The planet – and we – are in peril

[Aseem Shrivastava] In his victory speech President Obama spoke of a planet in peril. In doing so he fell prey to the cognitive lapse that pits us against the environment, rather than part of it, and miscommunicates the nature of the ecological threat as just another problem to be fixed with more technology.

“We should fear the consequences of changing the composition of the atmosphere.”

James Lovelock, 1999

Underlying the global ecological crisis are the entrenched material interests of investor elites, powerful classes and nations the world over. They are driven by the seemingly inexorable forces of competitive economic growth. Nation-states, as much as financial megacorps and giant transnational corporations, keep the enormous industrial cycle of resource exhaustion and pollution in motion. These interests govern most of the policies – both economic and environmental – which perpetuate the ecological problems that continue to grow around us. To add fuel to the fire, there is also the enormous growth of population – and the fantasy-filled idea that lavish consumer lifestyles can be generalised for one and all of the 6.5 billion people on earth.

However, material interests do not prevail in an intellectual vacuum. The hardware is always backed by appropriate software. It is actively defended in terms of categories and concepts which are altogether outmoded when considered either from the scientific (ecological) or from the commonsensical points of view. They carry serious philosophical misperceptions which conveniently complement the operation of the entrenched interests, as much as the follies of policies and consumer attitudes around the world. The intellectual mistakes perpetuate and deepen the ecological crisis no less than the consequences of the operation of the material interests themselves.

This three-part essay is a cursory attempt to explore some of these serious errors. What is offered here is by no means complete or comprehensive. It is merely indicative of the cognitive lapses that constitute the core intellectual culture of globalisation and that cloud our picture of ecological reality nowadays. The media propaganda around us further reinforces the errors every day in the public imagination.

A planet in peril?

In his victory speech in November 2008, President Obama spoke of “a planet in peril”. He might have said more accurately that we, the human race, are in danger of destroying ourselves and going extinct – unless we radically change our ways soon. Perhaps the president preferred a euphemism in order to lighten the gravity of the message. But the implications of the use of such a turn of phrase are serious.

Obama’s philosophical error is mirrored across a wide range of commentary and expertise on the hot topic of climate change. Political leaders, powerful bureaucrats, media personalities, journalists, economists and academicians, normally (if quietly) conspire to declare that it is the planet – not us – which is endangered. Not only is the nature of the threat and the responsibility for creating it miscommunicated in the bargain, the idea of “saving the planet” is almost served up as a hero’s challenge. It promises opportunities for glory normally associated with war alone. Naturally, well-endowed corporations rise to the occasion, as is witnessed in every other ‘green’ commercial sponsored by a transnational firm. Such is corporate hubris that IBM, for instance, wants to “build a smarter planet”.

The entire environmental challenge is in this way put at a great distance from human observers (participants in disguise) – as though the problem was all ‘out there’, ourselves just incidental passers-by. The machinery of the planet needs some ‘fixing’. ‘The environment’, we are repeatedly told, is in crisis. It is as though a neighbour, who is not related to us, is unwell. Nothing could be more deceiving as a description of the extreme predicament in which the human species – as much as all the others – finds itself today. And nothing encapsulates better the flawed cognition of serious ecological difficulties.

The great philosophical truth of our time is that [I]we[/I] – the species engaged in hectic production, distribution and consumption of material goods and services – have imperilled our [I]own[/I] – all-too-human – existence and possibly the very future of all organic life on earth by seriously misunderstanding our relationship to non-human nature as much as to each other and to ourselves as individuals. It should be a truism that we are inseparable from nature. Instead modern man has built his empires on the founding idea that it can be conquered. We are all encouraged to think so, for instance by assuming technological omnipotence as the IBM commercial has it.

Such corporate hubris is hardly new. It has its roots in ideas that date back to Francis Bacon and “the conquest of nature”, as also in Herbert Spencer’s idea of the “survival of the fittest”. Spencer’s idea became the crude, popular interpretation of Darwin from the last quarter of the 19th century. (Darwin, we can learn from practitioners in the field, meant something quite different with his notion of “natural selction”, which involved cooperation between and across species, not just rivalry.) Spencer’s interpretation took root in the time of robber-baron capitalism in America’s famed Gilded Age. Understandably, he became one of the most popular philosophical writers in America. What came to be called Social Darwinism became the favoured view of human realities, not just with the public and the business elites of America, but also with plenty of social scientists. Thereafter, as the eminent anthropologist Gregory Bateson has pointed out, the cognitive mistakes of occidental civilisation, dating since the industrial revolution, became ossified into patterns of thought and living whose real cost is becoming apparent only now.

Bateson summarised the flawed ideas as follows:

(a) It’s us [I]against[/I] the environment.

(b) It’s us [I]against[/I] other men.

(c) It’s the individual (or the individual company or the individual nation) that matters.

(d) We [I]can[/I] have unilateral control over the environment and must strive for that control.

(e) We live within an infinitely expanding ‘frontier’.

