The world on the eve of an environmental catastrophe

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"Famines are developing in the Third World, and will soon reach the once so-called "socialist" countries, while in Western Europe and North America food stocks are being destroyed, and farmers are paid to cultivate less land or being penalised if they produce more than their quotas. In Latin America, killer diseases like cholera, once eradicated, have returned and reached epidemic levels. All over the world, floods and earthquakes have killed tens of thousands, even though the means exist to build dykes and houses which could prevent such holocausts. At the same time, it is not even possible to accuse "fate" or "nature" of provoking disasters such as Chernobyl where in 1986 the explosion of a nuclear power station killed hundreds (if not thousands) of people and contaminated whole regions, or in the more developed countries, of causing mortal catastrophes in the great cities: 60 dead in a Paris railway station, more than 31 killed at the Kings Cross Underground fire in London. The system is also proving incapable of preventing the destruction of the environment, acid rain, nuclear and other pollution, the greenhouse effect, or the spread of the desert, all of which threaten the continued survival of humanity itself" (Manifesto of the 9th ICC Congress, July 1991)

The question of the environment has been present in revolutionary propaganda since Marx and Engels denounced the unbearable conditions of London in the mid-19th century, taking in Bordiga's exposure of environmental disasters as the result of the irresponsibility of capitalism. Today this question is even more crucial and demands added effort on the part of revolutionary organisations, in order to show that the historic alternative facing humanity - socialism or barbarism - is not only a choice between socialism and the barbarism of war, local or generalised. The danger of barbarism also includes the threat of an ecological catastrophe which is appearing more and more clearly on the horizon.

With this series of articles[1], the ICC aims to develop the question of the environment by dealing with the following aspects:

This first article will examine the present state of affairs and try to highlight the threat weighing on humanity, in particular the most destructive phenomena on a planetary level, such as:

  • the development of the greenhouse effect
  • the management of waste
  • the accelerating spread of pollutants and the processes which amplify this on the biological level
  • the exhaustion of natural resources and/or their alteration through pollution.

In the second article, we will seek to show how the problems of the environment cannot be attributed to individuals - even though individual responsibilities certainly do exist - to the extent that it is capitalism and its logic of maximising profit which are really responsible. Here we will see how the very evolution of science and scientific research doesn't happen by chance, but is subjected to the capitalist imperative of maximum profit.

In the third article, we will analyse the responses put forward by the various green and ecological movements, in order to show that despite the good intentions and good will of many of those who participate in them, not only are they totally ineffective but serve to feed illusions in the possibility of solving these problems within capitalism, when the only solution is the international communist revolution.

The harbingers of catastrophe

There is more and more talk about environmental problems, if only because in recent years, in various countries, we have seen the rise of parties whose banner is the defence of the environment. Is this reassuring? Not at all! All the noise around this issue only serves to further fog our ideas. This is why we have decided to begin by describing the particular phenomena which, by combining together, are increasingly leading society towards environmental catastrophe. As we will see - and contrary to what is being piped to us through the television or more or less specialised glossy magazines - the situation is much worse and more threatening than they would have us believe. And it's not this or that greedy and irresponsible capitalist, this or that Mafiosi or Camorra clan which bears the responsibility, but the capitalist system as a whole.

The development of the greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect is something that everyone talks about, but they don't always know what they are talking about. In the first place, we have to be clear that the greenhouse effect is a highly beneficial fact for life on the earth - at least for the kind of life that we know about - to the extent that it makes it possible for the average temperature on the surface of our planet (average taking into account the four seasons and the different latitudes) of around 15°C instead of -17°C, the estimated temperature in the absence of the greenhouse effect. We have to imagine what the world would be like if the temperature was permanently below 0°C, with the seas and rivers frozen. To what do we owe this extra 32 degrees? To the greenhouse effect: the light of the sun penetrates the lower layers of the atmosphere without being absorbed (the sun does not heat up the air), and feeds the energy of the earth. The radiation which emanates from the latter (as from any celestial body), being composed essentially of infrared waves, is then intercepted and abundantly absorbed by certain constituents of the air such as carbon anhydride, water vapour, methane and other parts of the synthesis such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The thermal balance of the earth profits from the warmth produced in the lower reaches of the atmosphere, and this has the effect of increasing the temperature of the earth's surface by 32°C. The problem is not therefore the greenhouse effect in itself, but the fact that with the development of industrial society many ‘greenhouse' substances have been introduced into the atmosphere, the concentration of which is clearly growing, with the result that the greenhouse effect is increasing. It has been shown, for example, thanks to studies of the air trapped in the polar ice, which goes back 650,000 years, that the present concentration of CO² has gone from 380 ppm (parts per million or milligrams per cubed decimetre) is the highest throughout this entire period, and perhaps the highest over the past 20 million years. Furthermore, the temperatures registered during the 20th century have been the highest for 20,000 years. The frenetic resort to fossil fuels as a source of energy and the growing deforestation of the earth's surface have, since the beginning of the industrial era, compromised the natural balance of carbon gases in the atmosphere. This balance is the product of the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on the one hand, via the combustion and decomposition of organic matter, and, on the other hand, of the fixation of this same carbon gas through photosynthesis, a process which transforms it into glucose and thus into complex organic matter. The imbalance between the release (combustion) and fixation (photosynthesis) of CO², to the advantage of release, is at the basis of the current accentuation of the greenhouse effect.

