I. The threat to human survival

Humanity today stands at the most important crossroad in its evolution. For the first time, we possess the technical knowledge and productive potential, if used rationally, to assure every person the basic means of life. On the other hand, the present irrational use of this same knowledge and productive potential threatens not only to bring about the destruction of human civilisation but also the extermination of all life on our planet, through the economic activities that inflict irreversible damage to the Earth's biosphere or through nuclear war.

The crisis is all-pervasive. The atmosphere heats up relentlessly, holes open in the ozone layer, forests are laid waste, waterways become cesspools, the remotest wilderness streams and lakes turn toxic, groundwater becomes contaminated and waste dumps proliferate. The poison reaches deeper into the biosphere as jungles fall to the axe, the sea is littered with toxic and radioactive waste and dwindling aquifers fill with filth. Each year the average air temperature rises, and the atmosphere unleashes more and more energy in tornadoes and cyclones of unprecedented destructiveness.

1. Destroying the biosphere

All life on our planet exists and reproduces itself in a narrow belt known as the biosphere. The biosphere is limited to the surface and soil of the Earth's rocky crust (the lithosphere); its oceans, lakes and rivers (the hydrosphere), and the lower levels of its atmosphere.

Within the biosphere, life is sustained by a series of delicately balanced and interconnected ecosystems, characterised by definite relationships between living organisms and their chemical and mineral environment. The stability of the biosphere is dependent upon a biological cycle in which the waste products of some organisms are essentialfor the life of others.

The process of photosynthesis is the starting point of this biological cycle. Energy in the form of visible light from the Sun is absorbed by photosynthesising plants, which in turn break down atmospheric carbon dioxide, water and mineral substances to form organic compounds and free oxygen. As a result of this process, 160 billion tonnes of organic matter and 300 billion tonnes of free oxygen are generated by green plants each year.

The primary products of green vegetable organisms — their biomass and free oxygen — in turn sustain animal life, which returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Volcanoes, animal respiration and plant and animal decomposition release approximately 220 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. About 120 billion tonnes of this is removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesising plants, while the oceans absorb the remaining 100 billion tonnes. Through these processes, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the atmosphere have remained relatively stable over the past 600 million years.35

a. The atmosphere: greenhouse, acid rain and ozone depletion

While carbon dioxide makes up only 0.03 per cent of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, this small amount is vital to life on our planet. Together with other trace gases, carbon dioxide plays an important role in the greenhouse effect, which shapes the Earth's climate. While allowing sunlight to reach the Earth's surface, carbon dioxide and other trace gases trap heat in the atmosphere by absorbing infrared radiation. Without the heating effect of these greenhouse gases the Earth's average surface temperature would be about _18°C, 33°C less than it is now, and far too cold to sustain living organisms.

Over the past 100 years, human beings have increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide by 25 per cent by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and by clearing forests (an activity that releases carbon dioxide as vegetation decays or is burned). Every year humankind burns what nature long ago took one million years to create and bury. As a result, over six billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth's atmosphere every year. The consensus of the most recent studies is that carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which stood at 280 parts per million when fossil fuel burning began and now (1997) stands at 364 ppm, is unmistakably enhancing the greenhouse effect and leading to an increase of 0.8-3.5°C in the Earth's average surface temperature. Between 1950 and 1997 the global average sea surface temperature rose from 13.86°C to 14.4°C and the 1990s were the hottest decade since record-keeping began in 1866. As a result, European alpine glaciers have lost half their volume since 1850, North Greenland's ice cap is thinning by about 2.5 centimetres a year, and a quarter of Antarctic sea ice has disappeared since 1950. Over the last 100 years sea levels have risen between 10 and 25 centimetres.36

Such changes are unprecedented in human history. During the warmest period of the past 700,000 years, temperatures only 2.5°C warmer than the present gave Europe a climate similar to that of present-day Africa. A 0.8-3.5°C warming would cause a similar alteration in the Earth's climatic patterns, but would take effect between 10 and 100 times faster, causing massive and perhaps catastrophic disruption to world agricultural production and lifting sea levels.

By the late 1990s, fossil fuels burned for heating, electricity generation, automobile transport and industrial activities were releasing 6.3 billion tonnes of carbon, 70.7 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 28.2 million tonnes of nitrogen oxides, and more than 250 million tonnes of ash and dust into the atmosphere.37

Carbon monoxide undermines the self-cleansing ability of the atmosphere by removing hydroxyl molecules, without which the concentrations of other trace gases (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, methane and chlorofluorocarbons) would increase until the atmosphere assumed totally different chemical, physical and climatic properties.

