North & South, Ecology and Justice, Part 2

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero (Second of 3 parts)

Beyond sustainable development

Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission and the documents that came out of the Earth Summit did not question the basic assumptions of Western-style development, it merely offered some policy safeguards and technological fixes. According to Chatterjee and Finger, “none of the (Earth Summit) documents displays any new or original way of looking at environmental and developmental issues”. One of the strongest critiques in this respect was “Whose Common Future?”, a 1993 document written by the staff of the UK-based The Ecologist magazine.

By the 1990s it was becoming increasingly evident that the economic systems of so-called developed nations are inherently unsustainable, given that they are based on never-ending cycles of growth in supply and demand, which in turn require a correspondingly ever-increasing use of natural resources. Inevitably this leads to a quest to secure unlimited and unrestricted access to such resources abroad, not only causing environmental destruction but also infringing on those other countries’ right to development. In other words, sustainable development is not enough, the whole development endeavor must be put into question if a global catastrophe is to be averted.

Wolfgang Sachs sums it up thus: “The Western development model is fundamentally at odds with both the quest for justice among the world’s people and the aspiration to reconcile humanity and nature”, and sustainable development is no more than “the assimilation of environmental concerns into the rhetoric, dynamics and power structures of developmentalism”.

These insights are especially relevant and timely in light of the rise of the emerging economies. Leading these are the BRICS countries, which have 40% of the world’s population, and according to Goldman Sachs reports they will surpass the G-7 to become the global economy’s leading powers by 2050. Goldman Sachs has similar forecasts for the so-called Next Eleven emerging markets, which include South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt.

The ecological implications of the emerging countries’ growth ambitions should be cause of great concern. The industrialization of Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries was achieved in a planet whose natural resources and ecosystems were practically virgin and unexploited. But we are in a very different world now. To demonstrate this point, three references will do. First of all, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the collective work of over 1,300 experts who appraised the state of the world’s ecosystems. Second, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. It is the largest report on climate change ever undertaken, written by thousands of experts from dozens of countries. And third, the State of the World reports of the non-governmental Worldwatch Institute, one of the world’s leading environmental think tanks. These documents show that the natural systems and resource stocks which make human life as we know it possible are under threat of collapse. If nature were a bank account, it can be said that we are not living off dividends but rather eating into the principal.

The reality is inescapable: this planet cannot endure a second industrial take-off. The natural resources and ecological spaces are now too scarce. This warning is not new. A number of outstanding thinkers and visionaries in both the North and the South had already seen this coming:

“It is obvious that the world cannot afford the USA. Nor can it afford Western Europe or Japan. In fact, we might come to the conclusion that the Earth cannot afford the ‘modern world’… The Earth cannot afford, say, 15 per cent of its inhabitants- the rich who are using all the marvelous achievements of science and technology- to indulge in a crude, materialistic way of life that ravages the Earth. The poor don’t do much damage… Virtually all the damage is done by, say 15 per cent… The problem passengers on spaceship Earth are the first class passengers and no one else.”

These words were uttered by environmentalist E.F. Schumacher in 1973. There is also the famous Indian ecofeminist, author, environmental educator and activist Vandana Shiva, who has dedicated the last couple of decades to warning that if the South insists on imitating the industrialized North’s development model the result would be catastrophic. And before her, her compatriot Mahatma Gandhi had made warnings to the same effect. He once stated that “Should India ever resolve to imitate England, it will be the ruin of the nation”. Gandhi was not only a champion of non-violence, his observations on economic development and proposals for local self-reliance made of him an important pre-ecologist thinker ahead of his time.

He had differences with his modernist counterpart, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, precisely around this issue. According to Wolfgang Sachs:

“Gandhi wanted to drive the British out of the country in order to allow India to become more Indian; Nehru, on the other hand, saw independence as the opportunity to make India more Western. An assassin’s bullet prevented the controversy between two heroes of the nation from coming into the open, but the decade-long correspondence between them clearly demonstrates the issues.”

Years after Gandhi’s death, his thinking exerted a decisive influence on Schumacher, one of the most important predecessors of modern environmental thought and the politics of Green parties. His book “Small is Beautiful”, a frontal attack against the premises of modernity and the rule of productivist economism, is a classic of environmental literature.

