Life in a Greenhouse

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Mike Wunsch

AS THE SUMMER of 1988 sweltered on, it was hard not to think about the greenhouse effect. Crops lay dying in the fields. Transportation on the Mississippi River stopped when water levels dropped too low for shipping. Cities began rationing water. Air pollution levels soared. And water-starved states turned greedy eyes to the Great Lakes. “The Greenhouse Effect” became the major media event of the summer of 1988.

Scientists continue to debate whether the drought as caused by the greenhouse effect. Yet it dramatically illustrated what global warming could bring. Coming after a decade including the four hottest years of the last century,(1) the drought forced industry and government to take notice.”

At a conference in Toronto on “The Changing Atmosphere” last July, the prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, spoke: “For too long … we have been playing lethal games with vital life-support systems. Time has come to start the process of change.” But is capitalism capable of change? Is the greenhouse effect just a technological problem, or is it rooted in the structure of modern capitalism?

This article will explore the social and political consequences of the greenhouse effect; capitalism’s causative role and its ability to respond; and the implications of the greenhouse effect for future socialist societies.

Building a Greenhouse

The greenhouse effect gets its name from the common greenhouse. Sunlight passes through the glass to warm the soil and plants within. The heat these reradiate is trapped by the glass of the greenhouse, and the temperature inside rises.

The global greenhouse effect is a similar process. Greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide and water, but also methane, nitrogen oxides, and others – absorb heat, warming the atmosphere near the earth’s surface. As the concentration of these gases increases, so will the temperature of the planet.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been increasing at least since the early 19th century. Forest destruction was the main cause of this prior to 1950. The industrial revolution and the expansion of railroads made virgin forest accessible for clearing for agriculture.

Deforestation – particularly slash and bum agriculture, which releases carbon directly into the atmosphere -still remains a cause of the greenhouse effect. But today burning fossil fuels makes the major contribution – from 55% to 85% of carbon dioxide released into atmosphere.(2) And the problem is increasing. Carbon dioxide emissions would have to be cut 60% just to slow the warming trend to recent historical rates of 0.2 degrees per decade(3) (all temperatures Fahrenheit).

But fossil fuel is projected to play an even larger role in the future; many forecasts predict a quadrupling of energy usage from 1980 to 2025. This will double the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, warming the planet three to eight degrees before the middle of the next century. To put this in perspective, it took only a seven-degree warming of the planet to end the last ice age; in the last 1000 years temperature averages have not varied by more than two degrees.

Still, not all of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere remains there. About 50% is absorbed by the biosphere and rocks. The greenhouse effect is not the necessary result of burning fossil fuels; it is the result of the rate at which they are being burned.

Boy, Is It Hot in Here!

The worldwide economic, political and social consequences of the greenhouse effect will be staggering, radically altering every aspect of human life.

Computer models4 and examination of previous warm periods in earth history indicate what the climate might look in fifty years. Changes will not be uniform; there will be large regional variations. Models project a 2% increase in relative humidity and a 7% increase in average rainfall, both unevenly distributed.

Tropical temperatures will likely change little; middle latitudes could warm four to six degrees, and the poles warm as much as twenty degrees. This could be extremely serious, for this difference produces ocean current, wind and climate patterns.

The high latitude zone (65-80 degrees North), including the northern parts of Sweden, Norway: Finland the Soviet Union and Canada, as well as Alas and Iceland, should be most affected: Maximum warming will occur in the continental interiors, warming six degrees by the end of this century. North America could warm two to four degrees in the same period. As the tropics creep north, longer and warmer summers might bring plagues to northern forests and disease to people and livestock. The pattern will not be uniform, however Japan, India, Turkey and others might actually cool as ocean current and wind patterns change.

Changing rainfall patterns could be even more significant than temperature change. Mexico, Canada, Western Australia, the Middle East, North and East Africa should benefit from greater rainfalls. Flooding could become even more deadly from India’s monsoon rains. The United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, Scandinavia and West Africa are likely to become much drier, rainfall declining by an expected 40% in the corn and wheat belts of the American West.(5) The evaporation of the Great Lakes might leave Midwestern cities high and dry.

