North & South, Ecology and Justice, Part 1




by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero (First of 3 parts)

The movements for ecology and justice face a particular set of opportunities and perils at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. Those who seek to transform North-South relations to advance sustainability and the eradication of poverty and hunger would do good to re-examine and take a fresh new look at the ideas and concepts espoused by what we could call Third World militancy during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The goal of this “third world movement”, so to speak, was to engage rich and poor countries in a North-South dialogue that would lead to a new order based on multilateralism and genuine international cooperation. This endeavor must be not only resumed but also modernized and updated to take account of new global realities, like climate change, peak oil, the food crisis, the global economic debacle, and human disasters of untold proportions like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency.

It is difficult to come up with one single name for this project, since it originated from a constellation of ideas and concepts formulated not by one single person or organization, but by a number of progressive intellectuals from all over the Third World during the post-war years.

In the years following the end of World War Two and the founding of the United Nations, new independent states were carved out of the remains of the European colonial empires in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the non-Hispanic Caribbean. These were joined by already independent former colonies to form what is known as the Third World, the global South, or underdeveloped or developing countries. These terms require clarification.

Leaders like Indonesia’s president Sukarno popularized the idea that their countries were part of neither the capitalist Western world, led by the United States, nor the socialist Eastern block, under the leadership of the USSR, but rather constituted a Third World, with concerns, aspirations and an identity all of its own. The term Third World was therefore used with pride. In the geopolitical vision of this Third World-ism, or “tercermundismo”, the main political and economic divide in the world was not East-West but North-South, thus distinguishing the poor South from the rich, industrialized North- the former colonial subject from the former colonizer.

On the other hand, the terms underdeveloped and developing country originated in the United States foreign policy elite, and can be traced as far back as US president Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech. He called attention to conditions in poor countries, referring to them as “underdeveloped”. Truman thus presented a new world view, in which all the nations of the world were moving along the same track, in the same direction. The Northern countries, in particular the United States, were way ahead, while he saw the rest of the world lagging behind. According to German eco-philosopher Wolfgang Sachs, “Development meant nothing less than projecting the American model of society unto the rest of the world… The leaders of the newly founded nations- from Nehru to Nkrumah, Nasser to Sukarno- accepted the image that the North had of the South, and internalized it as their self-image.”

In spite of having obtained political independence, the countries of the South remained mired in poverty and economic backwardness. In response to this challenge, progressive intellectuals from the South, mostly economists, like Argentina’s Raúl Prebisch and Brazil’s Celso Furtado, began to develop a number of theories to explain this situation and to devise strategies to change it. According to their findings, the North employed a variety of economic and trade mechanisms to keep the South in a permanent state of political and economic subordination, among these: external debt, protectionism and deterioration in the terms of trade. These thinkers formulated novel concepts like structuralist economics, developmentalist thinking and dependency theory; they rejected free market doctrines like comparative advantage and the international division of labor, and in their stead presented proposals such as import substitution and an increase in South-South trade and cooperation.

But most importantly, they proposed compelling the countries of the North to engage in a North-South dialogue that would lead to debt reduction, an end to protectionist measures, stabilization of commodity prices, improved terms of trade, and an increase in economic assistance for development, among other goals. Such a dialogue would beget a mutually beneficial New International Economic Order.

These ideas were welcomed and taken up by leading Third World heads of state such as Sukarno, India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser, Tanzania’s Nyerere, Cuba’s Castro and Chile’s Allende, and would form part of the work program of new international institutions like the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. This vision of solidarity and cooperation reached its highest point in 1974 when the UN General Assembly endorsed the call for a New International Economic Order.

