There is an enormous unused human potential waiting to be drawn into the job of saving the ecosphere. How can it be mobilized?
This is the second of two articles on the transition we need by Richard Fidler, a socialist activist in Canada and Quebec who blogs at Life on the Left.
by Richard Fidler
I ended the previous article with a call for “a different kind of government with the political will to lead, coordinate and consolidate the transition, a government based on the support and protagonism of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators.”
In that post I canvassed some of the major tasks that must be undertaken starting now and continuing throughout the transition to a non-capitalist, ecosocialist future. These tasks, already identified and pursued by the movement seeking “system change, not climate change,” are best understood and combined through a strategy that aims to put state power in the hands of the popular classes, through a government of the workers and farmers — those who, through their labor, transform Earth’s natural resources into our means of subsistence and fulfillment.
The Communist Manifesto succinctly described this transition as a revolution that would “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class” and “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie” through “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.”
What would a revolutionary government look like, and how would it differ from the ostensibly “socialist” governments of the 20th century such as the Soviet Union and its closest allies? These questions — long debated in the left — are addressed with considerable adroitness and foresight in a pamphlet published a full 20 years ago by what was then the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia. The Green Tax Fraud, by Dick Nichols, expressed the position of the DSP (now the Socialist Alliance) on some responses to the environmental crisis by “mainstream environmentalism.” It focused on exposing the ineffectiveness of carbon taxes and similar policies that inherently fail to address and overcome the dynamics of capitalist profit and infinite growth that are leading us to climate catastrophe.
I excerpt below a chapter of this pamphlet that not only critiques the environmental record of the “state socialism” of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, but also provides some valuable insights into alternative approaches taken by revolutionary Cuba in the 1990s and by Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s in very difficult circumstances: in Cuba’s case, a deep economic crisis resulting from the fall of its Soviet trade partner; in Nicaragua’s case, a debilitating counter-revolutionary war that was undermining its efforts to overcome capitalist underdevelopment and inequality.
The author, Dick Nichols, in recent years has been the Barcelona-based correspondent of Green Left Weekly, covering major developments in the European left and, most recently, the Catalan independence struggle. In the excerpt below, I have omitted a few paragraphs (mainly outdated material) and renumbered the footnotes. A box on Nicaragua is included here as an appendix.
by Dick Nichols
Our argument so far confirms that capitalism will continue to have a very difficult time proving that it has the answers to our environment crisis. But is the socialist case any more credible? Why isn’t the deadly environmental record of the departed and departing “state socialism” of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China proof that socialism’s environmental crisis is just as systemic and inevitable as capitalism’s? Why should we give any credence to the socialist claim that only economic planning resting on socialist democracy can hope to resolve the crisis?
The most environmentally damning feature of bureaucratically planned economies was their general inefficiency compared to the advanced capitalist West. As a result their products carried an “ecological rucksack” many times heavier that of their Western equivalents. The fact, too, that these economies were “resource-constrained”—that is, produced to capacity and piled up huge stocks of inputs and final products “just in case”—has led many economists to theorise that planned economy must sooner or later become an obstacle to further productivity growth. Therefore, planned economy must necessarily block any possibility of sustainable development.
This theorem overlooks the fact that the wellsprings of productivity growth are a combination of three elements: the stage of development of science and technology, the extent to which these are applied to production and the degree to which the mass of working people are engaged and interested in making this evolving economic apparatus work to its potential.
In addition, Marxists like Harry Braverman and environmentalists like Barry Commoner long ago pointed out that the nature and pace of technology development is no class-neutral datum—something automatically brought into being by the state of scientific knowledge. It is constrained by the basic imperatives of the prevailing economic system, under capitalism being typically molded by the need to control the labor process and produce the class of output that will yield highest unit profit.
Technological development is also determined by how much is spent on it. For example, capitalist technology development is greatly shaped by the fact that state research and development budgets for environmentally benign technology are either stagnant or falling while two-thirds of the world’s scientists are doing work for the military. The internal research of the corporations is driven by the need to find products that will produce monopoly superprofits (like grains that last one season or crops that depend on being drenched in one particular company’s pesticide).
