|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 214 Dec/Jan 2017/18
A dirty, deadly system
Every man, woman and child in Delhi is currently inhaling the equivalent of 50 cigarettes a day. Already the holder of the dubious distinction as the world’s most polluted capital, Delhi is shrouded in smog, its people choking on poisonous vehicle and industry emissions. This is being worsened by India’s winter climate and the widespread practice of burning crop stubble in the surrounding countryside. It signals catastrophic health consequences for the city’s 19 million inhabitants as this pollution is linked to numerous diseases in children, including asthma, cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders and birth defects. And to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer in adults.
The US embassy is concerned. Its website recorded levels of the fine pollutants known as PM2.5 at 703 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The World Health Organisation says that exposure to PM2.5 should not exceed ten micrograms. Schools in Delhi and Punjab state had to close. United Airlines suspended flights to New Delhi on the grounds of poor air quality and employee safety. However, none of this seems to worry Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s environment minister. He airily dismissed the claim that air pollution kills. (Financial Times, 15 November)
These suffocating fumes have blown in on the winds of rampant globalisation and the super-exploitation of the neo-colonial world, bolstered by the neoliberal free-market policies of right-wing nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. This deadly situation is also a stark confirmation of the warnings in a detailed report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, published on 19 October. It stated that pollution is killing more than nine million people in the world each year, three times the deaths from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. It is also an understatement because the impact of many pollutants is yet to be fully understood.
The Lancet Commission says that ‘modern’ outdoor air pollution – largely from vehicles and industry – caused 4.5 million deaths in 2015, while ‘traditional’ indoor air pollution – from wood and dung stoves – accounted for 2.9 million. A further 1.8 million deaths were the result of water pollution through gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections. Fuel combustion, the Lancet explains, "accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen". India, where modern and traditional pollution are out of control, is top of this grim chart with pollution deaths at 2.5 million a year, followed by China on 1.8 million.
The Lancet reports that 92% of the deaths occur among people in low-income and middle-income countries. That one in four early deaths in rapidly industrialising nations – such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Madagascar and Kenya – could be linked to air, water, soil or other contamination. More than 70% of cities exceed WHO limits. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians estimated that air pollution is causing 40,000 premature deaths per year in Britain. (Huffington Post, 31 October)
The link between the way the capitalist economic system functions and this global crisis becomes clear in the Lancet report’s section on chemicals and pesticides, more than 140,000 of which have been synthesised since 1950. The 5,000 being produced in the greatest volumes have been so widely dispersed in the environment that there is near universal human exposure. Yet fewer than half have undergone any testing for safety or toxicity.
In addition: "Newer synthetic chemicals… have undergone little pre-market evaluation…" These include "developmental neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors, chemical herbicides, novel insecticides, pharmaceutical wastes, and nanomaterials… These emerging chemicals are of great concern, and this concern is heightened by the increasing movement of chemical production to low-income and middle-income countries where public health and environmental protections are often scant".
The accelerated opening up of the global market over the last quarter of a century has completely exposed the industrialising world to hugely powerful corporations based mainly in the western hemisphere, or under the wing of the Chinese regime. Wielding colossal economic power – backed up with persuasive geopolitical muscle and potential military might – they can dictate terms and conditions for trade and investment, holding poorer countries to ransom. Corrupt parties and political systems are only too happy to oblige.
It is a remarkable echo of the situation described by Friedrich Engels (when aged 24) in his 1844 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. He was reporting the horrendous housing and environment forced on working-class communities in the cities at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution. Looking back in 1892 – in the preface to an English language edition – Engels wrote that one of the reasons why the capitalist ruling class had been compelled to act eventually was that the rich were also threatened from the catastrophic outbreaks of disease: "The repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, smallpox and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in their towns and cities". It was also becoming increasingly clear that it was a gross misuse of valuable human labour if the workforce is constantly debilitated by illness or dies off too quickly.
Yet the drive for profit has condemned the working class in the neo-colonial world to conditions reminiscent of that earlier stage of capitalist development. In the face of this current crisis, it is imperative that the workers’ movement takes action internationally to force through change. We cannot wait for the capitalists to see the light. This is an urgent matter of life or death.
The Lancet Commission does not raise these issues. Nonetheless, the report’s authors are keenly aware of the problems and, although their thinking never breaks out of the capitalist box, they make a number of far-reaching links: between pollution and global warming; on the need for sustainable development; for regulations and increased funding; for open data and research; for international cooperation; and for democratic oversight.
However, all of these come up against the limitations of the capitalist system or the vested interests involved. The cutthroat competition for markets between companies stops the free-flow of R&D in the name of company confidentiality, and generates huge amounts of waste. The fact that companies are based in nation states cuts across international cooperation, stoking state-power rivalry. Big oil, coal and vehicle companies, or countries sitting on major fossil fuel deposits, are driven to sell polluting products.
Yet, as Engels showed, it would be wrong to suggest that capitalism is incapable of implementing reforms – at times, far-reaching ones. This is especially true when the ruling class faces existential threat – whether from 19th-century epidemics or mass revolutionary movements. Nonetheless, it is difficult to envisage resolute action today without the determined mass mobilisation of the working class. We only have to consider the woeful attempts to tackle global warming since the Rio summit in 1992 – despite mass pressure and the undoubted concern of many capitalists, too.
Moreover, there are resources available. Immense riches are still being created: witness the huge cash hoards held by multinationals, the colossal sums sloshing around offshore banks, or the obscene expenditure wasted on weapons of mass destruction. But capitalism is still reeling from the 2007/08 financial crisis and it is not looking forward to the structural booms of the industrial revolution or post-second world war eras. It is a parasitic system, leeching off the working class, draining the planet of its vital resources. It will only be moved by the working class, and the best (and only lasting) solution would be a revolutionary socialist transformation of society.
Only that fundamental change could introduce the "sustainable, circular economy that relies on non-polluting renewable energy" called for by the Lancet Commission. Or answer its call for new technology, satellite imaging and data mining to be used in socially-useful ways. Or ensure that the full costs of pollution can be accounted for.
Only a democratically planned socialist economy could free up the time working-class people need to participate fully in running society. We could then ensure that the world’s precious resources are used sustainably. And we could clean up the colossal mess left behind by destructive capitalism and secure a healthy future for the generations to come.