Two-thirds of the sulphur dioxide pumped into the atmosphere each year comes from coal-fueled power stations. The burning of petroleum products in automobiles and heaters is responsible for 70 per cent of the nitrogen oxides.

These emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides dissolve in water vapor to produce acid rain, which damages lakes, soils, vegetation and buildings. Already it is estimated that 14 per cent of Europe's forestland has been damaged by acid precipitation, with 50 per cent of West Germany's forests displaying visible leaf damage. While sulphur dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning are now falling in Europe (from 59 million tonnes in 1980 to 26 million tonnes in 2000) and the United States (from 24 to 15 million tonnes), in Asia they have more than tripled (from 15 million tonnes to 53 million tonnes). As a result acid rain has produced large-scale die-offs in China and Japan's forests. The Chinese National Environment Protection Agency also estimates that 40 per cent of agricultural land is affected, while Japanese government sources believe that if present trends continue the nation's lakes and ponds will become too acidic for freshwater life within 30 years. Vast tracts of soil in Europe may already have been acidified beyond repair. In the eastern United States, corrosion damage due to acid rain is estimated to cost US$7 billion annually.38

Solar radiation acts on nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from vehicle exhausts to produce surface-level concentrations of ozone gas that are destructive to living organisms. Ground level concentrations of ozone have often been recorded at 10 times their natural level in Western Europe, California, the eastern United States, and Australia. At the same time, the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, and solvent agents has begun to destroy the Earth's stratospheric ozone. In 1995, as the CFCs produced in previous decades made their way into the stratosphere the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer reached its greatest extent — more than 22 million square kilometres. At the same time a springtime ozone hole appeared for the first time over the Arctic. While CFC production under the 1987 Montreal protocol continues to fall (down to 10 per cent of their 1987 level by 1997), the destruction of stratospheric ozone will continue at least until 2060, leading to a rise in the amount of damaging ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Moreover, other ozone-depleting compounds such as methyl bromide and hydochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) continue to be produced as an interim substitute for CFCs and the full extent of damage done by ultra-violet radiation to the genetic structure of living things is still to emerge.

b. The land: deforestation, desertification and pesticides

Almost half of the forest that once blanketed the Earth — three billion hectares — has gone. Recent UN Food and Agricultural Organisation assessments39 of the world's forests have revealed that:

  • Between 1960 and 1990 the world lost 450 million hectares of its tropical forest cover, over one fifth of total remaining coverage. In the 1980s 154 million hectares of tropical forests (almost three times the land area of France) were converted to other land use, eight per cent of natural tropical forest cover;
  • Global loss of above-ground biomass from deforestation in tropical countries is estimated at 2.5 billion tonnes between 1985-94, equivalent to 4.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, 80 per cent of total US carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and cement production in 1990. Tropical deforestation releases approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year — about 19 per cent of total global carbon emissions;
  • Total wooded area — tropical and non-tropical — declined by two per cent — or 100 million hectares, an area about the size of Egypt — from 1980 to 1990. Almost all of this loss took place in undeveloped tropical countries. A 1989 study for the International Tropical Timber Organisation revealed that less than 0.1 per cent of tropical forestry took place on a sustained-yield basis.
  • Tropical rainforest is shrinking at an annual rate of between 12 and 17 million hectares, between the combined area of Switzerland and the Netherlands and that of Japan. The Amazon river basin forests, which alone account for 20 per cent of the world's annual supply of free oxygen produced by plant life, are being cleared at a rate of at least 4.2 million hectares a year.40
  • Environmental stress afflicts the world's dwindling forests. Healthy rainforests will not burn, but in recent years previously immune rainforests have caught fire in Indonesia, Mexico and the Amazon.

Deforestation is also a major factor contributing to the desertification of large areas of our planet. Deserts and semi-deserts already account for more than a third of the Earth's land surface, some 4.5 billion hectares. As a result of the clearing of forests and ill-considered agricultural and grazing practices, the area covered by desert increased by a further 120 million hectares between 1970 and 1990, more than the amount of land currently cultivated in China. Since then, the onslaught of sand has been conquering six million hectares of fertile soil a year. An estimated 60 per cent of the 3.3 billion hectares of arable land not found in the world's humid regions is effected by desertification to some degree. Excessively large herds have degraded an estimated 73 per cent of rangelands, most disastrously in Africa, where livestock numbers have more than doubled since 1950.

Deforestation and desertification have reinforced each other. For example, Ethiopia was half covered by forests at the beginning of the 1900s, but today trees cover only three per cent of the land.

