Not with a bang but a whimper: capitalism, socialism, ecology

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The World According to The Economist
The centralization of the population in great cities exercises of itself an unfavorable influence. All putrefying vegetable and animal substances give off gases decidedly injurious to health, and if these gases have no free way of escape, they inevitably poison the atmosphere . . . [The poor] are obliged to throw all offal and garbage, all dirty water, often all disgusting drainage and excrement into the streets, being without other means of disposing of them; they are thus compelled to infect the region of their own dwelling.
Thus wrote Friedrich Engels in 1844. Remarkably, this quote was selected by the editors of The Economist--weekly holy writ of the transnational business community and other neoliberal globalizers--to introduce their recent "Survey of Development and the Environment."1 In their view "much of Engel's writing seems irrelevant today, but his description of working-class life in 19th-century London paints an uncannily accurate picture of slum life in developing countries at the end of the 20th century. In the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, the stench from the rotting rubbish and fetid water that collects between the shacks is overpowering. In the north of Mexico City, near Santa Fe, hovels cling to the sides of a steep valley which most days is choked with smog, and streams of untreated sewage run down to the river below. In the Moroccan town of Marrakesh, the smell of rotting cattle flesh surrounds tanneries for miles around."

The Economist rightly observes that concern for the environment is not a luxury that only rich nations can afford. The poor are confronted daily with the palpable degradations of their immediate environment: scarce and polluted water, air that is dangerous to breath, non-existent or inadequate sewage systems, trees (and hence firewood) in ever shorter supply, soil depletion, fish stocks dwindling, deteriorating social existence for more and more people who crowd into high-crime, drug-ridden urban slums. Moreover, such effects as global warming, gaping holes in the ozone layer and the destruction of tropical rain forests impact more directly and more severely on poor people than on those better able to insulate themselves from the worst damage.

The Economist writers take due note of all of this. It is hard to say which is more depressing, the terrible conditions they document or the utter incommensurability of these conditions with the reforms The Economist supports.

These reforms must stay within the bounds of the neoliberal paradigm. Predictably, The Economist contributors single out government as the main culprit, since it is unthinkable within their worldview that free markets or capitalism itself should be at fault. What is to be done? Adopt policies "upholding the rule of law, securing property rights, weeding out corruption and reducing subsidies," policies that will reduce environmental costs, while at the same time "promote economic growth." More concretely, governments are urged to privatize municipal waste services (although it is noted that there aren't many foreign investors interested in such offerings), stop subsidizing water, so that "farmers would have an incentive to invest in technologies that use water more efficiently," and, rather than make public investment in "hugely expensive" treatment plants, simply, when feasible, "pump raw sewage far out into the deep sea."

One should not regard The Economist's view of environmental reform as idiosyncratic. The neoliberal paradigm that structures its writers' perceptions of environmental issues (and of how the world works in general) is overwhelmingly dominant in ruling class circles today. It represents the near-consensus view of government and business leaders, the IMF, even (despite policy statements professing environmental concern) the World Bank.2 We have here the prevailing wisdom of most of the world's ruling elites.
The World According to William Greider
It should be obvious that to think seriously about the environmental problems confronting our species (and many others), we must go beyond the neoliberal paradigm, which in essence sees government as the problem, and free markets and increased growth as the solution. We also need to go beyond those critics, a minority among mainstream journalists, academics, businessmen and politicians, but increasing in numbers, who are willing to call neoliberalism into question--but not capitalism itself.

William Greider is a case in point. His One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism is a brilliant dissection of the global economy.3 His analysis will not strike those on the Left as particularly novel, but here is an editor of a mass-circulation, youth-oriented magazine who, having travelled to Japan, Germany, China, Poland, Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to see for himself, and having been granted interviews with a wide assortment of high-placed corporate executives and government officials, pronounces that the current system is out of control. Moveover, his book is praised on its cover by Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Monthly, and Time Magazine. Clearly, Greider is articulating a view that is not confined to the usual suspects.

