivates international capitalist "investors." Directly or indirectly, the drive for profit affects everything around us and is the major reason for environmental destruction. This profit-driven system is so all-pervasive that it is destroying the environment in every area of the world. There is no land, no people, no species that has not been affected in one way or another.

In contrast to all previous social systems, the capitalist system is based on production for sale, and not for personal use or human welfare. Under capitalism, everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. Even labor is a commodity bought and sold on the labor market.

The capitalist system is governed by the laws of the market. There are essentially two "laws" of capitalism that dominate every business, large or small, and affect every decision made by companies.

The first is that every cost factor in production must be carefully weighed. Wages must be kept to a minimum. Raw materials must be bought at the lowest price, or replaced by cheaper substitutes. Waste must be disposed of as cheaply as possible, which leads to the indiscriminate and criminal dumping of toxic chemicals and other waste by-products of industry.

The second aspect of the market system which has a devastating effect on the environment is that the costs of production must be constantly lowered. Every new labor-saving invention installed by one company requires industry-wide imitation by its competitors. The result is that the total amount of commodities increases in astronomical proportions as the number of needed workers diminishes.

The need to sell ever greater numbers of commodities creates, under capitalism, a throw-away culture. The system bombards us with commercials to buy, buy, buy, while creating products with a deliberately limited life span and which cost more to fix than to replace. While it's good to have people recycle and consume fewer unneeded products, these personal choices alone can't redirect the underlying compulsions of the system that are the real reason for the environmental crisis.

While there is the need to sell ever-more commodities, the working class has less purchasing power because companies are reducing their labor costs through layoffs and pay cuts. The corporations must then make greater efforts to sell in the international market.

But the corporations in each country face the same problem. Their respective working classes cannot buy back what they, the workers, create. With mounting inventories, the economic rivalry intensifies, and nothing is allowed to stand in the way of reducing costs to stay competitive. The rivalry leads ultimately to the greatest human and environmental disaster: war.

Trying to solve environmental problems through government legislation has proved futile. Numerous laws that have been passed to protect the environment either are not enforced or are weakened in response to economic pressure from business. And the capitalists hold the ultimate weapon, the threat of moving their corporations to countries where there are no such laws.

It is economic power that gives the capitalist owning class, a tiny minority of less than 5% of the population, its tremendous political power. It logically follows that to redress our problems, we, the people, must gain economic power.

The foundation for a real democracy is the ownership and control of the economy by society as a whole-not by private corporations, not by the state, not by any other entity standing above us. To establish an economic democracy, we will need to organize in the workplaces to put ourselves in direct control of the economy, while at the same time organizing a political party to demand fundamental change.

We must build a new union movement based on the explicit goal of replacing capitalism with economic democracy. This new union movement will aim at organizing all of us, the entire working class, employed and unemployed, blue-collar and white-collar-all those who are today excluded from ownership of the means of production.

Through a system of elected and recallable representatives, unions on the local as well as national level would be united into one big union that would conduct a unified struggle against capitalism. While fighting the everyday battle between capital and labor, our union would always keep sight of its revolutionary goal, the democratic ownership and control of the industries, mandated by a majority vote for the workers' political party.

Once we have won this political victory, we, the producers, will build our new governing institutions based on the various industries. In addition to electing our immediate workplace management, we will send representatives to the local and national councils of our own particular industry, and to an all-industry Congress which will become the working government of the nation.

The change to an economic democracy will make it possible to solve the problems capitalism has created. With the absence of conflicting economic interests, the new society will be able to tackle problems in a spirit of cooperation. Our number-one priority will be conservation and protection of the environment, not only for ourselves, but to benefit future generations.

This is a call for a revolutionary transformation of society. The first American Revolution declared that the property of this country belongs to the people who inhabit it. The second American Revolution declared that the holding of human beings as property is immoral and illegal. The next American Revolution will declare that the means of life, the industries, rightfully belong to all the people.

This will not be a simple or easy process. We workers need to rediscover the common needs and hopes that bind us as a class, that override our differences and diversity. In this dog-eat-dog world, we must realize that the unemployed and homeless are victims of the same system that exploits workers with jobs.

Above all, we need to understand that we, the working class, are the only necessary class. We do all the world's useful work, and we are the only ones who can change it for the better.