Fertile land is also being degraded through soil loss. On average, 3.75 tonnes of fertile soil per hectare is formed around the world each year through natural processes, afforestation and land improvement. But 30 tonnes are irretrievably lost through removal with harvests and through water and wind erosion — 25 billion tonnes a year throughout the world. In the years 1970-90, at least 480 billion tonnes of topsoil were lost, equivalent to India's entire cropland.

As we enter the new millennium the leaps in agricultural productivity that drove the "green revolution" are being exhausted: world grain production per head has stabilised at around 300 kilograms annually; world irrigated area per head has levelled off at 0.044 hectares; annual yield gains have fallen from 2.1 per cent in 1990 to 1.1 per cent by 1997; and crop losses to pesticide-resistant insect species continue to climb (today, farmers in some areas of Asia apply pesticides at up to eight times the dosage originally recommended in order to ensure an effective kill).41 In addition, modern agriculture returns to the soil almost none of the nutrients taken out in the form of food. This loss is compensated by intensive use of inorganic nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers, which in turn run off to pollute water resources. Global fertiliser per person has quadrupled since 1950, from 5.5 to 22.4 kilograms in 1997, producing algal blooms and vast expanses of biologically dead waterway, such as the Mississippi Delta and the Aral Sea.42

Similarly, despite the mass of legislation following on the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the application of chemicals developed for use as pesticides in the US have climbed from 293 million kilograms a year in Carson's day (1964) to 441 million in 1997, one fifth of the world usage by active ingredient.43 According to the World Health Organisation pesticides continue to kill 20,000 agricultural workers each year.44

c. Depleting and polluting the waters

Humanity's need for food continues to increase pressure on fresh water systems. From 1940 to 1990 withdrawals of fresh water from rivers, lakes and underground acquifers increased fourfold, leading to falling water tables on every continent, with the most dramatic declines in those countries, like China and India, that most depend on irrigation to feed their peoples. The water table under the North China Plain, which produces 40 per cent of China's grain harvest, is falling by roughly 1.5 metres a year while acquifers in India are being pulled down by between one and three metres a year. Around the world rivers are shrinking or drying up completely.45

Fisheries are also being pressed to their limit. The global fish take has increased five times since the 1950s and now exceeds sustainable yield in 11 of the world's 15 most important fishing areas. Seafood catch per person has been falling since 1989, as humans extract 35 per cent of primary productivity from non-tropical continental shelves.46 And industrial acquaculture, the supposed alternative (which absorbs huge amounts of grain) has done nothing to prevent the degradation of oceanic fishing grounds.

More than half the world's coastlines and 60 per cent of coral reefs are now threatened by human activities — 10 per cent of all mangroves in South East Asia were destroyed between 1983 and 1994 alone.47 Meanwhile the oceans are turning into the "last frontier" — prospecting for biological and other resources is completely unregulated.48

In addition, despite some gains in river purity in the advanced capitalist world, industrial plants were discharging 661.8 cubic kilometres of untreated water each year in the late 1980s, forecast to rise to between 962.5 to 993 cubic kilometres by the year 2000.49 An estimated 3.6 million tonnes of oil finds its way into the world's oceans each year, mainly as a result of shipping accidents but also due to oil tanker discharges that the oil industry regards as normal or inevitable.50 This is a quantity of oil sufficient to spread an iridescent film over an area of 90 million square kilometres, or one third of the ocean surface. Fortunately, bacteria break down most of this vast quantity of oil. However, although petroleum is almost entirely biodegradable, it takes the microbes that break it down a long time to accomplish this task. In the meantime, an oil spill's effects are lethal for a variety of birds, marine mammals, fish larvae, and phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that are the basis of the food chain for marine life.

Since the early 1970s the tonnage of oil released into the ocean has nearly trebled. The capacity of oceanic bacteria to degrade this vast amount of oil is being placed under increasing strain, as shown by the dramatic loss of animal life after the Exxon Valdez disaster and the oil released into the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War.

d. Poisoning and destroying the species

The destruction of forest and marine habitats and the contamination of gene pools via the unwitting introduction of alien species is speeding up the rate of extinction of large numbers of plant and animal species. Of course, the extinction of species is a natural process that has occurred since the emergence of living organisms on our planet some 3.5 billion years ago. However, the natural evolution of the biosphere is a process in which some species disappear and are replaced by new, more complex life forms. The fossil records of marine invertebrates testify that in the past one to three species died out on average every year. At that "background rate" it was possible for new species to replace disappearing species, and for the biosphere to gradually adapt to this change. However, the present rate of extinction of species due to human destruction of forest habitats does not allow for such replacement and adaptation.

