Putting nature Before People

The World Summit on Sustainable Development showed how mainstream green ideas have become.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

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Many commentators have denounced the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg for failing to discuss the environment adequately.

Amid all the talk of poverty, development and trade, the environment hardly seemed to get a look in, they complain.

In fact, the Summit’s wide-ranging agenda reflects how environmental thinking now permeates the entire development discussion. You only have to look at the business world’s high-profile presence at the Summit to see the advancing influence of green ideas.

So why are groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who previously saw the environment as a higher priority than poverty, now focusing on the poor? And why are corporations joining the greens’ anti-corporate agenda?

It is useful to examine the rise of environmentalism over the past 30 years, and the key events that helped incorporate environmentalism into mainstream thinking. The Johannesburg Summit marks the tenth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and the thirtieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment – both of which heralded important changes in our approach to environmentalism.

The current Summit makes much of the link between environment and development – but when the environment first became politicised prior to the 1972 Stockholm Conference, development was the last thing on environmentalists’ minds.

Modern environmentalism was born in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring focused on the alleged dangers of the pesticide DDT, and popularised scepticism towards the chemical industry and technology.

By the 1970s, other green arguments had started to take shape. Activists and commentators referred to the world’s ‘limited resources’, which were supposedly threatened by growth – an idea that seemed to correspond with a slowed-down world economy caused by ‘oil shocks’.

At the end of the 1960s, Garrett Hardin compared humanity to shepherds allowing the overgrazing of a field, Paul Erhlich saw the problem simply in terms of too many people, while the global think-tank Club of Rome gave detailed computer predictions of how natural resources would run out. Many called into question the very desirability of industrial civilisation, and argued that humanity should cut back its consumption in recognition of ‘natural limits’ (1).

None of these fears became reality. We didn’t run out of oil, or any other resource; starvation wasn’t caused by there being too many people. But back in the early days of environmentalism, the main fear was that unless growth was curtailed, humanity would face a crisis or collapse. So around the time of the Stockholm conference, many saw development as undesirable or, indeed, impossible.

Consequently, the developing world was fiercely critical at Stockholm. According to Maurice Strong, who chaired the Stockholm conference, ‘The biggest single threat to the conference was the ambivalence, even antipathy, that developing countries felt toward the whole issue of the environment.… Most of them would gladly exchange a little pollution for the benefits of economic growth’ (2).

Strong’s solution was to make concessions in the agenda, while drawing third world economists into a discussion about how environment and development were linked. These discussions papered over the cracks at Stockholm, and later became the basis of sustainable development.

After Stockholm, new government bureaucracies to oversee environmental regulation, created at the end of the 1960s, remained in place – but environmentalism moved down the agenda (3). The tenth anniversary of Stockholm was marked by a meeting in Kenya, but the world wasn’t interested. The confrontation between labour and capital throughout the 1970s and early 1980s was a far more pressing problem.

The background to the Rio summit in 1992 was the wreckage of the 1980s. By the time Margaret Thatcher won her third UK election victory in 1987, the Tories had run out of ideas – and in 1988 she made a speech to London’s Royal Society that put global warming on the agenda. The left was even more disorientated, with a sense of pessimism and defeat that helped to push environmentalism back into the public arena.

The old themes of natural limits remained throughout the 1980s, but they were superseded by the idea that the world is fundamentally out of control.

A sense of risk permeated green thinking in the 1980s – exacerbated by the accident at Chernobyl in 1986. In a scare fuelled by fears about nuclear conflict during the Cold War, and also fears about nuclear power itself, Chernobyl was seen as an example of technology gone wrong. It also pointed up the decay of the Soviet Union, allowing many on the left with fading illusions to explain the problem as one of excessive enthusiasm for science and engineering. The apocalyptic response to Chernobyl caused more lasting damage than the explosion itself.

The 1980s also brought the introduction of CFC-free aerosols, in response to the hole in the ozone layer, while advertisers started rebranding all kinds of products as ‘environmentally friendly’. James Gleick’s 1987 book Chaos: The Making of a New Science, became a bestseller by suggesting that humans should be more humble in the face of our ignorance.

But the most influential text on Rio was Gro Harlem Brundtland’s Our Common Future (1987). Brundtland popularised the term ‘sustainable development’ and the idea of ‘linkage’ between development and environmental protection. Sustainable development was an attempt to avoid the most pessimistic consequences of previous environmental outlooks, by asserting that there was still room for progress.

