Oliver Williams is a centre-right environmentalist. He is currently writing a book on resource scarcity.
The environment has not always been a left-wing concern. In 1988 the journal of the Socialist Workers Party declared the environmental movement “reactionary”. The editor of the Morning Star has admitted that until recently the newspaper would “never have given the light of day” to Greens. Tony Benn once referred to environmental concerns as “the middle class expressing its dislike of the horrors of industrialisation – keeping Hampstead free from the whiff of diesel smoke, sort of thing”.
According to the New Left Review, “From the Marxist perspective and in general that of the New Left, the first reaction to the explicit social presence of environmentalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s was one of surprise if not repudiation. The rise of the German Greens was met by incomprehension. Attempts were made to identify the Greens with Nazi rhetoric on Blut und Boden… Most Marxists chose to interpret environmentalism as either a dangerous anti-industrial romanticism or an upper-class frivolous fad.”
Alexander Cockburn, a regular contributor to The Nation and co-editor of CounterPunch has attempted to explain this rapid change of heart: “The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social justice.”
While environmental concerns are genuinely held by most on the left, there is no doubt that the newly adopted green-tinge was opportunistic. As James Delingpole puts it, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” He called his book Watermelons – green on the outside but red on the inside. Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute claims “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”
Most environmentalists will of course be dismissive of these climate change deniers yet no less than Naomi Klein, poster girl of anti-capitalism, writing in The Nation, concludes: “they aren’t wrong”. It is, in her words, “capitalism vs the climate”. A current editorial in the left wing Jacobin magazine avers the “radicalizing potential” of climate change and argues “The Left doesn’t need to go green — to save the planet and the people on it, it needs to go red.” It is a view shared with John Bellamy Foster, editor of the communist Monthly Review, and is loudly proclaimed by most on the far-left.
Yet even the worst disasters of capitalism – Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon et al – are dwarfed by the unmitigated environmental catastrophe of communism. Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege, the definitive book on the subject, finds that “No other great industrial civilization so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, water and people.” Yet unlike capitalism, the environmental cost bought little: communism failed to bring about material prosperity for the average person.
“To live longer”, Russia`s Minister of Health remarked in 1989, “you must breathe less.” Because land, water, forests, and minerals were state property, they were allocated to enterprises at virtually no cost; there was no incentive to boost efficiency or to conserve resources. The state sold a barrel of oil to its industries at less than the price of a litre of vodka. By 1989 the chief of the State Committee on Environmental Protection deduced that environmental turnaround was impossible due to “the prevailing attitude of production enterprises toward nature as a free resource.”
It took the Soviet Union ten times as much energy as the United States to produce ammonia; twenty-four percent more to manufacture steel. “We simply squander energy,” admitted an official of the Soviet energy industry in 1990. Judith Shapiro’s book Mao’s War Against Nature, published by Cambridge University Press, shows that conditions in China were little better. And today in North Korea the entire landscape is “basically dead,” according to Dutch soil scientist Joris van der Kamp.
Criticism of the environmental record of Venezuela has been hard to come by in left-wing publications. Hugo Chávez took what the Guardian described as a “schizophrenic posture” – “insisting that climate change is an existential crisis caused by capitalism, while simultaneously pushing for the development of the Orinoco’s heavy crude.” Venezuela’s extra heavy crude oil is amongst the dirtiest energy available. The newspaper reported that at UN negotiations Venezuelan officials argued that “a shift to a low-carbon economy would adversely impact developing country oil exporters, suggesting that a robust climate change treaty would conflict with Venezuela’s development model”.
Lack of maintenance and poor management by the national oil company, PDVSA, has led to countless accidents and spills. In 2012 a pipeline fracture in the state of Monagas released tens of thousands of barrels of oil into a river that provides irrigation and drinking water. That same year the country’s biggest refinery exploded killing 41 people. At Lake Maracaibo there have been decades of leaks. Chávez has ensured his popularity by practically giving away gasoline. In Bolivia Evo Morales has continued massive fuel subsidies – his left wing and trade union supporters reacted angrily against the suggestion of subsidy-cutting.
Writing in 1977, the communist ideologue Alex Callinicos explained: “crises happen because workers are paid too little. If wages were higher, then there would be a market for goods that would otherwise go unsold or even not be produced at all. This theory is very common on the left today, especially in the Communist Party.” By now adopting the call for less consumption they are railing against what they once accused capitalism of being incapable of: providing a high material standard of living for the masses. (Many on the left fail to practice what they preach – The New Internationalist have an extensive catalogue of the most superfluous products ready to order.)
While clearly the private-jet set, mega-yacht owning 1 per cent are having a massively disproportionate effect on the environment, as the former editor of the Financial Times has explained, “Rich people consume a smaller proportion of their income than do the poor – they save around 15 to 20 per cent of what they get, while those at the bottom of the pyramid have to spend it all just to keep going.” While I believe that a more equal society would be a positive thing in itself, equality would lead to an aggregate rise in consumption. Where are we to draw the line between poverty and environmentally destructive greed? And what jobs will be left if everyone stops buying “stuff”?
Clearly the problem of combating poverty without damaging the planet is a difficult one. Unconstrained free markets are not the answer but nor are the prescriptions of the far left. (Arthur Scargill, now leader of the Socialist Labour Party, thinks the solution is more coal.) The iconic Soviet author Maxim Gorky wrote that “Once the class struggle has been won, Soviet humankind will be free to engage its final enemy: nature”. It was a struggle that the Soviet people lost at a great cost. In the early 1990s residents of the Russian city of Nizhnii Tagil erected a monument to what they termed “the victims of the ecological terror”.
For today’s left, the plight of all those who lived under the environmental nightmare of communism has been forgotten. The environmentalist movement was instrumental in defeating communism. It would be a grim irony if we let the movement be hijacked by the alienating and historically myopic machinations of “green communism” or “eco-socialism”. Environmentalists should seek to build as broad a coalition as possible, but those on the left – whether disingenuous or deluded – who would claim ownership over it need to be told that environmentalism does not belong to them.