Most estimates of the current situation are that at least 1000 plant and animal species are lost a year, an extinction rate 1000 times the background rate.51 For vertebrates, which provide a good indication of the general health of natural communities because of their position at the top of food chains, the proportion of species threatened with extinction ranges from 11 per cent for birds to 34 per cent for fish.52 Sharks, which continue a lineage of vertebrates some 400 million years old, are at their lowest numbers ever and, like other marine predators with low rates of reproduction, are especially vulnerable to overexploitation.53 Bioinvasions, mainly the result of exotic marine species being carried in ships' ballast water to foreign destinations, are wiping out entire marine ecosystems.

If present trends continue, one fifth of all plant and animal species will disappear over the next 20 years and the diversity of the biosphere will be reduced to its lowest level since the destruction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic era, 65 million years ago. This would entail a massive loss of extremely valuable genetic stock and placing at risk the local ecosystems that make life possible.54

At the same time, human-made poisons are penetrating into the remotest reaches of the biosphere, with effects that are only now becoming fully apparent. While US industry officially dumps 2.2 million metric tonnes of toxic chemicals into the environment each year, the real figure for some important toxins, according to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, may be understated by as much as a factor of 10.55 At the same time many toxic substances which are not waste enter human systems through products like PVC wrapping which are not inert, but leach into foodstuffs.

Over 200 industrial chemicals and pesticides are now commonly found in the body tissue of 95 per cent of US citizens tested.56 Recent research reveals an epidemic of birth deformities, breast and testicular cancers and falling sperm counts as well as retarded child brain development — all attributable to the rising concentration of organochlorines and other industrial chemicals that rise in concentration along the food chain.

Other species also concentrate these human-made poisons in their systems: seals in the North Sea are contaminated by organic solvents and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); fish in the Mersey Estuary contain over 300 chemicals; alligators in pesticide-contaminated lakes in Florida are impotent; and it takes only one month's release into the "wild" between the US and Canada for healthy ducks to accumulate dangerous levels of toxic chemicals.57

e. Passing thresholds of sustainability

The demands made by the present system of production on the global environment increasingly exceed the thresholds of sustainability. Humanity now uses an estimated 25 per cent of the ecosystem's net photosynthetic product (plant mass fixed by photosynthesis) as well as 40 per cent of land.58 As human beings claim more of the primary productivity of the Earth for themselves, less is left for other species and the human race in turn faces a prospect of increasing life degradation as natural systems decay further.

Humanity now moves more earth than volcanoes and weather combined and vastly overstress the Earth's capacity to absorb this avalanche of matter.59 US industry alone creates at least 6.9 billion metric tonnes of solid waste from extraction processes as well as 7.7 billion metric tonnes of solid waste from metal and mineral processing.60 In the last century of industrialisation humanity has consumed more energy than in the whole of its previous history.61 World consumption of commercial energy rose over 60 times between 1860 and 1985, with per capita energy consumption in the advanced capitalist countries now running at 80 times that in sub-Saharan Africa.62 Even under the most optimistic scenario of the World Energy Council global energy consumption is set to increase by 30 per cent by 2020 and 58 per cent by 2050, with only a 17 per cent fall in carbon emissions compared to 1990 envisaged in the best case.63

At the same time automobile manufacture shows no sign of stopping, with the world car fleet passing 501 million in 1997 and basic pollution controls like catalytic converters omitted on most models that will sell in the emerging markets of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. If the US pattern of automobile use became global by 2050, there would be five billion cars, petrol use would run at 360 million barrels a day (compared with current production of 67 million barrels) and the effects on land use and pollution would be unimaginable.64

The environmental crisis intensifies the injustices of capitalism. The poorer the society, the greater the ambient pollution and environmental degradation. This is true within societies (Hispanic and black areas are the most polluted in the United States) as well as between the richer economies and the rest of the world.

The advanced capitalist countries take up an "environmental space" many times larger than their own territory, using increasingly greater undervalued natural resources from the Third World, creating ever greater waste and incurring an expanding environmental debt. The multinational firms of the advanced capitalist world also extend their "ecological footprint" through such horrors as the export processing zones along the US-Mexican border and in the southern provinces of China — among the most polluted areas on Earth. In the Asian "miracle" economies like Taiwan the lower reaches of nearly all rivers are biologically dead, cancer rates have doubled since 1960 and a government report has warned that parts of the island could be uninhabitable by the year 2000.65

Clearly the capitalist mode of production consistently violates the fundamental principles of environmental sustainability (see Box 1). Indeed, "like an autoimmune disease, in which a body's own defense system attacks healthy tissue, our economy is assaulting the very life-support systems that keep it functioning."66

