Some Considerations Regarding the Environment, Energy and Production

13 May 2023 68 hits

The Environment

Right now environmental destruction is a crushing problem for the working class. There are perhaps 100 million climate refugees (1) with millions of others suffering from drought, massive flooding and industrial poisoning. Thirteen years ago an article entitled, “Global Warming Driven by the profit system…ONLY COMMUNISM CAN CREATE A SUSTAINABLE WORLD” (Communist Magazine, Winter 2010) gave shape to its causes and consequences. It is a well written, well researched and comprehensive analysis of the environmental catastrophe.

While the article does not conclude with a broad outline of suggestions to bring about a sustainable world perhaps at this point our organization should put forward some ideas to win the working class to a revolutionary view of environmental mitigation when it takes power. That way we can begin the discussion with our base regarding climate catastrophe and its solutions.

 The authors of the article begin with a summary of the world situation in 2010. Since thirteen years have passed things have gotten worse.  For example, in 2010 the atmospheric CO2 concentration was 388 ppm. The CO2 concentration is now 420 ppm (2), a rise of 32 ppm in thirteen years. (For comparison CO2 concentration was 280 ppm in 1750 (3)). (See attached chart) The concentration of all greenhouse gasses (CO2, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, etc.) is currently 502 ppm equivalent (4). In 1860 that concentration was 284 ppm (5). These heat trapping, disastrous greenhouse gases are at the highest level in four million years according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One problem we face is that the capitalist system creates vast overconsumption for the wealthy as well as incredible amounts of needless commodities and non mitigated waste. Let us look more closely at some capitalist created environmental disasters:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 assessment of the environment indicate that further use of fossil fuels will cause global temperatures to rise as much as 4.5 – 5.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 (compared to a baseline in 1850). The IPCC’s finding show that this would create a mass extinction event (2).

Furthermore, data show that while the air temperature in our temperate zone has currently risen 1.1 -1.2 degrees Celsius above baseline 1850, Arctic temperature currently has risen to  2.5 – 3.5 degrees Celsius (2). This greater Arctic heat has drastically reduced summer and winter ice formation. Unfortunately, when there is less ice to reflect the sun’s rays even more heat is trapped leading to a reinforcing loop. The consequence is a distortion of upper air winds which distorts and worsens weather in the entire northern hemisphere (7). In fact the increased heat has dramatically increased melting land ice in Greenland which results in sea level rise, endangering coastal regions and low lying islands (8). In addition, permafrost in nearby Canada and Siberia have begun to melt potentially releasing millions of tons of methane (9).

Since 1850 much of the CO2 has dissolved in the ocean and has absorbed 80 – 90% of the increased heat(10). The increased temperature has caused expansion of the ocean which in turn increases costal flooding (11). Both the CO2 and the trapped heat have increased ocean acidification both of which have reduced food stock for many species, The on-going degradation of the ocean and relentless over-fishing have reduced 70 – 90% of large fish species (12), caused widespread  bleaching of Coral reefs and have threatened phytoplankton (which incidentally produces 40 – 50% of the world’s oxygen)(13)(14).

The world’s agricultural land comprises 19,500,000 square miles (15). Of that total 4,500,000 square miles is crop land. 26% of all agricultural land is over-used for grazing livestock while 33% of cropland is used for livestock feed (16).

The (rapidly polluted) fresh water is 1.5%  of all water (17). The rest is frozen or saline.

Large swathes of agricultural acreage no longer sequester the nitrogen and phosphorous needed to sustain crop yields (18). That is, a large portion of the world’s soils are degraded by erosion, and loss of organic matter resulting in the “need” for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers are applied 3 to 4 times each year for each crop (19). At present 4 billion people (half the world population) rely on food grown with synthetic fertilizers (20) Natural gas (methane) is critical to the production of synthetic fertilizers as well as pesticides which are routinely applied (21). Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides sicken and kill agricultural workers and contribute to soil infertility (33)(34).

Beside synthetic fertilizer and pesticides capitalist agriculture as a whole is entirely reliant on fossil fuels for its planting and harvesting equipment. Plow agriculture itself promotes soil erosion and the destruction of fertility-maintaining soil microorganisms (22). When fertilizer and pesticide laden runoff drains into fresh waterways it kills fish and riverine plants (23). When runoff eventually reaches the ocean these chemicals create dead zones by stimulating Cyanobacteria blooms (24).

To increase the production of natural gas for synthetic fertilizer and pesticides as well as electricity, home heating, industrial production and export, the process of fracking is widely used for extraction (25). Fracking itself creates widespread pollution of underground and surface water and in addition leakage from current and abandoned fracking wells releases methane (25). Methane has 84 times the greenhouse gas potential than carbon dioxide (26)(27). 

Both fracking and the production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as other industrial and agricultural practices consume hundreds of billions of gallons of fresh water yearly. 80% of fresh water, whether from streams or rapidly depleted aquifers is used in agriculture while 12% is used in industry (28). Little of this water is purified for human (or other organism) consumption.