The thesis of the book is suggested by the metaphor with which Greider begins:
Imagine a wondrous new machine, strong and supple, that reaps as it destroys. . . . It plows across fields and fence rows with a fierce momentum that is exhilarating to behold and also frightening. As it goes, the machine throws off enormous mows of wealth and bounty while it leaves behind great furrows of wreckage. Imagine that there are skillful hands on board, but no one is at the wheel. In fact, this machine has no wheel nor any internal governor to control the speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites. And it is accelerating.4
Greider is above all worried about financial collapse, but in the final chapter of his book, he also worries about the ecological limits that this wondrous new machine seems bent on transgressing.
China, at present, has 680 people per automobile compared to 1.7 people per car in the United States. Can one imagine a global prosperity in which China's 1.2 billion citizens have the same wherewithal to consume? And if China's ambitious auto policy should fail, there are still India, Brazil and dozens of other nations pursuing similar aspirations.5
Since he is willing to go beyond the limits of neoliberalism, Greider is willing to propose reforms that would provoke The Economist to editorial apoplexy:
1. A transaction tax on capital (originally proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin) and the reimposition of some capital controls--to slow down finance capital's hypermobility.

2. International labor rights, to enable workers in Third World countries to "ratchet up" the bottom, rather than, as at present, allowing global competition to ratchet down the top. (Rising wages, he feels, will generate the demand to absorb the excess supply now evident everywhere.)

3. Tough environmental legislation, coupled with government procurement policies and a changed consumer consciousness to encourage the vast technological skills and resources that are now available to be directed at developing clean, sustainable production processes.
Greider refuses to call himself a socialist. He holds out for a much reformed capitalism, although he is pessimistic that anything like the reforms he advocates will be implemented. More probable, he estimates, are "a series of terrible events--wrenching calamities that are economic or social or environmental in nature--before common sense can prevail."6

It should be clear that even if Greider's reform proposals were implemented, they would be inadequate. In fact they are contradictory. On the one hand, Greider argues that "the larger imperative at hand is redirecting the global system toward a pro-growth regime that overcomes the 'contained depression' in advanced economies and creates the basis for rising prosperity at both ends of the global system, among both rich and poor nations."7 On the other hand, such pro-growth policies and structures will surely exacerbate, not ameliorate, the ecological destruction he documents.

Greider knows that his analysis has come up short. In the end he acknowledges (with considerably more honesty than most well-intentioned reformers) that "nothing in this book has offered any solution to the core problem of capitalism."
The market process is, as its advocates proclaim, a source of vast creative energies--the sale-and-profit incentive that leads individuals and enterprises to invent and multiply output. Yet this same mechanism also generates the brutal swings and manic excesses--the herds of reckless investors, the false hopes of producers, the relentless drive to maximize return--that create so much destruction and human suffering, subordination and insecurity.8
For Greider, finally, there is only one hope: "Perhaps, in this next age of capitalism, an original thinker will arise somewhere in the world with a new theory that reconciles the market's imperatives with unfulfilled human needs, without having to destroy the marketplace to do so. This would be an intellectual achievement for the ages."9
Six Theses on Socialism and the Environment

The fact of the matter is, no new theory of capitalism is going to save us, nor some brilliant and original new thinker. The fact of the matter is, we know enough now to deal with the problems that are upon us. We know both the proximate causes and deep structures that are intensifying ecological stress, and we can see clearly what changes need to be made if we are going to preserve our planet in its basic integrity. Let me spell out this contention in more detail by formulating it as a series of theses.