As we said earlier, it's not only carbon gas but also water vapour and methane which enter into the picture. Water vapour is both a factor in and product of the greenhouse effect since, being present in the atmosphere, it is all the more abundant the higher the temperature, because of the increased evaporation of water that results. The increase in the quantity of methane in the atmosphere, for its part, derives from a whole series of natural sources, but is also caused by the growing use of this gas as a combustible and from the leaks of the various gas pipes distributed around the earth. Methane, also known as ‘swamp gas', is a type of gas which derives from the fermentation of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. The flooding of wooded valleys by the construction of hydroelectric dams is at the origin of the growing local production of methane. But the problem of methane, which today contributes towards one third of the increase of the greenhouse effect, is much more serious than may appear from the elements we have just mentioned. First and foremost, methane has a capacity for absorbing infrared 23 times greater than CO², which is quite considerable. But there is worse! All the current predictions, which are already fairly catastrophic, don't take into account the scenario which could unfold from the liberation of methane from its natural reservoirs. These are made up of the gas trapped at around 0°C and under several atmospheres of pressure, in the particular structures of the ice (hydrated gas): a litre of ice crystal is capable of holding some 50 litres of methane gas. Such layers are found above all in the sea, along the continental shelf, and within the permafrost in the various zones of Siberia, Alaska and Northern Europe. Here is the view of some of the experts on this subject:  "if global warming goes past certain limits (3-4°C) and if the temperature of the coastal waters and the permafrost goes up, there could be an enormous emission in a short period of time (a few dozen years) of methane released by hydrates that have become unstable, and this would result in a catastrophic increase in the greenhouse effect.....over the last year, methane emissions from the Swedish soil to the north of the Arctic circle have increased by 60%, and while the increase in temperature over the last 15 years is on a global average fairly limited, it is much more intense (by several degrees) in the northern regions of Eurasia and America (in the summer, the mythical north west passage which makes it possible to go by boat from the Atlantic to the pacific, was actually opened up)"[2]

Even without this cherry on the icing, the predictions elaborated by recognised international bodies like the UN's IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of technology) in Boston, already announce, for the new century, an increase in average temperature from between 0.5°C to a maximum of 4.5°C, assuming that, as is happening now, nothing is going to change very much in terms of the measures human beings may take. Furthermore, these predictions don't take into account the emergence of two new industrial powers, gluttons for energy, China and India.      

"an additional warming of a few degrees centigrade would provoke a more intense evaporation of the ocean waters, but the most sophisticated analyses suggest that there would be an accentuation of the disparity in rainfall in different regions. Arid zones would extend and become even more arid. The ocean areas with surface temperatures above 27°C, a critical point in the formation of cyclones, would go up by 30 or 40%. This would create a succession of catastrophic meteorological events resulting in recurrent floods and disasters. The melting of a large part of the glaciers in the Antarctic and Greenland, the increasing temperature of the oceans, would raise the level of the latter, with salt water penetrating many fertile coastal regions and whole regions being submerged (part of Bangladesh, many ocean islands)" (ibid)

We haven't got the space here to develop this theme but it is at least worthwhile underlining the fact that climate change, provoked by the increase in the greenhouse effect, even without reaching the feed-back effect produced by the release of the earth's methane, still threatens to be catastrophic since it would lead to:

  • more intense meteorological events, much greater rainfall resulting in a reduction in the fertility of the soil, and a growing process of desertification even in temperate zones, as is already happening in Piedmont in Italy
  • the creation, in the Mediterranean and other formerly temperate seas, of environmental conditions favourable to the survival of tropical marine species, and thus the migration of non-native species, resulting in disturbances in the ecological balance
  • the return of diseases which have been all but eradicated, such as malaria, owing to the development of climatic conditions favourable to the spread of vector organisms such as mosquitoes.

 

The problem of the production and management of waste

A second kind of problem, typical of this phase of capitalist society, is the excessive production of waste and the difficulty of dealing with it adequately. In recent months the news of mountains of rubbish piling up in all the streets of Naples and Campania has been widely covered in the international media; but this is only because this region of the world is still considered as being an industrial and therefore an advanced country. But the fact that the peripheries of many big cities in the Third World have become open air rubbish dumps has been evident for a long time now.

This enormous accumulation of waste is the result of the logic of capitalism. While it is true that human beings have always produced waste, in the past this was always reintegrated, recuperated and re-used. It is only today, with capitalism, that waste has become a problem because of the specific way this society operates, given that is based on the fundamental principle that every kind of human activity is seen as a commodity, i.e. something that is destined to be sold in order to realise a profit on a market where the only law is the law of competition. This cannot fail to have a series of pernicious consequences:

