Ecology and Radical Economics

— Chris Gaal

THE ENVIRONMENT IS now in a state of general crisis. Why is it that despite the reforms of the past twenty years, things have not improved? Despite the petitions, the demonstrations, and the letters to the editor, the conclusion is now dawning on vast numbers of activists that in fact citizens are nearly powerless in most situations which attempt to regulate the power of corporations. How is it that the corporations behind the plunder, from Westinghouse with their PCB contamination to Georgia-Pacific with their clear-cut logging, continue to get away with these destructive practices despite our best attempts at regulation?

Regardless of what they say on Earth Day, corporations must be interested in one thing above all else--making a profit. Wages are a cost to be minimized so that corporations can maximize their profits. So too, the protection of nature is a cost to be minimized in order to ensure a profit; not just any profit, but the largest profit possible. Even in the case of well-meaning environmentally conscious executives who don't want to dump pollution into the river, or who want to put a scrubber on the smokestack, competition will ensure that they will go out of business if they act upon their conscience.

This is a fact of the market, irrespective of the personalities involved. Thus competition is the engine which drives environmental degradation. The search for profit is a fact that also requires a great deal of waste. Profits are higher on commodities that wear out faster, and need to be replaced. For example, the first light bulbs lasted 10,000 hours, but to sell more and make a bigger profit, the ones put on the market only lasted 1,000 hours.(1)

Profits are also maximized by minimizing the choices available to consumers, even those who would choose to consume "green." For instance, mass transit is not a choice available to consumers in this society because the auto related industries have structured a dependence on automobiles, roads, and petrochemical infrastructure.

In 1935, Los Angeles had the largest mass transit system in the world, with 3,000 quiet electric trains that carried eighty million passengers a year. General Motors and Standard Oil bought the system and disassembled it, creating a forced reliance on automobiles and oil. The costs of freeway construction and air pollution were "externalized"--shifted onto the public. This example was repeated again and again by the corporate players in auto, oil, rubber, and concrete until 88% of the nation's electric streetcar network was dismantled.(2)

The majority of research and development funding for sustainable alternative sources of energy in the mid-seventies wound up under the control of a few large corporations such as Westinghouse, Grumman, Exxon and Arco.(3) These companies were careful to do nothing that would have threatened the interests they had already invested in coal, oil, and nuclear energies. Arco, for example, bought up solar energy patents to make sure that no productive investment would take place.

Similarly, agribusiness and the chemical industry seek to keep us dependent on destructive mono-crop agricultural methods which cause topsoil erosion, require a great amount of pesticides and chemical inputs, and are easily managed by centralized corporations. In fact the monocrop corporate farm is being cemented into place almost everywhere, especially in the Third World where such methods are imposed to increase food exports in order to service foreign debts.

A perfect example of deregulation in Washington is found in the "Council On Competitiveness," made up of six cabinet officials under Dan Quayle. In 1989 this body blocked a proposal by the EPA to require 25% of lead batteries to be recycled, they forced through more than 100 changes in the provisions of the Clean Air Act to make it weaker, and recently sought to redefine "wetlands" in order to gut the Wetlands Protection Act.(4)

Corporations resist regulations as a matter of economic necessity, and both major political parties, caught up in the logic of competitiveness, are increasingly unwilling to represent any other interest.

The complicity of the government in helping corporations stay "competitive" in this way is shown by the ease with which corporations capture government agencies by having people from the industry placed in charge. This cynical necessity is what led Ronald Reagan to appoint John Crowell Jr. to be Assistant Secretary of Agriculture--the agency which oversees the Forest Service.

This man had made his career as a corporate lawyer for Louisiana-Pacific, one of the largest purchasers of federal timber. His deputy was Douglas MacCleery, an analyst for the pro-industry National Forest Products Council.(5) Under their influence, the Forest Service vastly increased the amount of timber sold from public lands at a loss subsidized by tax dollars. The EPA leadership has had a similar revolving door with industry.

If it is also possible for corporate interests to capture large environmental organizations through tax deductible donations, then they will certainly seek to do so. Large lobbying organizations in Washington need money to carry out their operations; however, with massive corporate donations they are not as willing to push for reforms which might endanger their finances. Groups such as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation have substantial corporate contributors which include ARCO, Exxon, British Petroleum, Waste Management, Westinghouse, Weyerhauser, Dupont, General Electric and many other known offenders.(6)

Us Against Us

Apart from this, in a capitalist market there is a dynamic of downward spiral, as communities and countries bid against each other, each attempting to offer more favorable conditions to attract corporate investment; conditions like lower wages, tax breaks, and lax regulation.

The current moves toward free trade are certain to exacerbate both environmental and social problems. In order to attract investment, and build exports to service their debt, Mexico is offering extremely cheap labor, as low as four dollars a day, along with the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations in the maquiladoras along the border. Meanwhile, U.S. workers and their communities are forced to compete with those conditions or lose jobs as factories relocate.

The result is a downward "harmonization" of social and environmental conditions to the lowest levels anywhere. While Mexican workers have seen their wages decline, and their environment deteriorate as the result of their government's policies, communities in the United States and Canada have had to offer concessions to keep investment from disappearing. Some communities in the U.S. are already forced to court known hazardous industries such as nuclear waste dumps simply to maintain jobs and a tax base after a decade of de-industrialization.

Meanwhile, the National Toxics Campaign has characterized the U.S.-Mexico border region as a "2000 mile long Love Canal." According to their video Border Trouble, companies operating maquiladora plants cannot account for 90% of the toxic waste generated there over the past twenty years, and many dangerous toxics such as xylene, and heavy metals are found in backyards and city streets. Worse, the free trade zone along the Mexican border is a glimpse of a future in which both environmental protection and social programs are subject to the pressures of deregulation so that multi-national corporations can increase their profits.

If the regime of free trade extends, and the U.S. has its way in the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) negotiations, then environmental protection will be subject to a rollback which legislative strategies will be nearly powerless to stop. Attempts by one country to pass a law which would call for stiffer regulation than another country may even be considered a violation of free trade.

Already because of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, "Canadians have been forced to abandon measures to protect the threatened Pacific salmon. Canada is also prevented from restricting the sale of its water resources to the USA even in times of local water scarcity. Moreover the Canadians have been forced to bring their pesticide regulations in line with far laxer U.S. standards. Canada's ban on the sale of irradiated food has also been judged illegal, as have Canadian proposals to reduce emissions from lead, zinc, and copper smelters."(7)


  1. Gorz, Andre, Ecology as Politics; South End Press, Boston MA; 82. For more information about this point see Vance Packard, The Waste Makers.
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  2. Betz, Charles, "Blood, Oil, and Ecology," Green Committees of Correspondence.
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  3. Ibid.
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  4. "Quayle Oozes From The Swamp," Tony Wesolowsky, The Guardian, New York, NY; Sept. 18, `91; 9.
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  5. "Capitalism and the Ancient Forest," John Bellamy Foster; Monthly Review, Volume 43 #5, October 1991; 6.
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  6. Tokar, Brian, "The Selling of Environmentalism," Z, February 1990.
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  7. "The Uruguay Round: Gunboat Diplomacy by Another Name," The Ecologist, Vol. 20 No. 6, November/December 1990; 204.
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January-February 1993, ATC 42