I. Both wealth and poverty are proximate causes of environmental degradation; hence issues of both "overdevelopment" and "underdevelopment" must be addressed.
Obviously, wealthier people and wealthier nations tend to consume more resources and generate more waste than poorer people and nations. The United States, for example, contains 5% of the world's population, but generates 23% of the world's carbon emissions. A newborn in the United States requires more than twice as much grain and ten times as much oil as a child born in Brazil or Indonesia--and produces far more pollution. As Christopher Flavin points out, "a simple calculation shows that the annual increase in the U.S. population of 2.6 million people puts more pressure on the world's resources than do the 17 million India adds each year."10

This is not to say that poverty does not generate environmental problems in its own right. Consider the oft-cited envirnomental concern, over-poputlation. Population increases in poor countries compel peasants to overcultivate marginal land, worsening the problem of soil erosion, and to cut down trees at a non-sustainable rate. Population pressures also drive people off their lands and into the squalid, polluted urban slums, made even more squalid and polluted by the increased numbers.11

But population growth is directly related to poverty. The populations of the industrialized nations, apart from immigration, are flat or declining. As Partha Dasgupta notes, to see the causal link between poverty and population, all we have to do is ask the question: why do poor people in poor countries produce too many children?12 Among the poor, children are an important source of income when they are young, and they provide a measure of social security for their parents when the parents get old. Moreover, given the high infant mortality rates in most poor countries, a woman must have many children to insure that enough survive.13 There are, of course, other factors that interact with these purely economic considerations--above all, male dominance. Men and women both share in the economic gains from having children, but men tend to gain more--while the costs are borne overwhelmingly by women.

Clearly we need to think about both overdevelopment and underdevelopment in addressing environmental concerns. But what do these terms mean? Herman Daly offers a concise definition: "An overdeveloped country is one whose level of per capita resource consumption is such that if generalized to all countries could not be sustained indefinitely; correspondingly, an underdeveloped country would be one whose per capita resource consumption is less than what would be sustainable if all the world consumed at that level."14 Looking at carbon emissions, for example, and assuming that the amount of carbon dioxide released into to atmosphere is now at or beyond what is sustainable, we see that United States is producing more than five times its sustainable share. Since carbon emissions tend to correlate with general levels of consumption, the U.S. can be said to be overdeveloped by a factor of five. China, by way of contrast, although the second largest producer of carbon emissions after the U.S., is generating less than two-thirds of its per capita share; India is generating less than a quarter of its share.15

Although the concepts of over- and underdevelopment are exceedingly important in allowing us to appreciate the magnitude of certain environmental problems (far more useful than the more common notion that "underdeveloped" means having a per capita GDP significantly less than what obtains in advanced industrial societies), policy conclusions do not follow directly from these concepts. It would be absurd, for example, to propose that the United States immediately cut back its consumption level to one-fifth its current level. No matter how radically or how quickly the political or economic structure of the United States might be altered, reducing consumption--if it is to be accomplished in a humane and ethical fashion--must be a long-term affair. Overdevelopment is a serious problem, probably more serious from an ecological point of view, than underdevelopment, since it is less amenable to relatively rapid amelioration than is global poverty.
II. We cannot think intelligently about environmental issues without also thinking about class.
Ecological crises, even when global in scope, will impact more heavily on the poor than on the wealthy. If global warming continues, oceans will rise and coastal areas will be inundated. The rich will relocate inland with their wealth more or less intact. If ozone depletion raises the risk of skin cancer dramatically, the rich will protect themselves--and will have access to the best medical treatment. If climatic changes and population pressure cause food production to decline, the well-to-do will not starve. To be sure, overall quality of life will decline for rich and poor alike, but the effects will by no means be felt equally.

When we speak of "rich" and "poor," we should keep in mind that we are speaking of people and of classes--not of nations. There are many poor people in rich nations, and vice versa. It is the poorer classes that will suffer most from global ecological crises, in whatever nation they belong. Of course, poorer nations have a much higher percentage of poor people than do richer nations, so the poor people of poor nations will almost certainly bear the heaviest burdens of all.

It is tempting to ignore the issue of class when making environmental arguments, since avoiding class would seem to give them broader appeal. Most mainstream environmental organizations take precisely this tack. But to do so is fundamentally dishonest. For example, it is a commonplace among U.S. environmentalists to argue that we should impose a stiff gasoline tax to reduce consumption. It is pointed out that in Europe gasoline is three or four times more expensive than it is here. But it is not so often pointed out that the social safety net is much higher in Europe than in the United States, and that mass transit in Europe is much more highly developed. If U.S. environmentalists are going to struggle for a higher gasoline consumption tax--as indeed we should--we must simultaneously keep the class issue front and center, and demand public policies that distribute the burdens fairly.

