It is just too easy to blame industrialism and economic development as such for the problem of global warming. This reactionary stance is irresponsibly spread by organisations and individuals of various political leanings and has often leaked into the ranks of left-wing or progressive organisations, especially by means of the jargon of the anti-globalisation movement. Among several anti-globalisation theoreticians, the Gospel of Zero Growth or even negative growth has become quite fashionable.
Basically, they propose to stop the development of the productive forces and possibly also to destroy some of them - incidentally, we would note that this is what capitalism usually does through wars in order to limit the overproduction of capital.
This insane idea has been criticised several times by the Marxist tendency. In a brilliant article titled "Sustainable de-growth": a reactionary utopia, comrade Jérôme Métellus explained:
«[...] pollution and other risks connected to the energy industry depend, not on "growth", but on the basic mechanisms of capitalism. As a consequence, they will not disappear as long as this system itself is not overturned. Only rational and democratic planning of the economy and energy resources will allow for a reconciliation between the development of the productive apparatus and the ecological equilibrium of the planet. [...] Far from reducing production, a socialist organisation of society will result in the liberation of productive forces from the fetters of a capitalism in full decline.»
Jérôme clearly demonstrates in his article that the theoretical grandfather of all those theories against economic growth and development is the petty-bourgeois utopian Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, accused by Marx of dreaming of rolling back the wheel of history.
De-growth gurus like Professor Serge Latouche are always favourably cited by reformist leaders like Fausto Bertinotti (ex-leader and hijacker of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party). Unfortunately, what sounds very smart and "post-modern" in the clean and aseptic halls of La Sorbonne, has a very poor taste in a "Third-World" slum, where economic growth is a vital need, or even in a working-class neighbourhood in the Parisian banlieues where survival for the proletarians depends on capitalism "continuously revolutionising itself" (in the words of the Communist Manifesto).
This little problem is of course recognised by the proponents of stagnation or de-growth, who are all very wise and intelligent men and women, and it is replied to with a score of subtle variants of the anti-growth theories, some of them limiting the need to stop the economy only to physical goods (but energy and physical inputs are consumed in the production of any good, physical or immaterial), some others implying different de-growth patterns for advanced and underdeveloped countries.
In the last analysis, this is just Malthusianism or a revival of the unscientific and discredited "findings" of the Club of Rome in 1972 (The Limits to Growth) when this group of academics and incompetent economists proclaimed the non-sustainability of unlimited economic growth in the face of limited resources, predicting an early end to world economic growth because an intrinsic ceiling would be reached. All these theories do not address the real point, which is what kind of economic development we need and how this depends on production relations and their legal mirror image - property relations. What is unsustainable is the profit-driven economy (growing, stagnating or receding), not mass production and consumption in itself.
The productivity of labour can compensate for the limitedness of resources, as happened, for instance, with food. The following graph shows the constant growth of food production per capita in the last half century:
Hunger has clearly a different explanation than Rev. Malthus thought.
A sense of proportion is also needed when we have this kind of discussion. Accelerated development of the productive forces in the last few centuries had a profound progressive content and for the first time in history made poverty and exploitation unnecessary. Of course, capitalist development in itself does not abolish poverty and exploitation (this task belongs to the international socialist revolution), and in relative terms it could be argued that capitalism actually intensifies them.
Ecological sensitiveness, forest conservation (implemented for the first time by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution), care for animal welfare, understanding and accounting of the effect of our action on the planet... all these steps forward in human interaction with nature are only possible as a by-product of economic, social and scientific advancement.
Neglect of human impact on nature has been around for the whole history of civilisation. Only primitive communist societies, like those in prehistoric times, as well as North American natives or some tribal African communities, display a certain respect for the environment. Nevertheless, also in that case it is mostly of a ritual and symbolic character, for example, ceremonies to thank the spirits of wild animals for providing meat or to apologise to them for the need to hunt game.
It is debatable whether industrialism actually extended the scope of human destruction of nature to a qualitatively higher level, like some moralistic environmentalists want us to believe. Of course, the growth of the world population on a planet dominated by capitalism has multiplied the potential for "human-caused" damage to the environment, but that would only be a partial view of things. Inefficient and ecologically unsound and non-sustainable practices also existed in the past. If more than 6,600 million of us all lived like our ancestors did, there is no guarantee that our "ecological footprint" would be much smaller - but our life expectancy certainly would.
An example is the extinction of natural species. This is not a recent phenomenon at all. On the contrary, what are new are the recognition of the problem and the concept of biodiversity.
Human societies caused the extinction of hundreds of species long before the industrial age, just by hunting, farming and transforming the natural habitats in many ways. Elephant birds are an example. These gigantic 3-metre tall birds lived in Madagascar and were completely wiped out by the actions of the island's human population before contact with the Europeans was established.
More to the point: urban human societies have always used non-renewable raw materials in a way that harms the environment. Also oil was used, to make tar for lighting and insulation, although the consumption of fossil fuel was clearly much lower than it is today. Wood was collected and burned in a way that implied the destruction of forests and the release of significant amounts of CO2. That was no problem for the atmosphere because of the tiny world population, but it did have nasty hydro-geological side effects at times.
Also today, underdeveloped societies are not an ecological model, quite the opposite. It's been calculated that in the so-called "Third World" two billion people cook in primitive ways or using inefficient stoves, resulting in huge consumption of wood and therefore significant carbon-dioxide emissions (though they are still giving only a small contribution in comparison with industrial activities). According to Mr Vijay Modi, an engineer at Columbia University, a Third World family of five could easily save one ton of wood every year just by using newer (and more expensive) stoves (10 Fixes for the Planet, by Anne Underwood, Newsweek, ibid.). We have already mentioned the huge impoverished population of the Niger Delta: the irrational and inefficient usage of fuel there makes the Delta the highest single contributor to greenhouse gases in the world.
Frugal, traditional life styles are clearly not a way out.