Friday, July 26, 2013

Environmental destruction: No solution under capitalism

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired.

Two items caught my eye in this morning’s paper. One of them was a short clip about Halliburton, the famed energy company associated with the war criminal Dick Cheney.
Halliburton has pleaded guilty to ordering its employees to destroy evidence in the aftermath of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 that killed 11 workers.

Halliburton has agreed to pay the maximum fine possible and cooperate fully with the government’s ongoing criminal investigation.  We can thank at least, the company employee who admitted to being told to destroy important evidence.  Maybe he is a whistleblower like Bradley Manning who has spent three years in jail for informing the public about serious matters that concern us. Maybe this individual was backed in to a corner, maybe he or she felt the need to fess up, after all, the criminal nature of firms like Halliburton is so vast, a sacrificial lamb and a one time penitential pay off is a good move.  Like confession, the thugs that run Halliburton can move on to fresh waters now.

Alongside this I see that the Mojave Desert town of Hinckley is back in the news again. Hinckley is famous for the Erin Brockovitch lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric, the huge San Francisco based energy utility.  PG&E ended up paying $333 million to the victims after poisoning the town’s well water.

How did PG&E poison a town’s well water?   It’s quite simple really.  PG&E has a pipeline that runs through Hinckley carrying natural gas from Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area and it used a very toxic form of chromium in one of its facility’s cooling system.  The chromium was added to water and then PG&E dumped this chromium-laced water in to local ponds.  The chromium ended up in the groundwater and in a desert town where most people get their drinking water from wells, it made people sick.

The problem is that the chromium is still there and is actually spreading which has caused other property owners to seek legal redress. Property values have plummeted and the town’s population declined, “We can’t stay here.” one resident tells the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s a ghost town.”
Here's a PBS report on drinking water in the US, although I haven't yet seen it yet.

I haven’t been to Hinckley but I have this picture in my mind of scenes from Ecuador where Chevron is in a battle with the Ecuadorian government around the massive environmental destruction US energy giants have left there.  Chevron is spending millions of dollars and using its political clout to avoid responsibility for the damage (read more)

Some individual or group of individuals decided that it was OK to dump toxic chromium in Hinckley’s water sources, any worker with an 8th grade education would know that putting poison in a water supply, any water supply, would have serious consequences; in short, they knew what they were doing but didn’t care.  An individual or group of individuals also decided it was OK to poison Ecuador’s streams destroying the natural habitat and the lives of the local population.  They may be the same individuals, as the boards of these giant global corporations have many of the same people on them, they are all connected and linked also with the judges, lawyers and politicians whose interests are harmed by putting the safety of individuals, communities or the natural world before profits.

Who told this Halliburton official to destroy evidence?  These people have names, titles, and addresses. These corporations (legally people) will not put the environment or people’s health and safety before profit. It is not because the people that make the decisions are “evil” which means nothing.  It is because the system of production demands it. Production of society’s energy is determined by the profit such a venture can return to the private individuals who own the capital that can set that production in motion.

A section of the capitalist class argues for no regulation whatsoever, especially in the energy field.  As I’ve mentioned before, the energy industry wrote its own rules for deep water drilling and we see the result of that. 

They make arguments about regulation hindering progress and economic activity which is true if we understand that what they mean by progress is capital accumulation at all costs, poison water be damned.  These argue against “big government” but only when government expenditure doesn’t lead to plump gains for the likes of Halliburton and other corporations that feed at the public trough.  Public services, national parks, food subsidies, the postal service, health care education or mass transit, this is public spending they oppose; these must be for profit ventures which means those that can’t pay for them won’t receive them.  Trillion of dollars in producing and using military hardware is not the “big government” thats a problem.  Another section argues for more regulation recognizing that the effects of completely unrestrained capitalism can increase social stability and lead to social unrest.

I would not argue against any attempts to regulate capital in order to protect the public and the natural world in which we live, and there are no doubt public servants at the lower levels who genuinely want to protect both the public and the environment.

But our most important lesson and the conclusion to draw is that lawsuits and the courts will not halt the destruction of people’s lives or the natural world brought about by the rapacious quest for profit.  They’ll pay the measly fine; they’ll admit that the “corporation” as a person was guilty in any particular instance.  But like Hinckley, the chromium is still there.  They will spend a lot more than $300 million avoiding responsibility when it comes to environmental degradation.  When they calculate the cost of doing business, the land they poison in the course of their activities will be left to the taxpayer to clean up. But the poison is never really cleaned up.  We have very little knowledge of the real damage the Gulf spill has done to the land and water the oil penetrates and in most cases we won’t know for decades, until we see Bluefin Tuna with cancerous tumors or other genetic mutations.
The mass media is very free with information that the 1% wants us to know, the true extent of the market driven environmental crisis and the 1%'s role in it isn't  part of their agenda.

Capitalism cannot solve the environmental crisis and beyond that, cannot even halt it.  No matter all the talk of Green this and Green that; profits come first.  Global hunger will never be halted either for the same reason.  Food is a commodity, if you can’t afford to buy it, you can’t get it.  If it’s not profitable to produce it, capitalism won’t produce it.

As long as private interest determines production, environmental destruction will proceed apace.  Only socialism can stop what will at some point reach a tipping point, a point where whole swathes of our planet will be uninhabitable perhaps for centuries and eventually if not stopped, an end to life as we know it.   How we produce food, how we produce all the important necessities of life, energy, housing, etc.  must be a planned, rational collective process involving those who are directly involved in the production as workers both mental and physical, scientists and production workers, and those as consumers.  There is no stopping environmental degradation under capitalism----only a democratic socialist society can halt it.

For more in depth reading about why the capitalist mode of production is incapable of resolving the environmental crisis and the democratic socialist alternative, visit Climate and Capitalism or click on the link to the right.

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