Class analysis is also essential to understanding population pressure. It is true that the rate of population increase is much greater in most poor countries than it is in rich countries. But to focus on countries is to miss a key element. Within a given country fertility rates correlate strongly with class. In Brazil in the late 1970s, for example, the average fertility of women between the ages of 15 and 49 was 4.35--more than double the population replacement rate. But among women with family incomes more than twice the minimum wage, it was only 1.79--easily sustainable. Among women with family incomes of less than half the minimum wage, the rate was 7.13--four times as high.16

III. The fundamental environmental problems have solutions--and we know what they are.
This thesis overstates somewhat. Species that have gone extinct cannot be brought back.17 Climatic changes now underway may be at least in part irreversible. But to create a sustainable world for our species and others is not beyond our reach. Consider three of the most significant and widely discussed problems: population growth, world hunger, and the atmospheric pollution that depletes the ozone layer and generates global warming.
Population growth is serious. The world had 1.6 billion human inhabitants when this century began. The total increased by about fifty percent over the first half of the century and then by an astounding 3.5 billion during the second half, to nearly six billion today, almost four times the population of 1900. If present trends continue, the world will have a population between nine and twelve billion in 2050, twenty-four billion by 2100.

But present trends need not continue. The fertility rates in all advanced industrial societies are at or below replacement levels (which is 2.1 children per woman). How to bring down birth rates is no mystery. Economic security is essential, so that parents do not have to depend on their surviving offspring for household income and old-age support. Public health measures are essential, so that a woman does not have to have many children to insure that two or three survive. The means of preventing unwanted pregnancies must be available, so that the desire to limit family size can be effective. Finally--perhaps most important of all--women must have full access to education and to employment opportunities, so that they know what their options are and are free to weigh the costs and benefits of children to themselves.18

It is important to understand that a country does not have to be rich to satisfy the conditions for population stability, at least not "rich" as measured by GDP per capita. To cite the best known example: China has a per capita GDP of about one-tenth that of the United States, whereas its fertility rate has dropped below that of the U.S.19 Or to cite a case that hasn't involved coercive measures: Cuba's rate of population increase is identical to that of the U.S., whereas its per-capita income is even less than China's.

The fact is, the steps that need to be taken to enable all the citizens of a country, men and women alike, to have an education, basic health care and significant economic security are not particularly expensive. Both education and public health are labor intensive services. And as Dasgupta's calculations show, in material terms it is not difficult to eliminate poverty. "Resources required for eliminating poverty amount to approximately ten percent of their national income in sub-Sahara Africa and the Indian subcontinent . . . . Assuming a growth rate of income per head of one percent per year [a growth rate routinely exceeded in India and Pakistan], poverty in these parts could in principle be eradicated in ten years."20

More concretely, Cuba has recently demonstrated how, even when faced with the collapse of its trading partners and sources of foreign aid and with a virulent economic boycott by the United States, a poor country can muster the resources to maintain the basic health and well-being of its population.21 Cuba, as noted above, does not have a population problem.
Closely related to the issue of population increase is the threat of global food shortage. Although agricultural productivity has increased greatly since the 1950s, faster than population growth, these gains have slowed considerably during the last decade. Moreover, large amounts of cropland are giving way to urban development and even more is being degraded by overuse. It would seem that global food production is approaching capacity--at a time when there are an estimated one billion undernourished people in the world, many so badly malnourished that they are unable to work effectively.22

There are two parts to the food problem, the supply side and the demand side. Both poverty and overdevelopment are implicated on the supply side. A 1991 study asserts that overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement and overharvesting of fuelwood--activities carried out disproportionately by poor people--account for 70 percent of the damage done to the world's soil. Urbanization--particularly urban sprawl and suburbanization--use up valuable cropland, as does the building of ever more and bigger highways. Irrigation projects are often unsustainable, ruining the land by salinization or by drawing down the water table.23 Golf courses continue to proliferate, even in poor countries. (Some 160 were built in Thailand between 1989 and 1994.)

