Monday, February 9, 2015

Capitalism cannot escape environmental catastrophe.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

When I was in Macedonia a few years ago I was in the capital Skopje crossing the bridge over the Vadar River linking the old part of the city with the new trendy commercial center.  I was there 35 years before when Macedonia was the southernmost province of Yugoslavia and I stopped halfway across the old bridge to look at the river again before I spent one more night in the country before leaving for London the next morning.

I had been in Macedonia visiting a long time friend in Gostivar and the Vadar begins there near Mavrovo, a beautiful national park near the Albanian border.  My friends had taken me to a monastery there, one of the oldest, if not the oldest in Europe where there was a huge intricate carving depicting biblical scenes I think. The Vadar crosses Macedonia in to Greece before it meets the Aegean Sea near Thessaloniki. I had sold blood there back in the 60’s when I was bumming around Europe.  Having O Negative running through one’s veins has some advantages.

As I gazed down in to the river there seemed to be lots of little objects floating in it. It was quite bright as I remember and I wasn’t sure what they were.  But it became apparent that they were thousands of plastic bottles and containers moving rapidly south on their way to the Aegean. I don’t recall it being like this at all back in the 1960’s and it depressed me to think of all these plastic containers ending up in the Mediterranean and who knows where from there.  It’s bizarre to think that perhaps those very bottles I saw are now in that whirling garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean known officially as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, technically two patches with the Eastern one being about twice the size of Texas. 

Needless to say it depressed me a bit.

A few issues back, Business Week* had a report about the Tanneries in Bangladesh that you see in the video above. The Tanneries are in the Hazaribagh neighborhood in the capital Dhaka alongside the Buriganga River. There are some 200 tanneries in Hazaribagh that produce 75 tons of solid waste a day and dump 22,000 meters of hazardous liquid daily in to the river. The workers live along the banks, “It’s a shameful way to live” says one 27 year old tannery worker and mother of two. There are about 166,000 residents in the neighborhood and they all suffer form debilitating ailments and diseases from the pollution and horrific working conditions but it is the 12,000 tannery workers that face the worst of it.  They work 12 to 14 hours a day 7 days a week and as the video above points out, they have no health benefits, compensation for injuries or other benefits and they earn about $2 a day.  About 80% of Bangladesh’s leather production is exported according to Business Week.

Workers are afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs.  These conditions existed throughout Britain in the 19th century as the British peasantry were driven off the land and in to the workhouses and factories that arose through the industrial revolution.  The development of capitalism was not rapid enough to absorb all of the surplus labor which gave the workhouse its special role and as poaching poverty and “vagrancy and vagabondism” replaced the field and the commons. The penalties for such transgressions of course were branding, prison or death.

The abuse of nature and the abuse of nature’s inhabitants, humans included, is a system problem not a personal one. Bangladeshi capitalists are no worse than American ones and their global influence is far less destructive. These conditions exist as an integral part of capitalism, a system where production is set in to motion not in order to produce goods we need but to extract surplus from the worker the source of capital accumulation for the capitalist(s) that own of the means of production the products the work produces, the labor time the used in its production and how and when that production takes place.

It is not a fault of “crony capitalism” as the apologists of the system claim offering regulation as the panacea.  Capitalism has always been a violent and brutal system it always will be.

Boycotts won’t stop this. The European and US capitalists in the retail business blame the consumers at one end and the Bangladeshi and other third world manufactures on the other. The third world manufacturers blame their brethren in the advanced capitalist economies: it’s a roundabout of blame like the Pacific garbage patch is a roundabout of trash.

In an earlier piece on the Pacific Garbage patch I referred to the capitalists’ usual argument that there is not the will to do anything, by this they mean political will. The same reason they can’t provide health care or education or housing or any other product should be the fruit of human labor.  The liberals who point to this or that friendly (Green) business are living in a dream world as well.  One idealistic young Greenpiece woman tried to convince me this non-profit led by an egalitarian entrepreneur is gathering tons of plastic bits from the ocean. It won’t stop the inevitable decline and eventual destruction of life as we know it on this planet.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch could easily be removed; the conditions in Bangladesh and other communities and workplaces eradicated.  Capitalism has achieved great things, it has hastened the development of technology and increased the productivity of labor to the point that accomplishments undreamed of can be taken up.  The resources of just a few of the advanced capitalist economies thrown in to such a venture could accomplish this; a “coalition” like the myriad of coalitions the greatest power of them all US Imperialism puts together to bomb opposition to its wars to defend corporate profits could handle the problem. LA sort of “Operation Caste Out Plastic”.

But capitalism cannot accomplish this. It is not profitable to take up such a venture, if it was it would be done.  The owners of capital will not throw it in to circulation unless more comes back than went out. This is how the system works. It was never friendly, always violent and brutal but it has had its moments. Like most things that are overused, they might still work to a degree, but as each breath of air escapes from the ball, one can still kick it, but it soars through the air no more. Like a ball full of holes, capitalism cannot be fixed, only replaced and that is what we, as humans and particularly as workers, are faced with.

For this unionist, socialist, laborer, backhoe operator, former forklift driver and wannabe writer, I’ll be gone, and I can’t say long gone because the reality is such that unless we change the system completely as has happened throughout human history, there will be no future for those children I read about of Facebook. Your (and my) lovely grandchildren, sons, daughters.

The two examples I give here are but examples of situations that exist throughout the world, there are conditions in many US urban and rural areas where conditions are not so different as they are in India. Having a cell phone is not an example of the apex of civilization.  Do we honestly think that the nuclear waste from Fukushima or the oil from the BP deep-water disaster will not have lasting destructive effects on all of us and on the next generation? I think we know it will, but the average person I’m sure feels overwhelmed.  What can I do? Nothing is the usual answer.  Doing nothing rarely works.  We certainly won’t get any help from the 1% that own the retailers, the factories in Bangladesh the mines in Australia and Chile and the mass media to the world.

It’s not easy as an individual to have the answer to it all but collectively we can figure it out, if we study working class history rather than rely on Citibank’s version of it or rely on General Mills to bring us the news we can figure it out.  If we learn from centuries of struggles, when humans have tried to improve their lives and fought oppression it will help us figure it out. If we read about socialism and the struggles of socialists and revolutions rather than trust CNN to define what it means to us it will help us figure it out as we will have an alternative.

We pay taxes that fund wars of destruction, taxes that could easily clean up the Pacific, end homelessness and hunger. This is not utopian. The super rich have accumulated enough capital that they alone could eliminate poverty. Imagine what a coalition of nations states committing their national resources, capital and human labor power to such a task could accomplish.  It’s not a problem that cannot be overcome. But we have to overcome capitalism to do it.

* Bangladesh's Toxic Tanneries Business Week, Dec 2014

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