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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Stirling Howieson


Talking down disaster


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Chris Nineham’s article exposing the hypocrisy of ‘caring capitalism’ as merely a marketing strategy is in essence correct. It is very difficult however to raise green issues in certain socialist circles without being branded a muesli munching Malthusian doom merchant.

The popular slogan of the Greens, ‘Think global, act local’ is total nonsense which results directly in individuals agonising over the disposal of glass bottles. The fact that recycling glass consumes more energy than using new silica totally defeats the purpose of the exercise. The slogan however does reflect a real and growing concern which the Green Party cannot address due to their idealistic outlook. Show capitalists the error of their ways and surely they will stop destroying the planet? Some bloody chance!

The other side of the coin however is to say, as Chris Nineham does, that the problems facing humanity are relatively modest and easily resolved. This is not the case. The world can accommodate a larger population but only as subsistence farmers living in abject poverty. The availability of energy is the key to this problem. If we take agriculture alone the typical ratio of inputs to gross value of outputs has increased from 5 percent to 50 percent during the last 100 years. Most of this percentage increase can be represented by the burning of hydrocarbons with a proportional increase in C02 levels. We can thus produce more food but only by increasing global warming.

CFCs, and their marginally less harmful replacements HCFCs, are particularly insidious. Even if all production stops immediately as it takes each CFC molecule over 20 years to reach the ozone layer (one molecule of chlorine will destroy 100,000 molecules of ozone) the hole will thus continue to increase for decades to come and there is still a vast amount of CFCs to be released. The problems associated with such a dramatic increase in ultra-violet radiation, where we have no ozone cover during the spring, are not yet fully understood, but super plankton colonies are already choking some sea areas. Plant and animal life will find it difficult to adjust to such rapid changes in special light. Species extinction is currently estimated to be running at 150 per day. This is a rate greater than the huge extinctions brought on by past ice ages.

Capitalism is incapable of undertaking corrective action. The Rio summit commitments, modest as they are, can only be met by Britain if power stations are switched to gas. Electric transport will reduce hydrocarbon pollution in the cities but unless combined heat and power stations are built, switching to electricity produces no net savings in global pollution. Technology such as solar, wind, water, wave and geothermal could make a significant contribution but will not be developed under capitalism until there is a clear market opportunity to make a fast buck.

The ruling class love of nuclear power is well founded and Japan’s economic performance (although it may have marginally reduced its overall energy requirements) has relied heavily on this source. These power stations will be threatened relatively quickly with rising sea levels and they are undoubtedly increasing the poisonous legacy which future generations will inherit.

As socialism is the only answer to these nightmares I question whether it is a clever tactic for Chris Nineham to grossly underestimate and then talk down the impending ecological disaster.


Stirling Howieson

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