In addition to putting a brake on the negative trends, there are things that can be done to increase food supply. In poor countries meaningful land reform is often in order. Many studies have demonstrated that in poor countries smaller farms are more productive than large estates. It has been estimated that an equitable distribution of land could increase food production between ten and thirty percent24. It is also likely that scientific research will continue to enhance productivity, although probably not as dramatically as in the past.

The global food supply can still be increased, but it seems clear that the fundamental solution to the food question must come from the demand side--the quantity and composition of the food consumed. In a sense, at present, there is no food problem at all. Even The Economist admits that "if all the world's grain were distributed evenly, there would be more than enough for everyone's needs."25 Lester Brown provides some numbers:

The average American requires 800 kilograms of grain a year, the vast bulk of it consumed indirectly in the form of beef, pork, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream. The average Indian, in contrast, gets by with about 200 kilograms of grain a year, almost all of it consumed directly. . . . With a diet of 400 kilograms of grain per person, roughly what the Italians eat each year, 2 billion tons of grain year [a plausible increase from the 1996 harvest of 1.82 billion tons] would support 5 billion people.26
So we see, the poor--and malnourished--need not always be with us. Current resources exist to feed everyone at a level only slightly less than the average Italian. But only if current consumption and distribution patterns are radically altered and population growth is checked.
There is good news being reported on one of the fronts in the struggle against atmospheric pollution. In 1987 the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer went into effect, having been negotiated by representatives of countries rich and poor, East and West. It was signed on the spot by twenty four countries and the European Community. It has since been ratified by some 150 nations. The protocol calls for strict restrictions on the production and use of chemicals that damage the ozone layer, principally chlorofluorocarbons.27

The impact of this treaty has been substantial. By 1995 production of ozone-depleting chemicals was down 76% from its 1988 peak. Given the complexities of problem, we can't be certain of this, but recent scientific estimates suggest that if all countries comply with the Montreal Protocol, the ozone shield will begin to heal around the end of the decade, and might fully recover by the middle of the next century.

The success of the Montreal Protocol is surely a life-affirming event that we all must cheer. At least with respect to one ecological disaster, our species seems to have pulled back from the brink. Can such a success be repeated with respect to the other major global atmospheric problem, the carbon dioxide emissions that are causing the "greenhouse effect," and hence global warming?

In principle yes--but in practice the struggle here will be much more difficult, as we can see from the rather meager results of the internationally negotiated 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the 1997 Kyoto follow-up.28 It will be more difficult for at least two reasons. First, the fact that the ozone layer was indeed being depleted rapidly was solidly established in world scientific circles, as was the fact that chlorofluorocarbons were the principle culprits. Whether we are indeed experiencing global warming and whether carbon emissions are the principle cause are more controversial claims. Opponents of any international protocol restricting carbon emissions--and there are many--can muster more expert testimony on their behalf.29

Second, and more importantly, the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons has been relatively costless--to society at large and to the immediate producers. Chemical substitutes were readily available or at least on the drawing boards of the major chemical companies. (In 1988 DuPont Chemicals announced that it was phasing out its $600 million chlorofluorocarbon business altogether, so as to concentrate on developing and marketing alternatives, which it has successfully done.) The profits of major producers were not affected by the Montreal Protocol.

Since chlorofluorocarbon use was not widespread in poor countries, the ten-year implementation delay extended to them by the treaty and the commitment by rich nations to reimburse them for "all agreed incremental costs" were sufficient to induce most poor countries to sign on. Since few poor countries were heavily invested in CFC production or use, transition costs have been minimal.

Clearly, any attempt to radically reduce carbon emissions will encounter far stiffer resistance than did the effort to phase out CFCs. Two of the world's most powerful industries are massively implicated in the problem--oil and automotive. There are cleaner ways of generating energy than burning oil and cleaner ways of transporting people than relying on private automobiles, but it is hard to envisage the transition to these cleaner modes that preserves the status and incomes of these giant industries.

