October 31, 2014

Can the environment survive the global economy?

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This article first appeared under the title “Global Trade and the Environment”, as Chapter 7 of The Case Against the Global Economy by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith. Earthscan, London, June 2001; and Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

This extended version was published in The Ecologist Vol. 27 No. 6, 1997.

By now, it should be clear that our environment is becoming ever less capable of sustaining the growing impact of our economic activities. Everywhere our forests are overlogged, our agricultural lands overcropped, our grasslands overgrazed, our wetlands overdrained, our groundwaters overtapped, our seas overfished, and just about the whole terrestrial and marine environment overpolluted with chemical and radioactive poisons.

Worse still, if that is possible, our atmospheric environment is becoming ever less capable of absorbing either the ozone-depleting gases or the greenhouse gases generated by our economic activities without creating new climatic conditions to which we cannot indefinitely adapt.

In such conditions, there can be only one way of maintaining the habitability of our planet and that is by setting out methodically to reduce this impact. Unfortunately, it is the overriding goal of just about every government in the world to maximize world trade and create a global economy – which has now been institutionalized with the signing of the GATT Uruguay Round Agreement.

To increase trade is justified because it is seen to be the most effective way of increasing economic development, which we equate with progress, and which in terms of the world-view of modernism, is made out to provide a means of creating a material and technological paradise on Earth, from which all the problems that have confronted us since the beginning of our tenancy of this planet will have been methodically eliminated.

Unfortunately, economic development, by its very nature, must necessarily further increase the impact of our economic activities on the environment. This could not be better illustrated than by the terrible environmental destruction that has occurred in Taiwan and South Korea, the two principal newly industrial countries (NICS) that in the last decades have achieved the most stunning rates of economic growth, and that are currently held up as models for all Third World countries to emulate.

The environmental consequences of growth in Taiwan

In the case of Taiwan, as Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld have carefully documented in their book Dragons in Distress, [1] forests have been cleared to accommodate industrial and residential developments and plantations of fast-growing conifers. The virgin broadleaf forests that once covered the entire eastern coast have now been almost completely destroyed. The vast network of roads built to open up the forests to logging, agriculture and development, has caused serious soil erosion, especially in the mountain areas where whole slopes of bare soil have slid away.

Efforts to maximize agriculture production in export oriented plantations have led to the tripling of fertilizer use between 1952 and 1980, which has led to soil acidification, zinc losses and decline in soil fertility, with water pollution and fertilizer run-off contaminating ground water – the main source of drinking water for many Taiwanese.

The use of pesticides has increased massively, and it is a major source of contamination of Taiwan’s surface waters and ground waters; and their sale is subject to no effective government controls. The food produced is so contaminated with pesticides that, according to the sociologist Michael Hsias, “Many farmers don’t eat what they sell on the market. Instead, they grow an organic crop, and that is what they consume.” [2]

A substantial number of Taiwan’s 90,000 factories have been located in the countryside, on rice fields along waterways and near private residences. In order to maximize competitiveness, their owners have disregarded what waste-disposal regulations there are and much of the waste is simply dumped into the nearest waterway.

Not surprisingly, 20 percent of farmland, according to the government itself, is now polluted by industrial waste water. Nor is it surprising that 30 percent of the rice grown in Taiwan is contaminated with heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic and cadmium.

Human waste, of which only about 1 percent receives even primary treatment, is flushed into rivers, providing nutrients for the unchecked growth of weeds which use up the available oxygen, killing off the fish life. This largely explains why Taiwan now has the world’s highest incidence of hepatitis.

Agricultural and industrial poisons and human waste have now severely polluted the lower reaches of just about every one of Taiwan’s major rivers – many of which “are little more than flowing cesspools, devoid of fish, almost completely dead”. In Hou Jin, a small town near the city of Kaohsiung, forty years of pollution by the Taiwan Petroleum Company has made the water not only unfit to drink but actually combustible.

The prawn-farming industry has achieved a fantastic growth-rate – with prawn production increasing 45 times in just ten years. Prawn-farmers, however, have themselves become deprived of the fresh clean water that they need because of the build-up of toxic chemical wastes from upstream industries in rivers and wells. As a result the mass deaths of prawn and fish have become a regular occurrence.

Air pollution has also increased massively. Sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution in Taiwan are now intolerable, regularly reaching levels that are double those judged harmful in the USA. Not surprisingly, the incidence of asthma among children in Taiwan has quadrupled in the last ten years. Not surprisingly too, cancer has now become the leading cause of death, its incidence having doubled over the last 30 years.

Even if the annual rate of economic growth in Taiwan were cut to 6.5 percent, stresses on Taiwan’s already degraded environment would double by the year 2000. Even if this were vaguely feasible, can one really believe that it could be allowed to double again, and yet again, without rendering the island almost totally unfit for human habitation? Already, many people are abandoning Taiwan and buying houses in such places as Australia and New Zealand, partly at least to escape the Taiwan environmental nightmare.

