Capitalism, Energy Production and the Environment

An introduction to a Socialist Viewpoint discussion

By Bonnie Weinstein

The earthquake and resultant tsunami that took out the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan on March 11, 2011, has inspired a new discussion among the environmental movement, including the socialist left. Not just about the safety of nuclear energy, but the safety of all energy production under capitalism. The capitalist mode of production-for-profit has always taken priority over the health and safety of people and the planet. The ruling class has shown time and again, and as you will see in the excerpts from the New York Times below, that safety is sacrificed for profit, even at nuclear power plants.

As socialists, we do offer solutions to these problems and have contributions to make to this discussion. At the same time, we know that these problems will continue and multiply as long as the capitalist profit motive is allowed to persist.

In this issue we present a selection of articles representing current trends of thought in this ongoing discussion of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries and their impact on the planet. We hope this discussion will shed some light on the “bottom line,” i.e., capitalism’s gotta go!

Some background

In a New York Times article dated April 26, 2011 by Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson titled, “Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant:”

“In 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American nuclear inspector who had done work for General Electric at Daiichi, told Japan’s main nuclear regulator about a cracked steam dryer that he believed was being concealed. If exposed, the revelations could have forced the operator, Tokyo Electric Power, to do what utilities least want to do: undertake costly repairs. ...Just as in any Japanese village, the like-minded—nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists—have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial and regulatory support. The few openly skeptical of nuclear power’s safety become village outcasts, losing out on promotions and backing.”

And in another Times article dated May 7, 2011 by Tom Zeller Jr. titled, “Nuclear Agency Is Criticized as Too Close to Its Industry:”

“In the fall of 2007, workers at the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois were using a wire brush to clean a badly corroded steel pipe—one in a series that circulate cooling water to essential emergency equipment—when something unexpected happened: the brush poked through.

“The resulting leak caused a 12-day shutdown of the two reactors for repairs.

“The plant’s owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick—less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness—would be good enough.

“Though no radioactive material was released, safety experts say that if enough pipes had ruptured during a reactor accident, the result could easily have been a nuclear catastrophe at a plant just 100 miles west of Chicago.

“Exelon’s risky decisions occurred under the noses of on-site inspectors from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No documented inspection of the pipes was made by anyone from the N.R.C. for at least the eight years preceding the leak, and the agency also failed to notice that Exelon kept lowering the acceptable standard, according to a subsequent investigation by the commission’s inspector general.

“Exelon’s penalty? A reprimand for two low-level violations—a tepid response all too common at the N.R.C., said George A. Mulley Jr., a former investigator with the inspector general’s office who led the Byron inquiry.”

Clearly, the safety of nuclear energy production under capitalism takes a back seat to the pursuit of profits.

Nuclear, fossil and renewable energy

While this discussion focuses primarily on nuclear energy, the safety of fossil fuel extraction—fracking1, mountaintop removal, traditional coal mining; oil drilling—especially deep water drilling—and their related energy production methods are also called into question.

Also under discussion is whether or not alternative, renewable energy resources can produce the quantity of energy necessary for a modern, industrial society that includes supplying energy to all those who currently have no access to electricity or running water—let alone things like mass transportation and the Internet. And certainly, insuring energy and safety in industrial production is a monumental task requiring a profound motivation by masses of people to make it so.

As Marxists—as international socialists and humanitarians—we at Socialist Viewpoint realize that centuries of capitalism have made a mess of everything. Those who accumulate huge sums of private profits from the ownership and sale of energy extraction and all production—have very little incentive to do anything that cuts into their profits, including shelling out the extra expense for safety inspections and repairs.

In fact, according to a May 5, 2011 article, “AFL-CIO Report: 4,340 Workers Killed on the Job in 2009:”

“The AFL-CIO’s latest annual study, ‘Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,’ says 4,340 workers died on the job in 2009, an average of 12 per-day, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but due to underreporting, the true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 8 million to 12 million job injuries and illnesses each year, according to the AFL-CIO.”2

Death and injury to workers on the job in all industry is routine. In particular, the nuclear industry’s repeated failure to heed warnings of safety violations reported by workers shows how the commanders of industry cover-up and lie about safety violations as a matter of course anywhere there’s a profit to be had!

But we can be optimistic. Because today the responsibility of the very survival of the planet has been placed directly into the able hands of the world’s working class.

