The Political Uses of Environmental Degradation & Protection Ruthless Criticism

The purpose sanctifies the crud:

The political uses of environmental degradation & environmental protection

[Translated from Landplage, November 1995]

The ruin of nature seems to split the bourgeois reasoning ability in principle. On the one hand, with its characterization as the “other side of progress,” the “curse of technology,” or the “price of the affluent society” or something similar, a reason is postulated for it. Of course, this then immediately passes into the world-descriptive reflection that in the long run “humans” with their “eternally unsatisfied demands mentality” have to answer for it all.

On the other hand, the shouting about scandals that begins with beautiful regularity whenever spectacular accidents occur in the chemical industry, in oil pollution, soil contamination, etc. wants to know nothing at all about their – albeit somewhat abstract – reason. Indignation about the neglect of various safety precautions raises the incident to the status of an exception. A “scandal” proceeds from the conviction that the deplored incident would never have happened in this economy and this state if everything followed correct procedures. The principles of the capitalist economy and the interests of the bourgeois state are never suspected of guaranteeing the cause of the relevant scandals, apart from the completely normal environmental pollution also being a scandal. Still, excitement of this kind calms down with the bad joke that once again human failure was at work, so the case can be checked off in the end as an accident. Here too “humans” act in their character as an eternally erring, guilty party. Is this human prototype really responsible for everything just because its representatives’ hands are always somehow at work in every event?

Environmental degradation

is caused neither by “technology” nor “humanity.” The triviality that every mode of production uses nature and natural resources does not make the question how this happens a secondary matter. Just the opposite. The principle according to which one produces in a free-market economy is the reason for the destructive handling of nature. The state and the entrepreneurs share a combined interest in supplying the world market, in competition with the companies of other nations, with competitive and profitable commodities, and they calculate with humans and nature as the means for their profit.

This means that the question as to whether a product or a production process is poisonous or non-toxic always arises in capitalism as a direct clash of interests: what would be reasonable from the point of view of the interest in a good use value – the stuff should be harmless to the producer and consumer – immediately contradicts the interest of capitalist commodity producers who want to sell their products at a profit and therefore undertake production with the goal of reducing everything in price. Clearly, in a society set on growth, between these two interests, the usefulness of a product is a means for the profit production of capital.

In dealing with the waste of its profit production, capitalism remains faithful to this principle. According to this principle, a separation of processes between what can be used safely again and what has to be pulled from circulation because of its harmful effects would be capitalistically incorrect. The opposite is capitalistically appropriate: provided that money can be earned with it, everything is useful; no recycling company or toxic waste exporter asks whether it has unhealthy side effects. Conversely, if business can’t be made from the waste it is useless garbage whose removal is expensive; it has to disappear into the air, water or waste dump without being costly. So nature is used with all force, used up, poisoned, ruined without regard for the fact that it is the necessary basis for the life of the human species.

Capitalist production is necessarily a dirty and, for humans and nature, risky business. Environmental pollution belongs to the achievements of modern civilization, not because it is unavoidable, but because the capitalists do not know this point of view at all: the effects of profit production on humans and nature are of no concern to capital, which can be seen in the fact that they must be forced to a minimum of consideration for humans and nature by the relevant laws. Therefore, the commercial poisoning of the air, water and soil is already included under its normal conditions. If in the process then “shit happens,” the catastrophic consequences follow in the same way.

Where nature is planned to be a means of productive property, it is neither technically nor humanly caused, nor an inexplicable scandal when poisonous industrial waste is disposed in all quantities in as cost-saving a way as possible into the air, rivers and seas or on the dumping grounds of the whole world. This kind of thriftiness may have devastating consequences for nature, but for the balance sheets of its perpetrators, and also for the officially defined public welfare, it is a blessing because both are counted in the growth rates of the money made in the national currency.

No wonder that the extent of environmental degradation and its effects on land and people become ever more drastic. Therefore, for some time now

environmental thinking

has been in fashion. This does not have much interest in the capitalistic reasons for the prevailing ways nature is handled. Typically, environmental protection etiology proceeds from the conception that the enormous accumulation of commodities that populates the market is something like the common work of the entire society and benefits – at least in the last instance – all members of society. The fact that this mode of management is officially set on profit and perpetual growth obviously does not do away with the opinion that its general purpose is need satisfaction.

A simple reverse conclusion then results in an all-explaining moral: if capitalism contaminates, then in the long run it is the excessive needs of “humans” that is responsible for it because it is actually established for them! All social cross-sections and classes, from the largest shareholder to his butler, unite in the oft-cited “affluent society.” This means that everybody, including those who are directly and bodily affected by the recklessness of business in their workplace and those who have to digest all kinds of poisons as consumers of cheap food and have to suffer diseases from it – all are made responsible and liable. As the agents of environmental degradation, ordinary gas consumers are indicted for being drivers, travelers, or owners of toasters and refrigerators.