  1. The production of commodities cannot be planned in space and time because of competition between capitalists; it therefore follows an irrational logic, according to which each capitalist tends to enlarge his own production in order to sell at a lower price and realise his profit, which leads to an excess of unsold commodities. It is moreover precisely this necessity to outdo the competition and lower prices which leads the producers to lower the quality of manufactured products, which drastically reduces their lifetime and rapidly reduces them to items of waste
  2. An aberrant production of wrapping and packaging, often made of toxic and non-degradable substances is accumulating in the environment. These wrappings, which often have no other function than to make the commodity more attractive to potential buyers, make up an increasingly large part, at the level of volume and weight, of the content of the commodity being sold. It has been estimated today that at least half of any rubbish bag in any city is filled with the remains of wrapping.     
  3. The production of waste is accentuated by the new lifestyles inherent in modern life. Eating out, in a self-service restaurant, on plastic plates and drinking from plastic bottles, has now become a daily habit for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Similarly, using plastic bags to put the shopping in is a convenience that hardly anyone does without. All this does not suit the environment of course, but it does suit the owners of the self-service who save on the labour-power needed to wash cutlery and crockery that is not made to be thrown away. The supermarket owner or even the local shopkeeper benefit from the fact that a customer can buy what he wants, even if he hadn't planned to buy it, knowing that he can put everything into free plastic bag. All this results in a considerable increase in the production of waste all over the world, nearing a kilo per day per citizen, or millions of tons of waste every day!

It has been estimated that, in Italy alone, over the last 25 years, with the population more or less stable, the amount of waste has more than doubled because of packaging.  The problem of waste is one of the problems the politicians think they can resolve, but in fact it encounters insurmountable obstacles in capitalism. Such obstacles are not the result of a lack of technology, but once again to the logic which governs this society. In reality, the management of waste, whether making it disappear or reducing the amount generated, is also subject to the laws of profit. Even when the recycling and reutilisation of material is possible, all this requires the political capacity to coordinate it, which is generally lacking in the weakest economies. This is why in the poorest countries and where enterprises are in decline owing to the galloping crisis of the last few decades, managing waste is a real supplementary expense.

But some would object: if in the advanced countries the management of waste does function, that means it's just a question of the right intentions, of the civic sense and the good practice of enterprises. The problem is that, as in all sectors of production, the strongest countries burden the weakest ones (or, within a country, the most economically deprived regions) with a good part of their waste.

"Two groups of American environmentalists, Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics, recently published a report which affirms that 50 to 80% of waste products from the electronics industry in the western states of the USA are taken away in containers by boats bound for Asia (above all India and China) where the costs of eliminating them are much lower and environmental laws always much less strict. This is no aid project, but a trade in toxic rejects which the consumers have decided to throw away. The report by the two associations refers for example to the Guiyu dumping area, which receives mainly screens and printers. The workers of Guiyu use very rudimentary working tools to extract the components that can be sold. A striking quantity of electronic waste is not recycled but simply dumped in the open in the fields, on riverbanks, in lakes, in swamps, rivers and canals. Men, women and children all do this work without any protection"[3]

"In Italy it has been estimated that the eco-mafias have a business running into 26,000 billion (euro) a year, 15,000 of which from the traffic and illegal elimination of waste (Report on the Ecomafia 2007, by the Lega Ambienta). The customs office confiscated around 286 containers with more than 9000 tons of waste in 2006. The legal treatment of a container of 15 tons of dangerous waste costs around 60,000 euros; for the same quantity, the illegal market in the east only asks 5000 euros. The main destinations of this illegal traffic is a number of developing Asian countries; the exported materials are first worked on then reintroduced into Italy or other western countries as derivatives of the same waste, aimed particularly at factories producing plastics.

In June 1992, the Food and Agricultural Organisation announced that the developing countries, especially in Africa, had become the west's dustbin. Somalia seems today to be the African state most ‘at risk', a real crossroads for traffic and trade of this kind; in a recent report. The United Nations Environment Programme noted the constant increase in the number of polluted underground waters in Somalia, which is the cause of incurable diseases in the population. The port of Lagos in Nigeria is the most important stopping-off point for the illegal traffic in obsolete technological components sent to Africa.

Last May the Panafrican Parliament demanded compensation from the western countries for the damages provoked by the greenhouse effect and the dumping of waste on the African continent, two problems which, according to the African authorities, are the responsibility of the most industrialised countries.

Every year over the world, 20 to 50 millions tons of electronic junk is produced; in Europe, up to 11 millions of this produced, 80% of which is thrown away. It has been estimated that around 2008 there were around a billion computers (one for every six inhabitants); around 2015, there will be more than two billion. These figures represent a new and grave danger at the level of the elimination of the products of obsolete technology"[4]

As we said earlier, the report on the problem of waste being dumped on deprived regions also exists inside the same country. This is precisely the case in Campania, in Italy, which has hit the international headlines as a result of the piles of rubbish that have lain on the streets for months on end. But few know that Campania, like China, India or the northern African countries on the international level, is the receptacle for all the toxic waste from the northern industries, which has transformed fertile and pleasant agricultural regions, like Caserta, into some of the most polluted areas of the planet. Despite the various legal actions that have taken place, this massacre continues unabated. It is not the Camorra, the mafia, common criminals who are the ultimate cause of all this damage, but the logic of capitalism. Whereas the official procedure for properly eliminating a kilo of toxic waste can cost over 60 centimes, the same service costs around ten when illegal channels are used. Thus each year, each abandoned cave becomes an open rubbish tip. In a small village in Campania, where an incinerator is going to be built, these toxic materials, covered over with earth to hide them, have been used to build the foundations of a long boulevard of beaten earth. As Saviano says in his book, now quite a cult in Italy, "if the illegal waste managed by the Camorra was all put together, this would make a mountain 14,600 meters high, on a base of three hectares: the biggest mountain that had ever existed on Earth"[5].   

