Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 44, September 1999

A World To Win

World leaders fiddle while the planet burns up. International summits in Rio and Kyoto have done nothing to halt global warming. What is the future for human life on this planet? MANNY THAIN looks at how capitalism is wrecking the world and outlines an alternative to this market madness.

NOW IS A GOOD TIME to consider the future. Some say the 'new millennium' is a false concept. It is based, after all, on the Christian calendar, which was only adopted world-wide in the late 1800s. World domination by the capitalist system and its preferred religion, however, means that every 1 January is seen as a turning point. A 'new millennium' is the same, only a thousand times more intense.

The Worldwatch Institute publishes an annual report on the world. The forward to this year's special millennium edition, from which many of the statistics in this article are drawn, says: "We decided that since we could not easily review the last 1,000 years, we would focus instead on developments over the last century. What becomes clear from our research is that the economic model that evolved in the industrial West and is spreading throughout the entire world is slowly undermining itself. As now structured, it will not take us very far into the next century. The question, then, is whether we can find another path that can be sustained". (State of the World 1999, Earthscan Publications Ltd, £12.95)

They are not the first to conclude that the capitalist system is coming up against its limits. Many people are aware of the rottenness of the system. The massive demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit meeting, the setting up of Jubilee 2000 against world debt, and the Carnival Against Capitalism in London, are all part of a rising tide of anger aimed at faceless, unaccountable and all-powerful big business. While unarmed demonstrators are baton-charged and tear-gassed, multi-national corporations and their governmental backers run riot in the developing world with impunity.


The defining breakthrough by capitalism was harnessing fossil fuel energy, which makes up 75% of world energy (90% in the advanced capitalist countries - ACCs). The British empire was built on the industrial revolution, powered by coal. The 20th century has seen the rise of US domination based on oil. In 1900 a few thousand barrels of oil were used per day, by 1997 it was 72 million. Not for nothing have wars been fought over 'black gold'. The fossil fuel-based economy enormously increased human productivity. The global economy has expanded 17-fold, from $2.3 trillion in 1900 to $39 trillion in 1998.

It has also raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to dangerous levels. There were 280 parts per million (p/m) at the beginning of the industrial era and 363 p/m in 1998. There will be twice the pre-industrial level by 2050, leading to global temperature increases of between one and 3.5 degrees centigrade by 2100.

Higher temperatures mean there is more energy driving the Earth's climatic system. Surface warming increases evaporation and the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. There will be a shift in the intensity of rainfall leading to more destructive storms and floods, an increased probability of heat waves, more extreme climates and melting ice-caps. Higher temperatures also cause water to expand - the main factor raising sea levels. Global sea levels could rise by anything from five to 95cm. Two-thirds of the world's largest cities are coastal.

Much of the extreme weather of the past two years can be blamed on the intensity of El Niño and La Niña - periodic temperature fluctuations in the Pacific - but many scientists believe that there is an underlying trend in the frequency and severity of extreme events. The hottest 15 years on record have occurred since 1980. 1999 is likely to fall in the top ten. In 1995 the highest sea surface temperature ever was recorded.


During the first seven months of 1998, weather-related natural disasters caused $72 billion of economic losses world-wide, compared with the previous annual record of $60 billion in 1996. Extreme weather events have left three million people dead in the last five years. The devastation caused by so-called 'natural' disasters is greatly exacerbated by social problems, such as increasing poverty and growing shanty towns - 96% of all deaths from 'natural' disasters occur in the developing countries. Heat waves caused the deaths of 100 Texans and an estimated 3,000 Indians. Forty of the 50 fastest growing cities are located in earthquake zones.

top     Feeding the world

THIS HAS BEEN a revolutionary century for world agriculture. Technical advances have trebled the productivity of the world's cropland. World grain harvest has risen from under 400 million tons in 1900 to nearly 1.9 billion in 1998, chemical fertilisers accounting for 40% of grain production.

But has humanity reached the limits possible under this system? After a five-fold increase in ocean yield, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that eleven of the 15 most important fishing areas and 70% of major fish species are fully or over exploited. Fish catches off Eastern US fell from 2.5 million tonnes in 1971 to 500,000 tonnes in 1998. After a trebling of rangeland output from 1950-1990, production of beef and mutton has hit a plateau, and over-grazing has actually lowered rangeland productivity in large areas of the world.