The greenhouse might also thin the ozone layer, permitting more ultraviolet (UV) radiation to get through to the earth’s surface, increasing skin cancer, damaging the human immune system and retarding plant growth. A 15% decrease in the ozone layer, possible by 2050, will cause $2.6 billion (1982 dollars) of crop losses per year in the United States alone. More ominously, increased UV-B seriously affects metabolism of plankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.

Agriculture will be profoundly affected. Much farming might be forced out of the middle latitudes, migrating north into acidic soils reducing crop yields. North America may produce significantly less grain. Every two-degree change in temperature reduces com yields by 11%. Wheat, particularly susceptible to extremes of hot and cold, will be a prime victim.

A reduction in North American wheat yields of only 10% will eliminate the U.S.-Canadian surplus. On the other hand, rice might benefit from global warning. However, large–scale shortages and famine in some countries could occur before the world “retools” to take advantage of what will be better conditions for growing rice.

The greenhouse effect may make itself felt long before any significant change in temperature or rainfall patterns through wild local and regional climate fluctuations. This past summer’s heat wave and drought were seen by many as the first sure sign. “The greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now,” declared climatologist James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in an interview last June.

These erratic climate patterns pose a major threat to world agriculture. Agribusiness has developed monoculture crops “tuned” to local conditions, dependent on big doses of pesticides and fertilizers. These fragile ecosystems could collapse under new strain.

Global warming will raise sea levels, a nine-degree warming bringing ocean levels up about three feet Such a temperature increase could melt the West Ant­ arctic ice sheet, raising sea levels sixteen feet within a few decades, with staggering implications, threatening every coastal area and city on earth.

Capitalism to the Rescue?

Can the greenhouse effect be stopped? Some warming is inevitable because of gases already released. Can we remove the causes of future warming?

Capitalism’s record has not been good. The problem is this: pollution may be removed either before or after it enters the environment. If removed before, the particular polluter bears the entire cost; if after, the costs are spread over society as a whole. Industry has continually attempted to increases profits by shifting the costs of cleanup onto the public and other capitalists.

Relatively non-polluting capitalist sectors, such as banking, real estate, and insurance, periodically resist paying for the cleanup. These strata were closely tied to the developing ecology movement of the late sixties. Though a multitude of small, locally rooted radical groups remained on the fringes of the new environmentalism, its organizational center rested in a handful of major foundations and litigation groups with strong ties for multinational finance. The most aggressive groups – such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense council – have boards of directors dominated by international lawyers and leading business figures and receive funding from major foundations.

Companies located in the same region or within the same industry are affected by pollution controls differently. In the desire to get an edge on their competition, even major polluters have, on occasion, supported environmental legislation. The Southern Railway stopped a competing barge company’s dam project by claiming the dam would destroy the only known habitat of the snail darter, a small fish.

Eastern coal companies, with a low sulfur product, have used clean-air requirements to undermine Western competitors. And clean-air legislation was in part financed by the makers of catalytic converters.(6)

But environmental legislation has proved fragile. In the face of international competition and profit squeeze, no sector of U.S. capital can afford environmental cleanup. And in a frail and interdependent economy, no sector can be forced to bear the costs without potentially harming the economic health of others.

Nor has government been willing to fund a cleanup. The Reagan administration refused to enforce existing legislation and rejected new legislation. Over Reagan’s first term, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget was reduced 35%, enforcement against strip-mine violations declined 62%, hazardous waste prosecutions declined 50%, and Federal Drug Administration enforcement declined 88%.

Exposure limits on hazardous chemicals were greatly raised. ‘Emergency exemptions’ for pesticide use more than tripled; in 1982 better than 97% of requests were approved by the EPA.(7) And “protected” resources – Federal forest lands, offshore oil and gas rights, grazing land, coal mining rights – were sold cheap.