What's more, as we shall see in more detail in the next article, the problem of waste is above all linked to the kind of production that takes place in the present society. Apart from the idea of the ‘throw away' item, the problem often derives from the materials used to make things with. The use of synthetic materials, particularly plastics, which are practically indestructible, poses immense problems for tomorrow's humanity. And this time it's not about poor or rich countries because plastic is non-degradable in every country in the world, as this extract shows:

"Called the Trash Vortex, the island of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean, which has a diameter of nearly 25,000 km, a depth of 30 meters and which is composed 80% of plastic, the rest by other forms of waste arriving from all directions. It is as though there was a vast island in the middle of the Pacific, made up of rubbish instead of rock. In recent weeks, the density of this material has reached such a level that the total weight of this ‘island' of trash has reached 3.5 million tons, as explained by Chris Parry of the Californian Coastal Commission in San Francisco (...) This incredible and little-known island began to form in the 1950s, following the existence of the north Pacific subtropical gyre, a slow oceanic current which moves clockwise and spirally under the effect of a system of high pressure currents (...) the greater part of the plastic arrives from the continents, around 80%; the rest comes from boats, private commercial or fishing craft. Around the world around 100 billion kilos of plastic are produced a year, roughly 10% of which ends up in the sea. 70% of this ends up at the bottom of the ocean, causing huge damage to sea life. The rest carries on floating. The major part of this plastic is not very biodegradable and end up fragmenting into tiny grains which end up in the stomachs of many sea animals, resulting in death. What remains takes hundreds of years to decompose, meanwhile causing all sorts of damage to sea life".[6]    

A mass of rubbish which is two times the size of the USA! Has this only just been discovered? No, it was actually discovered in 1997 by an oceanographic research officer who was returning from a yacht race, and a UN report in 2006 "calculates that a million sea birds and more than 100,000 marine fish and mammals die each year as a result of plastic detritus, and that every square mile of the ocean contains at least 46,000 fragments of floating plastic".[7]  

But what has been done these past 10 years by those who hold the reins of society? Absolutely nothing! Similar situations, even if they are not quite so dramatic, also exist in the Mediterranean, where each year 6.5 million tons of detritus are hurled, 80% of it plastics; it is estimated that on the bottom of the Mediterranean there are around 2000 bits of plastic to every square kilometre.[8]

And yet solutions do exist. When plastic is made up of 85% of maize starch it is completely biodegradable, for example. This is already a reality today: bags, crayons and various other objects are being made out of this material. But under capitalism industry does not normally take a particular path if it is not profitable, and since plastic made from maize starch costs more, no one wants to pay the price for it because they risk losing their place on the market.[9]  The problem is that the capitalists are used to drawing up economic balance sheets which systematically exclude everything which can't be put in the profit or loss column, because that's something that can't be bought or sold, even if it's to do with the health of the population and the environment. Each time an industry produces a material which, at the end of its life, becomes waste, the expense involved in eliminating this waste is hardly ever taken into account, and what is never taken into account above all is the harm that the permanent nature of the material can do to the Earth.

We should note something else about rubbish: the resort to dumps or even incinerators represents a waste of energy values and of the useful materials contained in rubbish. It has been proved for example that producing materials like copper or aluminium on the basis of recycled material represents a reduction in the costs of production which can exceed 90%. As a result, in the peripheral countries, rubbish has become a real source of subsistence for the thousands of people who have left the countryside but who haven't managed to integrate themselves into the economic tissue of the cities. People sift through rubbish to se what can be sold:

"Veritable ‘rubbish dump cities' have appeared. In Africa, the Korogocho slum in Nairobi - which has been described many times by Father Zanotelli - and lesser known ones in Kigali in Rwanda or Zambia, where 90% of rubbish is not collected and just piles up in the streets, while the Olososua dump in Nigeria receives a thousand truckloads of rubbish every day. In Asia, near Manilla, Payatas in Quezon City is infamous: this slum inhabited by 25,000 people appeared on the slopes of a hill of trash, the ‘smoking mountain' where adults and children vie with each other to find stuff to re-sell. There is also Paradise Village, which is not a tourist village, but a slum which has arisen on a swamp, where floods are as regular as the monsoon rains. There is also Catmon Dumpsite, the dump on which a slum overhanging Paradise Village was built. In China, in Beijing, dumps are inhabited by thousands of people who recycle unauthorised waste, whereas India, with its metropolitan slums, is the country with the greatest density of people who ‘survive' thanks to rubbish".[10]

The spread of contamination 

Contaminants are substances, natural or synthetic, which are toxic for man and other living things. Alongside natural substances which have always been present on our planet and have been used in different ways by industrial technology, such as heavy metals, the chemical industry has produced tens of thousands of them and in...industrial quantities. Lack of knowledge about the dangers of a whole series of substances and, above all, the cynicism of capitalism, have provoked unimaginable disasters, creating an environmental situation which will be difficult to restore once the present ruling class has been eliminated.

One of the most catastrophic episodes in the chemical industry was without doubt Bhopal in India, which took place on 2-3 December 1984 in a factory owned by Union Carbide, an American multinational chemical company. A toxic cloud of 40 tons of pesticide killed at least 16,000 people, either straight away or over the next few years, and caused irreparable physical damage to a million others. Successive inquiries then revealed that, unlike the same kind of enterprise in Virginia, in Bhopal there was no effective measure of gauging pressure or of refrigeration. The cooling tower was temporarily closed and the safety systems were not adapted to the scale of the factory. The truth was that this was a factory in India, using cheap labour power, and for its American owners it was far more profitable to make the savings on fixed and variable capital...

