Youth pay price of capitalism’s environmental destruction

Published Feb 9, 2007 9:45 AM

The Bush administration’s proposed 2008 budget calls for an extraordinary $2.9 trillion in spending.

A reasonable observer might expect that a budget that huge would allocate sufficient resources to fund the types of programs that would benefit young workers and students: universal higher education and the cancellation of existing student loan debt, job training, and public works programs employing young people to construct much-needed mass transit and energy-efficient affordable housing.

Instead, the Bush budget is designed to finance the escalation of conflict in the Middle East. It provides the Pentagon another $100 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars this year, on top of the $70 billion already allocated by Congress, plus $141.7 billion for these wars next year—all to pay for death and destruction meant to crush opposition to the super-exploitation of the area by the major U.S. and British oil companies.

The total 2008 Pentagon budget, which also includes huge expenditures on costly weapons systems and basing troops around the world, would come to $624.6 billion.

Killing people quickly and slowly

The immediate human impact of the Iraq war is obvious. Over 3,100 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq so far. Civilian Iraqi casualties of the violence are reported in excess of 60,000. The average age of a dead U.S. soldier in Iraq is less than 27.

The war in Iraq not only affects the young by sapping resources and sending them off to die. It also has dire environmental consequences for those with the longest time left to live on this planet.

The use of depleted uranium (DU), white phosphorus, MK77 Mod 5 napalm and other outlawed incendiary weapons in Iraq has an immediate and devastating effect on the health of soldiers and civilians. The Sierra Club of Canada pointed out as early as 1999 that “the environmental consequences of DU weapons residue will be felt for thousands of years as its decay products continually transform into other hazardous radioactive substances in the uranium decay chain.”

The U.S. economy was long ago deliberately structured to be dependent on oil by an agreement among the oil, rubber and automobile companies to stifle quality mass transit. (Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” gives the details.) According to the Energy Information Association, U.S. petroleum consumption now exceeds 20.8 million barrels a day. It’s a perfect example of how, under capitalism, short-term economic growth prevails over long-term sustainability because of the drive for profits.

Most workers across the United States have no access to reliable public transportation and must have cars to get to work, to shop, to have a social life. This takes a toll on the young worker’s pocketbook as gasoline prices remain above $2 a gallon. The environment also suffers as increased travel eats up almost 9.2 million barrels of oil a day.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Paris at the beginning of February and issued a long-awaited report that finally confirmed, with much scientific data, that human activity is the main factor behind global warming. The IPCC predicted that temperatures will continue to rise by as much as 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Global warming is caused when the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) rises and they begin to form a heat-trapping blanket around the Earth. More than half of the CO2 now in the atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas. Deforestation is another main contributor to CO2 because trees take in CO2 and put out oxygen.

Environmental degradation and profits

The history of capitalism is replete with examples of disregard for the environment and the lives of young workers. The industrial revolution saw the creation of marvelous new technologies and laid the material basis for capitalism’s ascendancy around the world. Since the capitalists used these technologies to maximize their profits, widespread pollution resulted.

Manchester, England, in the 19th century was an example of how capitalism’s implementation of technology was ruinous from the beginning. There was no space in this industrial town for gardens or green spaces. The sky was filled with thick smoke that polluted the lungs, clothing and homes of the workers forced to live in the city.

Fifty-seven percent of working-class children there died before they reached the age of five. The average life expectancy for the poor was just 17 years. A government report issued in 1842 left no doubt that many of these deaths were the consequence of severe environmental degradation. The co-founder of scientific socialism, Frederick Engels, wrote about this assault on the workers and the environment in his 1845 book “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”

As capitalism in some countries advanced into modern imperialism, with its territorial division of the world among capitalist powers, modern and frequent warfare also arose.

The first and second world wars saw the redrawing of maps in Africa, the Middle East and Asia by the colonial/imperialist powers. The U.S. later waged ruthless wars against national liberation movements in Vietnam and Korea that were led by communists. And the first Gulf War proved itself just a precursor to the current occupation of Iraq.

The U.S. military says that 617,000 U.S. soldiers died in combat in the 20th century. Most of these soldiers were young and recruited from the working class; many were also from the nationally oppressed.

One of the biggest environmental threats arose out of World War II with the development and use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. government. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths of an estimated 215,000 Japanese civilians. Black rain fell in some areas following the blast, bringing down radioactive material and creating a secondary source of exposure. Radiation-induced cancers and leukemia resulted along with widespread birth deformities and stillbirths.

The United States’ historical use of nuclear weapons and the recent threats of perpetual warfare under the Bush doctrine have made it necessary for countries such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to develop nuclear technology for self-defense purposes.

U.S. imperialism’s current refusal to tackle the root causes of global warming is just the most recent example of the misuse of modern technology by the ruling class.

Capitalism’s derelict stewardship of the environment points to the necessity for workers and oppressed to control the means of production so that technology can be redirected to meet people’s needs.

Socialism: A sustainable model

There is nothing inherently bad for the environment about the scientific and technological advances made since the industrial revolution. In fact, socialist Cuba shines a bright light on how workers’ control can lead to a more sustainable implementation of modern inventions.

Cuba has fought its way to the forefront of conservation and sustainable development against the backdrop of a brutal U.S.-led blockade of the country. The island nation has made incredible advances in farming techniques, housing construction and energy conservation.

One of Cuba’s most impressive achievements is the development of organic agriculture, beginning in the early 1990s. It successfully combines organically produced fertilizer and crop rotation techniques with modern bio-pesticides that use non-toxic microbial formulations to control pests and increase soil nutrition.

Neighborhood vegetable gardens in cities have reduced the amount of transportation necessary to feed urban areas. Havana, for example, has developed 50,000 community gardens to help feed the city.

Cuba reduced its reliance on oil in transportation by fitting public buses with bike racks and distributing over one million Chinese-made bicycles to the Cuban people. Experimentation with more natural building materials, such as bamboo, for the construction of modern-style homes was developed in response to concerns over the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from traditional construction methods.

Cuba has also integrated environmental education as part of its national curriculum while implementing special conservation programs for mountainous areas.

The way forward

Young people and students in the United States have been in the vanguard of environmental preservation. It is not unusual that young workers with their whole life ahead of them, many of whom face the question of when or whether to begin raising a family, would look to the future dangers posed by pollution with a sense of moral outrage.

Students played a key role in the establishment of the first Earth Day in 1970 and young people today are involved in a variety of environmental causes. But a key ingredient is often missing. That ingredient is class-consciousness.

Environmental degradation occurs because the capitalists are in charge of technology. Not surprisingly the multinational working class suffers the most from the environmental damage that results.

It is important that militant environmental action not be separated from the broader revolutionary movement for working class power. The campaign for things like clean air, fresh drinking water and sustainable coastal areas should be linked to the workers’ broader economic demands for affordable housing, education, healthcare and living-wage jobs.

The only way for workers to secure these demands for themselves is to organize a political movement to take the power, which is denied them under the plutocracy that the capitalists call democracy. Young workers and students must strive to position themselves at the forefront of this revolutionary working class movement for environmental and social justice.

The writer is an organizer of FIST-Fight Imperialism, Stand Together—youth group. Contact fist@workers.org for more information.

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