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(en) Class Struggle And The Environmental Crisis by Bikisha Media Collective

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 20 May 2003 23:43:44 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

> by Bikisha Media Collective - member of the South African regional anarchist federation
"[Our movement]... has always fostered an intense interest in the
proper ecological management of the Earth, and its history, theory and
practice contains valuable clues and suggestions as to how we might
overcome the ecological crisis that presently confronts the human
species." - Graham Purchase, Anarchism and Ecology
The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented
in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for
high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its
current rate, the ultimate result will be the extinction of human life on
the planet.

We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat
it poses to humankind, and because we recognise that nature and the
environment have value in their own terms. Although we hold human
life above all other life on the planet, we do not think that humans have
the right to destroy animals, plants and eco-systems that do not
threaten our survival.

The main environmental problems include:

Air pollution: destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous rays
from the sun; creates a general increase in planetary temperatures (the
greenhouse effect) that will severely disrupt weather patterns; turns
rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life and causes
respiratory and other diseases amongst humans.

Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the
dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear
waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in
packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products,
have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps. It is also
a waste of resources and poisons and injures people.

Soil erosion: this takes place in both the First and the Third World, and
is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilisers,
dangerous pesticides etc., as well as inappropriate land use, land
overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a
rate faster than that at which it is being produced which contributes to
rural poverty.

Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate
than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago. This
results in the loss of many species, and undermines the eco-sphere on
which all life depends.

All of these environmental problems exist on a serious scale in South

For example, in 1990 coal burning power stations and factories in the
Eastern Transvaal and Vaal Triangle pumped acid rain-producing
chemicals into the atmosphere at levels twice those of (ex-) East
Germany, which is the country with the world's most serious acid rain
problem. The area affected includes half of South Africa's agricultural
land and forest resources, whilst the rivers that drain out of it provide a
quarter of the country's surface water.

As for soil erosion, this takes place in South Africa at a very high rate:
on average, at least 20 tons of topsoil is lost for every ton of grain
produced. Rates are higher in many areas.

The environmental crisis has contributed strongly to the emergence of
a large worldwide environmental movement. This movement first
emerged in the nineteenth century but has become especially
prominent since the 1960s.


We reject the argument that economic development and economic
growth always leads to the destruction of the environment. The
implication of this type of argument is either that the environmental
crisis is unavoidable and that we should just "grin and bear it", or that
the world's economy must be drastically shrunk, and industry replaced
with small-scale craft and agricultural production.

By "development" we mean a sustained structural shift in the economy
from the primary sector (farming, mining) towards manufacturing and
the service sector; by "economic growth" we mean the expansion of per
capita output in a given economy. There is nothing inherently
environmentally destructive about modern industrial technologies.
Many dangerous technologies and substances can be replaced. For
example, petrochemical based plastics, which are not biodegradable,
can be replaced by starch-based plastics (which safely disintegrate if
left outside in a couple of weeks), palm oil can be used to replace
diesel, etc.

There is nothing wrong in and of itself with development and economic
growth. The point is that these processes can and must take place on
environmentally-sensitive and sustainable lines. Dangerous
technologies must be replaced with sustainable ones, e.g. nuclear
energy with solar energy. Wasteful practices must be ended e.g. the
use of disposable containers as opposed to recyclable ones like glass
bottles; the production of more goods than can be used.

There is still a need for (environmentally-sustainable) development and
economic growth in order to deal with poverty and under-development
e.g. need for a massive program of house-building.

In addition, industrial technology holds a number of advantages over
small-scale craft production. Industry can produce many types of
goods on a larger scale and at a faster rate than craft production, and
can thus not only increase the level of economic growth, but also help
shorten the working day, and free people from many unpleasant jobs.

We reject the argument that the First World is, as a whole, responsible
for the environmental crisis. By the "First World" we mean the
advanced industrial capitalist countries of West Europe, the United
States of America, Canada, Australia, and Japan. According to this
kind of argument living standards in the First World are excessively
high, with the "average" person not only consuming resources at a
much higher rate than people elsewhere, but also owning far more
things than are remotely necessary for a comfortable existence. The
implication of this argument is that there must be a drastic reduction in
First World living standards, and that the rest of the world can never
hope to raise their living standards to the levels supposedly enjoyed by
the "rich countries".