Another historic event was what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986. "It has been estimated that the radioactive emissions of Reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl was around 200 times higher than the explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. In all, the zones that were most seriously affected in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were home to 9 million people. 30% of the territory of these zones was contaminated by caesium 137. In the three countries, around 400,000 people were evacuated, while 270,000 others live in areas where there are restrictions on the use of locally produced food"[11]

There are obviously numerous other environmental disasters resulting from the bad management of factories or from incidents like the innumerable black seas, such as the ones caused by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez on 24 March 1989. When it sank on the Alaskan coast, this led to a leak of at least 30,000 tons of oil; or again, the first Gulf War which ended with the burning of various oil wells and an ecological disaster resulting from the discharge of oil into the Persian Gulf, the most serious in history up to now. More generally, according to the US National Academy of Science, the quantity of hydrocarbons lost in the sea every year is around 3-4 million tons, with a tendency to get bigger, despite the various preventative interventions, as a result of the continuing increase in the demand for oil. 

As well as the action of contaminants, which at high doses have extremely toxic effects on the environment, there are also slower, more discrete forms of poisoning. A toxic substance absorbed slowly and in small doses, while it is chemically stable, can accumulate in the organs and tissues of living organisms, until they reach lethal levels of concentration. This is what in ecotoxicology is called bioaccumulation. There is also another mechanism through which a toxic substance is transmitted through the food chain from lower stages to the higher ones, each time increasing in concentration by two or three times. To be more explicit, we will refer to a concrete case which took place in 1953 in the bay of Minamata in Japan, inhabited by a community of poor fishermen who lived essentially from what they caught. Near this bay there was an industrial complex which produced acetaldehyde, a chemical composite which required the use of a product derived from mercury. The waste from this plant, dumped into the sea, was slightly contaminated by mercury, with a level of concentration of no more than 0.1 micrograms per litre of seawater, i.e. a concentration which, even with the much more sophisticated instruments available today, is still difficult to detect. What was the consequence of this apparently undetectable contamination? Forty-eight people died in a few days, 156 were severely poisoned with grave consequences and even the fishermen's cats, who had been fed on the remains of the fish, ended up ‘committing suicide' in the sea, a behaviour completely untypical for a feline. What had happened? The mercury present in the sea water had been absorbed and fixed by phytoplankton, was then taken up by zooplankton, then by small molluscs, then by small and medium fish, growing through the whole food chain in which the same contaminant, chemically indestructible, is transmitted to a new host at a growing concentration and inversely proportional to the relationship between the size of the predator and the mass of food ingested during its life. It was thus discovered that, among fishes, this metal had reached a concentration of 50mg per kilo, which represents a growth in concentration by a factor of 500,000. It was also discovered that in certain fishermen exhibiting the ‘Minamata syndrome' there had been an increase in the concentration of the metal in their organs and notably their hair to almost half a gram per kilo.

Although from the beginning of the 1960s the scientific world has been conscious of the fact that, in the matter of toxic substances, it's not good enough to use methods of dilution in nature because, as the above case shows, biological mechanisms are capable of concentrating what man dilutes, the chemical industry has continued to contaminate our planet without the excuse that they ‘didn't know this would happen'. Thus a second Minamata was produced more recently at Priolo (Sicily), where a layer of soil was poisoned over a distance of some square kilometres by at least five refineries. It turned out that Enichem was illegally discharging mercury from a factory producing chlorine and caustic soda. Between 1991 and 2001, around 1000 children were born with severe mental handicaps and serious malformations of the heart and the urogenital organs; entire families were stricken with tumours and many desperate women were forced to have abortions to avoid having the monstrous children they had conceived. And yet the Minamata episode had already shown all the danger that mercury represents to human health. Priolo was thus not an unforeseen event, a tragic error, but an act of banditry pure and simple, perpetuated by Italian capitalism and what's more by a ‘state capitalism' which some people like to present as being more ‘left wing' than private capitalism. In fact it was revealed that the bosses of Enichem had behaved like the worst ecomafia: to save on the costs of ‘decontamination' (we're talking about a saving of several million euros), the waste containing the mercury was mixed with other used water and thrown into the sea or buried. On top of this, by making false certificates, double-bottomed cisterns were used to camouflage this traffic in dangerous waste! When all this came out and the managers of this industry were arrested, Enichem's responsibility was so obvious that it decided to reimburse the affected families by 11000 euros, a figure equivalent to what it would have to pay if had been condemned by a court.

Alongside accidental sources of contamination, it's the whole society which, because of the way it functions, continuously produces contaminants which are accumulating in the air, water and soil and - as we have already said - in the whole biosphere, including in us humans. The massive use of detergents and other products have resulted in the phenomenon of the excessive enrichment of rivers, lakes and seas, In the 90s, the North Sea received 6000-11000 tone of lead, 22,000-28,000 of zinc, 4200 of chrome, 4000 of copper, 1450 of nickel, 530 of cadmium, 1.5 million tons of combined nitrogen and some 100,000 tons of phosphates. This waste, so rich in polluting material, is particularly dangerous in the seas which are characterised by the extent of their continental plate (i.e. they are not that deep), which is precisely the case with the North Sea, the Baltic, the south Adriatic and the Black Sea. In effect, the reduced mass of marine water combined with the difficulty of dense, salty sea water mixing with the soft water of rivers does not allow for an adequate dilution of contaminants.