And where “humans” as such are identified as the malefactors, the true victim is already designated: “nature.” Therefore it must be protected against humans. Environmentalists do not demand an adequate handling of nature for long-term use from the point of view of human needs. They argue from the point of view of nature, concocting natural necessities that demand humans show respect, subservience and sacrifice. The existing capitalistic way of treating nature as a means of business is loosely equated with the use of nature by humans at all. So the poorest child is put in the dock of a presumptuous consumer criticism; ultimately he too, by buying all kinds of manufactured trash, participates in the big wide commodity world of the economy and therefore is considered its beneficiary.

To this negative ideal of humans as chronically insatiable pests corresponds a positive ideal about nature. Separated from all scientific knowledge about its regularities, Mother Earth appears in flowing metaphysical garb. Highly sensitive “equilibria,” complicated “eco-systems” as well as delicate “cycles” are responsible for all generation and decay and forbid any intervention by a troublemaker like homo sapiens.

As human rationality or the need for decent living conditions actually stands in conflict with nature, the absence of nature being used is equated with its soundness. Its use is already abuse! Criticism of the predatory exploitation of nature proceeds not from the point of view of its intended use, but is permitted only on behalf of flora and fauna. The environment's biotope: “no trespassing!”

Enthusiastically, these critical and imaginative intellects enjoy reports from overseas, offered on all channels in high-definition color, of root collecting and small animal-eating Orinoco Indians as trend-setting examples for the fat citizens of civilization; they just live “with nature” and not “against nature” like typical car drivers in these parts.

So the point of view of humility in relation to nature in a time of comprehensive nature control has made an

environmental conscience

part of the moral life of the people. Every environmentally conscious citizen reflects on himself and above all, of course, everybody else as potential interfering factors in nature. And modesty and willingness to sacrifice are recommended if mankind wants to be saved. As a pervasive mass morality, the argument “environment” indiscriminately applies to a smoker the same as to a chemical company, as if one would be able to bear a few more tons of sulfur dioxide easier if somebody did not smoke at the next table. And because one “can’t do anything” against a chemical company anyway, or despite its environmental pollution one grants its helpful public effects, e.g. job preservation, inspired environmentalists become militantly opposed only to the small pleasures serving private well-being or in relation to behavior by their contemporaries that only aims at their individual comfort. The virtuous non-smoking, energy-saving, garbage-sorting and composting citizens who do not want to allow themselves to be responsible for anything (at least environmental) reach for their jute bags, Hollandrad bicycles and recycled bottles, and advise restraining one’s terrible behavior in committing foolish, private “environmental crimes.”

These thoroughly good people think very highly of the noble simplicity of their personal living arrangements. Their firm morality arrests the apprehended malefactor – without regard to circumstances – as humankind, which is supposed to be responsible for the whole environmental debacle from the ozone hole to the depletion of forests and fisheries. A chewing gum wrapper thrown away in the forest can already lead to disaster for a nature lover out searching for recreation in the biotope until he returns Monday morning ready to serve with fresh courage in his toxic shop. Thus the egoism of humans, their craze for their own benefit, their hedonism or some other vulgarity is made the general reason for every offence against the environment. Whether consumption greed or profit greed – morality makes it all the same!

What is the common denominator between the savings a company achieves by inconspicuously burying a few hundredths of a pound of dioxin and the saving of a poor bastard who reaches for the cheaper granola because he cannot afford expensive eco-products and with his self-addicted consumer behavior only makes possible the harmful calculations of the multinationals? Clearly: human egoism! This etiology’s prescription reads: “renunciation,” “modesty,” “consumer consciousness,” etc. so that their beloved fellow citizens’ “demands mentality” is driven away. Everybody knows that business is not meant by this; they listen to completely different “objective constraints.” “Limits to growth” are completely the responsibility of the consumer!

Where nothing less than the survival of humankind in the long run is to depend on duly taking care of the immorality of individuals,

environmental protection

is equivalent to a request for the government authority to enact “punishment,” “penalization,” “taxation,” that politics punish the completely superfluous pleasures of people while the larger, nastier work of the state and the economy on the environment is a matter of general consensus. The misunderstanding that a factory should be a humane environment has not arisen at all, unless cigarettes are forbidden there. The protection of “endangered species” applies only to pandas and little koala bears.

One imagines that the concern about the environment is in the best of hands with the state authorities, those who guarantee the validity of the environmentally destructive profit rates and manage the rates of national wealth. This good opinion of the meaning and purpose of the state’s activism is so absolutely unshakeable that one explains the contradiction this ideal lands in – “in spite” of all the state’s environmental policies, environmental destruction progresses rapidly ahead – as the result of too few and/or too weak environmental policies, rather than inquiring about its standards.

