New Internationalist

Malign Design

November 1998

Malign design

Could capitalism ever be environmentally sustainable?
Lisa Macdonald and Allen Myers have their doubts.

There is a tension, even friction, between socialists and environmentalists, Reds and Greens. It is not reducible to different origins and traditions, but a reflection in politics of a fundamental social dilemma.

How can the world’s majority be raised out of misery without pushing the environment over the brink? For the environmentally and socially aware individual in the developed countries, it may seem that the only answer is to consume less, and more ‘greenly’. Such decisions have, however, a largely symbolic value: they are a token of concern, but do little to overcome the causes of that concern.

Levels of individual consumption in the First World rise and fall – with changes in the economic cycle, for example – without a corresponding fall or rise of Third World well-being. Levels of production change too. It is not the case that there is a fixed supply of goods for the world’s population, so that one individual’s consumption is another’s inability to consume.

The possibilities of ‘Green consumerism’ are equally limited. As a strategy for reducing environmental destruction it presumes a great deal. Goods produced by significantly less polluting methods must exist on the market. Consumers must have detailed knowledge of a wide range of goods, and sufficient means to buy benign products even when these are more expensive. Habits of environmental shopping must be widespread – otherwise, why buy a more expensive product if most others don’t? Corporations must not be able to ‘greenwash’ and create illusions about their products.

Such favourable conditions coincide only rarely. And, even if they did so more often, this would not be sufficient. There is no way that the world’s environment could withstand, say, global car-usage like that in Australia or the US, even if all cars were made in the greenest available fashion. The greenhouse-gas problem requires a radical reduction in car usage in the First World regardless of any increase in the Third World.

This example points to an important aspect of the poverty/environment dilemma. Environmental destruction is caused less by consumption per se than by specific products and the way they are produced. Twenty kilometres may measure the same distance in Sydney or the Punjab – but there is a big difference if an Indian travels it by bicycle while I travel by car. Wealth and consumption are not the same thing. The answer lies not in the level of consumption, nor even ‘green’ consumption, but in the nature of wealth – properly understood as human well-being, or a ‘rational abundance’.

Bringing the poverty-stricken – who are not only in the Third World – up to any reasonable standard of well-being will, admittedly, involve an increase in their levels of material consumption. But this does not have to involve a large impact on the environment. The world already produces sufficient food; what the undernourished require is the means to get hold of it. Similarly, other basic necessities involve little environmental impact – like healthcare or education – or can be provided by less-polluting technologies: clothing from cultivated natural fibres rather than synthetics; housing built with natural materials rather than plastics.

What has to be turned around is the process that Barry Commoner analysed in The Closing Circle: in the quarter-century after World War Two, US per-capita consumption increased 6 per cent, while per-capita pollution increased more than 700 per cent. If 1970 consumption standards in the US could be achieved for most of the Third World at a fraction of their environmental cost, that would represent a great advance. Equally, current levels of consumption in the First World could be maintained while causing much less environmental damage. Humanity can be well fed, clothed and housed without devouring the planet.

The precondition for such relatively benign increases in production is the replacement of the profit motive with production for human need. Capitalist corporations will insist on the right to continue making profitable but destructive products rather than benign but less profitable alternatives – and to do so by methods that are profitable rather than sustainable. That is why a consistent radical environmentalism must eventually advocate the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

Defenders of the existing system claim that capitalist corporations supply what the market demands. Private cars and computer games are more profitable than trains and community activities because that is what people want; ‘rational abundance’ is an unrealistic goal because ‘human nature’ will never be satisfied with any given level of material goods.

Yet there is no evidence that, for example, most people prefer private cars to public transportation when either method can get them to their destination with equal convenience. A real test of preferences is almost impossible because public-transport systems are usually designed to be non-competitive with cars – limited routes, infrequent services outside peak hours, high fares and so on.

Indeed, the present dependence on motor vehicles was brought about by the deliberate denial of choice to travellers. Commoner cites a 1974 report to a subcommittee of the US Senate which documented the destruction of electric rail-transport systems in 45 US cities by General Motors (GM), assisted by Standard Oil of California and the Firestone Tire Company. GM bought electric transit systems, ripped up the tracks, substituted GM buses and then sold the transit company.1 Public transport by bus implied road construction and hence a huge hidden subsidy for the private-car industry. Tom Athanasiou describes a similar process now taking place in Eastern Europe – citizens of the new capitalist ‘democracies’ will have the choice between buying cars and immobility.2

Nor is it the normal case that capitalist corporations perceive a demand for a new product and then set out to meet it. It is far more common for capital to produce commodities and then set out to create a ‘need’ for them. From hula hoops to helicopters, roller blades to Rolls-Royces, the product precedes the demand. This is why advertising is such a fundamental part of modern capitalism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the expansion of human needs as part of capitalism’s ‘progressive’ role. A century-and-a-half later, the new ‘needs’ created by capitalism no longer have that character. Ernest Mandel cites as an example the US funeral industry’s promotion of coffins with a foam mattress for the deceased. Rather, such ‘needs’ are part of a malignant alienation which we know as ‘consumerism’ – defined as the desire to purchase an infinite series of commodities irrespective of their impact on our living standard. This is the result not simply of advertising but of more fundamental social relationships.

Labour in capitalism is ‘alienated’ because its product belongs to someone else: the capitalist. Our lives become split in two: there is work, and then there is ‘real’ life, which starts where work ends. ‘Real’ life as an absence of creative labour is, however, incomplete. Without productive activity there is something missing from that part of our lives we regard as our own.

This has environmental consequences. Because labour and living are divorced from each other, living is also divorced from the natural environment. This is reflected in the separation of city and country: on the one side, urban life and production cut off from their natural basis; on the other, rural isolation and dwindling opportunities for productive activities which don’t involve environmental destruction. If urban workers try to recover a relationship to the natural environment they have to do so on holiday, as non-workers ‘consuming’ nature, not living and producing within it.

For the great majority of workers, recovering ownership of our own activity is no longer even a fantasy. Instead, we focus on gaining ownership of the product – on buying commodities. Capitalist society encourages this reorientation: it is only as purchasers, ‘shoppers’, that we are treated with the courtesy worthy of a human being. But, since the price of what we produce always exceeds the wages we are paid to produce it, we can never buy it back entirely. After each purchase we are back where we started, obliged to perform alienated labour for capital that is now that much bigger and more dominant, by the amount of the profits of yesterday. So we have ‘wants’ beyond what we already own. Consumerism is a futile attempt to reunify the elements of human life within a social context that enforces their separation.

A full reuniting of these elements is at the core of Red-Green politics: de-alienating labour by democratizing and removing exploitation from the processes of production and distribution. As the aim of production is transformed from profit to human needs, consumption will cease to be a goal in itself and become a relatively minor means to that end.

Lisa Macdonald and Allen Myers work for Green Left Weekly in Australia, website http://www.peg.apc.org/~greenleft/

1 Barry Commoner, The Poverty of the Planet, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1976. In 1949, the three companies were convicted of criminal conspiracy to replace electric trolleys with buses. GM was fined $5,000, and its treasurer was fined $1.
2 Tom Athanasiou, Divided Planet, Little, Brown & Co, New York 1996.

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Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 307 This feature was published in the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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