Synthesised products like the famous insecticide DDT, which has been banned in the industrialised countries for 30 years, or PCBs (polychlorides of biphenyl) formerly used in the electrical industry, also banned from production because they no longer conform to current norms - all of them however based on a very strong chemical solidity - can today be found almost everywhere, unaltered, in water, soil and... in the tissue of living organisms. Thanks again to bioaccumulation, these materials are dangerously concentrated in a few animal species, leading to death or the disruption of reproduction, and thus to declining populations. It is in this context that we have to consider what was said earlier about the traffic in dangerous waste, which, often stored in ways that avoid any protection for their surrounding milieu, cause incalculable damage to the ecosystem and the human population.     

To finish this part - although we could add hundreds of other cases from all over the world - we also have to remember that it is precisely this diffuse contamination of the soil which is responsible for a new and dramatic phenomenon: the creation of dead zones, like for example in Italy in the triangle between Priolo, Mellili and Augusta in Sicily -  a zone where the percentage of babies with congenital malformations is 4 times higer than the national average, or again the other triangle of death near Naples between Giuliano, Qualiano and Villaricca, a zone where the number of cases of tumour is far higher than the national average.

The exhaustion of natural resources and/or the menace of pollution

The last example of global phenomena which are leading the world towards catastrophe is the one related to natural resources, which are in part being used up and in part are threatened by the problem of pollution. Before developing on this phenomenon in detail, we want to underline that problems of this kind have already been encountered by the human species on a more limited scale, and with disastrous consequences. If we are still here to talk about this, it's because only because the region concerned only represented a very small part of the Earth. We are going to cite extracts from a work by Jared Diamond, Collapse, which deals with the history of Rapa Nui, Easter Island, famous for its huge stone statues. We know that the island was discovered by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Day 1772 (hence its name), and it is now been scientifically proved that the island was "once covered in a thick subtropical forest, rich in huge trees and vine trees" and that it was also rich in birds and wild animals. But the impression given to the colonists on their arrival was very different:

"Roggeveen was puzzled to understand how the islanders had erected their statues. To quote his journal again, ‘The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment, because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, had nevertheless been able to erect such images (...) We originally, from a further distance, considered the said Easter Island as sandy, the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression that could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness'. What had happened to all the other trees that must have stood there?

Organising the carving, transport and erection of the statues required a complex populous society living in an environment rich enough to support it (...)

The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all its tree species extinct. Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields.

Raw materials lost or else available only in greatly decreased amounts consisted of everything made from native plants and birds, including wood, rope, bark to manufacture bark cloth, and feathers. Lack of large timber and transport brought an end to the transport and erection of statues, and also to the construction of seagoing canoes."

"Deforestation must have begun some time after human arrival by AD900, and must have been completed by 1722, when Roggeveen arrived and saw no trees over 10 feet tall (...) All this suggests that forest clearance began soon after human arrival, reached its peak around 1400, and was virtually complete by dates that varied locally between the early 1400s and the 1600s (...) Clearance of the palms led to massive erosion (...) Other damages to soil that resulted from deforestation and reduced crop yields included desiccation and nutrient leaching. Farmers found themselves without most of the wild plant leaves, fruit, and twigs that they had been using as compost (...)

In place of their former sources of wild meat, islanders turned to the largest hitherto unused source available to them: humans, whose bones became common not only in proper burials but also (cracked to extract the marrow) in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was ‘the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth' (...)

The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalisation, international trade, jet planes and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter's dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future".

These extracts quoted in full from Diamond's book alert us to the fact that the capacity of Earth's ecosystem is not unlimited and that, as was shown at a given moment on the limited scale of Easter island, something similar could re-occur in the near future if humanity does not learn how to administer its resources in an adequate manner.

In fact, we can make an immediate parallel at the level of deforestation, which has been a reality from the times of the primitive community to today, but which is now developing to the point where the last green lungs of the planet like the Amazon forest are being destroyed. As we know, the maintenance of these green zones is extremely important, not only to preserve a series of animal and plant species, but also to ensure the right balance between CO² and oxygen (vegetation develops by consuming CO² and so produces glucose and oxygen). As we have already seen with regard to mercury poisoning, the bourgeoisie knows very well the risks involved, as we can see from the noble intervention of the 19th century scientist Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius, who expressed himself very clearly on the problem of energy and resources, well over a century before all the current discourse about the preservation of the environment: "In the economy of a nation, there is a law that is always valid: you must not consume during a given period more than has been produced during the same period. We should thus not burn more wood than is possible to reproduce through the growth of trees"[12].

But if you look at what is happening today, we can say that the precise opposite of what Clausius recommended in being done, and that we are heading in the same fatal direction as Easter Island.

