Since its birth, capitalism has not only relied on the ruthless exploitation of workers but also of the environment. The effects of this range from environmental degradation through physical destruction and poisoning to the uncontrolled pumping out of greenhouse gases, with the latter now leading to the melting of the ice caps, rising sea levels and changes to the planet’s climate.
The founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, were well aware of this. In his article, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels observed:
“As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.
“The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!
“In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character.” (June 1876)
Some climate scientists have now claimed that sea levels are rising much faster than previously thought. According to reports in the New York Times, they are “most likely rising faster than at any point in 28 centuries, with the rate of increase growing sharply over the past century – largely, they found, because of the warming that scientists have said is almost certainly caused by human emissions”. (Seas are rising at fastest rate in last 28 centuries by Justin Gillis, 22 February 2016)
This means that it is likely that catastrophic flooding could drown many coastal areas over the next decades rather than centuries, bringing devastation not only to towns, cities and communities, but also to entire countries – especially small and poor island states in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Imperialist chauvinism in perspective
Predictably enough, however, the New York Times’ reporting on the issue is a prime example of imperialist chauvinism. While rising sea levels – not to mention the other effects of climate change – have long since become a life and death issue for many in oppressed countries around the world, the New York Times laments the inconvenience that will be caused to the USA in the short term: “The increasingly routine tidal flooding is making life miserable in places like Miami Beach; Charleston, SC; and Norfolk, Va, even on sunny days.” Even on sunny days – the horror!
It is true that rising sea levels and other changes to the climate affect the whole of humanity in the long run, and that many working people in imperialist countries will be pushed into sharper contradiction with the capitalist system as the sea threatens to wash away their homes and livelihoods. However, these drastic new developments will undoubtedly affect the most acute global contradiction, that between the imperialist and oppressed nations, most strikingly in the first instance.
As the global masses who are exploited and oppressed by imperialism are not only left to starve but also to drown, more and more of them will be driven to the struggle for complete national liberation and a socialist alternative.
Capitalism is the problem and offers no solutions
Any hope that these dire problems facing the planet can be solved within the capitalist mode of production – the system that created them in the first place, and that exacerbates and perpetuates them – would be completely misguided. As long as the profit motive guides production, the capitalists’ frenzied drive for expansion makes an irrational and destructive approach to nature and the environment inevitable.
While certain scientific and technological developments may provide hope for the future, and ameliorate matters to a certain extent, they can by no means change the economic and social relations that are at the heart of the problem. The problem is systemic, not technological.
To quote the concluding remarks from our party’s leaflet, You’ve got to be red to be green:
“The hard truth is that if we are serious about saving humanity from cataclysmic climate change, we need to redouble our efforts to organise the working class to smash imperialism. Only socialism will be able to organise production and direct scientific and technological research on a society-wide basis in order that the problems facing us can be solved.
“Imperialism has proved itself incapable of addressing the problem of climate change, and so it stands helpless at the gates of its own destruction.
“Under socialism, on the other hand, as soon as human need becomes the motive force for production, it will be not only possible but absolutely necessary to combine the long-term needs of the people with the satisfaction of their short-term wants. If culture changes are required in order that we don’t waste materials and energy on pointless activity, such culture changes will surely be effected.”
Save humanity – overthrow imperialism!