With the planet facing environmental crises, some have sought to bring about change through individual efforts, trying to change the environmental practices of corporations by altering individual purchasing choices. We publish here an article by Kevin Harriman and Kevin Nance of Socialist Appeal USA, who look at the question of consumerism and the environment under capitalism, and explain the socialist alternative.
The philosophical premise behind the consumerist strategy is the idea that we can in effect will a change in society through our purchasing choices. The idea is that if we could just change everyone’s mind about their role in the environment, then we would change society and its structure. If we could only convince everyone individually to be more caring towards the environment and to change their personal lives, then we could change the world.
This type of thinking has its roots in the philosophical school known as idealism. This type of idealism should not be confused with “holding high ideals” or being an optimist. Idealism in this sense is the idea that the concrete reality of the world is merely a crude reflection of our ideas and our thoughts. According to this outlook, reality and society are mere reflections of our consciousness. However, for Marxists, consciousness and society are not forged in the realm of ideas, but in the material conditions of our world. Our ideas are a reflection of material reality, not the other way around. Therefore, to truly effect a fundamental change, we must change the material conditions and structures of society, not merely change our ideas.
Despite their good intentions, proponents of the consumerist approach fail to realize that people, economies, and societies are extremely complex, constantly interact with one another, and do not exist in a vacuum. They are conditioned by relationships internal and external. No one—no matter how intelligent, pure-hearted, or strong-willed—can change the world by pure force of will or individual effort. Those who would seek to change the world must look to its roots, its deep structures. They must determine what conditions and what processes give rise to the evils they seek to destroy. If we do not pull the weed out by its roots it will grow back. For every environmentally destructive company, product, or process that we shut down, another will return to its place—until we change the system that gives them their existence.
We must be clear. The environmental crisis is not the fault of the working class. The only thing the workers are “guilty” of is not overthrowing this rotten system (yet). Under capitalism, the majority does not have a say in how resources are used or production is organized. The capitalists are behind these decisions, and their main decision-making criteria is the pursuit of profit. The consumerist strategy seeks in effect to pass the burden onto the shoulders of the working class. The workers are asked to sacrifice their standard of living in an effort to stave off environmental disaster, while the capitalists line their pockets with big profits.
It is absolutely true that the working class has both the power and the responsibility to ameliorate the effects of climate change. But this does not require punishing ordinary people for wanting a good quality of life. The working class has the power to ensure that the planet is habitable for everyone precisely because it has the power to defeat capitalism. Workers operate the means of production, the factories, the farms, etc., which means that they have the power to withhold their labor and bring production to a screeching halt.
Put concretely, here is one example of the enormous power of the workers. Many wish to stop the use of coal, which tears up the land and pollutes the air. But which is a more effective way to stop the production of coal: to get your university to divest from coal (which means some other entity will buy up those shares, and coal production will continue as before), or to directly and collectively halt its production and invest massively in clean forms of energy while providing quality jobs to former coal industry workers? Only the working class can stop the production, not only of coal, but of the profit-making system of capitalism.
Another misconception is that change occurs gradually. Marxists explain that contradictions drive change. These contradictions do build up gradually over time, but are then actualized sharply and suddenly. For example, in chemistry it is well known that at normal atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Steadily, the temperature increases, now 97 degrees, now 99 degrees—still no boiling water—but at 100 degrees a dramatic phase transition takes place. Water turns into steam. Something similar happens in society and in people’s consciousness. The problems of society build up, but there isn’t a fight back right away. At a certain stage, however, people decide enough is enough, and people fight back.
Marxists understand the need to prepare ourselves for this fightback. While we support any struggle against capitalism and its pernicious effects on the environment, we do not lose sight of the big picture. We link the immediate struggles to the long-term struggle to end the profit system. We struggle not only against environmental degradation, homophobia, racism, low wages, and more, but link all of these struggles with the need for socialism as the only solution capable of resolving all these problems.
There are several other, more practical, problems faced by the advocates of a consumerist strategy. For example, “green” products necessarily serve a niche market; only a minority of consumers have the awareness, resources, and opportunity to participate in these consumer efforts. The inequities of capitalism ensure that most people simply cannot afford to “vote with their dollars.” They must make the most economical choices, and these are offered by the companies that cut corners to keep prices low and profits high. As a consequence, many impoverished areas do not even have access to basic supermarkets and stores, let alone options such as organic food markets. As with everything else under capitalism, the market is in charge; “green” options cannot be profitably sold to the majority of consumers and so they are not available to them. The dynamics of the market determine what consumer options are available and to whom, and these are the same dynamics that cast a blind eye on environmental destruction. A small minority of “green” conscious consumers cannot change these dynamics however much they might wish to.