To examine the problem of resources adequately, we also have to take into account another basic variable , which is the variation of the world population:

"Up till 1600, the growth of the world population was so slow that the increase was about 2-3% per century: it took 16 centuries to go from the 250 million inhabitants at the beginning of the Christian era to around 500 million. From that moment, the time taken for the population to double continued to diminish to the point where today, in certain countries, it is close to the so-called ‘biological limit' in the speed of population growth (3-4% a year). According to the UN, we will go past 8 billion inhabitants around 2025...We should consider the notable differences that exist today between the advanced countries, which have almost arrived at zero growth and the developing countries which contribute to 90% of the present demographic growth (...) In 2025, according to UN predictions, Nigeria, for example, will have a larger population than the USA and Africa will outnumber Europe three times. Overpopulation, combined with backwardness, illiteracy and the lack of facilities for hygiene and health certainly represent a very grave problem, and not only for Africa, because of the inevitable consequences of such a phenomenon on a world scale. There seems in fact to be an imbalance between supply and demand of available resources, which is also due to the using of around 80% of world energy resources by the industrialised countries.

Overpopulation brings a strong fall in living conditions because it diminishes productivity per worker and the availability per head of food, drinking water, health services and medicine, The strong pressure from human populations today is leading to the degradation of the environment and will have inevitable repercussions of the balance of Earth's ecology.     

The imbalance of recent years is increasing: the population is not only continuing to grow in a non-homogeneous way but is also becoming more and more dense in the urban zones"[13].

As we can see from this information, the growth in the world's population can only exacerbate the problem of the exhaustion of resources, all the more because, as this document shows, the problem of a lack of resources is more strongly felt in places where the demographic explosion is at its height, which heralds increasing calamities for a growing part of the world's population.

Let's begin by examining the first natural resource par excellence, water, a universal necessity which is today very clearly under threat from the irresponsible action of capitalism.

Water is a substance which is found in abundance on the surface of the earth (not to speak of the oceans, the Polar icecaps and underground waters), but only a small part of it is drinkable - the water found in underground springs and some non-polluted water courses. The development of industrial activity, without any respect for the environment, and the very widespread dispersal of urban waste has polluted a very important part of the underground water levels which are the natural reservoirs of drinking water, This has led on the one hand to various cancers and pathologies among the population, and the rapid diminution of the sources of such a precious material.

"By the mid 21st century, according to the most pessimistic predictions, 7 billion people in 60 countries will not have enough water. If things turn out for the best, however, there will ‘only' be two billion people in 48 countries suffering from lack of water (...) But the most worrying facts in the UN document are probably those about the deaths from polluted water and the bad conditions of hygiene: 2.2 million a year. What's more, water is the vector for numerous diseases, among them malaria which kills around a million people every year".[14]

The British scientific review New Scientist, drawing the conclusions from the symposium on water in Stockholm in the summer of 2004, wrote that "in the past, tens of millions of wells have been dug, most of them without any controls, and the quantities of water extracted from them by powerful electric pumps are far superior to the rain waters which feed underground water levels (...) Pumping water allows many countries to have abundant rice harvests and sugar cane (crops which need a good deal of water to grow, ed.), but the boom is not destined to last...India is the epicentre of the revolution in prospecting for underground water. By using the technology of oil industry, small farmers have sunk 21 billion wells in their fields and the number is growing by about a million a year (...) In China, in the northern plains, where there is the largest amount of agricultural production, each year the cultivators extract 30 cubic km of water in addition to what is derived from rainwater (...) In the last decade, Vietnam has multiplied the number of wells by four (...) In the Punjab, the region of Pakistan which produces 90% of the country's food resource, the underground levels are beginning to dry up"[15].

While the situation in general is grave, in the so-called emerging countries like India and China the situation is already close to disaster

"the drought which reigns in the province of Sechuan and Chongking has led to economic losses, at least 9.9 billion yuan, and to restrictions on drinking water for over 10 million people, while in the nation as a whole there are at least 18 million people who lack water"[16].

"China has been hit by terrible floods in recent years, affecting 60 million people in central and southern China, resulting in at least 350 deaths and direct economic losses which have already reached 7.4 billion yuan; 200,000 houses destroyed or damaged; 528,000 hectares of agricultural land destroyed and 1.8 million submerged. At the same time, desertification is increasing rapidly, involving a fifth of the land area and provoking dust storms which reach as far as Japan (...) While central and southern China is hit by floods, in the north the desert continues to advance, now covering a fifth of the land along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, on the high plateau of Qinghai-Tibet and part of Inner Mongolia and Gansu.

The population of China represents around 20% of the world population, but it only has around 7% f the cultivable land.

According to Wang Tao, a member of the Chinese Academy of Science in Lanzhou, the deserts of China have increased by 950 square km a year over the last decade, Each spring time, the sand storms hit Beijing and the whole of northern China and reach as far as South Korea and Japan".[17]

All this has to make us reflect on the much vaunted power of Chinese capitalism. In reality, the recent development of the Chinese economy, rather than revitalising senile world capitalism, is a perfect expression of the horror of its death throes with its cities devastated by smog (hardly hidden for the last Olympic Games), its drying up water courses and its factories where working conditions are frightful and lack any rules of basic safety.

There are may other resources that are running out. To finish this first article, we will only look briefly at two of them.

