A 1970 call for mass action against polluters

From the archives: “We must build a movement which can combat pollution not only on the street and in the factories, but in solidarity with every other struggle against the ruling class.”

This is an unusual historical document. In 1970, when most of the North American left was either dismissing the environmental movement as a liberal diversion, or arguing that nothing could be done about pollution so long as capitalism continued, one socialist group in Canada was arguing for mass action to stop the corporate polluters.

The author was a leading member of the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialists, the youth group associated with the Canadian section of the Fourth International. This article was written and published in the monthly newspaper Young Socialist in October 1970, shortly after the first Earth Day. The cover of that issue featured a large picture of a factory smokestack, with the headline Capitalism Fouls Things Up.

The author’s blunt denunciation rejection “reformist projects” such as clean-up campaigns and retail boycotts wasn’t well-calculated to win a hearing from sincere green activists who otherwise would have been open to socialist arguments. Nevertheless, the article pointed in the right direction: its criticism of liberal environmentalism was dead on, and most of what it said about how to fight environmental destruction remains relevant today.


by Terry Hamilton-Smith

“So in the matter of waste the individual is again personally responsible for pollution… The individual is the one that causes the manufacturer to make the goods that produce the factory wastes that causes more pollution.” (R.D. Lawrence, The Poison Makers).

This is a familiar sound, one of the many voices coming out of the anti­-pollution movement informing us that we are responsible, that it is our fault that the whole environment is getting fouled up. It suggests that we each individually contribute an average share to pollution and are responsible for the sense of guilt, the misdirected efforts and the frustration which have characterized the anti-pollution movement from its birth.

This attitude ignores the single most important fact about the responsibility for pollution. Surveys have established again and again that the over-whelming bulk of pollution comes from business. When automobiles are included as a responsibility of business, industry accounts for over 90% of all air pollution and over 70% of all water pollution.

The amount of pollution that individual people contribute through their day-to-day activities is very small and practically irrelevant. The main enemy in the anti-pollution movement is the business interests which control the corporations which run the industries which produce almost all the pollution.

A large amount of the energy of the anti-pollution movement to date has been addressed to convincing individuals to separate their garbage, to collect trash from the sides of the road, and not to buy non-returnable Coke bottles. Since this kind of activity does not address itself to the real source of pollution it becomes simply a way of drawing attention away from this source.

Other elements in the anti-pollution movement which are more advanced —recognize the fact that the source of most pollution is business. This is an important step forward. But many immediately make a second mistake by assuming the problem is a. matter of “corporate citizenship” and that the pollution problem can be solved by encouraging business to become good corporate citizens. But business is not profoundly interested in pollution. Their reaction to the issue is to treat the controversy as the problem not the pollution. This attitude is summed up in a quote from the Engineering and Mining Journal:

“Public infatuation with a clean environment will hit mining hard. It could propel the public relations director into a far more prominent position in the corporate hierarchy. Mining staffs are likely to be sprinkled with agronomists, biologists, ecologists and other disciplines.”

Corporations cannot afford to be overly concerned with stopping pollution. The existence of every corporation is based on its ability to make more profits than the next corporation. The fact that the average cost of pollution control equipment is approximately 25% of that of production equipment means that companies would have to cut deeply into their profits to take any real steps toward stopping pollution. It’s estimated that to cut down pollution from the chemical process industry substantially would require that the profits of the industry be cut in half.

Business is not about to cut its profits for anybody. Business has not cut its profits to provide full employment or to avoid wars. There’s no reason to expect them to do such a thing in order to stop pollution! This is . also true to a large extent of the government.

In considering the role of government and pollution control it’s very difficult to tell the politicians from the businessmen without a program. For example, the Science Council of Canada is the body responsible for advising the government on the scientific needs for pollution control. The chairman is O.M. Solant, OBE, B.A., M.A., M.D., D.Sc., LLD, FRCP, FRSC, MEIC, (Honorary), Chancel­lor of the University of Toronto, and vice-chairman of ERCO, a wholly owned British subsidiary and the largest Canadian manufacturer of phosphates.

Also represented on the Science Council are presidents, vice-presidents, and top executives’ from Noranda, RCA Victor, CIBA, Polymer Corp., Dofasco, Cominco, ATCO Industries,Churchill Falls. Co., and Canada Packers. It’s not surprising that the recommendations of the Science Council parallel those of business. It’s also not surprising that O.M. Solant considers the key issue in the anti-pollution movement to be population control.

Karl Marx summed it up well. He said:

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie.”

At present the businessman and the politician don’t see the anti-pollution movement as much of a threat. Their general satisfaction is expressed in a recent editorial reviewing Earth Day in Chemical Week:

“On balance it was a good day for industry. Despite some instances of heckling and harassment representatives of major American manufacturing corporations were able to make some telling points … Industry men were reassured about the motivations of the students. With a few noisy exceptions the young – people showed little inclination to tear down the system. They demonstrated that they are not anti-business, they are anti-pollution. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that the latter could not lead to the former….”

Business is anxious to keep the anti­-pollution movement under control, under their control: Consequently Labatt’s Company gave $150,000 this summer to Pollution Probe. As long as the business interests and the politicians can keep the anti-pollution movement confined to such organizations they will have little to worry about. As long as business can lay the blame on individuals, ignore the real source of pollution; and persuade people that industry can be good corporate citizens, the basic problem of pollution will never be solved.

