This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
About This Issue
In this issue we have two articles and one play dealing with occupational and environmental issues and their interconnection.
The article “Seveso: Zona Infestata” by Paolo Strigini and Annamaria Torriani-Gorini describes the reasons behind last year’s explosion at the chemical factory near Seveso, Italy, and the effects of the disaster on local residents. It seems clear from the article that the multinational corporation controlling the chemical plant had little regard, except where profits were concerned, for the way their product was made, possible harmful effects on the factory workers and potential damage to the surrounding community.
Phyllis Lehmann in her article describes how some U.S. companies are trying to forestall action on certain industrial jobs that use chemicals and materials known to be unsafe. Though the effect of these chemicals is most apparent on unborn children, the extent of dam-age to men and nonpregnant women is yet to be deter-mined. Rather than make the workplace safe for everyone and prevent possible damage to the surrounding environment, which would strain profit margins intolerably, the owners and managers find it more expedient to require sterilization from women seeking these jobs, or even bar women from the jobs entirely.
Finally, our own SftP play “Laboratory!” is set in an industrial laboratory where employees find that they can no longer tolerate creating and making ecologically destructive products and organize to control how they work and what they produce.
These articles raise important questions for discus-sion here and in future dialogues. First, it seems clear that industrial corporations cannot deal with matters other than in terms of short-term profits. These short-term gains for a limited group of investors are made at the expense of workers and local residents and damage the long-term interests of everyone.
Further, it seems clear that while occupational and environmental disasters at Italian chemical plants, North American lead smelters, or Japanese factories are isolated examples at present, the full story has yet to be told. That is, new instances of damage are continually being attributed to a chemical, drug, pesticide or industrial process formerly thought to be safe (or never tested). Corporation profits come out of a debt to the natural and social environment, and requiring corporations to repay this debt by cleaning up their act would put them out of business.1 Business pleads layoffs and federal inspectors lessen or ignore existing occupational and environmental standards, because a capitalist economy cannot accomodate the large numbers of workers that would be out of jobs.
The course of action that will become more and more reasonable, even essential, as the situation grows intolerable, is for people to institute socialism—the common ownership and social governance of the means of production.
What kind of socialism? This depends of course on the particular country and situation. It is unlikely, though, that worker ownership and control of a developed industrial economy would significantly improve the workplace or environment if present capitalist levels of production and consumption are maintained. We can use the example of the Seveso plant in Italy to illustrate this point.
In the not-totally-remote possibility that workers seize power and institute a people’s government in Italy in the next five or fifteen years, how much could be changed? In a world of unlimited resources and without the international capitalist market economy (in which socialist countries now participate), workers could halt production, carefully analyze environmental and occupational hazards, discard badly designed, badly built or antiquated plant and machinery, and design and build new factories for human needs rather than profits.
In the real world, however, evaluation skills and techniques are often primitive, technical personnel scarce, and building materials and natural resources limited. If the people’s government decided that Seveso or any of the similar factories in northern Italy produced a socially essential product, life would be little changed for the workers and local residents. Workplace conditions would perhaps even deteriorate (as in the case of Cuba in the early 60’s), with needed parts blocked by international economic sanctions and machinery untended due to a flight of trained personnel. China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Tanzania and other socialist countries have faced this dilemma of industrial development, workplace hazards and environmental pollution in different ways and with different degrees of success. We encourage discussion on what approaches would be appropriate for an advanced industrial economy in a world of limited resources.
Hunger and famine have been with us throughout history. Recently, however, a global “food shortage” has supposedly come to threaten the earth’s population—especially the third world nations—with massive starvation. Overpopulation is usually given as the primary cause of situation: people in poor nations have so many children that there is simply not enough food to go around. Modern agricultural techniques, we are told, will help alleviate hunger, but cannot end it. The simp-lest solution is to have fewer children. Offering the “population explosion” as the cause of hunger has led directly to massive birth control and sterilization pro-grams for third world people.
Two new books show that hunger is not caused by overpopulation. Food First by Lappe and Collins and How the Other Half Dies by Susan George, reviewed together in this issue by the Boston SftP Food and Nutrition Group, argue that there is enough food to feed everyone. Instead, the problem is one of distribution. The books document how a few wealthy individuals and multinational corporations control the world’s land and agricultural resources, while the poor are steadily losing access to their already small holdings. Among the rich there is never a food shortage. Hunger is not a “scientific” problem that can be solved by agricultural technology or population control methods. Rather, it is an economic and political problem that can only be solved by a redistribution of power and re-sources away from the rich in favor of the world’s poor.
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In the last year we have published a number of articles challenging the ideas of biological determinism. We believe that these theories that seek biological bases for human social behavior represent a political attempt under the guise of “objective” science to justify the stat-us quo. The Ann Arbor chapter of SftP has recently published a book, Biology as a Social Weapon, that de-tails how scientific theories can be used to legitimate the existing social order and undermine any movements to-wards social change. In this issue we present an excerpt from Richard Lewontin’s introduction to the book. He has concisely outlined the general framework of biological determinist ideology -its function and its fallacy and provides a philosophical foundation from which to criticize biological theories of human nature.