Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A break with tradition

(March 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.239, March 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Environmental destruction can be stopped, argues Chris Harman. But this requires greater scientific research and confronting the priorities of capitalism

There are few things more annoying than hearing bad arguments used to defend a correct and important case. It makes life much easier for those who, from the worst of motives, want to defeat that case. This is particularly so with arguments over the environment. As capitalism has become a fully global system its impact on the world around us has come to threaten the very possibility of human life on earth – through the threat of nuclear wars, through the deterioration of nuclear waste dumps that exist in every major country, through the way in which the greenhouse effect is destabilising weather patterns.

The threat is even greater since the great capitalist corporations and military machines control the main source of information about what is happening – the organisations of scientific research. If you hear a ‘scientist’ on television defending nuclear power, GM organisms or British beef, or claiming the greenhouse effect is a myth, he or she is usually sponsored by some corporation but conveniently forgets to mention it.

No wonder many people react by dismissing all claims to technical advances made over the last century as ‘harmful’ and call for a return to previous ways of making a livelihood. So you get claims that ‘traditional’, ‘organic’ farming is a better alternative to modern methods, that the ‘green revolution’ created poverty, that pesticides and fertilisers are intrinsically harmful, and that ‘western medicine’ simply makes people ill.

The trouble is that such arguments can easily be shot down by the paid apologists for the corporations. They will point out, for instance, that the changes to Indian agriculture that go under the name of the ‘green revolution’ resulted in a massive increase in food output, and that the country has not known a famine with millions of dead for more than 30 years, whereas such horrors were frequent with ‘traditional farming’ under both the Moguls and the British. They will flaunt the figures showing often massive increases in the life expectancy of people in all parts of the world through the 20th century. If hard pushed, they will also note that ‘traditional’ agriculture involved the great mass of humanity labouring from sunrise to sunset, bent double in fields, often ankle deep in water, to get a meagre living standard.

They can use such arguments because the ‘traditional’ societies capitalism replaced were not utopian idylls. Through most of the world they were class societies in their own right, which had long since displaced the ‘primitive communism’ of hunter-gatherers or horticulturists. As much as half the crops were taken by landowners and rulers, the peasant families suffered from repeated wars and recurrent famines, ecological degradation was commonplace, disease widespread, and most people could not expect to live beyond 40 or 50. Even the supposedly ‘traditional methods’ of farming were often no older than the rise of the world market from the 16th century onwards. It was not until then that the potato arrived in Europe, the chilli and tea plants in India, the sweet potato and maize in China, the banana in the Caribbean, and the horse, cow and sheep in the Americas.

Apologists for capitalism will never admit that capitalism is a contradictory system – and the negative side of the contradiction gets worse as the system ages. Unfortunately the critics of the system often do not recognise the contradictory features either. Capitalism like previous class societies rests on huge levels of exploitation and oppression. But it differs from them because competition causes relentless accumulation, with the products of exploitation going to further expand production as well as to provide the exploitative class with luxuries. One result is the systematic application of science and technology to the production of goods, including food, leading to enormous advances in the potential for humans making a livelihood. But at the same time there is a systematic failure to fulfil this potential, with devastating effects on those who do the work and the environment around them.

This was true with the mechanisation of spinning and weaving at the time of the British industrial revolution. It was true of the transformation of much of Indian farming with the ‘green revolution’ – in reality, the first full application of capitalist methods to the subcontinent’s agriculture. It is true today of the schemes of the great corporations.

The corporations see their profits coming through establishing a worldwide market for a uniform set of products. Car, oil and power companies push energy systems based on carbon dioxide producing fossil fuels, regardless of the effect on the atmosphere. The pharmaceutical companies rush new medicines to the biggest possible market, regardless of their side effects and whether their indiscriminate use will create immunity to them for diseases for which they are the best effective cure. The agrifirms push fertilisers as an alternative, rather than a supplement, to other ways of raising the fertility of soil, so increasing farming costs unnecessarily. Now the pharmaceutical companies and agrigiants are combining to use ‘transgenic’ technologies to rush into production a whole range of genetically modified organisms, even though the techniques used to produce them are inherently difficult to control and their effects on wider ecology not easily foreseen.

Food production has increased more rapidly than world population in recent decades. The hunger that exists in many parts of the world today is a result, not of inadequate food output, but of the way it is distributed under capitalism. But that does not mean humanity can simply rely on food output growing sufficiently over the next 30 years, as the population doubles before stabilising at around 12 billion. Ecological degradation, wars and civil wars, developing immunity of pests to chemical attack and microbes to antibiotics, can combine to recreate global insufficiency.

The alternative, however, does not lie in some return to mythical ‘traditional methods’ – people who talk in these terms imagine they can simply stop the world’s population growing and often ignore the miserable conditions under which most ‘traditional’ agricultural labour took place. It lies in breaking the nexus between scientific advance and capitalist exploitation.

We need a much greater application of scientific research to production than at present. But it needs to be research that looks at what is really needed to increase output from the particular patterns of animal and plant life to be found in each ecological niche, that worries about the unintended effects of new methods, and which rigorously tests things before they are put to use. We need to confront the system as a whole, not abandon science for ‘tradition’.

The traditional societies capitalism replaced were not utopian idylls

Last updated on 22 December 2009