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Global pollution threatens ecosystem breakdown

(Autumn 1988)

From Militant International Review, No. 38, Autumn 1988, pp. 32–34.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“What threatens mankind Is a lethal and unpredictably volatile mixture of global warming with associated floods, ozone layer depletion with attendant cancers and disruption of ocean food chains ... the acidification of forests, lakes and crops, all combining to precipitate recurring cycles of famine and drought.”

This was the devastating scenario of the breakdown of our ecological system by atmospheric pollution produced by the US National Academy of Science in 1987. The calamitous flooding of Bangladesh and the severe weather fluctuations which have devastated major food-growing areas of the world during the past year have catapulted the issue of global pollution into much greater prominence. Deforestation and soil erosion, serious stratospheric depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer, together with colossal increases in gaseous emissions – principally carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – have underlined the fears of working people.

Such is the general concern on this issue that even Thatcher has been forced to make sympathetic noises. In the greatest metamorphosis since St Paul fell off his horse on the way to Damascus, she has suddenly discovered that the Tories have been ‘green’ all along. Phrases about ‘acid rain’ and concern for the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ tripped from her lips.

This is sheer hypocrisy. Britain is the only major European country to so far refuse to make a 30 per cent reduction in sulphur emissions that cause acid rain. At the same time Ridley, the misnamed Environment Secretary, delayed an international treaty to control ozone-destructive chemicals. Perhaps this new-found concern is not unconnected with the fact that 74 ‘green’ motions were originally tabled even for the tame Tory Party Conference.

Scientists have long argued that dramatic changes in the earth’s atmosphere through gaseous pollution, mainly carbon dioxide, would have a disastrous effect on the ecological system, the so-called ‘Greenhouse Effect’. It is now generally accepted that if present trends in the production of carbon dioxide and deforestation continue, the resulting global temperature rise will produce enormous weather variations which will disrupt agriculture and submerge some presently low-lying land area as the polar ice cap melts.

Aral Sea

The planet only supports life because of the delicate and harmonious relationship between the sun’s rays, oxygen and carbon dioxide. The small quantity of carbon dioxide is essential directly or indirectly for all forms of life. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into essential foodstuffs and oxygen. These in turn are consumed by humans and other animals who release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – completing the cycle. But today this fine balance is being disturbed and on a massive scale. The anarchic development of capitalism and the rapacious greed of today’s multi-national corporations now threaten humanity with extinction.

The Stalinist bureaucracy have also displayed a hooligan attitude to the environment. Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is grossly polluted, so also is the inland Aral Sea. This sea is located in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeki elite used the waters of the Aral Sea to irrigate the deserts of the area, which is now the major cotton-producing region of the USSR. But in so doing they have polluted the Aral Sea and the water table in the surrounding area. Irrigation canals were built without concrete linings and therefore the water seeped into the ground. The excess minerals in the land combined with the naturally saline ground, making the land so salty it can no longer produce crops unless it is flushed out with even more water. The high salinity is now affecting the underground artesian wells. With most of the marine life in the Aral Sea killed, this area, which was once rich in fish, now has to import fish from Murmansk for the canning factories situated on the shores of this now barren sea.

It must not be forgotten that the issue that triggered the upheavals in Armenia was pollution. It was a demonstration of workers from Aboyan protesting against the building of a rubber factory which merged with nationalist demonstrations in Yerevan. The whole of the Transcaucasus is recognised as a heavily polluted area, as also is much of Eastern Europe. One third of Poland has been described by the Polish government as ‘ecologically damaged.’ The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine spread throughout Europe, but was especially dangerous in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

For centuries, man has used coal as the principal source of fuel – for cooking and heating. But the burning of coal produces many air borne pollutants including smoke, dust and sulphur dioxide which are injurious to health and the growth of plants and animals. In England as early as 1273 attempts were made to prohibit the use of coal in London. In 1306 a committee of inquiry was appointed to “Inquire of all such who burnt sea-coal in the city or parts adjoining, and to punish them for the first offence with great fines and ransoms, and upon the second offence to demolish their furnaces.” By the seventeenth century coal burning was so out of control that John Evelyn submitted a report to Charles II claiming that “London’s inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour ... corrupting the lungs.” The rapid industrialisation of England’s major cities during the industrial revolution was entirely due to the use of coal as a primary energy source. Combustion of coal was on such a scale that a permanent pall of smoke hung over many towns obscuring the sunlight and causing rickets in children. Sunlight contains ultra-violet rays which can synthesize the essential vitamin D in the skin.