If solving local pollution problems seems tough, global problems have proved impossible. For years Canada has sought an agreement on acid rain. Yet today, U.S. air pollution still kills Canadian forests. The thirty-four nation agreement to reduce fluorochlorocarbon (FCC) emissions 35%-50% by 1999, to protect the ozone layer, was much touted as the first truly multinational attempt to control global pollution. Yet, the EPA esti­mates that emissions would have to be cut 85% just to stabilize FCCs at current levels.(8)

Half-Baked Capitalism

Conversion of the world economy from fossil fuels to other energy sources would be the largest task ever consciously undertaken by humanity, involving fundamental changes in industry, transportation, and resource exploitation. Such changes would be daunting under the best circumstances. The serious divisions of interest within capitalism and the fiercely competitive global economy make the difficulties even more insurmountable.

National efforts to implement pollution controls threaten to put capitalist producers at a disadvantage compared to foreign competitors. Even if international capitalism recognized the need to fight pollution, the relative mix of industries and uneven global development would stop them. Underdeveloped countries might resist global environmental agreements that they feel unfairly stop them from modernizing. Countries that rely, for instance, on coal, might feel that international agreements disproportionately harm their economies.

Some of the same factors work at the national level. In the United States major capitalist sectors will attempt to stop the greenhouse effect. These include: farming, agribusiness, fishing, lumber and paper, who exploit renewable organic resources; real estate, tourism, and interests heavily invested in coastal regions, the Southwest, and Great Plains; portions of the service sector – banking, insurance, media, the various “yuppie professions”; and the nuclear-power industry, which wants to substitute for fossil fuels.

Lined up in the other comer will be much of American smokestack industry, the auto industry (and the multitude of machine shops, job shops, and retail businesses around it), utility companies heavily invested in coal and oil technologies, oil companies, the chemical industry and those sectors of finance capital intimately connected with these layers.

Thus, a major intra-class battle is shaping up over the greenhouse effect. Which side will “win” and what the victory will look like is by no means determined. But the battle is complicated by several factors.

First, moves toward mass transit would undermine the financial health of the auto and oil industries, now central to the U.S. economy. Such a policy would throw the economic and political structures of the country into turmoil. American capitalism cannot begin to deal with the greenhouse effect without restructuring itself and the economy.

Second, multinational corporations use the threat of relocation to the Third World as a powerful weapon against pollution standards in the West. And even if Third World governments are inclined to enact pollution standards, they are greatly limited by their dependent relationship with imperialist powers.

Meanwhile, in the Third World …

Destruction of rain-forest and other timber land has perhaps been the major Third World contribution to the greenhouse effect. This destruction is unlikely to be stopped without restructuring the relationship between the Third World and the industrialized West.

Third World social structures underwrite forest destruction. Without a large domestic market, without adequate infrastructure, forced to compete with cheap foreign goods, Third World capitalists have never developed as a truly independent class. Unable to sell their goods locally, they have sought niches in the world economy. Despite some export-oriented industry, the financial base of Third World capitalism remains in raw materials and agriculture.

Multilateral and foreign bank loans and foreign aid have enabled Third World countries to expand railroads, roads and ports, opening their interiors. Third World capitalists and multinational corporations have then expropriated subsistence-farming peasants, converting the land to export crops and ranching. The work provided by these farms is at best seasonal and provides few jobs, resulting in vast numbers of people forced off their land with no prospect for long-term employment.

The debt crisis, and the concern of lending institutions that loans be paid back, has pushed Third World economies to become more dependent on export agriculture. Ever more people are being forced off the land.

Deprived en masse of land and income, the expropriated peasantry clears forests for farm land and wood for sale in the cities as fuel. Forests are also being leveled by companies eager for profits and governments desperate for foreign exchange. In the Third World up to 120,000 square kilometers are cleared every year.(9) Within a few years the poor soil of these cleared lands is exhausted and the peasantry is pushed further into the jungles in a continual cycle of slash-and-bum agriculture.

Thus rain-forest destruction is not just misguided policy; it is an outgrowth of the relationship of the First and Third Worlds in the world market. It will not be stopped without first ending that exploitative relationship.

To make matters worse, Third World industrialization also raises energy consumption and greenhouse-gas production. With energy consumption growing 5% a year, and oil prices rising as reserves are depleted, the Third World will likely tum to coal. Experts expect Third World coal use is estimated to triple by century’s end, and of all fossil fuels coal releases the greatest concentrations of greenhouse gases.(10)

Third World cooperation in reversing the green­ house effect cannot be assumed. Much of the Third World is located in areas where the impact of increased carbon dioxide may be negligible or advantageous. Many current drought-stricken areas might receive sufficient rainfall to become grain exporters. We can, therefore, expect considerable resistance to any effort by the industrialized world to stop deforestation or limit energy use.