In 1950 the average world grain yield per hectare was 1.06 tons and in 1998 it was 2.73 tons. It is now levelling-off. World grain consumption averaged 247 kilos per person in 1950, 342 kilos in 1984, falling by 7% to 319 kilos since. The world grain harvested area rose from 587 million hectares in 1950 to 732 million in 1981 but has fallen 6% to 690 million now.

With future population increases there will be further pressure on land use and less acreage for crops. The greatest problems will be faced by countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, which will each have more than 300 million people by 2050. In Pakistan, the grain area per person will fall to 0.03 hectare. This means that on average seven people will have just one-fifth of a hectare (half an acre) to produce their entire food supply.

China and India (the first and second most populous nations) depend on irrigation for 70% and 50% of their grain harvest, respectively. The water table under much of China's Northern Plain, which accounts for 40% of China's grain harvest, is falling by 1.5 metres per year. Freshwater aquifers in India are falling by 1-3 metres per year. That could cut India's harvest by 25%. Another problem is salinisation, where mineral salts get left behind when the water evaporates after excessive irrigation. This affects a quarter of all irrigated land and blights an additional two million hectares of agricultural land each year.

The National Intelligence Council in Washington DC, which oversees all US intelligence agencies, published an assessment of China's food prospects (November 1997). It was triggered by the fear that if China had to buy massive quantities of grain on the world market, it would drive up prices to a level which would precipitate political instability in the developing world. The conclusion was that by 2025 China would need to import 175 million tons of grain. The current total world grain exports are 200 million tons.


After the UN's International Decade of Drinking Water - the 1980s - one-in-three people in the developing world do not have access to clean water. Eighty percent of all diseases in these countries come from contaminated water, and 15 million children under five die each year from diseases caused by drinking unclean water.

Water is and will continue to be a source of conflict. In urban areas of the occupied territories, Jewish Israelis consume seven times as much water per capita as Palestinian Arabs. Israel controls the water supply. There is intense rivalry between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Nile and between India and Bangladesh over the Ganges. Fragile communities such as Hopi and Navajo Native Americans in Arizona expect their wells will run dry by 2011 due to the Peabody Western Coal Company's use of water to transport coal as slurry.

top     A GM future?

'BIO-ANGST' IS NOW sweeping across Europe after a series of food safety scandals: BSE in Britain, the Dutch pig plague, Belgian dioxin contamination of chicken and Coca-Cola poisoning scares. The Walloonian agriculture minister describes the Belgian dioxin crisis as the country's worst economic crisis since the war. More than 1,200 farms have closed.

Despite the best efforts of multinationals like Monsanto, farmers in the developing world still retain 80-90% of their own seed supplies. The development of hybrid crops has produced high yields, but the seeds are sterile, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year from the ACC-based companies.


The trashing of genetically modified (GM) crop trials by direct action in Britain has highlighted the dangers inherent in GM technology. The trials are a farce, with no guarantee even that the seeds being used can be replicated on an industrial scale. The short duration of the trials means that they cannot possibly provide adequate information on long-term environmental impacts.

New Labour's pro-GM missionary zeal is always portrayed as an altruistic attempt to feed the world. Embarrassingly for them, it was revealed that New Labour's pension fund invests heavily in two leading GM companies, Astra-Zeneca and Novartis, so the party of government in Britain has a vested interest in seeing GM crops succeed. These companies' share values have plummeted. Europe's largest bank, Deutsche Bank, published two reports, GMOs Are Dead and Ag Biotech: Thanks But No Thanks, advising investors to sell-up. Retail outlets are withdrawing GM foods and farmers in the US are concerned that they will not be able to sell their produce.

But not only do GM crops risk bio-diversity and increase the impoverishment of people in the developing world. They are another example of the criminal waste which is part and parcel of profit-driven capitalism. An estimated 3.5 billion people in the developing world rely on plant-based medicines for primary health care. Yet only around 1% of plant species have been screened by chemists to see what bio-active compounds they contain. Pharmaceutical companies have entered into 'bio-prospecting' agreements with indigenous people who typically get 1-3% royalties on profits. They are invariably ripped off. Often the agreements are made over the heads of indigenous people with national governments.


Ronald Reagan, when US president, perfectly summed up his administration's priorities in his own inimitable style when he spoke in defence of logging company interests: 'If you've seen one of those giant redwood trees, you've seen them all'. Agri-business, mineral extraction and capitalist production methods are responsible for the ruination of the world's environment. Of 242,000 plant species surveyed by the World Conservation Union in 1997, 14% (33,000) were threatened with extinction, mainly through habitat destruction. The same applies to 11% of the world's known 9,600 birds and 4,400 mammals. Of the 24,000 fish species, one-third are threatened with extinction.

top     An 'over-crowded' planet?