It could be argued of course that once Taiwan has achieved a certain level of GNP, it will be able to afford to install the technological equipment required for mitigating the destructiveness of the development process. This argument was credible until recently. However, with the development of the global economy, competitiveness has become the order of the day. This has meant deregulation – that is, the abandonment of regulations, including environmental regulations, that increase costs to industry.

This implies, in effect, that much of the legislation that has been forced on recalcitrant governments by environmental groups in the rich industrial countries is being systematically repealed. Not even the rich countries, in fact, can now ‘afford’ environmental controls.

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Creating consumers

Creating a global economy means seeking to generalize this destructive process, which means transforming the vast mass of still largely self-sufficient people living in the rural areas of the Third World into consumers of capital-intensive goods and services, mainly those provided by the transnational corporations (TNCs).

For this to be possible, the cultural patterns with which most Third World people, at least in rural areas, are still imbued and that commit them to their largely self-sufficient life-styles must of course be ruthlessly destroyed by American television and Western advertising companies and supplanted by the culture and values of Western mass-consumer society.

Of course, it is mainly the appetite for this lifestyle that can be exported – the lifestyle itself, only an insignificant minority will ever enjoy, and even then for but a brief period of time, for the whole enterprise is completely impossible, the biosphere being incapable of sustaining the impact on it of the increased economic activities required.

Thus it has been calculated that to bring all Third World countries to the consumption level of the USA by the year 2060 would require 4 percent economic growth a year. This, of course, would have to be properly distributed, which in itself would not be easy. The annual world output, however, and, in effect, the annual impact of our economic activities on the environment, would be 16 times what it is today – which is of course not even remotely conceivable. However, this consideration could not be further from the minds of those who are promoting the global economy.

Thus America’s ‘Big Three’ automakers soon hope to finalize deals in China, whose object is to bring automobiles to each person who now rides a bicycle or simply walks. Merely the extra carbon dioxide emissions from several hundred million more automobiles would make nonsense of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s tentative prognostics by leading to a massive escalation in the rate of global warming with all its concomitant horrors.

If every Chinese were also to have a refrigerator, as the Chinese government proudly promises, emissions of CFCs and HCFCs would escalate to the point of making nonsense of any agreements reached on the basis of the Montreal protocol to cut down on emissions of ozone depleting substances in order to save what remains of the ozone layer.

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Production for export

One of the principles of economic globalization and ‘free trade’ is that countries should specialize in producing and exporting a few commodities that they produce particularly well and import almost everything else from other countries. This means that such production is not limited by local demand but only by worm demand, hence a massive increase in production for export.

It is worth considering what an enormous proportion of the world’s production of the most basic commodities is already produced for export – 33 percent in the case of plywood, 84 percent in the case of coffee, 38 percent in the case of fish, 47 percent in the case of bauxite and alumina, 40 percent in the case of iron ore, 46 percent in the case of crude oil. [3]

Timber is also above all an export crop. In Malaysia, more than half the trees that are felled for timber are exported. This brings in $1.5 billion a year in foreign exchange, but at a terrible environmental cost. Peninsular Malaysia was 70 percent to 80 percent forested 50 years ago. Today, mainly because of the export trade, it has been largely deforested. The result has been escalating soil erosion, the fall of the water-table in many areas, and a general increase in droughts and floods.

The Malaysian States of Sarawak and Sabah are being stripped so rapidly that it is but a matter of a few years before all but the most inaccessible forests will have been destroyed, annihilating, at the same time, the culture and lifestyle of the local tribal people.

As country after country is logged out, the loggers simply move elsewhere. In South-East Asia it is to New Guinea, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, the last countries that remain still largely forested – significantly the only ones too that have remained, up till now, outside the orbit of the world trading system. At the current rate of forest destruction, these countries will have been largely deforested within the next decade.

It is probable that so long as a market can be found for the timber, forests will continue to be logged. Effective measures to control logging are unlikely, since in most countries in South-East Asia it is the politicians and their families who own the concessions, and the logging companies with whom they deal are in any case too powerful and too corrupt to control. [4] It is probable that only a collapse of the world economy could save the remaining loggable forests.