The Working Masses

Mass working-class movements could build the political and social power to force environmentalism on the capitalist class or to remove that class entirely. Ecological concerns can be imposed on the capitalist class regardless of how they perceive their interests in the world market To what degree will working people become organized? Under what banner? And in what time frame?

Awareness of environmental issues is increasing due to the activities of environmental groups, the mass media and the direct impact of pollution on people’s lives and livelihoods. Awareness will continue to deepen as pollution affects people’s lives and as money from concerned layers of capital pours into mainstream environmental groups. People are becoming easier to organize, as is shown by the burgeoning growth of Green organizations and networks within the United States.

The activities of environmental lobbying groups are easy to follow. But much of the ecology movement has developed independently, around a plethora of local issues. Kentucky mining communities have fought strip mining. In Wisconsin local groups have opposed plans to site a high-level nuclear waste dump. Innumerable communities and workplaces have struggled against toxic-waste dumps, workplace hazards and water pollution. The environmental mobilization includes unions, peace groups, community organizations, churches and schools. It is beginning to spread throughout American society.

Attempts are being made to overcome organizational fragmentation and provide national coherence. For example, some 1500 people attended the first national Green Gathering last summer, with over 150 groups in the National Green Committees of Correspondence.

Polls repeatedly show: the movement to protect the environment is broadly supported. But its continued growth faces many obstacles. In many cases the damage has been done long before people notice its effects, thus long before people can mobilize to stop it. The planet will warm considerably regardless of what is done today, the result of past decisions. Still, as Three Mile Island showed, once aware, people can mobilize quickly.

Conversion to an environmentally sustainable industrialization will cause tremendous social upheaval, including lost jobs and radically changed life styles, for example, a shift to mass transit. Many people will resist these changes. In these circumstances, large numbers of people could be organized to oppose the ecological movement.

Finally, movements within capitalism are often deflected or co-opted. People becoming environmentally aware have often turned first to government agencies. It takes time and bitter experience before they realize these agencies are more concerned with managing the exploitation of resources than with protecting the environment.

Mainstream environmental groups with corporate funding make analyses and advocate reforms that do not challenge capitalist structures. While they agitate about the environment on a scale the left could not achieve, they foster the illusion that ignorance, not capitalism, is the root of the problem. Educate wayward industrialists and they will mend their ways as so many of their class already have. Even within the Green movement revolutionaries with a class-conscious orientation face reformers of capitalism.

This division and the prominence of mainstream groups have reinforced the view of many socialists that the movement is just the latest ”middle-class” fad. This ignores the fact that pollution crosses class boundaries, and that the subordinated classes in the cities bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation.

Margaret FitzSimmons and Robert Gottlieb state:

“(The] crisis of the industrial environment was crucial to the emergence of the socialist and progressive movements of the turn of the century. Struggles over the conditions of urban living – over healthy food, clean water, safe housing, decent education, protection of the home and of children – paralleled the conflicts at the workplace. To survive in this urban/industrial society the working-class victims of industrialization tried to create their own spaces, to create meaning in a bleak environment.”(11)

The decisive political battles in the U.S. ecology movement are yet to be fought. The various political tendencies (Left Greens, Deep Ecologists, etc.) are just beginning to gel. Class-conscious socialists can have an enormous impact on the future development and political direction of the environmental movement.

Ecological Socialism

It appears, then, that capitalism will not be able to transcend its fragmented social and economic structures to halt the greenhouse. Are the Soviet Union and other post-capitalist countries better?

With a few notable exceptions, like Nicaragua, these governments’ environmental record is even worse than that of the developed West. Their policies have emphasized rapid economic growth and the development of heavy industry. As in capitalist countries, pollution controls are not necessary to industrial production. Environmental protection is regarded as a luxury, absorbing resources which otherwise could be used for new factories, buildings and roads.