Workers know best

The logical way to insure that safety violations are constantly addressed and monitored is to remove the incentive to skip them, i.e., to remove the profit motive. In other words, to nationalize the whole industry and put it under the democratic control of the workers and experts who operate it; and to run it for the benefit of all who need it while putting safety first. (Part of this discussion is whether or not nuclear energy can be made safe—even under worker’s control.)

It is indisputable that in every environmental disaster related to energy production in recent years, it has been shown that workers have warned management of everything from methane gas build-up in the coal mines; to cracks in the walls of nuclear containment vessels and leaks in their pipes; to the crumbling of a critical gasket that was a crucial part of the blow-out preventer on the Deep Water Horizon rig in the BP Gulf Oil disaster. (The crumbled gasket, called an annular, was reported to management at the time it happened, four weeks before the disaster, by Mike Williams, a rig-worker who was holding the broken and crumbled pieces of rubber in his hands. “According to Williams, when parts of the annular start coming up on the deck someone from Transocean says, ‘Look, don’t worry about it.’” Luckily, Williams survived the explosion to tell his story.)3

It is capitalist industries’ modus operandi to put profits before people and worse, not only to disregard the health and safety warnings of workers on the job, but to use working people as cannon fodder in their wars to increase their power and control over potential new profits and the resources needed to extract, process and create them.

They not only wage war against working people, but also, against each other, in their race to the top of the economic pile! Can there be any doubt that the commanders of U.S. capital are in a fierce battle to firmly plant themselves at the very top and above the proverbial world economic pyramid—at any cost?

And what do we working people get to say about it? We do the actual work. In fact, if it was up to us, we could do the work much more safely and efficiently. In fact, if it were up to us alone, we could, instead of giving all our profits back to the boss, use those profits to put safety first, cut working hours for everyone while maintaining the same rate of pay, and to hire the unemployed.

By removing the private ownership of the means of production, including energy production—and by ending the private accumulation of wealth from the profits of that labor—not only could we put safety and efficiency first, we could concentrate on producing things that people need and want, eliminating wasteful production of inferior goods and overproduction.

Who are the “deciders” and who should be “the deciders?”

What chance do we working people get to make democratic decisions about the things that impact our lives? We don’t vote on war; or how much to tax the rich; or how much to bail out the corporations; or on home foreclosures; or money for education or healthcare; or whether to build more jails than schools; or whether workers can go out on strike in support of workers in other jobs or industries; or how much we should get paid; or how much the boss should get paid; or whether he/she should even be the boss!

We workers have no say in any of the most important aspects our lives—not on or off the job; not in our schools; not at the ballot box!

All these things are decided by the wealthy, and the lawyers they hire to write the laws that will benefit them AND control us—with the full backing of both military and police might!

Socialist Viewpoint’s view is that it is with utmost urgency that, although capitalism still exists, we must demand that all energy production be nationalized and placed under the democratic control of the working class and our allies who are committed to health and safety first—at the expense of capitalist profits! We demand that capitalist industry sacrifice profits—not people and the environment!

Privately owned corporations do not have the right to take our air, water, oil and other minerals and natural resources—the bounty of the Earth—as their own private property!

Socialists profoundly believe that all life on Earth has the right to share fully in the bounty the Earth provides.

This requires rational planning based upon the collective needs and wants of all, and not for the private accumulation of wealth for the very few.

Neither energy production, or any production under the capitalist profit motive, can be safe. It will take the complete overthrow of capitalism by a democratically organized, worker-controlled, revolutionary socialist movement to rid the world of the vast environmental crises that capitalist production and wars for private-profit inevitably create.

Democracy and the world in turmoil

We present this dialogue on energy and the environment under capitalism as an example of the type of discussion working people could and should be having on a world scale under a society democratically organized in the best interests of all.

These are the decisions we working people must begin to collectively and democratically make if we have any hope of repairing the environmental damage that capitalism has already done. Let alone, to prevent even worse catastrophes sure to come as long as capitalism continues.

We present the following articles for your information, education and consideration and welcome serious contributions to this and other topics presented in Socialist Viewpoint.

We reserve the right to select those articles that we feel will bring better understanding for the urgent need of a democratically organized, working class-led, world socialist revolution firmly placing us on the road to a truly humane and equitable society.

1Fracking (also often referred to as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking) is a process in which a fluid is injected at high pressure into oil or methane gas deposits to fracture the rock above and release the liquid or gas below. The process and its aftermath has generated controversy because of harm to drinking water and health where it has been used, in Colorado and New Mexico, and more recently in expanded drilling plans in the Marcellus Shale in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other mid-Atlantic states.


3From the TV program, “60 Minutes,” as quoted in The Daily KOS