Consider the case of organic farming. Farming with only natural pesticides means that more crops will fail. This means more resources in terms of land and labor must be utilized to produce the same amount of food. One study found that organic farming produces 25% less food than conventional methods on the same amount of land. More resources means higher costs and, as a result, companies that produce organic food cannot compete on a large scale with the conventional agribusiness giants, even though these giants are themselves getting into this profitable business. They may be able to sell their higher-cost foods to some upscale grocery stores, but they will never be capable of replacing their conventional competitors as the primary food producers at the stores that feed the majority. Similar considerations must be borne in mind for every other sector of the economy, such as mining, chemicals, transportation, etc.
Under capitalism, businesses must compete with one another and maximize profits in order to survive. The individual efforts of consumers cannot defeat the powerful structural incentives that drive environmental destruction. The structure itself must be fundamentally transformed. Capitalism is not something that can be reformed. A lion cannot be reformed into eating celery. If we want an animal that does not have a lion’s appetite, we need a different animal altogether!
For a socialist planned economy
The environment is not just a source of resources to be exploited; it is an interconnected system of which we are a part. It is humanity’s “species being” to work and manipulate nature with tools. It is only now, in the epoch of capitalism, that our tools have become so powerful that they threaten to destroy the system on which everything, including ourselves, depends. However, we are not doomed to be unsustainable. Humans are very rational, creative, and intelligent beings. We are able to recognize a need and adapt accordingly. The problem is that the capitalist economy is not subject to our intelligence or reason. It is subject to the anarchy of an inhumane market and is not consciously planned in harmony with the environment. What is needed is the next step in human development.
The idea that there are “too many” humans for the planet is scientifically inaccurate, though under capitalism, it is a serious concern. Improved techniques allow fewer people to produce more food and other necessities of life. According to the EPA, “If US farmers in 1931 wanted to equivalently yield the same amount of corn as farmers in 2008, the 1931 farmers would need an additional 490 million acres!” Productivity has skyrocketed since then and can go even further. There therefore is no need to be pessimistic about the possibilities—once we cast aside the yoke of capitalism.
What is unsettling is how resources go to waste under the present system, because if they were given away for free or at low cost to those in need, it would lower capitalists’ profitability. According to the Washington Post, “Each year, about 40 percent of all food in the United States goes uneaten.” For many reasons, but above all the drive for profits, enormous resources—in this, case farmland and food—go wasted.
Under capitalism, we allow the vast bulk of the economy to be run undemocratically by a tiny minority. Unsurprisingly, the capitalists run things in a way that serves the interests of their own class. In the capitalists’ eyes, the earth is there to be plundered and exploited. How can the narrow limits of this system provide a solution? The consumerist strategy suggests that this status quo can remain so long as the capitalists promise to be a little nicer to the environment. This is wishful thinking; the true solution lies in a total democratic reorganization of our economy.
We need an economic and political system that will not attack, but rather, will improve our standard of living in a way that does not harm the environment. A socialist economy would be run by all layers of society, democratically, from the bottom up. Workers in every department of every business would meet to discuss and elect an accountable leadership at all levels. They would in turn link up with entire workplaces, industries, states, countries, and eventually the whole world. This would be a new, truly democratic political system embedded in the very structure of the economy. Everyone would have the opportunity to put forward their ideas and opinions. There would be little interest in planning an economy that would create pollution or rely on hazardous materials that kill and maim workers. Under capitalism, these are merely “externalities.” But if subject to a democratic discussion, we are confident they would be quickly eradicated. By ridding ourselves of the profit motive and private ownership of the means of production, humans can reconnect with the earth and their own labor, thereby fully connecting with themselves and each other.
The absurdity of capitalism can be seen in planned obsolescence, a scheme in which products are purposely designed to become useless after a period of time—so that new products have to be bought. The Economist explains, “A classic case of planned obsolescence was the nylon stocking. The inevitable ‘laddering’ of stockings made consumers buy new ones and for years discouraged manufacturers from looking for a fibre that did not ladder. The garment industry in any case is not inclined to such innovation.” Cars, gadgets, lightbulbs, houses, and many other items have an artificially limited shelf life. Under socialism, humans could produce things to last and to be adaptable, minimizing the resources being used. Recycling programs would be vastly expanded. Single-use products like water bottles and plastic spoons could be reduced, replaced with alternatives, and eventually eliminated.
Immediately after the working class comes to power, it would be necessary to launch a giant public works and infrastructure plan. Public transportation would be well-funded, quick, efficient, and comprehensive. On the basis of a democratically planned economy, we would use the wealth of society to produce wonders, develop education, infrastructure, health, and science. The creativity of the authors of this article is obviously limited by the constraints of the system we live in, but future generations will be able to adapt the needs of humanity in ways that today are possible only in science fiction. When workers have the ability to be creative in the workplace they would innovate to make things safer, more efficient, and environmentally sustainable. All this and more will be possible. As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”'