The majority of people in the First World - the working class - are not a
rich elite living it up at the expense of the planet and the Third World
(Africa, Asia, South America, and arguably, parts of the ex-Eastern
bloc). There are massive levels of inequality in wealth and power in the
First World.

For example, in the United Kingdom (UK) (Britain and Northern
Ireland) at the start of the 1980s, the top 10% of the population
received 23.9% of total income while the bottom 10% received only
2.5%. The top 10% of the population also owned four-fifths of all
personal wealth, and 98% of all privately held company shares and
stocks. The top 1% itself owned 80% of all stocks and shares.
Meanwhile the bottom 80% of the population owned just 10% of the
personal wealth, mostly in the form of owning the house they live in.
These economic inequalities correspond to material deprivation and
hardship. A study published in 1979 found that about 32% of the
population of the UK (15 - 17.5 million out of a population of 55.5
million) was living in or near poverty. A 1990 United Nations survey of
child health in the UK showed that 25% of children were malnourished
to the extent that their growth was stunted.

From these figures it should be clear that the majority of the working
class in the First World is not enjoying "very high per capita material
living standards". The high levels of consumption that exist in the First
World can only be explained by reference to the excessively high living
standards of the ruling classes as well as parts of the middle class. In
the Third World, too, there is a small ruling elite whose jet-set lifestyle
contributes directly to environmental degradation.

In fact, given that most industry (and hence pollution) is located in the
First World, the working class of these countries is among the primary
victims of environmental degradation.

Thus, the majority of people in the First World do not need
"de-development" and a scaling down of living standards, but
increased (egalitarian and environmentally- sensitive) growth to
improve their living standards.


The real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of
capitalism and the State, and the society that these forces have


Capitalism is an enormously wasteful system of production, which is
geared towards competition in the market, and to making profits. Under
capitalism, the needs of the working class are not met, a false sort of
"over- production" takes place, and pollution is endemic.

Huge amounts of goods are built to break as soon as possible in order
to keep sales up (built-in obsolescence) and a large number of useless
or inefficient goods are promoted and sold by means of high pressure
advertising (e.g. private cars in place of large-scale public transport).

We must not make the mistake of assuming that all goods produced
under capitalism are actually consumed by ordinary people. Often the
bosses produce more of a given product than can be sold on the
market, and this can lead to a price collapse and a recession. The
bosses' solution is to destroy or stockpile the "extra" goods, rather than
distribute them to those who need them (which would cut into profits).
In 1991 there were 200 million tons of grain worldwide which were
hoarded to preserve price levels. Three million tons could have
eliminated famine in Africa that year.

It also costs money and cuts into potential profits to install safety
equipment and monitor the use of dangerous materials. It is more
profitable for the capitalists to shift these costs (sometimes called
"externalities") onto the consumer in the form of pollution.

We noted above that there are many environmentally-friendly
technologies that can replace environmentally destructive ones. Many
of these have been bought up and suppressed by vested capitalist
interests that do not want technological changes that will threaten their

The State

The State, like capitalism, is a major cause of environmental

The State is a structure created to allow the minority of bosses and
rulers to dominate and exploit us, the working and poor masses (the
working class). The State will not willingly enforce strong
environmental protection laws against the bosses because it does not
want to cut into the profits of the bosses and into its own tax revenue.

In addition, the rulers of the State are afraid that strong environmental
laws will chase away investors (e.g. in 1992, capitalists in Holland were
able to block a proposed tax on carbon pollution by threatening to
relocate to other countries).

The State directly contributes to the environmental crisis in its drive to
strengthen its military power against the working class and against
rival States. War and the mobilisation of resources for war has
devastating effects on the environment.

Massive amounts of resources that could be used to introduce
environmentally friendly technologies, promote soil conservation and
the like are spent on military projects: worldwide military expenditure
amounts to $900 billion a year.

Military technology, such as atomic weapons, is more than capable of
destroying all life on the planet. Beyond this, many technologies
developed in wars have been adapted to industry, resulting in very
dangerous products (nuclear weapons; nuclear reactors; nerve gases;

Both war and environmental destruction are based on disrespect for
life and the values of domination, conquest and control (over people or

Another example of the links between the State's war against people
and its war against the environment: evidence has emerged that the
South African Defence Force (SADF) was involved in the smuggling of
ivory and rhino horns to fund Unita and Renamo rightwing armed
operations in Angola and Mozambique. In this case, rare animals were
slaughtered to prop up reactionary movements aligned to the
Apartheid state.