Such a transition would also affect profoundly the lifestyle of consumers. Whether effected by a high carbon tax or by direct rationing, a cutback in the consumption of oil, at least in the short and medium run will make life more difficult for many, many people. (Whatever good things one might want to say about bicycles, trams, and trains, having your own car is more convenient--particularly on a rainy day, particularly if you have children, particularly if the nearest bus stop is a long walk away.)

Moreover, not only must people in rich countries cut their oil-based energy consumption drastically, but people of poor countries must be induced not to imitate the consumption habits of rich countries.
Let us draw some general conclusions from the examples we have examined. First of all, we see that the environmental problems are interrelated in complicated, seemingly contradictory ways, in the sense that solving one problem might well exacerbates another. To solve the population problem, we must eliminate global poverty. But if we eliminate global poverty, then people will consume even more than they do now, thus intensifying the food problem and the carbon emission problem. If we try to reduce the food and energy consumption of the rich by imposing green taxes, then higher food and energy prices will make the problems of poverty worse. If we try to ration the world's food and energy supply . . . just try to imagine administering 5.8 billion ration booklets, and making sure that the supply of each item matches the ration allotment.

Clearly, it is impossible to solve our global ecological problems through some globally administered scheme of rationing or redistributive taxation. It is pointless to say, true though it may be, that there is enough to go around if we only distribute it rationally. We can envisage a feasible solution to global ecological problems only if we think in dynamic, developmental terms, rather than static redistributionist terms.

Which is not to say, as so many economists do, that we can grow our way out of our problems. It is important in this context to distinguish between "growth" and "development." By "growth" I mean growth in consumption as measured by standard GDP. By "development" I mean rational movement toward a sustainable future.30 As we have seen, there are two basic causal factors at work in undermining our environmental security: overdevelopment and poverty. Some countries are consuming more than their sustainable share of the world's non-replaceable resources and are contributing more than their sustainable share of pollution. Such economies need to contract, not expand. Of course it is theoretically possible--as economists are quick to point out--for a country's overall GDP to grow while its consumption of non-renewable resources and its contribution to global pollution declines. But given the sheer magnitude of contemporary overdevelopment, it is wishful thinking to suppose that materials substitution and cleaner technologies can allow rich countries to continue their current levels of consumption and waste generation while the poorer countries catch up.

The primary environmental-developmental goal of such "overdeveloped" countries must be to bring down their levels of material consumption so that they use no more than their sustainable share of resources and contribute no more than their sustainable share to global pollution.31 Other countries must confront mass poverty as their basic problem, and must have alleviating that poverty as their fundamental environmental-developmental goal. These economies do indeed need to grow, although in a manner more respectful of the environment than rich countries have grown, and with the aim of achieving sustainable, not overdeveloped, levels of consumption.

It is evident that we need an array of national development plans. One size does not fit all. Countries that are overdeveloped must devise green taxes and other restrictions so as to bring their pollution and resource consumption down to sustainable levels, as well as internal income transfers so as not to make the poor of these countries bear a disproportionate burden. This cannot be done overnight. A significant quantity of the society's investment must be allocated for the transition. Overdeveloped societies are "addicted" to overconsumption. Withdrawal will be neither easy nor cheap.

This is not to say that the consumption changes necessary for sustainability must bring down the overall quality of life in overdeveloped countries. Indeed, if the transition is properly managed, quality of life--and the level of human happiness in such societies--can be markedly improved. Addiction does not, in general, contribute to overall well-being, however difficult it is to break.

For poor countries the developmental priority should be to eliminate poverty, but this "poverty" should not be understood solely, or even primarily, in terms of income. As noted above, the provision of universal education and basic public health care are labor-intensive services that are not terribly expensive. Even before the market reforms that began in China in 1978, Chinese policies had extended life expectancy from the low 40s to the upper 60s. Cubans and North Americans have nearly identical life expectancies and literacy rates, although the Cuban GDP per capita in 1994 was only one-twentieth that of the United States.32

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