(f) Economic determinism is common sense.

(g) Technology will do it for us.

(Source: Gregory Bateson, ‘The Roots of Ecological Crisis’, in [I]Steps to an Ecology of Mind[/I], Ballantine Books, New York 1972)

Bateson was at pains to point out repeatedly that the unit of survival is not the individual or the organism at all. “The unit of survival is organism plus environment…We are not outside the ecology for which we plan – we are always and inevitably part of it.” “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself,” Bateson concluded.

The reason we must worry about vanishing sparrows and tigers is not merely because there are so many bird and animal-lovers amongst us. The deeper concern is that they could not be vanishing unless the ecosystems (and the associated foodchains) that nourish them are dying too. The disappearance of natural habitats for species that have been around for countless millennia should compel urgent changes in the economic and environmental policies of governments. Alas, it does not happen.

We still do not see ourselves as part and parcel of nature. We think and talk as though we have privileged access to an Archimedean vantage-point outside the influence of natural ecosystems. It is indeed ironical to have to emphasise this in a year when the world is celebrating 150 years of Darwin’s seminal discovery of the origin of species. If Darwin is right (and creation myths are wrong) we are animals – mammals – who have evolved from other life-forms over millennia as a product of “natural selection”. Instead of feeding our pride, such an insight should humble us.

We are nature, in the same sense as a branch of the tree is a part of the whole tree, an ecological fact far better understood by ‘primitive’ tribal communities and peoples the world over than by those of us groomed and schooled in the indulgences of the modern world. ‘Primitive’ tribal communities – whether in the Nilgiris or the Amazon – typically do not put the same barriers between subject and object as the dominant modern philosophies do. They feel a kinship, even a oneness, with their natural surroundings that is alien to modern man. They have even been known to worship mountains and trees, animist practices which have played no small part in environmental preservation over the centuries. We in the modern world, on the other hand, are in the same situation as a rapidly growing branch of a tree which is helplessly ‘watching’ it sag and tilt under the increasing weight it has to bear.

Thus, to imagine that there is a natural environment ‘out there’ which is ailing, is to begin to (mis)understand the ecological crisis from the wrong premise. The natural world around us would not be in crisis – that is, go seriously out of balance – without humanity and human society being in crisis too. The ecology of our lives – individually, socially, and environmentally speaking – is surely out of equilibrium if we encounter a sick environment around us.

The ecology of bad ideas

This implicates our contemporary corporate-consumerist way of life in all sorts of ways. Consider, for instance, the principle of competition which constitutes the touchstone of economic theory, as much as of modern industrialised economies. Since the aim of corporations is to maximise their profits and growth, in order to conserve or improve their market position, they naturally seek to cut their costs as much as possible. This of course includes, among other things, ecological costs (referred to as ‘externalities’ by economic theory).

This quickly leads to rivalry in access to resources. Despite regulations – which are inadequate to start with, certainly in India and much of the Third World – there is a built-in tendency to exploit resources without paying heed to the environmental damage this might cause. (Your rival in the marketplace may not be spending money on controlling the damage caused. So you would be foolish to do so.) It is costly for mining companies to control water pollution or for utilities and oil refineries to cut carbon emissions.

Thus, the costs remain unpaid and the damage to the environment continues unabated. This tendency is aggravated in the degree to which the market forces of competition prevail over the preventive impact of regulation. In fact, ‘regulatory capture’ – through bribes and other mechanisms – by powerful corporations is a phenomenon all too well-known around the world. The environmental economist William Kapp has written that [I]“capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs…they are shifted to, and ultimately borne by third persons, or by the community as a whole.”[/I] Corporations find it far easier – cheaper – to leave environmental damages at others’ doorsteps. They may be communities living in the remote jungles of the world. Or they may be workers whose homes are located in the vicinity of the polluting factories. What is always true is that as a result of corporate cost-shifting future generations will inherit a dirtier world, poorer in scarce resources.

However, the damage caused by competitive economies (they might also be socialist or state-capitalist in character) goes even further than this. Such economies tend to increase inequalities of wealth and power in society (unless the government dutifully plays the role of a welfare state, something of a rarity nowadays). Rising inequality is likely to hasten the pace of ecological degradation. Why? The reason has to do with the fact that in an unequal world the rich and powerful are able to insulate themselves from the ecological consequences of their actions to a far greater degree than would be possible for them if society was more egalitarian. These risks have grown dramatically with globalisation, which has made possible the export of environmental side-effects of consumption by privileged elites to far-flung, remote corners of the earth.

Some years ago the then Chief Economist of the World Bank (later, Clinton’s Chief Economic Advisor and President of Harvard University and at present one of President Obama’s Senior Advisors) Larry Summers, in an internal memo, made a case for the export of environmental externalities (from the affluent nations). He argued that there were at least three good reasons to believe that “dirty” (polluting) industries should migrate to poor countries. Firstly, the foregone earnings from the greater mortality (and morbidity) that would follow in the poor countries would be lower because they are poorer. Secondly, some countries (Africa came to Summers’ mind) were “vastly under-polluted” as compared with industrialised ones. Finally, the rich were in a position to demand a cleaner environment not merely because they had more money, but because of “greater aesthetic sensitivity”. A clean and beautified environment is a cultural privilege of the elite.

