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Labor and the environment

By Haines Brown <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>, 31 August 2003

There is an old debate over the conflict between labor’s interests and those of environmentalists. It corresponds, I believe, to the debate between the interests of less developed nations and already advanced capitalist economies. In simple terms it refers to the contradiction between economic development and the environment.

I’m unable to offer a developed analysis of this problem, but would here like to make a few comments at least on the parameters of the debate.

Perhaps the fundamental point from which everything else must proceed is that human activities are constrained by the laws of physics. Without developing the argument here, it is broadly assumed that each level of existence emerges from some prior level to form a hierarchy that goes back to the originating point, which is the world of quantum mechanics at the time of the cosmological Big Bang. We may not much like the implications, but there are very real objective constraints on what we can and cannot do. It is not that our behavior reduces to physical laws, but that human behavior, which is surely unique and distinctive, is nevertheless unable to violate those laws.

One of these natural constraints is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There is simply no way that we can avoid that law. It says, for example, that human development is necessarily purchased through an increase in the entropy of our environment. This entropy increase we can translate simply as environmental deterioration.

A counter-argument has sometimes been put forward that the problem here is with the word development, and the alternative to environmental crisis is stasis. That is, if the average standard of living remains constant (which need not imply the continued misery of the majority if it is accompanied by redistribution), and population stays constant, and if we substitute renewable resources for non-renewable ones, then there should be no further damage to the environment.

The difficulty here is that human society is a far-from-equilibrium system that must process energy just to maintain its stability. Another way to put it is that human society is contradictory (in relation to the environment, even without class contradictions), and so must innovate and rebuild itself just to maintain its existing state. This is a big topic, but it is my impression that that the stasis argument faces some pretty powerful objections from thermodyamics and systems theory.

It would seem, then, that as long as there is human society living on earth, that we face inevitable environmental deterioration. However, this should not obscure very important short-term courses of action to delay that final outcome and make life more bearable in the short run. I’d like to discuss these short term issues first.

Short term issues

There is plenty of evidence that we bear inefficiencies that are enormously wasteful. For example, the distribution of population into suburban wastelands is not only unhealthy, but greatly increases the costs of travel from home to work. The manner in which we heat the space in which we live and work, our choice of foods, of packaging that is subservient to commodity competition, and many other things are clearly wasteful. I won’t tarry here longer, for I believe most people would agree that our lifestyle is an important part of the problem. We must address it, even if it only delays the final reckoning.

However, less developed regions naturally object that the imposition of limits on production or requirements on behalf of the environment are far easier for advanced capitalist nations to endure than less developed economies. Generally, it seems that an effort to accelerate economic development in order to catch up to world standards entails a high level of environmental destruction, relative inefficiency, and significant social costs.

However, I suspect that in principle, an advanced capitalist economy, even if it were efficient and responsive to environmental concerns, is on the whole far more destructive than a less developed economy. Part of the reason is that of scale. While a particular unit of production may carry limited environmental burden, an aggregate of many such units would have a greater net cost. Furthermore, our measure of efficiency cannot be couched in narrowly economic terms, but must include the whole system, such as associated social costs and the energy dissipated.

Finally, complicating things is that we are increasingly talking about a global economy in which advanced capitalist regions tend to offer services, while basic industries are exported to areas where labor costs are reduced. Does the environmental impact of a sweatshop in Mexico using U.S. capital to produce cheap clothing for the U.S. market represent the impact of the Mexican economy or that of the U.S.? If an advanced economy provides capital, managerial talent, and markets for goods produced in backward economies, it makes no sense to treat both as quasi-independent economies, for they are actually aspects of one larger economic system.

A major reason why the export of manufacturing jobs makes sense is the relative impoverishment of much of the world that is an effect of the economic development and political hegemony of the leading capitalist nations.

In the environment vs. jobs debate, the imposition of constraints on production should not be expected to reduce the global volume of production, although it might well encourage the movement of units production to where environmental constraints are less onerous or where labor is cheaper. For workers in advanced capitalist economies, this is a very real concern. ,/p>

But I believe it also short sighted. In principle, constraints imposed for the sake of the environment do not reduce aggregate employment so much as the form of employment. The total number of employed workers remains much the same, although what they are doing is different.

However, any rapid change in form that occurs within a person’s lifetime represents a real threat to those trained in an area that is being made obsolete. On the other hand, if there were linkages between policies which encourage the flight of jobs to social insurance and retraining programs, then most people would be less troubled. In other words, the environment vs. jobs debate is really more a political one than economic. An investment in retraining represent one of the costs associated with a policy leading to the export of jobs. This shifts the contest to one between capital and labor.

The argument so far is that the short term problems arising from the relation of environmental damage and economic development are ones that can be addressed politically. Without the power to bend politics in the interest of labor, complaining about the export of jobs because of environmental laws is whistling into the wind. Fighting environmental regulations might be politically easier (because it may win the support of some bosses), but the real need is for laws that promote social justice, such as those mentioned.

The long range problem

The long range problem, however, remains, which is that human life as we know it entails an environmental dissipation that ultimately reaches the point where life is no longer sustainable.

In this long range view, the environmental problem in principle comes down to one thing: how to dissipate heat from the earth. I’ll leave it to those versed in physics to figure out if we can radiate heat into space at an increasing pace indefinitely. However, the short term problems represent a much more immediate threat, and if we don’t handle them wisely, we’ll never find out if such a radiator could be built.

Haines Brown