Sustainable development was a compromise with reality. It is not plausible to shut down industrial society, but the concept of sustainable development is vague enough to cover the generalised economic slowdown and stagnation of the world economy in the past 30 years.

During Rio, the precautionary principle – which suggests that in the absence of definitive proof of safety we should always err on the side of caution – came to prominence for the first time. This attack on rational debate fitted well with the overall anti-democratic character of the Rio summit (4).

This lack of democracy at Rio expressed itself in many ways. For the developed world, Rio captured politicians’ tendency to bypass the electorate through international agreements, and heralded the rise of NGO campaigning groups to unprecedented influence.

For the developing world, the anti-democratic character of Rio was even more extreme. The collapse of third world nationalism and rise of ethnic politics was acutely expressed at Rio. To be taken seriously, the developing world was increasingly forced to invent ‘traditional’ indigenous fancy dress and entertain the Western delegates.

When Maurice Strong, who had such difficulties at Stockholm, chaired the Rio summit he was impressed by ‘all their incredible variety and colour. Their exotic costumes and distinctive songs and dances proclaimed their diversity, but they were nevertheless entirely united in their basic message to the conference: maintain respect for the Earth and for aboriginal cultural and spiritual traditions; curtail the exploitative practices that were desecrating the Earth’s resources…’ (5).

Many criticised Rio for being a ‘talking shop’, and certainly business was paying little attention to the proceedings. But since Rio, the agreements that were signed, including the Climate Change Treaty, have grown in significance – and business has now fully signed up to the idea of sustainable development.

So what was new at the Johannesburg summit? It is true that the focus is no longer exclusively on the environment. But far from being marginalised, this captures how almost every issue is now seen in environmental terms.

In fact, the green agenda is so extensive that it is hard to distinguish a particular sphere of ‘the environment’.

Many NGOs sum up the new mood and politics at the summit as ‘anti-capitalism’ – but we shouldn’t confuse this with a desire to get rid of the market. Campaigners like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are happy to work with corporations. The UK Annual Greenpeace Business Conference in October 2002 plans to ‘highlight vision, solutions and inspiration – focusing on positive breakthroughs in corporate and government thinking and performance’. Greenpeace regularly engages in ‘productive dialogue’ with companies like Cargill Dow, BP, Shell, Ford, Unilever and even Monsanto (6).

The anti-capitalist vision is a negative one; it is about restraining the market, not replacing it with something better. And now, capitalists share most of the green prejudices about the market. The business version of the anti-capitalist consensus is the idea of the ‘triple bottom line’ – the idea that social and environmental indicators, and not just profits, should be used to measure success.

The business world sponsored the Johannesburg Summit, and has played a key role in the negotiations. Companies like Bayer CropScience, Daimler Chrysler and Coca-Cola are signing up for ‘partnership’ initiatives to implement the Summit’s vision, while lobbying organisations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Business Action for Sustainable Development are also heavily involved.

The new anti-capitalist consensus links together problems of poverty and the environment, and proposes to solve them by restraining the market through state regulation. And anyone who demands scientific evidence to back up the fears – like the World Trade Organisation, which refuses to enforce compulsory labelling of GM food – is damned for ‘putting profits before people’.

The past 30 years have created a consensus of low expectations in relation to poverty. When everyone accepts that there are limits to growth, and that growth is not always a good thing, concern for poverty can only have negative consequences.

Instead of a triumph of development, the widening agenda at Johannesburg indicates that economic problems are now seen from an environmental perspective. Agriculture is discussed as a problem of ‘living in harmony with nature’. The chemical industry is now viewed almost exclusively through an environmental lens – and construction and tourism are both heading in the same direction.

The problem is that the new agenda focuses too much on nature, and not enough on human society. There is now a widespread environmental determinism, which sees the scope for development strictly circumscribed by natural limits, and little role for human choice.

Economic historians now see the origins of global inequality within nature. David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, claims that we have underestimated the role of geography in understanding why the West triumphed. Mike Davis, author of Late Victorian Holocausts, draws on climate science for an overarching explanation of famine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (7).

These authors are aware that there are limits in looking to nature to understand history – yet they seem drawn to geography and biology, rather than theories of human society. It seems these writers are drawn to naturalistic explanations almost despite themselves, such is the influence of environmentalism today.