The first is oil. As we know, there has been talk of dwindling oil reserves since the 1970s, but it does seem that in 2008 we really are reaching a peak in oil production, the so-called Hubbert peak, i.e. the moment when we will have exhausted and consumed half of the natural resources of oil estimated by the various geological prospectors. Oil today represents around 40% of basic energy and around 90% of the energy used for transport; its applications are equally important in the chemical industry, particularly in the fabrication of fertilisers for agriculture, plastics, glue and varnish, lubricants and detergents. All this is possible because oil has constituted a low cost and seemingly unlimited resource. The change in this outlook has already led to an increase in prices, obliging the capitalist world to turn towards less onerous substitutes. But once again, the recommendation by Clausius not to consume in one generation more than nature is capable of reproducing has had no echo and the capitalist world has thrown itself into a mad race to consume energy, with countries like China and India to the fore, burning everything that can be burned, going back to toxic fossil carbon to produce energy and generating unprecedented pollution all around them.

Naturally, even the recourse to the miracle solution of biofuels has already had its day and has shown all its inadequacy. Producing combustibles from the alcoholic fermentation of maize or oily vegetable products not only does not make it possible to meet the current market for combustibles, but above all has helped increase the price of food, which results in famine for the poorest populations. Those who have drawn benefit from this, once again, are the capitalist enterprises, like the food companies who have switched to biofuels. But for mere mortals, this means that vast areas of forest are being cut down to make way for biofuel plantations (millions and millions or hectares). The production of biofuels demands the use of large stretches of land, To get an idea of the problem, it's enough to think that a hectare of land growing colza or sunflower, or other semi-oleaginous plants, produces around 100litres of biofuel, which could keep a car going for around 10,00 kilometres. If we assume for the sake of argument that on average the cars of one country travel 10,000km a year, each car would consume all the biofuel produced by a hectare of land, That means that for a country like Italy, where there are 34 million cars, to obtain all the fuel needed through agriculture, you would need a cultivatable surface of 34 million hectares. If we added to the cars around 4 million trucks, which have bigger engines, the consumption would double, and would demand a surface area of 70 million hectares, which would correspond to a land surface almost double the Italian peninsula, including its mountains, cities, etc.

Although it's not talked about to the same degree, an analogous problem to the one with combustible fuels is posed with other mineral resources, for example the ones used to extract metals, It is true that, in this case, metal is not destroyed by use as is the case with oil or methane gas, but the negligence of capitalist production ends up spreading huge quantities of wasted metal over the surface of the earth, which means that sooner or later the supply of metals will also be exhausted. The use, among other things, of certain alloys and multi-stratified metals makes the eventual recovery of the ‘pure' material all the more difficult.

The breadth of the problem is revealed by estimates according to which in the space of a few decades, the following resources will be exhausted: uranium, platinum, gold, silver, cobalt, lead, magnesium, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, tin, tungsten and zinc. These are materials which are practically indispensable for modern industry and their scarcity will weigh heavily in the near future. But there are other materials which are not inexhaustible: it has been calculated that there are still available (in the sense that it is economically feasible to extract them) 30 million tons of iron, 220 million tons of copper, 85 million tons of zinc. To have an idea of these quantities, you need to think that to take the poorest countries to the level of the advanced ones, they would need 30 billion tons of iron, 500 millions of copper, 300 of zinc: that is to say, far more than the planet Earth has to offer.

Faced with this approaching catastrophe, it has to be asked whether progress and development must inevitably go together with pollution and the disruption of the planet's ecosystem. We have to ask whether such disasters have to be put down to poor education of human beings or something else. This is what we shall see in the next article.

Ezechiele (August 2008).


[1] The version published on the internet is slightly longer than the one published in the printed version of the Review. Cuts are marked by (....)

[2](G Barone et al, ‘Il metano e il futuro del clima', in Biologi italiani, no 8, 2005).

[3] G. Pellegri, Terzo mondo, nueva pattumiera creata dal buonismo tecnologico 

[4] Vivere di rifiuti, http:/www.scuolevi-net:

[5] Roberto Saviano, Gomorra, Viaggio nell'impero economico e nel sogno di dominio della camorra, Arnoldo Montaldi, 2006.

[6] La Republica online, 29.10.07

[7] In the USA alone, more than 100 billion plastic bags are used, and 1.9 billion tons of oil are needed to produce them; most of them end up being thrown away and take years to decompose. American production of around 10 billion plastic bags requires around 15 million trees to be cut down

[8] See the article Mediterraneo, un mare di plastica, in La Republica, 19.7.07.

[9] It's quite possible that the dizzying price rises in oil which we've been seeing since the end of last year will provoke a discussion about the use of this raw material in the production of non-biodegradable synthetics, leading to the conversion to the ecological faith of these vigilant entrepreneurs - vigilant about safeguarding their own interests. 

[10] R. Troisi : la discarica del mondo luogo di miseria e di speranza nel ventunesimo secolo.

[11] See the article : ‘Alcuni effetti collaterali dell'industria, La chimica, la diga e il nucleare'.

[12] RJE Clausius (1885). Clausius was born in Koslin (in Prussia, now Poland) in 1822 and died in Bonn in 1888.

[13] Associazione Italiana Insegnanti Geografia, La crescita della popolazione

[14] G. Carchella, Acqua : l'oro blu del terzo millenario, ‘Lettera 22, associazione indipendente di giornalisti'

[15] ‘Asian Farmers sucking the continent dry', New Scientist, 28.8.04

[16]Cina : oltre 10 milioni di persone assetate dalla siccità', Asia News,

[17]La Cina stretta tra le inondazioni e il deserto che avanza', 18/08/2006, in Asia News.