THE STRAINS ON the world's resources have brought government population control programmes back on the agenda - in developing countries. The six billionth person was born a couple of months ago - supposedly in Sarajevo according to the UN. There were one billion people in 1825, 1.6 billion at the start of the century and two billion people in 1930. In 1900, there were only 16 cities with over one million inhabitants. There are now more than 326 such cities, 14 with over ten million people.

At the beginning of this millennium, however, the world's population had stagnated around 350 million due to limited food availability combined with the ravages of plagues which swept through Asia and Europe. Human numbers have always been linked to the ability of the economic system to sustain the population. The limits are those imposed by the technique that exists in a particular society at any one time. In practice, prosperous and relatively peaceful societies have stable populations. A natural, sustainable level is found.


The call for population control is divisive, often masking racist and other reactionary views. It does not address the questions of world inequality and poverty. Even today, 2,740 calories per person per day are produced on a world-wide basis. As humans need 2,000 calories a day, there is already more than enough food to feed everyone. The population growth rate is actually down - from five per couple in 1950 to 2.7. But large families in the past mean there are many women of childbearing age so the number of babies born is still very high - 78 million a year.

In the developing world a large family is a survival strategy. UNICEF estimates that there are 250 million working children in the world. A survey of children employed stitching footballs in Sialkot, Pakistan, showed that they provided nearly a quarter of their families' annual earnings. Surveys in Ghana, India, Indonesia and Senegal in 1992-93 revealed that three-quarters of working children toiled in family businesses. Children often look after relatives where there are no social services.

This is linked to the status of women in society. Economic independence in decent jobs, backed up with social services and good education, help cut across women's isolation in society and combine to lower birth rates. Compulsory sterilisation or quotas are totally unacceptable. The hypocrisy behind the call for population control needs to be exposed. The International Conference on Population Development, in Cairo 1994, adopted a programme for quality reproductive healthcare for the developing world. The ACCs agreed to provide one-third of the $20 billion needed. The US has already reneged on this commitment.


As human technique improves, more people can be fed and cared for. What is needed is the requisite economic organisation. Socialists have long argued that the world has been brought to the brink of catastrophe by the profit system. From being a progressive historical stage for humanity - at colossal human cost - capitalism is today absolutely redundant.

This is a rich world. The world's 225 richest people have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion, roughly equal to the annual income of the poorest half of humanity. The top fifth of the world has 85% of the world's GDP. General Motors' revenue in 1997 was $178 billion - more than the combined national economies of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. The richest one-fifth of the world's population consumes 58% of global energy supplies, the poorest fifth less than 4%. The US, with 5% of the world population, uses nearly 25% of global energy supplies.

The UN's FAO reports up to 841 million people are suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition, including 26 million in Eastern Europe and eight million in the ACCs. Forty percent of children in the developing world have stunted growth and one-in-three are underweight. Nineteen thousand children die every day from malnutrition and related diseases. 1.6 billion people are illiterate and two billion do not have access to electricity.

Eighty percent of all children's work is unpaid. Child labourers in Nepal earn about $1 a week. Young children earn between 15 and 65 cents for a 12-hour day stitching World Cup standard rugby balls in the Punjab. Five million children work 10-15 hours a day, seven days a week in Indonesia, according to the International Labour Organisation. A million children throughout the world are forced into prostitution every year.


top     The limits of Kyoto

WHAT IN THE WORLD can be done? Apart from increased air traffic pollution flying 'world leaders' from Rio to Kyoto to Seattle, all they have provided is more hot air. The IMF bail-out plan for the Indonesian economy in 1998, for example, encouraged the expansion of palm oil plantations. These are one of the main culprits in the devastating forest fires which rage there every year now.

Governments agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997. OECD countries were supposed to reduce emissions over the following 12 years to between 20-40% below what they would be if present trends went unchecked. Others, like Russia, had to maintain their emissions at 1990 levels.

The post-Soviet economic collapse, however, means Russia produces 40% fewer greenhouse gases than in 1990. Kyoto gave it the right to bank or sell its surplus carbon allowance to other countries with higher pollution targets. Al Gore cheered the 'magic of markets' as an instrument for tackling climate change. Recent figures show that OECD countries as a whole increased emissions 4% from 1990-96, with the rise in 1996 greater than the first five years of the decade combined.