Nor does “planning” exist in a social vacuum. Only through the participation and full empowerment of an environmentally aware people can a planned economy realize its potential as a healer of past environmental wounds and provide a framework for sustainability. Remove the vital ingredient of democracy and decisions on all the vital issues of technology and development become the domain of an unaccountable bureaucracy and mass alienation rapidly takes root. Such was the socio-economic lesson of the Soviet “stagnation period” (1969-89). By contrast—and this has been the formative experience for many environmentalists over the past decade—the methods of capitalist ecoreformism can bring better results.
The failure of the planned economies of Eastern Europe to go over from the “extensive” development model of the early Five Year Plans to an efficient “intensive” economy—the precondition for attacking the burgeoning environmental crisis—was due to the alienation of the workers, the conservatism of economic managers, the excessively low wage (which encouraged the flogging of old polluting machinery instead of investment in new) and the non-application of developments in science and technology, in turn mostly due to bureaucratic fear of failure.
It was also due to the triumph under Stalinism of the following view of socialist construction, which trampled Soviet ecological thinking (the most advanced in the world during the 1920s) under foot:
“Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armour of cities, armed with the stone muzzles of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railroads. Let the taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled…. Only in cement and iron can the fraternal union of all peoples, the iron brotherhood of all mankind, be forged.”
That is to say, the environmental crisis in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was not due to the intrinsic features of a society in transition to socialism—social ownership of the major means of production and economic planning.
Indeed, the Stalinist counterrevolution that began in the late 1920s meant that planned, socialized economy was blocked from working to anything like its full potential. The socialist revolution equips society with the key weapons for the war against resource depletion and pollution by removing the vested interests of the private capitalists. How does this work?
Firstly, social ownership of major industry and the finance sector enables the implementation of emergency plans of large-scale environmental repair. By eliminating all the contradictory interests of competing capitalists—which make environmentally effective green taxation such a rarity—it enables policy to be directed straight at the sources of resource depletion and pollution.
Secondly, resources presently squandered in the luxury consumption of the rich can be redirected, helping fund the vast increase needed in spending on environmental repair and conversion.
Thirdly, the elimination of such a critical underpinning of capitalism as the business secret and patent rights allows the most environmentally benign technology to be applied across the board, instead of being jealously guarded as one or two companies’ fount of super profits.
Fourthly, it empowers the environmental movement, presently dispersed and fragmented, to concentrate its energies in a permanent and organised crusade against environmental degradation.
Lastly, in the underdeveloped countries, it opens the way to large-scale land reform, which is the precondition for relieving the environmental pressure superficially due to “rural overpopulation.”
In the short run the most important element is the explosion of popular energy that a revolution brings. Indeed, even working life in the advanced capitalist economies provides glimpses of the potential for harnessing people’s latent commitment to the environment. …
Probably the most advanced attempt to harness workers’ creativity to the cause of environmentally and socially useful production was the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee plan. Instead of the “defense” hardware which was the firm’s staple, the Lucas shop stewards developed such projects as solar power and wind generators, heat exchangers, a road-rail vehicle, a hybrid petrol-electric car and an airship using jump jets to avoid helium waste. The production processes developed did not waste raw materials, were labor-intensive, were non-hierarchical and non-alienating, required discussions with the final consumers, and were designed to break down the divisions between skilled and unskilled jobs.
From a global perspective the potential gains in energy efficiency and resource usage in an economy where the collective intelligence and interest of the real producers is engaged and harnessed is immense. For example, Amory Lovins, in a classic 1981 study, calculated that a world populated by eight billion people could, with “best practice” energy use, be industrialized to the West German level while cutting total energy use to a third. …
There is an enormous unused human potential waiting to be drawn into the job of saving the ecosphere. The question is: how best to summon it into life?
