The capitalist class is incapable of reversing the destruction of humanity’s environment, for deep social, economic and political reasons. Environmental destruction, largely unmeasured, is comprehensive, extends far beyond “global warming” and increasingly threatens humanity’s existence.

The damage can be stopped and further damage prevented. Success on the environment depends on the international working class taking control of most of the surplus it creates worldwide. (Today, the tiny capitalist class appropriates around 90 percent of this surplus.)

It’s a class struggle

These simple, almost startling conclusions follow analysis of the scientific literature and the political economy of environmental remediation. In an extraordinary sense, the environmental crisis highlights how the future of humanity lies in the hands of workers and their parties.

The class struggle is ultimately a struggle over disposition of the surplus created by labor. Under capitalism, a small minority of exploiters appropriates this surplus, leaving just enough for the actual producers to survive. The exploiters dispose of the surplus to meet their private interests, regardless of social needs.

When workers take power (a socialist revolution), the new state takes control of much of the surplus created within that state’s boundaries. It can redirect this surplus to meet environmental as well as social and individual needs.

To protect the real source of their wealth, the exploiters have a profound interest in undermining workers’ self-confidence. For this reason, it is necessary to review the genuine environmental accomplishments that have followed socialist revolutions and to address their limitations.

Socialism’s green side

Cuba’s ecological achievements, for example, are unparalleled. Science, education, production and nutrition are joined in complementary ways, unswayed by profits. Global pollution, however, as well as rapid climate disruption and the U.S. military threat, can reverse these accomplishments.

In the Soviet Union, urban planning and mass transit systems kept the environmental, time and economic costs of urban transportation down to a fraction of those in the U.S. And a powerful Soviet environmental movement in the 1960s prevented most damage to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, while U.S. capitalism nearly choked the Great Lakes.

Deforestation in China, to cite another example, was until very recently a serious environmental problem, contributing to severe flooding and soil erosion. Today there is reforestation, an extraordinary turnaround possible only because the Chinese state was created by a socialist revolution.

Some down sides

But China’s continuing need for lumber has shifted some deforestation to Indonesia and even West Africa, with global climate implications. And a sharp worldwide decline in growth rates of nearly all tree species in the last 20 years also affects China’s reforestation efforts. Its causes have not been fully identified. Global poisoning of soil, water and air are undoubtedly involved.

China is planning to build 100 million eco-homes in the next few years. These homes have about one-tenth the overall environmental impact (in construction, energy and water requirements) of existing housing. No capitalist country comes close in this respect.

Construction of these homes has started on a large island adjoining Shanghai. But it will not take much of a rise in ocean levels to flood the island and displace over 20 million people around Shanghai.

Contrary to bourgeois propaganda, socialist revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba permitted those societies to direct surplus to environmental protection as no capitalist country could. But economic, environmental, political and military pressures from a hostile capitalist world limit China’s and Cuba’s abilities to address problems, as they did the USSR’s.

Bottom-up answers

Furthermore, without corresponding control from below, even the best of Soviet plans could not be effective. There were real environmental problems, as there are in China. Capitalism is a top-down-only system. Bottom-up control is possible after a socialist revolution. It is not automatic, however, and difficult to achieve and sustain. The alternative is far worse, as attested by the environmental and social nightmare following capitalist restoration in the USSR.

The next column will consider specific social, economic and political reasons why capitalism is incapable of reversing its destruction of the environment.