Capitalism and the State also contribute to environmental degradation
by generating massive inequality.

One reason for the environmental crisis is clearly the excessively high
consumption of the ruling classes of the First World and the Third
World. Capitalism and the State always result in the accumulation of
wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Poverty also leads directly to environmental destruction (e.g. the
homelands system in South Africa). The homelands only make up 13%
of the country's surface territory but are home to more than 10 million
people, thus creating severe pressure on the land: the land is
overgrazed, scarred by dongas, and natural woodlands are stripped.

Poverty is the direct result of the system of capitalism and the State
(e.g. the capitalists supported the homelands system because they
wanted farming in the homelands to subsidise cheap migrant labour by
supporting the workers' families, and providing a retirement home for
old and crippled workers. In addition, they wanted to prevent African
peasants from competing with them in agriculture and the land market).
The size of the homelands reflects the process of colonial
dispossession that resulted in the White farmers owning most of the
land. The State supported the homelands system because it promotes
the interests of the capitalists and also because it wanted to prevent
the development of an urbanised African working class.

It is possible that the very idea that people should dominate and exploit
nature only emerged after relationships of domination and exploitation
developed within human society. In classless societies, according to
this theory, people saw themselves as part of nature, but, with the
emergence of inequality, a new worldview in which others (humans and
the environment) were seen as things to be manipulated and controlled

We reject the idea that the environment can be saved by means of the
State, or by electing a Green Party. Not only does the State defend
capitalism, but the State is itself one of the main causes of
environmental destruction.


At a general level, it is clear that the environmental crisis affects
everybody, and threatens the survival of the human race as a whole.

However, even though the environmental crisis is a global threat, it is
the working class (and working peasantry) that is most severely
affected by the various environmental problems.

It is the working class that has to take the dangerous jobs that cause
environmental degradation. At least three workers died of exposure to
mercury waste at the Thor Chemicals plant in KwaZulu-Natal. The
company got off with a R13,500 fine in 1995. Farmers in South Africa
(as well as the State) routinely make use of dangerous pesticides that
are banned or restricted in their countries of manufacture. The workers
who do the actual spraying are often untrained, lack protective clothing,
and are often not able to read the labels that explain appropriate safety
procedures. As a result, at least 1,600 South Africans die from the
chronic effects of pesticides every year.

Working class communities, particularly working class Black townships
and squatter camps, also bear the brunt of environmental problems.
Pollution levels in Soweto are two and a half times higher than
anywhere else in the country, and children in Soweto suffer from more
asthma and chest colds, and take longer to recover from respiratory
diseases, than children elsewhere.

Because of the racial division of labour in South Africa (which confined
Africans to low-paying unskilled and semi-skilled jobs), because of the
design of the Apartheid city (dirty industries and dumps were located
near townships rather than White suburbs), and because of the
homeland system, it is clear that the Black working class is the main
victim of South Africa's environmental crisis.

Therefore, a safe environment is a basic need for the workers and the
poor of South Africa. The environment is not just something "out there"
such as the veld, sea etc. The environment also refers to where people
live and work. We can distinguish between "green" environmental
issues (like wildlife, trees, ozone layer etc.), and "brown" environmental
issues (like workplace safety and community development). The two
are obviously connected: brown ecological issues (like lack of sewerage
facilities) directly affects green ecological issues (like marine life);
tackling brown issues will generally improve green ecology.

Unlike us, the bosses and the rulers, including the Black politicians and
Black businessmen and women, are protected from the effects of their
greed and appetite for power by their air-conditioned offices and luxury
suburban homes.

While in the long-term a global environmental crisis would obviously
affect everyone, it is not true that everybody shares an immediate
interest in fighting against the environmental crisis: the bosses and the
State benefit from the processes that harm the environment and the
middle classes can at the very least avoid contact with many
environmental hazards. Only the workers and the poor have a direct
interest right now in fighting for a clean environment.