But this vision had its adversaries, and they would eventually gain the upper hand. In her book “The Shock Doctrine”, author Naomi Klein traces a global economic counterrevolution of sorts to the bloody coups that took place in South America’s southern cone in the first half of the 1970’s. The government of Salvador Allende in Chile was very progressive not just in its domestic policies but also internationally, for example spearheading the creation of a UN Center on Transnational Corporations, which investigated the activities of major corporations, especially with regard to corruption. The bloody 1973 coup that overthrew Allende and led to the Pinochet military dictatorship was followed by similar coups in nearby Argentina and Uruguay.

Their repression helped eliminate any potential opposition to the harsh economic measures championed by professor Milton Friedman and his University of Chicago pupils (a feat which earned Mr. Friedman his economics Nobel Prize). The following decade saw the belligerent domestic and foreign policies of Reagan and Thatcher, both leaders being decidedly unfriendly toward concepts of economic justice and international cooperation. The Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) used their power to put Third World economies in receivership through debt and what was euphemistically called structural adjustment. The 1990’s were the heyday of the ideology of neoliberalism, which espoused values diametrically opposed to those of sustainability and solidarity. Free trade agreements and new global institutions like the World Trade Organization made the tenets of neoliberalism into law, both domestically and internationally.

But at the turn of the century the pendulum began swinging in the opposite direction. Latin Americans rid themselves of neoliberal governments either by elections (Venezuela, Brasil and Uruguay) or revolutions (Bolivia and Ecuador). The clearest indication that neoliberalism was no longer supreme was when activists and social movements from all over the Western hemisphere, together with the governments of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, defeated US president George W. Bush’s plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Since then, the new Latin American “progresismo” has made electoral gains in almost all Latin American countries (For example in Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador), and the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) beckons as an alternative to trade blocks dominated by the US or the European Union. At the global level, the BRIC- Brazil-Russia-India-China-, recently expanded to include South Africa- can potentially tip the balance of power away from its traditional centers in the US and Europe.

With neoliberalism on a down slope and a new era of South-South cooperation dawning, this is the most favorable historical moment in decades to retake the endeavor of Third World militancy and solidarity. As said at the beginning of this article, it needs to be upgraded in light of current global realities, especially environmental ones. The world view espoused by the original developmentalist thinkers and Third World leaders was totally devoid of any ecological sensibility.

In fact, their vision of development and prosperity was a total disaster from the environmental standpoint. They wanted- and for the most part got- for their countries mega-hydro dams, nuclear power stations, super highways, petrochemical complexes, oil refineries, pesticide-intensive monoculture-based industrialized “Green Revolution” agriculture, and resource extraction on an unprecedented scale. There was no questioning as to whether this type of development, which held the United States as the unquestionable model to follow, was the right path.

But throughout the closing decades of the twentieth century, a series of unnatural disasters made it clear that environmental destruction was a serious matter that should be taken into account by all those concerned with issues of development and economic justice, to name only a few: Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, and the increasingly evident harms from “Green Revolution” agriculture.

A key event in the gradually growing awareness of the concept of sustainability was the publication in 1987 of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Also known as the Brundtland Commission, this group was created by the United Nations to assess global environmental problems and formulate a working definition of sustainable development. The Commission’s report, titled “Our Common Future”, called for a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) which would bring heads of state together to develop an action plan to implement sustainable development worldwide.

UNCED, known also as the Earth Summit or Rio 92, took place in Brazil in 1992. It was the largest meeting of heads of state in history, and quite possibly the most important event in the history of the UN. In spite of the important international treaties that were signed there to address issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, a number of observers question whether anything at all was achieved at the conference. According to Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger: “Neither Northern consumption, nor global economic reform, nor the role of transnational corporations, nor nuclear energy, nor the dangers of biotechnology were addressed in Rio, not to mention the fact that the military was totally left off the agenda. Instead, free trade and its promoters came to be seen as the solution to the global ecological crisis.”

If the Earth Summit achieved only one thing it was the ending of innocence. After the conference, no head of state, political figure or public personality in the world would ever be able to allege ignorance about the environment or sustainable development.

Next: Beyond sustainable development