There are also policy wonks pedalling visions of a ‘green economy’ working in harmony with nature. According to Lester Brown’s 2002 book Eco-Economy: ‘An environmentally sustainable economy – an eco-economy – requires that the principles of ecology establish the framework for the formulation of economic policy…. Just as recognition that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system set the stage for advances in astronomy, physics, and related sciences, so will recognition that the economy is not the centre of our world create the conditions to sustain economic progress and improve the human condition.’ (8)

Then there is the theory of ‘ecosystem services’…. According to this idea, not only do our economic activities depend on nature, but nature, left to its own devices, makes an economic contribution by cleaning water, producing oxygen, and so on. The value of these services is estimated by asking how much it would cost to replace them, or how much people would be prepared to pay for them if they were not free. The bizarre conclusion of such theories is that the ‘cash return from conserving wild places is far higher than the gains made from developing them’ (9)

Of course humanity is dependent on nature. But nature only becomes wealth
when it is appropriated by human labour. It is absurd to believe that the net effect of applying technology and labour to nature is less rather than more wealth. If that were true we would collectively be poorer now than in the Stone Age. To scrape out an existence from nature without transforming it through development would be to live as animals.

Nature does not make a separate contribution alongside human labour. Rather, human labour creates wealth by appropriating raw materials and exploiting natural laws to transform them into useful things.

The theory of ‘ecosystem services’ does not supplement economics, but replaces it with a fantasy of a beneficent nature. It still describes economic activity, but mystifies the process by borrowing terms from ecology.

In his 2002 book The Future of Life, Harvard ecologist EO Wilson promotes schemes in which the rich pay the poor not to develop, in exchange for exclusive access to the undeveloped nature reserves. He uses the Pétan region of Guatemala as an example, where ‘about 6000 families live comfortably by sustainable extraction of rainforest products. Their combined income is $4million to $6million, more than could be made by converting the forest into farms and cattle ranches’.

If he had done the maths, Wilson would have found that the people of Pétan live on less than a dollar a day. Perhaps sensing a problem, he adds: ‘Ecotourism remains
a promising but largely untapped additional resource.’ (10)

Californian capitalist Doug Tompkins has bought a thousand square miles of wilderness in southern Chile, where he is building a fantasy eco-utopia. He is so unpopular that when the local paper wants to boost sales it puts his picture on the frontpage. When the Chilean government tried to promote development in the region, the US embassy stepped in to protect Tompkins’ rights as an ‘investor’ (11).

Such an approach might not put profits before people. But it does wall off nature for the exclusive enjoyment of a rich elite, while condemning millions to poverty. The real meaning of the ‘link’ between poverty and the environment is that the poor are packaged in with the wildlife as part of the local ‘biodiversity’.

With so many opportunities opened up by new technologies, it is a tragedy to see the hostility to progress on show at Johannesburg. If we want to destroy poverty we will need to ditch sustainable development in favour of development.

Read on:

Summit for nothing, by Jennie Bristow

Time to ditch the sustainababble, by Ceri Dingle

Poverty of ambition, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(1) Some of the key texts were Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons, 1968; Paul Erhlich, The Population Bomb, 1968; Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle, 1971, The Club of Rome, Limits to Growth, 1972; Edward Goldsmith, Blueprint for Survival, 1972; EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 1973

(2) Maurice Strong, Where on Earth are we going?, Texere, 2001, p123

(3) For example, US Environmental Protection Agency, 1970; UK Department of the
Environment, 1970; French Ministry for the Protection of Nature and the
Environment, 1971; Canadian Department of the Environment, 1970; German
Interior Ministry acquires responsibility for environmental affairs, 1969.
For details and more examples see Weale, The New Politics of Pollution, 1992

(4) Other key texts summing up the Rio consensus included Lovelock, Gaia
1979; Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 1990; Beck, Risk Society, 1986; Al Gore, Earth in Balance, 1992; Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, 1994; O’Riordan and Cameron, Interpreting the Precautionary Principle, 1994; Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty First Century, 1994

(5) Maurice Strong, Where on Earth are we going?, Texere, 2001, p224

(6) See the Greenpeace Business Conference

(7) Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1998; Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1998; Davis, Late Victorian Famines: El Niño Famines and Making of the Third World, 2001

(8) Lester Brown, Eco-Economy, 2002, p4-5 (available from Earth Policy Institute)

(9) See Nature pays the biggest dividends, BBC News, 8 August 2002; Valuing ecosystem services, World Resources Institute, 1998-9

(10) EO Wilson, The Future of Life, 2002, p126

(11) Eden: A Gated Community, Atlantic Monthly, June 1999, Volume 283, No 6, p84-105

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