Bureaucratic centralization contributes to the ecological damage. The faltering economy increases the pressure to produce at any cost. Bureaucrats busily looking out for “number one” hoard resources, labor power and information, ignoring long-run and collective needs. Facing economic and political pressure from abroad and discontent at home, bureaucratic elites are intent on maintaining privilege and power: Environmental stewardship plays no part in their calculation.

Despite this dismal record, planned economies offer hope for the future. Democratic, not bureaucratic, planned economies could rationally allocate resources between different energy and industrial alternatives to minimize the impact on our environment Democratic planning would ensure that neither the interests of bureaucratic elites nor the demands of capitalist profitability would determine environmental policy. Still, the ecological damage that is occurring must drastically alter our perception of what a future socialist society might look like.

Marx had a vision of a communist world where scarcity had ended, money had disappeared, and the dictum “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” governed the course of society. Yet Marx wrote in a period when the population of the earth was one-fourth of what it is today, and the resources of the planet seemed inexhaustible. Changing times require a change in our vision.

A society with plenty for all will require an enormous development of productive forces in industry, agriculture and transportation. Is such a level of development possible?

Even in an advanced industrialized society like the United States it will require enormous resources to eliminate scarcity. Many, if not most, of these resources could be obtained by a more rational use of what we already have – by redirecting military and other government spending to meet social needs, by eliminating much of the waste inherent in capitalist production and markets, by conservation, etc. Whatever could not be obtained in this fashion would have to be obtained through in­ creased use of the planet’s resources.

Yet anyone who believes that scarcity can be truly eliminated on a world scale has not considered the astronomical resources involved. The countries of the developed West have raped the planet of its resources simply to obtain their current living standards. But Europe and North America have only one-fifth of the world’s population. What of the 3 billion Asians, 500 million Africans and 2.50 million South Americans? Where will the resources come from to raise their living standards?

Let’s take a look at the resources required to raise the diet standards of the Third World to that of the imperialist powers. The United States alone imports a third of the shellfish and a quarter of the fresh and frozen fish available on the world market. The fish harvest will have to more than double to bring the rest of the population up to this level of consumption. Yet “many marine biologists now feel that the global catch of table-grade fish is very close to the maximum sustainable level.”(12)

In the United States, fully one-half of the harvested acreage goes to feeding livestock. In addition, 40% of our land, or about 750 million acres, is used for grazing and range.(13) The U.S., therefore, devotes 1.4 million square miles to raising livestock to feed 220 million people. For the rest of the world to eat as much meat as we do, assuming the same level of productivity per acre as in the United States, one-half of the land mass of the planet would have to be used for meat production.(14)

This is not to condemn the world’s population to starvation. There is certainly enough land to raise grains to feed everyone, even if, as expected, the population doubles in thirty years. There are more efficient ways to raise livestock than the methods currently practiced by American agribusiness. And there is no need for anyone to eat as much meat as the average American does. Consumer habits do change. But the point is clear-we do not have enough resources to produce whatever we want.

Society will have to make choices between what to produce and what not to produce. Scarcity may be alleviated by resource conservation, by more rational production priorities and by the development of more efficient technologies, but it will continue to exist Even if we were to assume that the resources were available, that there were enough coal, iron, gas, tin, land to raise cattle and grain, etc., the ecology of the planet probably could not sustain such levels of production.

Ultimately, new technologies might reduce pollution to tolerable levels, but that does not seem to be the case for the foreseeable future. Instead of a means of providing abundance, socialism will be a method of managing scarcity.

This scarcity will likely become more severe as time goes on, for while capitalism is laying the social and technical foundations for socialism, it is busily destroying its resource base. While non-renewable mineral resources are being squandered, the threat to organic re­ sources has become much more severe.

The toll is appalling: At the current rate of pollution, according to a University of Wisconsin study, there will be nothing that can be done to make Great Lakes’ water drinkable within ten years. We are exceeding the oceans’ capacity to absorb our waste – the fallout includes Texas shellfish beds that have been closed eighteen times in the last year-and-a-half due to pollution.

