Capitalists vs Koalas: The struggle to save our forests
Written by: Leo A. on 11 April 2023
(Photo: Matt Hrkac Koala funeral march, St. Kilda, 2021 Source Wikimedia CC BY 2.0)
Land clearing has been a key threat to Australia’s ecosystems for decades, but in recent years this environmental crisis has become harder to ignore. Even small measures aimed at protecting our natural environment quickly turn into uphill battles.
In late January, the NSW government was harshly criticized for refusing to back a proposed koala national park in New South Wales, which would cover 3000 square kilometres. For comparison, that’s a bit less than one-quarter of the land area of Sydney. Despite what one may assume, the Koala’s iconic status and adorable appearance have not been enough to prevent its distressing situation. Independents brought attention to the fact that the now-endangered species has been “completely undermined” by government policy, particularly due to land clearing, and if it weren’t for protests and other on-the-ground action in recent years, the situation would be even more dire.
The destruction of forested areas in capitalist states has been a topic of discussion among Marxists for quite some time. For example, in a discussion about a socialist planned economy, Stalin described how “in capitalism the cities must gobble up the countryside”, in the process both explaining what was already apparent in his time and predicting that it would continue. Sure enough, this trend can easily be consistently observed across Australia and across the rest of the world. In the period from 1990 to 2014 alone, urban sprawl nearly doubled with a 95% increase, and Australia was noted as having a particularly high contribution to this on a per capita level.
You may think that some kind of official agreement exists in order to ensure that no at-risk species are put in further danger by this. In reality such agreements are ineffective. A popular tactic that’s been embraced in recent years is “biodiversity offsetting”. When you cut through the technical jargon designed to sugarcoat it, the policy essentially just designates parts of an ecosystem that can be cut down based on the belief that this can be “offset” by designating parts of an ecosystem that won’t be destroyed. The first problem with this policy should be fairly obvious. The area targeted for clearing could easily contain species that are specific to that one area.
“But we can move them to the protected area”, I hear you say. Well, how can we know they’ll survive in the new area? For that matter, how can we even confidently say that we know what threatened species are in the target area in the first place?
There are already many examples of species that human activity wiped out before they were even discovered. And, say we can bypass this problem, prove with environmental DNA or something similar that there’s truly nothing hiding in the target area that we don’t know about and that the species we do know about will handle the new area fine. This policy still inevitably means less and less habitat for the species involved, which is bad for quite a number of reasons. Some species require large individual habitat ranges. Most species require a large enough environment to sustain a high population in order to maintain a healthy gene pool. And even if an isolated remnant of an ecosystem can somehow work, it’s still far more at risk of being destroyed by localised events such as fires and floods. In nature it is incredibly rare for a fire, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster to single-handedly wipe out a species, but what happens when that species is restricted to a tiny area within the region affected by said disaster? Biodiversity offsetting is just an overcomplicated, impractical “solution” to a problem that could easily be solved if the habitats involved were simply left alone in the first place. So it’s a pretty clear example of what environmental policy looks like under capitalism.
Communists support the immediate demands arising from environmental struggles across the country. These can reduce the carnage. Habitat of koalas and other endangered animals must be protected and extended immediately.
Of course, it’s one thing to criticise capitalist policy, but in order to show that this is a solvable problem and not just some inevitable development, we can look to how natural forest environments have been treated under Marxism-Leninism. The USSR provides a significant example. The Soviet Union in the 1940s went about protecting from exploitation more forested land than any other country in history. The Stalin Administration’s policies withdrew millions of hectares of forest from economic exploitation, and these lands were left more or less untouched. These environmental policies also codified into law the fact that that healthy land was forested land and that deforestation was not only undesirable but represented serious environmental dangers (1). And keep in mind, the Soviet Union’s population density and population growth rate were all greater at this time than Australia’s is now, so what was possible there and then should also be possible here in the future. As for here and now, our environmental efforts – while still incredibly important – will have to be smaller in scope. It is unfortunate that such inspirational examples of Marxist-Leninist environmentalism are so rarely discussed nowadays.
The longer capitalism drives the overgrowth of urban areas at the expense of our forests, the more likely it is that the Koala and similar species will be driven to extinction. And this could happen surprisingly soon – in 2020 a year-long inquiry concluded that the Koala could disappear from New South Wales entirely by 2050. But with enough effort we, the Australian people, can force changes that buy as much time for these environments as they need to survive this era of our history. And the fact this challenge can eventually be fully overcome under socialist leadership, should hopefully provide a glimmer of hope for the future.
(1) For a detailed explanation, see Stephen Brain’s Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism 1905-1953, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
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