If anyone still held the misguided view that capitalism can be made to work in a way that safeguards the environment and the people’s health, the recent scandal surrounding German car producer Volkswagen (VW) should provide a timely wake up call.
It was recently revealed by the California Air Resources Board that VW has been deliberately producing diesel cars that cheat the emissions test. The cars have been fitted with special software that detects whether the vehicle is undergoing a test – in which case, it turns on an emissions-reducing device. If no test is detected – ie, if the car is simply being used on the road – the vehicles actually pump out up to forty times the permitted amount of nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2, short: NOx).
From initial estimates of half a million affected cars in the US, the number of confirmed cases globally has already surpassed 11 million. Following the US Environment Protection Agency, environment ministers in VW’s European heartlands of Germany and Austria have now also rejected the company’s proposal of a voluntary repairs programme and ordered a mandatory recall of all affected vehicles.
Why should we care?
NOx reacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to create harmful substances such as nitric acid and ozone. In humans, these substances can lead to serious lung problems, causing or worsening various respiratory diseases. These chemicals are, of course, also not good for the planet’s flora and fauna, or for the environment generally.
With countless thousands of cars clogging up the streets of our towns and cities, we should be worried (and angry!) that a large number of them have turned out to be churning out even more poison than previously thought.
Considering that environmental groups have long suspected other car manufacturers of similar scam techniques to those that employed by VW, it is more than likely that these revelations are merely the tip of the iceberg. We are paying dearly with our health for the profits of the monopoly capitalists.
Furthermore, recent tests on various small diesel cars have found that actual emissions in road use vary dramatically from official tests. Some are even pumping out as many toxic fumes as heavy goods vehicles!
As a species, we cannot but have a vital interest in preserving the environment we depend upon for life. The system of capitalist production, however, has its own, altogether different, logic. If there are fat profits to be made from ignoring rules about poisoning the earth’s atmosphere, ways will be found to break the rules. This will be the case even when the very future of humanity’s existence is at stake.
At the end of the day, the VW scandal is just one more incident in the age-old story of capitalists circumventing regulatory laws, whether they be hard-fought safeguards at work or environmental standards adopted as a result of of public pressure.
Such is the insanity of the present system.
Profits and vested interests
The fact that such motivations are built into the fabric of the present system explains why it is that these problems, whose solutions are well known to us, appear to be so very difficult to solve. So long as the production of the necessities of life is governed by the profit motive, the unpleasant side-effects of capitalism – poverty, disease, discrimination, war and environmental degradation – cannot be reformed away.
After decades of bitter experience, it should now be obvious to all that the multinational corporations and the billionaires who control them will always put profit before safeguarding the environment and people’s health. To do otherwise would be to lose out in the battle of competition and face oblivion through bankruptcy.
This monopoly capitalist class rules our society and dictates its terms to governments. The energy monopolies that have cornered the supplies of fossil fuels are a dominant part of that class and put heavy pressure on governments to hinder the development of clean energy. Unless and until they smells a good profit, they will not seriously invest in advancing new technology for providing pollution-free energy and transport, simply because it will have some long-term benefit for humanity.
Saving the planet tomorrow is no compensation for going out of business today, and the ruthless law of competition means that capitalists not only have to make a profit, but must constantly strive to make the maximum profit or be driven out of business by their more cut-throat rivals.
Just look at the cynicism that a society based upon the law of value creates: in an article in the Financial Times, which blamed technological shortcomings rather than human decisions on the polluting practices of VW, an analyst was quoted as saying: “VW engineers must have been striving for a ‘happy medium’ between meeting US emissions standards and achieving reasonable fuel consumption for the company’s diesel cars. ‘The way they were able to find that medium was through a computer programme that changed the way the cars operated between emissions testing and regular driving,’ he adds.”
How can anyone describe the practice of cheating tests and knowingly pumping out dangerous levels of toxic emissions so as to make more money while marketing one’s cars as ‘fuel efficient’ a ‘happy medium’?
This senseless state of affairs is bound to continue – and even to grow worse – while capitalist production remains. Our only salvation lies in replacing it with a sane, planned, socialist system, where production is carried out to meet people’ needs; where the need for daily mass transportation is removed by the simple expedient of giving people work where they live or homes where they work; where all essential services (including transport) are comprehensive and public; and where the need to preserve a habitable environment for ourselves and our children can finally be given the highest priority in all decision-making.