There is clear evidence of environmental concern and awareness on
the part of the Black working class (e.g. the involvement of the
Chemical Workers Industrial Union in the campaign against Thor
Chemicals, linking opposition to the dangerous working conditions at
the Thor plant to opposition to the company's practice of importing
toxic waste).

It is, however, undoubtedly true that the membership of most
environmental organisations in South Africa (and in a number of other
countries) is mainly White and middle class. As should be obvious from
what we have said before, we reject the view that this membership
profile can be explained in terms of the inherently "White" or
"petty-bourgeois" nature of environmental issues.

A number of factors make it difficult for Black working class people to
get involved in environmental organisations. These include: a lack of
time, inability to pay high membership fees (the Wildlife Society
charges R80 per year), a degree of ignorance around environmental
problems, and, finally, a lack of confidence in getting involved in
political activity.28 This explanation is inadequate because the Black
working class has, despite these sorts of obstacles, built large and
powerful trade union and civic movements.

Part of the explanation lies with the fact that many working class people
have been alienated by the actions of sections of the environmentalist
movement. These sections focussed their attention on wilderness and
wildlife conservation, and strongly supported the State's establishment
of nature reserves. But many of these reserves were established by
means of the forced removal of rural communities, who thus lost their
land as well as access to natural resources such as fish and building
materials. To add insult to injury, many of these nature reserves were
(until the 1990s) reserved for "Whites only". These practices can only
breed hatred for conservation among the rural poor.

Related to this is the fact that few environmental organisations in South
Africa address environmental issues of direct relevance to the working
class. To use the distinction we drew above, they focus on "green"
environmental issues (wildlife, ozone layer etc.) as opposed to the
"brown" environmental issues (health and safety, community
development) that working class people tend to emphasise. For
example, the Campaign to save St. Lucia nature reserve that began in
1989 generally failed to consult the people who lived in the area, many
of whom had been forcibly removed when the reserve was set up.


Mass action and a working class revolution are the only real ways to
deal with the environmental crisis.

The environmental crisis was generated by capitalism and the State,
and can only be dealt with by challenging the power of these forces. We
believe that only mass organising and mass actions, as opposed to
elections and lobbying, are effective methods of struggle.

Because of the manner in which capitalism and the State by their very
nature generate environmental destruction it is necessary in the long
term to overthrow these structures and create a society based on real
freedom and production and distribution on the basis of need, not
profit. It is this kind of society that we would call "Anarchist".

We, the workers and poor are the only force in society capable of
accomplishing these tasks. As the main victims of the environmental
crisis, and as the victims of capitalism as a whole, only our class has a
direct interest in dealing with the environmental crisis and in resisting
and overturning the capitalist system as a whole. By contrast, the
ruling class, and sections of the middle class, are dependent on the
continued survival of capitalism and the State, and are also able to
avoid the worst effects of the environmental crisis.

In addition, the working class (and working peasantry) is the source of
all social wealth and is thus able, by action at the point of production, to
wield a powerful weapon against the bosses and the rulers. We believe
that our power as workers must be brought to bear in the struggle to
halt the environmental crisis.

Finally, because our class produces all social wealth, only we can
overthrow capitalism and the State and create a free society in their
place, because only we do not need to exploit to exist.

We believe that workplace organising is the key to saving the
environment, in both the short-term and the long-term.

Because a large proportion of environmental damage takes place at the
point of production (as the result of dangerous technologies, poor plant
maintenance, hazardous operating procedures, the handling of
dangerous substances, poor worker training), and because the workers
and our communities are the main victims of this pollution , "[t]rade
union struggles for health and safety constitute the first line of defence
for an embattled environment".

The working class, organised in trade unions, allied with communities
struggling against environmental abuses can go a long way in stopping
the State/Capitalist onslaught against the planet. As we argued above,
dealing with brown ecological issues (safety, health etc.) will definitely
benefit green ecological issues (wildlife, sea etc.). This sort of mass
organising by the productive working class will do far more to stop the
bosses than the small-scale guerrilla and obstruction tactics favoured
by groups such as Earth First!, such as sabotaging bulldozers.