The large scale combustion of fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – for energy in modem times, together with the destruction of much of the world’s rainforests, has enormously disturbed the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Air monitoring In Hawaii and the Antarctica since the early 1950s has shown an exponential increase in carbon dioxide concentration. From an estimated 270 parts per million (ppm) in the 1850s it has risen to an alarming 335 ppm today. Unless halted, it is predicted that the concentration could increase to as much as 600 ppm by the year 2030. Combustion processes alone release over 6.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually whilst jungle clearances add a further 1.5 billion tons.

The released carbon dioxide creates a dense blanket around the earth permitting the sun’s rays to enter but trapping the heat that otherwise would be radiated into outer space. This ‘Greenhouse Effect’ has already raised global temperatures by over 0.5 degrees centigrade over the past 100 years.

This condition is made worse by a cocktail of chemicals dumped into the atmosphere – the most notorious being the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as a propellant in aerosols. Around 1 million tons of CFCs escape into the air each year. Every molecule of CFC released is 10,000 times more effective in trapping the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide – producing a doubling heat effect. There is also now irrefutable evidence linking CFCs with the vast holes in the ozone layer in the stratosphere.


The ozone layer acts as a giant filter of the extremely harmful ultra-violet radiation from the sun. A one per cent depletion, according to the US National Academy of Science, will cause a two per cent increase in cancer.

CFCs and carbon dioxide could push up the planet’s temperature by as much as 4.5 degrees by 2030 and a staggering 8.6 degrees over the next century. Using the most conservative results, they conclude that sea levels would rise by as much as 4–5 feet. Yet a rise of just 18 inches would submerge Asia’s rice growing areas.

The ‘Greenhouse Effect’ will make the climate hotter, wetter and cloudier. The climatic changes would have a disastrous effect on agriculture. For example, high carbon dioxide levels could stimulate plant growth. But this potential benefit would be offset by the higher temperature which would stimulate plant growth which in turn would facilitate greater energy consumption. Moreover the thicker cloud cover could inhibit photosynthesis – the process by which plants manufacture their food.

But a more serious consequence of global warming could see a gradual shift of important agricultural regions to much higher latitudes. The great corn and soya bean belts at middle latitudes in the USA, for example, would move northwards to areas where the soil would be unsuitable for intensive farming. The same story would be repeated for central Europe. A much changed rainfall pattern would also exist and move north to northern Canada, Siberia and Scandinavia. These areas with their poorer soils will be unable to replace the present world’s granaries. The USA and Canada supply 80 per cent of the world’s trade in wheat. Diminishing reserves of food would create mass starvation and famines that would dwarf those presently occurring in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

There is mounting evidence that this frightening picture of the irreversible breakdown of our world is now occurring and at an alarming rate. Among many tell-tale signs has been the discovery that the arctic permafrost has warmed up by as much as three degrees over the past 100 years. Alaskan glaciers have been melting and drifting has increased. Retreating snowlines on mountains the world over, the observed movement northwards of the agricultural cropline in the Canadian Prairies, the changed distribution of plants and animals: all have added credibility to the argument that the ecological system is breaking down.


Marxists have never opposed the tremendous achievements that science has contributed to society. But under capitalism it has been used and developed in an irrational and unplanned manner which has resulted in many catastrophes. On a global scale capitalism has proved incapable of using the capacity of modern science and technology to ease the nightmare conditions of the 4.4 billion people of the ‘Third World’, described in a recent World Bank Report as “conditions of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.” While advances In science and technology have made possible the development of the microchip, computers and robots, the real ‘energy crisis’ for over 2 billion people is to obtain the firewood and dung they still depend on as fuel for cooking. For them, firewood can only be obtained by systematically destroying forests which, in the ex-colonial world, have been disappearing at an horrendous rate of one million hectares a month.

Denuded of any vegetation, the top soil quickly becomes washed away creating deserts and reducing rainfall. In India, the 250,000 sq. mile Rajputana desert was once heavily populated. In Roman times the granary of the Empire was in North Africa. Now, without irrigation and water management, this area is afflicted by droughts, floods, soil erosion and creeping deserts. Today the Sahara consumes 30,000 hectares each year. Throughout the ex-colonial world capitalist monopolies distort whole economies to produce a single commodity, cash crops or minerals, with no concern for the environment or the delicate interrelationships of nature. Thus in north east Brazil, whereas in 1900 an area known as the Hump was 40 to 50 per cent forest, today it is less than five per cent.

A searing indictment of the short sighted and disastrous policies of big business has been in relation to the Amazonian rain forests. The devastation of the mighty forests and its ecological system has been on such a magnitude and ferocity as that of an atomic explosion. The greatest ecological disaster in history is now making a decisive intervention on our weather.