The 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, led by the Sandinistas but crushed through the US-backed war of the contras 10 years later, is the best recent illustration of how this is to be done. The appended text below, based on a recent article of Daniel Faber, provides a short summary of its achievements in the environmental field, which were partially based on a critical analysis of Soviet shortcomings. In Faber’s words:
“One of the lessons provided by the legacy of the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries is that any socialist society which institutes social ownership of the means of production without establishing systems of genuine democratic social control by the people is doomed to be a political and ecological failure. Characterized by top-down systems of party/bureaucratic rules which sever links with both people and nature, really existing state socialist societies resorted to what was in effect a rightist politics of commandism…. [T]he Nicaraguan revolution would have to promote new forms of democratic state planning and administration which increased the power of the people themselves to exercise control over the major political, social and economic institutions in society.”
In the longer run, social control of technological development allows planned conversion to the foundations of sustainability. It would permit, to take one very insidious example, the elimination of chlorine-based production, which does not occur in nature, is poisoning our ecosphere and which grew “not so much by creating new industries as by taking over existing forms of production…. It grew through a virulent form of industrial imperialism.”
If Cuba, even under the pressure of the criminal US economic blockade, can become a world leader in bio-technology and “green medicine,” then the application of even half the research and development effort that is producing the latest in lethal weaponry would rapidly open up “soft technology paths” in all industrial and agricultural sectors.
In the Cuban case the collapse of the old “socialist bloc” threw into crisis the “classical model” of conventional modern agriculture—based on extensive monocultures and a high degree of mechanization and fertilizer and pesticide use—because all these inputs were obtained at subsidized prices from former Comintern economies. However, because Cuba had built up a stock of scientific knowledge and a well-developed agricultural research infrastructure, it was able, in desperate circumstances, to undertake what is essentially the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever seen.
This was made possible by the investment of an estimated $12 billion in the 1980s in developing “human capital” and infrastructure in biotechnology, health sciences, computer hardware and software and robotics, an investment partially driven by a developing disillusionment with a model of agriculture that was generating growing pesticide resistance and soil erosion.
Cuba gives a glimpse of the enormous potential of socialist methods.
“In 1987 the Institutes of Botany and Zoology merged to form the Institute of Ecology and Systematics of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the first international symposium on these topics was held in Havana in 1988. Ecology was now a respected and legitimate branch of biology with public visibility.
“Ecologists are able to promote their program through several channels. In the laboratories and institutions charged with pest control they adopt their own research plans in assemblies of the collective. Ecologists also address themselves through the mass organisations (the union, women’s federation, student organisations) and the Communist Youth and Communist Party. They write for the popular press, work with amateur innovators’ groups, and are increasingly seeking a role in the training of agricultural technicians. As individuals, some ecologists have been elected to the Assemblies of People’s Power, the legislative bodies at the municipal, provincial and national levels.
“There is thus a growing ecological movement in Cuba. But it is not an ecological movement in the sense of those in Europe or North America. It is not a distinct political movement such as the Greens, nor is it an opposition movement confronting a resistant government and corporations, nor is it yet an “official” movement of the sort set up by governments to say yes. Cuban ecology activists are political, committed revolutionaries who see their struggles for ecologically sound policies as part of the duty of communists in building a new society with its own relation to nature. The working method of the Cuban ecologists is educational, at the levels of society as a whole, government, and the party. In their view, ignorance, developmentalism, and economic urgency are their main adversaries. But the problem is not the lack of channels for expression but the resistance of opposing ideas. In the absence of greed as a major interest to overcome, discussions are not confrontational.”
This is the social essence of alternative to the false dilemma of end-of-the-pipe regulation or green taxes that supposedly drive “entrepreneurial creativity.” Public ownership of the key means of production combined with class power in the hands of an environmentally aware working people, offers the possibility of drawing on the stifled creativity, not of a handful of entrepreneurs, but of the vast mass of population.