In the long-term, the unions can not only defend the environment but
save it. Inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Anarchism, and
structured in a non-bureaucratic, decentralised and democratic
manner, the unions can be the battering ram that smashes capitalism
and the State, by seizing the factories, mines etc. and putting them
under the control of the workers (in co-operation with community

A working class revolution will help the environment in four ways. First,
the capitalist/State system that was the main cause of environmental
problems, a system oriented to profit and power, will be replaced by a
society based on need-satisfaction and grassroots democracy.
Secondly, the excessive levels of consumption by the upper class and
the middle class will be eliminated altogether, as will the idea that
happiness can only be gained by buying more and more useless
commodities. Thirdly, the introduction of social and economic equality
will end the environmental degradation forced on the poor by means
such as land shortages and the homelands system. And finally, the
workers will be able to install (and further develop) the ecologically
sustainable technologies that the bosses suppress.


The two fundamental structures of the Anarchist society will be the
Syndicate (democratic workplace association) and the Free
City-Commune (the self-managed city or village, made up of
syndicates and community committees in a given area).

Communes will be federated into regions and inter-regionally; they will
also be linked by federations of Syndicates that provide services
impossible to organise purely at the level of the individual Commune
(e.g. transcontinental railways, post etc.).

Each Commune must be located in a particular ecological region
(Bio-region) and must learn to preserve, enhance and integrate itself
into that region's natural dynamics.

The trade unions and civic associations provide the nucleus of the
future syndicates and communes.


General perspectives

Our role as Anarchists is first and foremost to spread the ideas of
Anarchism as far and wide as possible. We are also in favour of helping
the working class organise itself and increase its confidence in its own
decision-making capacity.

A crucial part of our work is to link a criticism of the present society
with a vision of how society could be organised to benefit the masses.
We support all progressive struggles, for their aims, for the confidence
that campaigning gives people, and because it is in struggle that ideas
are spread.

We always try to relate our ideas to the day-to-day needs and struggles
of our class. We are opposed to an abstract form of environmentalism
that does not link itself to the class struggle.

Guidelines for day-to-day activities

* Call for workers in polluting factories to enforce safety rules and
monitor pollution. Support actions by workers and the local community
to stop/reduce pollution. Where factories cannot be made safe we can
demand that they be closed but that their workers get employed at the
same pay levels and skill in the local area.

* Call for the shutting down of all nuclear power stations under
capitalism because the placing of profits before human needs means
that these facilities will never be safe.

* Link the fight for land redistribution to the issue of how the homelands
system has generated severe environmental problems. Argue that the
redistributed land should be farmed by means of sustainable
agricultural practices.

* Support wilderness preservation in the form of nature reserves, but,
recognising that such reserves have often been set up at the expense
of local communities, and the resentment this creates, call for these
communities to retain access to some grazing, dry wood, and other
resources. Demand that local communities receive cut from gate
takings. Unionise workers at these facilities.

* Oppose all testing of atomic, biological and chemical weapons in all
circumstances and support blacking of goods and services as well as
other direct action to halt these tests.

* Oppose the practice of vivisection not just for its cruelty but for its
scientific flaws. Link this issue to the struggle for health and safety by
pointing out how bogus "scientific" testing on animals results in the
exposure of the working class to unsafe medicines.

* Call for strike action against companies' strip mining forests to force
them to reforest and manage extraction. Support unionisation of
workers in these industries and their revolutionary education.

* Call on unions to fund their own environmental monitoring section
answerable to the workers and community affected. Call on unions to
publicise and organise action against industries that expose workers
and the community at large to toxic substances, pollution etc.

* Within unions also demand industry use recycled products where
possible and find alternatives for products or by-products that harm the
environment. This should be backed by industrial action.


(1) The Earth is facing a serious environmental crisis with potentially
catastrophic results.

(2) The environmental crisis has been created by capitalism and the

(3) The working class has a direct interest in fighting to halt the
environmental crisis as it the main victim of this crisis. By contrast the
ruling class profits from the crisis.

(4) Mass action against the capitalists and the State is the only
effective way to fight the environmental crisis in the short- term.

(5) The only effective long-term solution to the crisis is the replacement
of capitalism and the State by Anarchism.

(6) There will continue to be economic growth and industry in the
Anarchist society, but this will take place only on an
environmentally-sustainable basis.

(7) Workplace organisation will play a central role in fighting and
winning the battle to end the environmental crisis, and its causes.

See also:

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