1994-06 Why the Greens are wrong [Buick]

(Socialist standard, June 1994)

People are right to be concerned about what is happening to the environment. Materials taken from nature are being transformed by human activity into substances which nature either can’t decompose or can’t decompose fast enough. The result is pollution and global threats such as the hole in the ozone layer and global warming.

There really is a serious environmental crisis. The issue is not whether it exists but what to do about it. The Green Party has one view. We have another.

The Green Party sees itself as the political arm of the wider environmental movement, arguing that it is not enough to be a pressure group, however militant, like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Greens, it says, should organise as well to contest elections with the eventual aim of forming a Green government that could pass laws and impose taxes to protect the environment.

We say that no government can protect the environment.

Governments exist to run the political side of the profit system. And the profit system can only work by giving priority to making profits over all other considerations. So to protect the environment we must end production for profit.

Pollution and environmental degradation result from the inappropriate ways in which materials from nature are transformed into products for human use. But what causes inappropriate productive methods to be used? Is it ignorance or greed, as some Greens claim? No, it is the way production is organised today and the forces to which it responds.

Production today is in the hands of business enterprises, all competing to sell their products at a profit. All of them—and it doesn’t matter whether they are privately owned or state-owned—aim to maximise their profits. This is an economic necessity imposed by the forces of the market. If a business does not make a profit it goes out of business. “Make a profit or die” is the jungle economics that prevails today.

Under the competitive pressures of the market businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interest, ignoring wider social or ecological considerations. All they look to is their own balance sheet and in particular the bottom line which shows whether or not they are making a profit.

The whole of production, from the materials used to the methods employed to transform them, is distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by uncontrollable market forces which compel decision-makers, however selected and whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste.

Governments do not have a free hand to do what is sensible or desirable. They can only act within the narrow limits imposed by the profit-driven market system whose rules are “profits first” and “you can’t buck the market”.

The Green Party is not against the market and is not against profit-making. It imagines that, by firm government action, these can be tamed and prevented from harming the environment. This is an illusion. You can’t impose other priorities on the profit system than making profits. That’s why a Green government would fail.

Some Greens have already begun to realise this. Here is what Derek Wall, who was a national speaker for the Green Party in the last European elections in 1989, has gone on record as saying:

“A Green government will be controlled by the economy rather than being in control. On coming to office through coalition or more absolute success, it would be met by an instant collapse of sterling as ’hot money’ and entrepreneurial capital went elsewhere. The exchange rate would fall and industrialists would move their factories to countries with more relaxed environmental controls and workplace regulation. Sources of finance would dry up as unemployment rocketed, slashing the revenue from taxation and pushing up the social security bills. The money for ecological reconstruction—the building of railways, the closing of motorways, the construction of a proper sewage system—would run out” (Getting There: Steps to a Green Society).

The Green Party is right on one point though, when it says that pressure group activity is not enough. Where they go wrong is not in proposing political action, but in proposing political action to elect a Green government.

They fail to realise that what those who want a clear and safe environment are up against is a well-entrenched economic and social system based on class privilege and property and governed by the overriding economic law of profits first.

If the environmental crisis is to be solved, this system must go. What is required is political action, yes, but political action aimed at replacing this system by a new and different one which will allow us to meet our needs in an environmentally-friendly way.

To do this we must control production—the way we interact with the rest of nature—but to be able to control production we must own the means of production. So we are talking about a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources.

That’s the only basis on which we can meet our needs whilst respecting the laws of nature. And it’s the only basis on which we can begin to successfully reverse the degradation of the environment already caused by the profit system.

What Greens should be struggling for is not a change of government but a change of society.

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