How then, more specifically, can the instruments of democratic socialist planning tackle the tasks of meeting sustainability?
First, in a democratic, post-revolutionary state the struggle to harmonize the still conflicting demands of growth and the environment is conducted on a social playing field—the institutions of working-class democracy with its parties, workers’ collectives, scientific institutions, media and governing organs. Through the politics of their debates and struggles (which of course will always rely on some element of economic valuation) a more accurate measure of the social value of the environment can be established and an overall development plan implemented that is compatible with environmental restoration and preservation.
The establishment of full social control over production decisions also sets the right context for decision-making on the issues that almost totally exhaust mainstream environmental discussion, namely the relative virtues of market-based and regulatory instruments. A post-revolutionary society that leaves a space for the market will, for example, be free to decide the extent to which it should use environmental taxes and charges.
It also allows the best use of techniques like full cost accounting, cost-benefit analysis, cradle-to-grave accounting and input-output analysis, often so open to abuse and so sensitive. to initial assumptions (or too revealing about the full range of costs involved with capitalist production). Under planned economy there is also greater latitude for choosing a discount rate that will induce the producing units to switch over to renewable energy more rapidly than might otherwise have been the case
(Given the present embattled position of post-capitalist societies—and the tenuous position of countries like Cuba and Vietnam which retain some degree of revolutionary democracy—the value of such resources as tropical rain forest as an ecosystem compared to its value as timber for export will continue to present difficult, inescapable choices with which many environmentalists will disagree. Cuba’s flirtation with nuclear power is a case in point.)
Secondly, one of the powerful anti-environmental pressures operating in “state socialism” was the need of the bureaucracy, which had no intention of setting an example of austere living itself, to provide the population with distracting “bread and circuses”—a “socialist” consumerism that sadly mimicked the West’s. However, the greater people’s real control of economic and environmental decision-making—the lower the degree of social alienation—the less will be the pressure for consumerism, especially in those economies which can already readily meet basic human needs.
Thirdly, a post-revolutionary society will also be able to apply the precautionary principle. Our knowledge of how ecosystems work is still limited, and the possibility of unwitting environmental damage and loss is great. At the same time, because any effective program of environmental conversion will involve a radical change in the scale and nature of consumption as well as the closing down of environmentally unsustainable industry and agriculture, the transition phase to sustainability will require conscious restraint from an environmentally aware population.
Such restraint is impossible to achieve in capitalist society— where the rule of profit-making creates extremes of wealth and poverty on an expanding scale—without coercion by the capitalist state. Its ethic of individualism and consumerism clashes directly with any sense of environmental responsibility, as shown in the reaction to price rises introduced by Britain’s newly privatized water companies.
“A substantial proportion of customers associate these price rises with privatization, the enhanced profitability of the water companies, dividend payment to shareholders’ and directors’ salaries. The capital investments undertaken by the companies and improvements in some aspects of customer service are at best imperfectly perceived. Customer attitudes towards the water industry have undoubtedly changed; they are less willing to accept what they see as system failures, are less prepared to cooperate with the companies in reducing consumption during drought periods, and are increasingly resistant to the notion that the companies should be able to restrict their usage by imposing hosepipe bans. Such attitude changes were clearly seen over the dry, hot summer of 1995; many customers reacted with hostility to the idea that their increased demands were to blame for shortages and they saw it as the function of commercial companies to meet all legitimate supply requirements (including garden watering).”
Fourth, a society ruled by democratic socialist planning will be able to establish an “economic Plimsoll line” marking the sustainable scale of production. Once people, through their elected representatives, can compare the costs of different scales of production, the best scale possible can be decided and the disastrous “giantism” of typical Soviet production units avoided. It will also be possible to pay full attention to the demands of bioregionalism and local production. Decentralization and the gradual overcoming of the difference between the city and countryside will likewise become increasingly feasible.