The Kyoto Protocol becomes legally binding once 55 countries ratify it - so far only 14 have done so. But Kyoto has helped the rich come up with another money-making scheme. Australia's Sydney Futures Exchange has launched the world's first exchange-traded market for 'carbon sequestration' credits and Britain aims to introduce a UK-wide emissions trading scheme by April 2001. In October, Canadian energy companies paid Iowa farmers not to till their farmland, so retaining the carbon dioxide in the soil. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that the total value of carbon dioxide permits could be worth $13,000 billion by 2050.


'Greenwash' is the latest business buzzword. BP executive officer, Sir John Brown, is trying to convince us that there is no conflict between the oil industry and the environment. His vision includes a planned reduction in fossil fuel emissions and a place for social responsibility and justice.

Peter Matthiessen, writer and conservationist, attacks this position. But the conclusions he draws are limited: "Our consumer culture no longer takes long-term responsibility for its activities... We are no longer citizens but mere consumers. We have no effect on national politics in the US... the two main parties are identical. The Green party that we had was hollow. For now all we can do is work at a local level and try to clean up politics... There we can do something, there we can turn things around, and that prospect to me is exciting because we haven't done anything else". (The Guardian, 30 October)

Class-based societies, like capitalism, have been and always will be run in the interests of the dominant class - the ruling class. That's not new. Matthiesen's opinions reflect the deep-seated, and growing, rejection of establishment party politics. These parties are all pro-big business. The working and middle classes have been disenfranchised. But it has also meant that there is a lack of a viable alternative being put forward. Instead of the struggle for international socialism, there has been a turning-in to local, immediate and smaller-scale problems.

There are many statements by environmental activists with which we wholeheartedly agree: "As humanity speeds towards ecological disaster, the WTO has its foot on the accelerator. If Monsanto, Exxon and the others have their way, we are about to shift up a gear. Now is the time to take stock, not to cede any more of our fragile democracy to the forces of global capitalism". (Tony Juniper - policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, The Guardian, 17 August)


Yes, although the question is: How?

top     Time for a change

THERE HAS BEEN a recent upsurge in protest. Much has been made of the form it has taken: internet-organised, decentralised demonstrations. This is also part of the rejection of the establishment, and is linked to the draconian rules put in place by the Tories (and jealously guarded by New Labour) to restrict the right of assembly. It is also coloured by the existence of spineless, pro-business labour movement leaders who do all they can to clamp down on working-class militancy.

Most of the environmental campaigns are very clear on what they are against, and play an important role through their investigative work and direct action campaigning. However, many are not sure what can replace the present capitalist anarchy. But, although there is not necessarily a clear alternative being put forward, sections of the movement have moved away from purely single-issue campaigning. The whole capitalist system is seen as the cause. That is a clear indication that the protest movement is beginning to generalise its aims, starting to make the link between specific struggles and the need to change the whole system.

Last month's World Trade Organisation summit aimed to increase deregulation of the world market, pushing for even lower environmental, labour and public health standards. It is due to reconvene in Geneva next year when, once again in the name of free trade, the ACCs will attempt to further enslave the developing world.


The world faces a stark choice - and a race against time. Capitalism will destroy the world if we let it. To avoid that there has to be change - socialist change. Thilo Bode, executive director of Greenpeace International, courts big business: "We always say: 'We understand you. Making a profit is not a bad thing'... 'There will be winners and losers', says Mr Bode, citing the example of coal miners who are losing their subsidies in the quest for cleaner energy. It is hard to inspire people about environmental issues if they are anxious about their jobs, he says". (Financial Times, 13 April)

If the alternative for miners is coal or dole, they will rightly fight for their jobs. And, if we stay within the confines of the capitalist system, that is the only choice available. But if society was run on the basis of a plan of what society needed, workers could be re-employed in socially useful work. Nuclear power station workers could decommission plants, weapons manufacturers could make hi-tech medical equipment, and so on.

With no rich elite creaming-off the profits made by workers, the wealth in society could be used to slash the working week with no loss of pay. There would be full employment and time to enable everyone to participate in the decision-making process, as well as time to pursue any interests, education, travel, etc. The initiative and imagination of working-class people would be used for the benefit of society as a whole. A society based on human solidarity is the only basis for an environmentally sustainable world. It means a socialist future.

Contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page