Thirty-five percent of Louisiana’s oyster beds have had to be closed. Two hundred red tides occur annually in Japan’s Inland Sea alone. A single red tide last year killed more than a million yellowtail. The Scandinavian fishing industry was severely crippled when millions of sea trout and salmon were killed by an algae bloom last spring. A million fluke and flounder were killed in oxygen-poor water in Raritan Bay, New Jersey, at the beginning of the summer.(15)

The destruction of organic resources on land is proceeding just as rapidly. There are 378,000 waste sites in the United States alone that may require cleanup.(16) Aquifers are rapidly being used up at the same time as ground water is becoming too polluted to use.

An estimated 14.8 million acres of new desert are formed every year due to land overuse. Considerably more land every year becomes poisoned due to salts deposited from irrigation, or the overuse of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. Every year 27.2 million acres of tropical forests are irretrievably destroyed. Fully 20% of the species on the planet are expected to become extinct in the next twenty years.(17)

The greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, fouling of both the oceans and our fresh water supplies, pesticide and fertilizer pollution, toxic wastes, and rain, deforestation and desertification through land misuse are combining to destroy the renewable resources of the planet Our vision of a new and better society retreats further from us with every year that capitalism continues to exist.

In socialism promises to redistribute the pie, it promises to be a much smaller pie than we currently have. Future socialist societies will have to devote vast social resources to clean up the garbage of capitalism and to convert the economy to one not based on hydrocarbons for energy. Industries will have to be retooled to take into account all the costs of production to society, and it may be decided that some goods carry social and environmental costs too great to justify their production.

With proper management the resource base of the planet can be reconstructed. The mass of humanity is not condemned to squalor and starvation. Democratically planned and controlled economies are capable of providing comfortable living standards and a high quality of life for all.

Back from the Brink

Solutions do exist; pollution can be reduced to tolerable levels; the planet is capable of recovering. If we grow more forests instead of destroying them, if we burn fossil fuels at a rate that carbon dioxide can be absorbed by the ecosystem, if we put scrubbers on our smokestacks and develop cleaner forms of transportation, the greenhouse effect can be stopped. More efficient use of energy, non-polluting alternative energy sources and recycling are all options that are immediately on the table. We have the ability to choose our future climate and environment.

Today the signs of impending ecological collapse are appearing all around us. World capitalism has repeatedly shown itself incapable of dealing with the crisis. The chances of the capitalist class doing an about face and embarking on an environmental cleanup program that would wipe many of them out seems remote. The choice before us has become clear: socialism or extinction.


  1. Sharon Begley, Mark Miller and Mary Hager, “The Endless Summer?” Newsweek, July 11, 1988.
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  2. All figures, unless otherwise noted, are taken from John Gribben, Carbon Dioxide, the Climate and Man (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1981).
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  3. Begley, etc.
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  4. Computer modelling of climatic changes should be approached with some degree of caution. The models are notoriously simplistic. They are based on rough prediction of energy consumption and methods of power generation. They make simplifying assumptions regarding temperature differentials, energy circulation between the poles and the equator, changing cloud cover, and perhaps most seriously, no current model deals accurately with the oceans. With these shortcomings in mind, however, computer models remain the best tool available for studying climatic change.
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  5. Begley, etc.
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  6. Begley, etc. 72.
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  7. Begley, etc. 131.
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  8. Mary Hager, Dorothy Wang and Sharon Begley, “A Gaping Hole in the Sky,” Newsweek, July 11, 1988.
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  9. Gribben.
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  10. Gribben.
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  11. Margaret FitzSimmom and Robert Gottlieb, “A New Environmental Politics,” Reshaping the U.S. Left (New York: Verso, 1988) 116.
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  12. Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971) 4 and 76.
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  13. Lappe, 12 and 20.
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  14. Figures culled from Information Please Almanac 1982 (New York: Simon and Schuster) and The World Almanac 1983 (New York: Newspaper Enterprise Association).
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  15. Anastasia Toufexia, “The Dirty Seas,” Time, Aug. 1, 1988.
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  16. Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986) 132.
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  17. Lester R. Brown and Christopher Flavin, “The Earth’s Vital Signs,” State of the World: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988) 6.
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July-August 1989, ATC 21

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