Essentially, such calls for environmental policies (even if official acknowledgment of the topic needed some time before the state took action) open the gate for the responsible authorities. Completely independently of the moral nature of its representatives, the state does not have an impartial point of view on the effects of the free use of property on the nature and the humans within its range of sovereignty. The state registers this damage according to the basic arithmetic of its economic system – as costs – and asks whether the prevention of such expenses would not be better than the compensatory clean-up of damages already inflicted on the environment and on public health. The impairment of calculable economic success serves as the manual for defining those “cases” that it considers intolerable. In reverse, the health of the national budget provides the criteria for the reasonableness of poisoning. The state does not live on good air but on money, which is earned in its currency and on the investment location looked after by it.

Environmental policy

therefore corresponds to this. With the realization that the exploitation of nature endangers the continued use of the bases of production itself, a need for political regulation was recognized so that it can continue with the growth of capital and its ruinous consequences. Where the capitalistic ruin of nature endangers the state of health of the next generation, the capacity and life expectancy of the whole population, the crop yields of agriculture, the usefulness of the water supply, etc. in short: when it fundamentally endangers the usefulness of the nation as a capital location, then the state becomes sensitive. In the end, the land and people are to remain suitable for their future exploitation. Whoever announces that “health is an important good” has already economically budgeted this type of economic “good.”

Of course, national business must not suffer out of consideration for its long-term conditions. Eco-political decisions are measured in the long run by how well they agree with the location. In this respect, environmental protection laws are always considered to be a notice on the always-sensitive investment “climate” – investors breathe even better in bad air. Anyhow, the mistake of viewing environmental protection in idyllic images of green meadows and luscious pastures does not occur to a Secretary of the Environment; that is not his purpose. It is about the delimitation and management of the environmentally harmful side effects of production, without seriously limiting or even impairing the freedom of property and the competitive power of the nation.

Laws must “correspond to the state of technology,” be “relative” and “economically reasonable”; all references to legislation’s unconditional respect for the interest in the use of capital. Every emission control regulation, besides prohibiting, at the same time licenses the quota and modality for permissible garbage disposal into nature. “Keep your environment clean” is posted in rest areas, but in production plants Threshold Limit Values apply. So, for example, air pollution in the industrial cities was fought against for many decades by higher chimneys, until acid rain produced its unhappy effects in regions far from industry. Since then accountable limits to air pollution are cost-effectively defined and sometimes even kept to by means of filter technology. Then energy production and traffic can grow even further, and the air becomes ever worse despite filter technology.

Environmental policy does not simply protect the environment, but is a necessary consideration for the destructive use of the bases of life. It consists of calculating with an economically favorable poisoning, of paying attention to the limits of destruction of nature as well as the public’s health.

This consideration of humans and nature, calculating on growth and export quotas, has given the state’s environmental administration – only because it does it at all – an unshakeable good reputation. The good reputation of this department can only increase when the national criteria and limit values are used to lodge complaints for environmental policies beyond its borders.

Environmental imperialism

is an area which almost offers itself for demonstrations of environmental-political commitments and a sense of responsibility because the incriminated polluters are foreign businessmen and politicians and the costs of the demanded measures are outside the border. “Environmental dumping” is here the keyword. This is the polemically intended name for another state permitting itself the freedom to not decree to its entrepreneurs environmental regulations that have already been legally prescribed in one’s own nation. The expertise of the Gross National Product understands its capitalistic effect as a competitive advantage and with all the rules of intergovernmental extortion immediately fights the difference in the respective national environmental policies as an intolerable cheating.

The fact that this does not happen without the most violent fuss, of course only for sake of the beloved environment, hardly needs to be mentioned. If it proves how one’s own nation’s criteria and requirements can be implemented with the neighbors, then joy arises – at the cabinet meeting table exactly the same as the dinner table where one moans about the evil that resides in the world, but really only in the territory of other sovereigns. When it is said, “the environment has no borders,” everyone knows immediately: the foreign influence of one’s own state should not have any either.

This point of view has been considerably generalized in the principles that were set up at the UN Conference on the Environment in Rio. Whole regions of the southern hemisphere were assigned the task of protecting their rainforests and whatever else still remains intact as compensations for the global climate problems, such as, for example, the ozone hole or the greenhouse effect.

Whether or not someone seriously believes in this program for the rescue of the environment, it has accomplished its task anyway. Third world states now know their status: they are there for the first world governments and have to arrange themselves according to their needs. It is well known that these states have no chance in the economy. One only has to communicate to them through the UN that they must get in proper line with world and environmental policies and they just have to drop all their exaggerated development ambitions. “We all sit all in the same boat,” is a slogan for making the southern states dance to our (!) environmental tune.