Increased heat, deforestation and livestock overgrazing has contributed to the loss of at least 50% of undomesticated animals (29), while cattle alone produce 14.5% of greenhouse gasses (30). Intentional burning of the Amazon for livestock grazing and iron ore mining will reduce this vital oxygen producing/CO2 absorbing tropical forest to dry savannah (31).

Can the degradation of arable land and water and the over-utilization of other resources continue indefinitely?

The authors correctly state, “…when the world’s working class is able to rationally plan the production of only things that we really need – whether materially, psychologically, or aesthetically, coordinated cooperative planning by a Communist society, without the interference of the profit motive, will permit us to act according to our needs.”

Industrial Production and Energy: Issues for a Communist Society

Since a high energy source is the basis of industrial production a rational production plan for a high energy industrial society begins with an understanding of an appropriate energy source to power our new Communist industry. As we have seen, using fossil fuels to power the current capitalist economy has disastrous consequences for the environment. Yet while burning fossil fuels will largely disappear new energy sources must be found to power industry.

As we have seen fossil fuels have proved to be an environmental disaster. Yet to some extent it is understandable that fossil fuels were chosen to power industry.  In the eighteenth century rising industrial capitalism used coal to power its first steam engines. Thereafter, the properties of fossil fuels, i.e., energy yield, portability, fast ignition, storability, etc., convinced the capitalists to use them extensively.

The liberal use of that energy and the labor power and ingenuity of the working class was put to work then and now to produce masses of goods in ever increasing number. 

However, improvement in working class life and the health of the environment was not the point of capitalist production. Profit was the goal and as a result the working class suffered poverty, homelessness, sickness, war, racism, sexism and grotesque inequality under capitalism’s cruel regime despite producing abundant goods. It is estimated that the richest 10% of the world population consumes close to 60% of the production’s annual output (38). The United States alone consumes 97 quadrillion BTUs of energy while producing 16% of the world’s goods (39)(40)). 87% of that energy still comes from fossil fuels (see attached chart) (41).

 So industrial production under capitalism yielded both a massive quantity of products and widespread disaster. However, industrial production will still be a difficult problem for the working class to navigate wisely after the successful revolution because the working class will still need food, plastic, medicine, furniture, trucks, industrial machinery, chemicals, roadways, shoes, i,e., millions of different types of goods.  Such interlocking production requires vast amounts of energy for extraction, refining, forming, transporting, distributing and ultimate disposal of billions of products. If fossil fuels can no longer be used then which energy source should the working class choose that won’t yield greenhouse gasses, yet use fewer resources, minimize the damage caused by extraction and minimize the complexity of an energy network.

Many alternatives to the high energy of fossil fuels have been advocated: solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels, hydroelectric power, nuclear power. Solar panels and wind turbines require large amounts of material to implement which have serious implications for the environment. Biofuels and hydroelectric power are currently environmentally damaging. Nuclear power may show promise but has risks.

 The Future

While reviewing these problems it might seem that creating an environmentally viable Communist production system would be very difficult, However, as the past has shown the working class, when it is allowed to create in the absence of rapacious capitalist exploitation, can develop unique solutions. We will be able to decide what proportion of renewables, biofuels, hydroelectric power and nuclear power would be useful and environmentally appropriate. The reliance on fossil fuels will gradually recede. Reliable methods for extracting CO2 from the air and ocean will be developed.

Planned reduction in energy use as well as reduction in other resources while still supporting the needs of the working class will be accomplished. Mutual planning and information sharing among comrades around the world will yield the beginning of a society which will bring all of us to a satisfying way of life.

Altered methods of agriculture and husbandry will remedy capitalist agricultural practices. Older methods of planting, land fertilization and pest control might be implemented in addition to creating entirely different farming practices, farm sizes, food distribution systems and livestock quantities and breeding. Currently, 70% of US soybean crop, 40% of the corn crop and 10% of wheat production is grown for livestock feed. Another 40% of corn and5% of soy are used for ethanol and biodiesel (42). Minimizing such production would free millions of acres for perennial food stock as well as re-establishing oxygen producing wetlands and prairies together with their biodiversity.

A great deal of Communist solidarity, humility and knowledge will be required to organize tens of millions of the world’s working class. With its new proliferation of Communist experts and our coordinating party we will be able to plan and simultaneously implement, critique and improve our plans. How much energy production and how many products and in what form will be needed to feed, house, clothe, support healthcare, provide transportation, etc. for us? How  will we minimize environmental damage while maintaining industrial production?  To what degree will we revise our current notions of necessary goods so that we may restore habitat diversity close to its original form? I don’t think that we can say with any certainty at this point which products will be made or which will be “consigned to the dustbin of history”. Future trade offs cannot be calculated now.

The “Communist” article persuasively argues that capitalism cannot solve the problems of environmental and bio-diversity destruction. Neither profit seeking nor economic growth will liberate the working class from grinding sexism, racism, poverty, sickness, war and environmental catastrophe. Only a collective working class will create a truly sustainable worldwide civilization.

While doing so we will need to re-wild a good deal of the natural world so that it can provide the oxygen all species breathe , the pure water we all drink, the fertile land that nurtures our food.