Next: New beacons

2 Replies to “North & South, Ecology and Justice, Part 2”

  1. 2011 to 2050: An unsustainable Future. Let us bring matters up to date.
    At this time, all the investment capital and net wealth is controlled by less than 1% of the world’s population: a wealthy elite served by a poor majority. Free market capitalism, mass production and the exploitation of the resources of the world has resulted in the pollution of the biosphere, climate change, extinction of species, exhaustion of minerals, waste of water, and poisoning of land and enrichment of an elite.
    What is going to happen when the other 99% of the global population demands a higher quality of living? more money? more food? more water? Better housing? Hospitals? Schools? What are they going to do when they realize that the wealthy elite of 2011 have claimed all the resources and benefits and luxuries? As well as getting the public to pay off their private debts!
    May 2011, it is estimated today that there are 6.9 billion people on earth, of which 1.4 billion live in China, and 1.2 billion live in India.
    May 2050, it is estimated that the global population will be 9 billion.
    May 2011 The UN reports that 5.5 billion people survive on less than $10 a day; of which 1.4 billion are starving on less than $1 a day. The majority of the global population is poor. China and India, in terms of GDP/2010, are among the richest countries of the world, but have the greatest number of poor: the greatest inequality.
    The World Wealth Report 2011 reveals that 10 million people control $39-40 trillion, out of a global GDP of $59-60 trillion. 1221 billionaires have $4 trillion. This means that 0.000018% of the global population have more than 2/3 of the global wealth.
    May 2011, Rich countries, with about one-fifth of the world’s people, are consuming about three quarters of the world’s resource production. The rich elite control 2/3rds of the world’s wealth.
    The global economy is a market system, and in a market scarce things always go mostly to the rich: that is, to those who can pay most for them. That’s why rich countries get most of the oil produced. It is also why more than 500 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals in rich countries every year, over one-third of total world grain production, while over 1 billion people have to go hungry.
    May 2011, petroleum appears to be limited. A number of geologists have concluded that world oil supply will peak and other fuel sources will have to be found. Minerals are becoming scarce, including platinum, hafnium, indium, gallium, and copper and zinc. Phosphorus is a worry; supplies might only last two decades. Helium gas is also a problem.
    Ecological resources are being severely depleted.
    We are losing species, forests, land, coral reefs, grasslands and fisheries at accelerating rates.
    Water shortages are serious and increasing. Up to 2.5 billion people have no access to fresh water, no sanitation, and die from diarrhoea.
    There are already food shortages causing riots in several countries with 1.4 billion starving and food prices rising.
    Population Change
    May 2011: it takes 8 hectares of productive land to provide water, energy, settlement area and food for one person living in the rich world.
    May 2050 if 9 billion people were to live as they do in the rich world, we would need about 72 billion hectares of productive land. But that is about 9 times the available productive land on the planet.
    May 2050, if all 9 billion people were to use timber at the rich world rate, we would need 3.5 times the world’s present forest area.If all 9 billion were to have a rich world diet, which takes about 5 hectares of land to produce, we would need 4.5 billion hectares of food producing land. But there are only 1.4 billion hectares of cropland in use today and this is likely to decrease.
    May 2050: to provide bio-fuel energy to 9 billion people would need 25 billion hectares of plantations on a world with only 13billion hectares of land.
    If we have a 3% per annum increase in output, by 2080 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. If by then, all 9 billion people expected the living standards of the rich world&,the total world economic output would be more than 60 times as great as it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable.
    Climate Change
    May 2011, it is predicted that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing global warming.A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2009, described what will happen when the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – the principal heat-trapping gas emission along with chlorofluorocarbons and methane, soot and other pollutants, reaches 450 to 600 parts per million :
    Rising seas will threaten many coastal areas;
    and Southern Europe, North Africa, the Southwestern United States and Western Australia could expect 10 percent less rainfall.
    May 2011, there are deserts that were once prairies; mountains that were previously covered by snow fields; northern plains once covered by glaciers; large rivers drying up; coastal deltas converting to shallow seas. A report from the University of Arizona, in 2010, said the rising concentration of long-lived greenhouse gases guaranteed warming at a pace that could stress ecosystems and cause rapid melting of Greenland’s great ice sheet.
    I have to conclude that free market capitalism and enterprise enables a minority [10 million] to survive and thrive. The majority [6.8 billion] must resort to cooperative enterprise, looking to survival.
    Ted Trainer
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    University of Arizona
    World Wealth Reports 2011/2010
    UN Human Development Reports
    World Bank: World Development

    go to…….A Discourse: Social Ecology

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