Richard Levins draws out the link between right-scale technology and social regime in the case of Cuban agriculture:
“The gentler the technology, the more site specific it has to be. The adaptation of a technology suited to every microsite is beyond the capacity of even the most affluent extension service. Rather, the technology has to be developed on the farm through a collaboration of the farmers who have a detailed, intimate, local knowledge of their own circumstances and the off-farm scientists who can provide the general, theoretically based and abstract knowledge that requires some distancing from the particular. This interaction is only possible when the parties meet on terms of equality and mutual respect. In class-divided societies this is extremely difficult to achieve. In Cuba, the fact that many of the agricultural scientists come from peasant backgrounds makes it easier.”
In such a context of post-revolutionary democracy the “Ecology of the Poor,” symbolized by such figures as the Amazon’s Chico Mendes and Mexico’s Zapatistas, can attain its fullest influence, as a tradition imparting precious environmental knowledge and skills.
All this goes to underline one reality: that social ownership of the major means of production and democratic social ownership of decision-making is the only way of running society that is compatible with an environment which is itself ever increasingly social. It is the only road to a “steady state,” sustainable economy.
Levins sums up his experience of “a socialist economy in which there is no profit-oriented chemical industry pushing pesticides, and in which the conscious goal of planning is a better, more abundant and healthier life.”
“Difficulties arise when intermediate goals toward these ends take on a life of their own, become the measure of an enterprise’s contribution to society, and seem to conflict with the long-term goals. Although socialism is all too obviously no guarantee that intermediate goals will not obstruct ecological wisdom, it does practically eliminate vested economic interest in perpetuating harmful practices. Therefore, a debate over technological directions is only an argument, a confrontation of opposing beliefs, but not a confrontation of opposing interests.”
This gives a different feel to argument even against stubborn ignorance. It makes strong argument effective and makes convincing the other party more important than the simple exercise of power. It also affects the style of struggle, which starts from the premise of comrades struggling with each other for a shared goal and is more educational than oppositional…. The debate also takes place within a theoretical commitment to Marxism with its emphasis on the historical contingency of science and technology, the importance of looking at the whole, the recognition of complexity, process and contradiction. This provides the tools for challenging technocratic developmentalist assumptions.
At a time when ecological issues are becoming major political concerns throughout the world, the Cuban struggle should be watched closely and actively supported. The different texture of the struggle in Cuba from that in capitalist countries reveals the intensely political character of human ecology. Its victories under difficult circumstances show just a little of the potential of socialism and of Marxism in negotiating a new relation with nature. If allowed to continue its socialist development, Cuba may yet become a world ecological power as well as a medical one.
In short, the only possible “sustainability transition” is that which can be carried out by an environmentally aware people in control of their own destiny.
|APPENDIX: Environmental achievements of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua
Agrarian Reform: On the basis of its 1984 Agrarian Reform, which gave poor peasants more than 10 times the land they had owned before the revolution, IRENA (the Nicaraguan Institute for Natural Resources and the Environment) began a series of campaigns to address problems of deforestation, erosion and fertility loss in the country’s major watersheds. These included the building of 4220 torrent-regulating dykes and the restoration of 500,000 acres of tropical dry forest and farmland in the degraded Pacific highlands.
Under this program the Western Erosion Control Project planted some 3000 trees daily over a two-year period, creating 745 miles of windbreaks in the region’s cotton-growing areas. At the same time the rate of deforestation was cut from 1009 square kilometers a year in the late 1970s (the highest in the Central American region) to 500 square kilometers by 1985 (among the region’s lowest): This was because the agrarian reform lifted the pressure on tropical rain forests from landless peasants in search of subsistence farming plots.
Wildlife Protection: Before 1979 Nicaragua was a Central American leader in the hunting and export of rare and endangered species. After the revolution, because the Sandinistas nationalized the country’s import/export banks, IRENA was able to implement an effective ban on the export of endangered species. Most exemplary was the Sea Turtle Conservation Campaign, in which local communities participated in the sustainable management of their own marine resources.
