Socialist Worker

Can we change the world enough to save the planet?

by Martin Empson
Issue No. 2180

Capitalism is causing climate chaos. It is a system based on blind competition between companies, each trying to make the most money. They see the natural world as something to be exploited for short term gain – a seemingly endless mine of resources and an infinitely large rubbish bin for waste.

The system relies heavily on destructive fossil fuels. Because production is for profit, little thought is given to the long term consequences of it.

Inefficiency and waste are part and parcel of capitalism. Commodities are overproduced, yet people starve because they don’t have enough money to buy food.

And so much of the system, such as the advertising industry, is simply a pointless waste of resources.

All of this is having a devastating effect on the planet. Politicians are falling over themselves to declare how serious they are about tackling climate change.

Yet it’s likely that the Copenhagen climate summit will end in failure because tackling climate change would mean challenging the free market and the corporate interests who profit from polluting the planet – and politicians aren’t willing to do that. This begs the question: if capitalism is so bad for the planet and the people who live in it, what is the alternative? If capitalism cannot exist in balance with nature, how could we organise a society that could?

Socialists have long argued that it is possible to organise society differently. There is no reason why production cannot be co-ordinated and planned.

Rather than companies desperately producing goods in a race to make the maximum profit things could be organised more rationally, with enormous benefits for the planet and people.

In a socialist, sustainable society there wouldn’t be the duplication of research, the overproduction of materials, or the waste that results when goods remain unsold. Production would be rationally and democratically organised.

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.

But socialism is more than simply planning production. A sustainable world would be one where everything would be different, from the design of our cities to the types of housing we build.

Almost every aspect of our current lives – from the long commute to work, to the leaky, inefficient homes we live in – is incompatible with the long term future of the planet.

This is not to suggest that we should return to a some sort of pre-industrial society. Technology and industrialisation offer huge potential to benefit us all – but they need to be utilised in the interest of people and planet, not profit.

Some aspects of what such a society would look like are quite straightforward. A sustainable society would generate the bulk of its energy from renewable sources rather than relying on fossil fuels. Buildings would be properly insulated. Wasteful industries would be made more efficient or eliminated altogether.

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.

We could develop fast, efficient and cheap railways for long distance transport. People could have longer holidays to make choosing greener ways to travel long distances would easier. Finally, a sustainable society would be one where collective social institutions, such as creches and launderettes, would be much more common.

So how can such a society come about? Capitalism is based on the exploitation of working people – those who create all the wealth in society.

There is a constant tension between the pressure on the capitalists to make profits and the needs of the workers to defend their conditions.

When this tension explodes into open struggle, the potential for a new way of organising society becomes apparent.

Anyone who has ever been on strike knows how people start to take control of their own lives.

At the high points of class struggle – revolutions – working class organisations form the basis for a new world. In every revolutionary upheaval these bodies don’t simply co-ordinate strikes – they organise everything from the distribution of food to the running of emergency services.

They put ordinary people at the heart of the discussions that make this possible. It’s a short step from this to the planning of production.

The overthrow of capitalism won’t create a sustainable society overnight. But it will create the basis for that society by putting in place a system that is organised in the interest of people and planet, not profit.

New Socialist Worker pamphlet by Martin Empson, Marxism and ecology. Only £1.50 from Socialist Worker sellers and Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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