After recognizing that most pollution is due to the operations of business the, next step in building a viable anti-pollution movement is to have no confidence in the ruling class, no confidence in the ability of business and industry to stop pollution, no confidence in the business-controlled government’s ability to “control” business. This means that we have to see through the superficial and deceptive anti-­pollution gestures of the more “progressive” politicians of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties. Our main ally in the struggle against pollution will be the Canadian working class.

The Canadian working people are continually involved in a day-to-day struggle against business and government over the basic necessities of life. Hazards in the industrial environment result in disease, disability, and death on an unprecedented level. Hundreds of thousands of cases of occupational disease due to in-plant pollution occur annually. Workers are forced to breathe air highly saturated with tiny particles, leading to all sorts of diseases such as black lung, silicosis, and asbestosis.

Workers in coke ovens in steel mills breathe in sulfide gases and have a 62% higher mortality rate from cancer than do other steel workers. The coke ovens then belch forth these same gases into the atmosphere. Deaths are common. For example, on January 6, 1969, John Kletzek, a worker in Saskatchewan was killed by H2S poisoning from fumes in the Hudsons Bay Oil and Gas Plant where he was building a fence.

These working conditions are the centre of the trouble for the labor movement. The 1970 convention of the United Electrical Workers passed a resolution asking all union locals to establish anti-pollution committees to monitor pollution in their own plants. The 1970 convention of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union passed several resolutions condemning pollution and demanding that the polluters pay for their damages.

The activities of labor in the anti-­pollution movement immediately suggest a way of enforcing pollution control. We must demand as part of a general program for support of workers control over production, that factory committees be set up among the workers in very plant, which will have the authority to monitor, regulate, and enforce adequate pollution standards in every plant. With the support of the Canadian working people we will be in a position to build a movement that can really stop pollution.

The social reformers in the leadership of the anti-pollution organizations today have very little idea about how to build a movement. In a review of a conference held by Environmental Action Inc., this summer, Survival Day, outlined the types of action that would be carried by the movement:

“Among the action methods discussed: legal action as a last resort, environmental action in poor urban communities, electoral thrusts, stock proxy campaigns, and corporate responsibility, counter-institutions, their life-styles and the environmental movement, action for population stabilization, and lobbying for environmental action.”

Nowhere in here is there any mention of mass participation in the anti-pollution movement. Most of the actions covered in the two years of the anti-pollution movement have been either individual actions or small activities organized by ingrown groups.

What is necessary is to build a broad-based massive movement that can involve as many people as possible in the struggle against pollution. Only when we have involved large masses of Canadians, workers, women, and students in the anti-pollution movement will we be able to exert the kind of pressure on business and government necessary to start getting results.

Iii the United States, it wasn’t until millions of people came out in the street in mass demonstrations that the anti-war movement started having a real effect on the policy of the US government. We must abandon the reformist projects of collecting garbage from the sides of the street and encouraging people to boycott stores that sell too many detergents. What we have to do is organize mass demonstrations, bringing in as many people as possible in the fight against pollution. This can force the businessmen and politicians to realize that they’re facing a mass opposition rather than just a few. isolated groups.

Support is there. Every survey that has been conducted indicates that an overwhelming majority of the Canadian population wants pollution stopped. What we have to do is organize that opposition into single-issue, non-exclusionary, broad-based, anti-pollution committees and get out on the streets in mass protest.

Such a movement will have to have a program. Such a movement will have to have specific demands that people can easily relate to and which strike fundamentally at the source of pollution and work towards its elimination. We must demand the polluters pay for stopping pollution and ensure that their costs are simply not passed on to the people in terms of higher prices or taxes. We can do this by demanding tilt polluters open their books making their financial transactions public so that effective controls of profits and prices can be instituted.

We must also demand the nationalization of all businesses and industries which are unwilling or unable to stop their pollution. Finally we must demand that pollution control be regulated by the workers and the plants organized into factory committees. Unlike the government officials and corporation boards of directors, the workers in their plants have their health and lives at stake. They must have effective control of their environment and they can be counted upon to do a good job.

We must also find ways to link the anti-pollution movement to other struggles in society, to end the isolation which has characterized the anti-pollution movement from its beginnings.  Universities are corporations in the same way as other businesses and are also responsible for a substantial amount of pollution. We must demand an end to campus complicity in pollution.

Women have a fundamental interest in ending pollution, too, both by their participation in the labor movement and as housewives. Pollution of the home environment by dirt, dust, smoke, and fumes places a high burden-of extra labor on women who work in the home.

Pollution is also relevant in the antiwar movement. The same sorts of pesticides and defoliants which are used by the USA producing deformed babies in Vietnam are sprayed on farm workers from coast to coast. There is not a single struggle in society which is irrelevant to the need to stop pollution.

We must build a movement which can combat pollution not only on the street and in the factories, but in solidarity with every other struggle against the ruling class.

One representative of social reformists in the anti-pollution movement recently put forward a common myth about pollution:

“The primary question is not who is. going to have the power, nor is it moral or mortal war, that is it is not capitalism versus socialism. The first question is life.”

Of course, the main question is life. In the long run the question may even be that of the survival of the human species.

But we just can’t simply stop there. We have to recognize that there are forces in the society which are anti-life — the ruling class, which is content to maintain its rule as the entire society rushes towards oblivion, a force that we must struggle against if life is to be guaranteed. And in this struggle the primary question is who is going to have the power and it is the necessity for socialists to realize that, the end is life. But the beginning is the suc­cessful struggle for a socialist society.

Posted in Corporate polluters, Featured, Movement Building

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