The rain-forests, covering an area larger than the whole of Western Europe, have been described as the lungs of the world. The trees, accounting for over a third of the world’s total, produce through photosynthesis over a half of the world’s annual production of oxygen and in turn contribute to the balance of carbon dioxide. Undisturbed, the forests exist as a result of a delicate and complex interchange with the limited amounts of nutrients in the biomass which is recycled within the system. Living almost independently of the soil, as much as 50 per cent of rainfall is recycled, also maintaining a constancy of temperature.

Such is the abundance and diversity of plant and animal life that scientists have as yet been unable to make a comprehensive classification. There are at least 17,000 insects, 500 to 600 species of flora and over 2,000 species of birds alone. The brutal transformation of the rainforests which has now reached inconceivable proportions, not only threatens the extinction of the ecosystem but has also done irreversible damage to the environment. This has, in turn, reverberated upon the competing monopolies and has had serious repercussions for local farmers.

With the blessing of the Brazilian government the competing multinational companies launched a ferocious assault on the jungle to transform it into a vast pasture land for cattle for the world market. In just over two decades over a quarter of the forests of the Amazon basin and Mato Grosso were destroyed. In the last decade alone over 11 million hectares were cleared – corresponding to hundreds of millions of trees. Seeking spectacular profits for minimum investments and no controls, the companies ignited the great forests with napalm bombs and defoliants. The vast jungle fires, consuming hundreds of millions of trees, lasting many months, were first observed by a Landsat satellite in 1975.

The fires and smoke in turn killed off the insects and rodents whose presence was essential for the cultivation of many plants, especially the nut tree. Thus In the province of Acre, the entire population of nut trees were lost – resulting in over 10,000 nut gatherers losing their livelihood. Moreover, once the residual nutrients were washed away from the exposed soil, it became hard, brittle and infertile. The cleared jungle was planted with quick growing guinea grass whose fertility levels were such that after five years their growth declined. The lasting effects of the defoliant also killed off the vitally important broad leaf legumes, which enrich the soil by capturing nitrogen from the air and not from the soil. Problems of bush invasion, fungus and soil leaching intensified. The loss of vegetation immediately disrupted the ecosystem. Rainfall declined by almost five per cent and the temperature soared to over 30 degrees.

Under a socialist plan for energy all types of energy production would be considered on the basis of safety, efficiency and environmental concern. An immediate programme to eliminate waste through insulation and conservation would be implemented. This could save energy and create thousands of jobs in the building industry. It has been calculated that 75% of heating for homes is lost through walls, roofs and floors and that 60% of total energy in power stations is lost as heat – through cooling water – into the environment. With recent advances in technology, combined heat and power stations can supply hot water to entire communities. These stations are already in use in Denmark, where they supply over half the country’s heating requirements.


Such a programme could be linked to re-equipping existing power stations to make them more efficient. Coal fired stations, presently only operating at 30% efficiency, could be made far more efficient with the introduction of the fluidised bed combustion process whereby air is blown through a moving flow of burning coal. A Department of Energy paper has estimated that such a programme would create half a million jobs between now and the year 2000 and, at the same time, conserve valuable coal and oil reserves.

Priority would also be given to the development of renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy which do not produce harmful pollution and irreversible damage to the environment. Research in the USA, Japan and Australia has shown that such an integrated energy programme could provide up to 6 times as many jobs as the equivalent nuclear programme. The prestigious National Science Foundation of America recommended as far back as 1972 that an investment of $3.5 billion in solar energy would provide 35% of the country’s heating and cooling needs, 40% of fuel and 20% of electricity. A similar study in Britain in 1974, which has recently been re-examined, showed that solar power, mainly for domestic and industrial heating, could provide as much as 14% of energy needs here with wave power providing over 30%. The recent advances in solar power technologies, principally a new type of photo-voltaic cell, has made possible the large scale production of cheap energy.

Future generations may benefit from a near infinite energy source in nuclear fusion when that process is perfected and made safe. Fusion uses as its fuel Deuterium (heavy water) which is present in vast quantities in the oceans of the world – sufficient for millions of years. In stark contrast to nuclear fission, fusion would, as far as is presently known, be a safe form of energy without pollution. But the limited amounts available for research has meant that there are still technical problems to overcome.

The destruction of the environment has now reached calamitous proportions. The ‘Greenhouse Effect’, wanton destruction of rainforests and ozone depletion is inevitable in a society dominated by blind market forces. The inherent contradictions, antagonisms and the competition of interests makes capitalism absolutely incapable of developing the immense natural potential energy sources that exist or even introduce adequate safeguards against pollution and harmful effects.

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