Energy and Appropriate Technology: One of the chief causes of habitat destruction and deforestation was the peasantry’s lack of access to alternative energy sources to wood, which accounted for over half the country’s energy output. In response CITA (the Center for Appropriate Technology Research) launched a series of renewable energy projects, covering windmills, hand-pumps, biogas and more efficient wood stoves.
On a larger scale, as part of a project to reduce the country’s dependence on oil imports INE (the Nicaraguan Energy Institute) initiated geothermal projects (based on the country’s volcanoes) as well as a series of hydroelectrical and biomass projects based on sugar cane waste.
Pest management: Nicaragua before the revolution was drenched in DDT, with hundreds of workers dying each year from pesticide poisoning and mother’s milk showing up to 45 times the World Health Organisation’s “safe” limit. Between 1979 and 1982 the Sandinistas banned the use of eight of the world’s 12 most dangerous pesticides and generalized a UN program in non-chemical Integrated Pest Management. As a result by 1982 pesticide imports by volume had fallen by 45 per cent and by 1985 the IPM program had expanded to cover 45 per cent of the cotton crop, the largest such program in Central, and possibly Latin, America.
Daniel Faber comments:
 Address of V. Zazunbrin to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1926, cited in Martin Cock and Bill Hopwood, Global Warming: Socialism and the Environment, Militant Publications, Guildford, 1996, p. 150.
 “The Lucas plan was rejected by all elements of the British establishment, including management, conservative trade unionists (one complaining that it would change British society!), academic ‘leaders’ and most of the Labour Government, whose initial encouragement was sustained by only a few, like Tony Benn. This is unsurprising since it was revolutionary, proposing industrial restructuring in the interests of labour; redefining wealth by rediscovering William Morris’ definition (‘working cheerfully at producing the things we all genuinely want’); redefining, therefore, economic rationality; challenging labour vanguardist views that average workers can do little more than to describe their grievances; reasserting working people’s right to associate (across unions); exposing the hidden values behind seemingly neutral, technical, ‘rational’ management and challenging its right to manage, at least without accountability to workers: as Lucas workers at Shipley are reported to have said: ‘In our experience management is not a skill or craft. It is a command relationship, a habit picked up at public school, in the church or from the army. And we can well do without it.’”—David Pepper, Eco-socialism, Routledge, London and New York, 1993, page 239.
 Daniel Faber, “La Liberacion del Medio Ambiente: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Ecology in Nicaragua, 1979-1999,” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Issue 37, (Volume 10, Number 1), pp. 45-80.
 Daniel Faber, op. cit., p. 58.
 Barry Commoner, quoted in Peter Montague, Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, Number 390, 1994.
 For a detailed account see Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin, The Greening of the Revolution, Ocean Press, Australia, 1994.
 Women are prominent in the leadership of Cuban science and have played an active role in the development of agroecology. The president of the Academy of Sciences, the director of the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, half the department heads in the institute, the director of the citrus experiment station and several of its leaders are women (author’s note).
 I once attended a meeting of biologists called by a local party group to discuss what to present at a national meeting on ecology and development. They were concerned about prejudices among economists who tend to dismiss ecological arguments as “idealistic,” and were developing the counter-argument that it is the height of idealism to imagine that we can make a plan and nature will have to obey (author’s note).
 Some struggles will be more difficult than others. For example, the desire of government to promote tourism for foreign exchange is encouraging development plans along the coast which could ruin the offshore cays. The dependence on imported oil makes arguments about nuclear energy more difficult. The economic role of sugar and its institutionalisation in a separate ministry will make the shift to multipurpose farming more traumatic (author’s note).
 Richard Levins, “The Struggle for Ecological Agriculture in Cuba,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism Number Five (October 1990), pages 125-126.
 Judith Rees, “Toward Implementation Realities,” in Timothy O’Riordan (ed.), Ecotaxation, Earthscan, London, 1997, p. 289.
 Richard Levins, op. cit., p. 138.
 Richard Levins, op. cit., page 140 (italics added).