Summers concluded: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Let ecological sanity rest. The poor must be poisoned in the larger interests of economic wisdom. This is the message.

Summers noted that though there were moral and technical counter- arguments to his prescription, these applied equally to “every Bank proposal for liberalisation” as if that was justification enough for his arguments. He left it at that, thereby implying that prevailing, even banal, flaws in the thinking and policies prescribed for poor countries by the World Bank were worth compounding in order to increase the putative efficiency and “welfare” of the world economy. Gregory Bateson had written that “there is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds”. There could be no better example of this truth in the hegemonic intellectual domain today.

If one follows Summers, the life of an Orissa tribal is worth less than that of a New York financier, African countries must consent to absorb the toxic social costs of the West’s industrial e/affluence, and of course they are not in a position to care either for their health or for the environment around them as the rich are. The business of environmental conservation is best left in the hands of the rich.

Is this true? Is the world’s environment safe in the hands of global finance and big business? They acquire land and its resources (especially water) to make quick, high profits. This is especially true in today’s world in which every resource on earth is bar-coded and price-tagged and capital is almost perfectly mobile across the world. As long as physical resources can be lucratively exploited and the resulting externalities either exported (as instanced by the growing global trade in toxic waste) or kept far from corporate headquarters, why would they have any desire to protect and conserve nature? On the contrary, the pressures of competition in the global marketplace do typically succeed in driving them to move Third World governments to relax environmental standards, clear-fell forests, drain down or pollute to extinction surface or groundwater reserves, and contaminate the soil. Such has in fact been the fate of many a ravaged rainforest in the Indonesian archipelago or the Oil Delta in Nigeria.

Indeed, in keeping with Summers’ logic corporations from rich countries are ever so likely to export their dirty industries to the South. Why not site iron and steel and aluminium plants near their mines in Orissa (and ship the finished or semi-finished products to the rich nations) rather than importing the ore to the West and dirty the skies and waters in Pennsylvania? And doesn’t his logic also effectively support the export of hazardous wastes generated in the affluent countries to poor countries in Africa and Asia (in the name of earning for the latter valuable foreign exchange)?

Following Summers, governments of the Third World will commit ecological hara-kiri in the end. Moreover, the rich will have little incentive to change their environmentally destructive lifestyles since they will have exempted themselves from bearing the enormous external costs of their consumption. This, in the end, will affect everyone, including the progeny of the rich. ‘The environment’ cannot be in crisis without human society being in crisis. Socio-economic imbalance results ultimately in ecological imbalance. Greater socio-economic inequality is in effect an ecological menace.

On the other hand, communities whose histories and destinies are linked closely with forest, pastures, mountains, coastlines, rivers and waterholes, and whose long-term interests are thus inextricably bound up with the health of natural habitats in this way, are so much less likely to carelessly mine their ecological wealth.

The dominant stream of thinking that Summers represents is all too rational. As he says, the logic behind his ideas is “impeccable”. The great 17th century French mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal had warned of the “two excesses: to excludereason, to admit nothing but reason”. Summers’ crime of choice is the second one. He is rational without being scientific, ethical or wise. Summers’ view ignores altogether the fact that we inescapably belong to ecological systems whose balance is upset when so many actions are not undertaken in the spirit of the whole. Little wonder that he ends up with a factually flawed, ethically repugnant proposal which has been widely followed around the world during the last two decades, much to the profit of the few and the misery of the many, and promising ecological hell-fire in the future for all.

Such deeply flawed thinking as Summers represents has taken hold of policymaking across the world today, shifting decision-making authority and control over resources towards those with the capital to drive development choices and away from communities that have traditionally lived closest to them. This means that global finance has become lord and master of the earth, determining the pace and pattern of resource-use according to its short-term profit-maximising calculus. The earth itself has turned into a global casino with every piece of nature a number on the roulette-wheel of investors and speculators. Not only do indigenous peoples and communities lose, in the long run, such irresponsible thinking and policy choices contribute significantly to problems like the concentrated accumulation of toxic wastes, climate change, tropical deforestation, alarming rates of species extinction and the permanent loss of biodiversity, ultimately imperilling one and all.

In this sense, the shadows of production and consumption are lengthening across the globalising world in ways that are not only ethically unjust but ecologically insane and ultimately self-destructive. Environmental effects at a distance have come to matter more than ever in a world which has rapidly globalised supply-chains and insulated powerful decisionmakers from the consequences of ecologically bad decisions, at least for the time being, thereby ensuring that such decisions will continue to get taken in the future too. The enormous and rising socio-economic inequalities in our world are thus speeding up the human journey towards the ecological abyss.

Infochange News & Features, September 2009