Plantation crops mass-produced for export tend also to cause terrible environmental destruction. This is clear in the US Mid-West, where the intensive cultivation of maize and soya beans, largely for export, is leading to such serious soil-erosion that what was once the most fertile agricultural area in the world will, on current trends, be almost entirely deprived of its topsoil within the next 50 years. [5]

Tobacco is another crop that is largely grown for export worldwide. In the case of Malawi it represents 55 percent of that country’s foreign exchange earnings. Robert Goodland notes that “tobacco depletes soil nutrients at a much higher rate than most other crops, thus rapidly decreasing the life of the soil.” [6]

But the heaviest environmental cost of tobacco production lies in the sheer volume of wood needed to fuel tobacco-curing barns. Every year the trees from an estimated 12,000 square kilometres are cut down, with 55 cubic metres of cut wood being burnt for every tonne of tobacco cured. Some experts put the figure even higher – at 50,000 square kilometres. [7]

Coffee is largely an export crop, and its production also causes the most serious environmental degradation. Georg Borgstrom notes how the coffee planters have destroyed the soils of Brazil:

“The almost predatory exploitations by the coffee planters have ruined a considerable proportion of Brazil’s soils. In many areas, these abandoned coffee lands are so mined that they can hardly ever be restored to crop production. In others, a varying portion of the topsoil has been removed, or the humus content of the soil has been seriously reduced. In most regions, a mere one-tenth now remains of the amount of humus present when coffee cultivation was started. Therefore the coffee plantations have always been on the march, grabbing new lands and leaving behind eroded or impoverished soils.” [8]

The same can be said of groundnut plantations in French West Africa. Indeed it has been estimated, Franke and Chasin write, that

“after only two successive years of peanut growing, there is a loss of thirty percent of the soil’s organic matter and sixty percent of the colloidal humus. In two successive years of peanut planting, the second year’s yield will be from twenty to forty percent lower than the first.” [9]

What the export-oriented logging industry is doing to our forests and the export-oriented livestock rearing schemes and intensive plantations are doing to our land, the high-tech fishing industry, itself dependent on exports – with 38 percent of fish caught worldwide exported – is doing to the seas.

Today, nine of the world’s seventeen major fishing grounds are in decline and four are already ‘fished out’ commercially. Total catches in the Northwest Atlantic have fallen by almost a third during the last 20 years. In 1992, the great cod fisheries of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in Canada were closed indefinitely, and in Europe mackerel stocks in the North Sea have decreased by 50 times since the 1960s.

As fish stocks are depleted in the North, it is in the South that the fleets are now congregating, but the volume of fish exported from developing nations has already increased by nearly four times in the last 20 years, and Southern fisheries are already under stress. [11] The predictable result is the depletion of Third World fisheries too, with the most drastic consequences for local fishing communities.

The expansion of many export-oriented industries gives rise to a whole range of adverse environmental consequences affecting most aspects of people’s lives. An obvious case in point is the intensive prawn-farming industry that has been expanding rapidly throughout Asia and some parts of the Americas and Africa. Its export market for intensively farmed prawns is now worth $6.6 billion.

Already about half of the world’s mangrove forests have been cut down, many of them in order to accommodate prawn farms. In Ecuador for instance, in 1987 120,000 hectares of mangroves have been destroyed for this purpose. In Thailand the figure is 100,000 hectares. The consequences of mangrove destruction are catastrophic for local fishing communities, as many fish species necessarily spend part of their life cycle in mangrove forests. If they are destroyed, fishing catches tend to fall dramatically.

Another environmental consequence of prawn farms is a reduction in the availability of fresh water for irrigation in nearby rice paddies, the reason being that prawn farms require large amounts of fresh water to mix with sea water in order to produce the brackish water that the prawns like living in. In the Philippines the overextraction of ground water for prawn farms in Negros Occidental “has caused shallow wells, orchards and ricelands to dry up, land to subside and salt water to intrude from the sea.” [12]

Chemical pollution is another problem, as some intensive prawn farms can use up to 35 chemicals and biological products as disinfectants, soil and water conditioners, pesticides, fertilizers and feed-additives. In South Thailand’s ‘rice bowl’ between the provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla, yields have crashed as chemical runoff from 15,000 acres of prawn farms have polluted irrigation canals. [13]

As more and more land is required for the cultivation of export crops, the food needs of rural people must be met by production from an ever-shrinking land-base. Worse, it is always the good land that is devoted to export crops – land that lends itself to intensive, large-scale mass-production. Production for export always has priority since it offers what governments are keenest to obtain: foreign exchange.

The rural population is thus increasingly confined to rocky and infertile lands, or steep slopes that are very vulnerable to erosion and totally unsuited to agriculture. These areas are rapidly stripped of their forest-cover, ploughed up and degraded. This has occurred, and continues to occur, just about everywhere in the Third World with the growth of the export trade to the world economy.

An example is provided by the rapid growth of soya bean cultivation in Brazil, which is now the second largest soya bean exporter after the United States. One of the results of such growth has been the forced migration of vast numbers of peasants from their lands in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul and into Amazonia, in particular to the states of Rondonia and Para, where they have cleared vast areas of forest to provide the land from which they must now derive their sustenance.

This land, which is largely lateritic, is totally unsuitable to agriculture and after a few years becomes so degraded that it is no longer of any use. This forces the peasants to clear more forest, which provides them with land for another few years – a process that could theoretically continue until all available forest has been destroyed.

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