The five principles of sustainability

  • Principle of zero irreversibility. Irreversible damage and cumulative pollutant emissions must be reduced to zero.
  • Principle of sustainable harvesting: The rate of harvesting renewable resources must not exceed their rate of regeneration.
  • Principle of sustainable depletion: The rate of depletion of non-renewable natural resources must not exceed the rate of creation of renewable substitutes.
  • Principle of sustainable technology choice: Technology choice should favour those technologies which extract maximum value per unit of resource rather than those where growth rates dictate resource throughput. Technology choice should promote the replacement of non-renewable by renewable resources.
  • Precautionary principle: Uncertainty and the risk of potential environmental disasters dictates an attitude of prudent foresight which identifies and discards in advance any production technique or method which could have catastrophic consequences, even if the chance of such an outcome is small and alternatives are more troublesome and costly.


2. Nuclear war

Humanity's future is permanently threatened by the existence of an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons with a destructive potential equivalent to 12,000 million tonnes of TNT (2.2 tonnes of high explosives for every person on the planet). By some estimates there have been 15,000 wars in the past 6000 years, with a death toll of at least 3000 million lives. An all-out nuclear war would directly kill or fatally injure a similar number of people — equivalent to more than half the world's present population.

In addition, the lives of billions more would be threatened by the after effects of such a war, including the collapse of the world's economy as a result of the destruction of the key centres of industrial production, transport and communications, and the release of vast amounts of radioactive material into the world's atmosphere.

A nuclear war would also have a dramatic impact on the Earth's atmosphere and climate. Enormous atmospheric pollution from vaporised dust and smoke would result both from the nuclear explosions themselves and from the inevitable burning of forests, cities and oil and gas fields that would follow the explosions.

Studies by both US and Soviet scientists have predicted that within a few weeks of an all-out nuclear war the aerosol particles injected into the atmosphere would so reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface that the Earth would rapidly be plunged into a year-long global winter in which most animals and plants would be frozen to death.

Moreover, the nuclear explosions would produce large quantities of nitrogen oxide, which would destroy up to 70 per cent of the stratospheric ozone layer that protects all living things on Earth from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. As a result, when the nuclear night receded and the atmosphere became relatively transparent again, any surviving organisms would be subjected to lethal doses of ultraviolet radiation. While numerous scientific studies predict that all-out nuclear war would turn our planet into a radioactive desert, others suggest that even a limited nuclear war, involving the detonation of only one per cent of existing nuclear stockpiles, would be sufficient to make our planet uninhabitable.

3. What hope for a solution?

Humanity has thus created two possible roads to its own extinction and the transformation of the Earth into an uninhabitable desert — a radioactive nuclear winter or a suffocating global summer. Moreover, in the process of creating the destructive means to travel down one road we are also squandering the resources that could be used to halt and reverse our journey down the other.

By 1996, the world's nations were producing goods and services with a combined annual value of about $28,000 billion (in 1995 dollars). At the same time, annual world military spending was about $701billion, 2.5 per cent of gross world product.67 Half a million of the world's scientists and engineers are employed worldwide in weapons research. Expenditure on weapons research and development accounts for nearly $100 billion, or half of the world's total expenditure on scientific research and technological development. More than 100 million people — three times the global number of teachers and doctors — are directly or indirectly involved in military activities of no direct economic use to society.

The enormous resources consumed each year by global military activities would be more than sufficient to solve some of the most pressing problems of humanity's mounting ecological disaster. For example, the United Nations' plan for the conservation of the world's tropical forests would require some $1.3 billion a year over five years, and the UN plan to combat desertification would cost an annual $4.5 billion for 20 years. These sums amount to what is spent around the world on military activities every 16 hours and every 53 hours respectively.

US ecologist Dr Barry Commoner estimated in 1974 that it would cost some $600 billion to convert US industry to ecologically pure production processes.68 This was equivalent to what the Pentagon spent every two years. In 1988, the Worldwatch Institute calculated that over the following decade it would cost $32 billion to reforest the Earth to an environmentally sustainable level; $114 billion to protect the world's cropland topsoil from degradation and erosion; $94 billion to develop renewable energy sources, and $118 billion to raise energy efficiency to a level that would assure environmentally sustainable development by the end of this century. In total, these programs would require less than five per cent of what will be spent on military activities over the same period.

The total annual funding for Agenda 21, adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is $560 billion a year, with $125 billion (0.7 per cent of their GDP) to be paid by the developed countries of the "North". Yet, between 1982 and 1990, in debt service alone, the "South" sent the advanced capitalist world $418 billion more than it received in all forms of northern aid — equivalent to six Marshall Plans.