June 28, 2017

Economic development and environmental destruction

From Intach No. 16, 1992.


The terrible environmental problems that confront us today, and those that threaten the very survival of our species on this planet, are the inevitable consequence of economic development, which is ironically identified with progress, an overriding concern of almost every government throughout the world today.

This is not generally realised, partly because neither the nature nor the implications of this fatal process are clearly understood. To do so requires that we first realise the fact that economic development has become the overriding goal of governments throughout the world only in the last fifty years. President Harry Truman of USA is supposed to have first suggested that it should become so. Previously, economic development was the priority in but a very small area of our planet, mainly in parts of western Europe and North America. And that too for a period that is insignificant in comparison to man’s total existence on this planet.

Economic development consists of the continuous year-to-year increase in the production, distribution, sale and consumption (throughput) of food, artefacts and services. This is taken to be the only means of increasing wealth, and thereby, human welfare.

This notion would have been totally incomprehensible to the traditional man, for whom material goods were not seen as desirable in themselves, but only in so far as their acquisition served his social interests, which were paramount for him. Wealth, for him, was basically social wealth and also ecological wealth. He saw his welfare as being predominantly determined by his ability to maintain the integrity and stability of the social and ecological systems of which he was a part. For it was only by maintaining the balance of the systems that they could be counted upon to dispense their inestimable benefits; which he was not willing to forgo merely in order to acquire material goods, that played little part in the strategy of his life.

The economic systems of traditional society, as the economic historian Karl Polanyi puts it, “was submerged in social relations.” So was its science and technology. This is another way of saying that they were under social and ecological control.

The goal of continuously increasing the throughput of goods and services is incompatible with the survival of social and ecological systems, which have an optimum structure, and whose preservation requires an optimum amount of these commodities. It is for this reason alone that economic development (whether it be “appropriate development”, “eco-development” or the now fashionable “sustainable development”) can only lead to social and ecological disruption.

Why, we might ask, is economic activity out of control in this way? The answer is that instead of being conducted at the level of the family and the community (the original units of economic activity) they are now being fulfilled by specialised, purely economic, surrogate social groupings, i.e. corporations (private or government-owned) that by their very nature can have no social, ecological, religious or moral preoccupations of any kind. In the traditional societies the family and community were at once the units of all other activities, such as education, the care of the old and the infirm, the fulfilment of religious duties and the government itself.

Unfortunately, in terms of the worldview of modernism (in which a corporation-based society necessarily supplants the traditional worldview), social and ecological disruption is of no account, since the very concept of social and ecological wealth is incomprehensible. The society is seen to be no more than the total number of individual producers and consumers who are governed by the same institutions. Nature is but a source of raw-materials for the economic process and a sink for disposing of its evermore voluminous and toxic wastes. In such conditions, the fate of both society and nature are virtually sealed. It is but a question of time before they are both cashed-in, and, in this way, transformed into economic wealth.

It is in this way that with the economic development of New Zealand, at the end of the eighteenth century, the vast whale population of the surrounding seas was rapidly cashed-in. Then it was the turn of the seals. Once they were gone it was that of the great Kauri forests of the North Island. Once they had been destroyed, the bulk of the remaining forests were burnt to make way for millions of sheep that turned the soil of the mountain areas into dust. This runaway process is still under way today. If anything, it has accelerated, as it has done throughout the Third World since it has been brought within the orbit of the Western industrial system.

Indeed, everywhere today, forests are being overlogged, croplands overcropped, pasturelands overgrazed, wetlands overdrained, groundwater overtapped and rivers and seas overfished. Economic development, of whatever variety, can only mean further increasing the impact of our activities on each of these already overexploited ecosystems; and hence further accelerating the process that is already rapidly making our planet uninhabitable.

At the same time, as economic development systematically annihilates the natural world, so does it replace it with a very different man-made or artificial world—the world of houses, factories, office blocks, warehouses, gas containers, power stations, and parking lots, i.e. the physical infrastructure of economic development. As this process continues the physical infrastructure must necessarily expand. So has it expanded in mainland China, since economic development has got under way some ten years ago, as a result of which some ten percent of that grossly overpopulated country’s agricultural land has already been paved-over.

In the UK, according to Alice Coleman’s Second Land Utilisation Survey, by the year 2157, the last acre of agricultural land will have been paved over, reduced to wasteland, or so broken up by different development schemes as to become virtually unusable for agricultural purposes.

It is not just the man-made world or the technosphere, as it is often referred to, that, must be substituted for the natural world or the biosphere, but the environment also has to cope with the even more voluminous and toxic waste products.

In the natural world, life processes are cyclic. They must be for two reasons. The first is that though the natural world is an open system from the point of view of energy, it is, to all extents and purposes, a closed system from the point of view of materials. This means that to avoid resource shortages, they must continually be recycled, the waste products of one process serving as the raw materials of the next.

They must be recycled too in order to avoid the accumulation of un-recycled materials that would interfere with the processes.

In more general terms, they must be recycled so as to maintain the critical structure of the biosphere and of its constituent ecosystems.

Thus, because carbondioxide and oxygen are constantly recycled by plants and animals, the correct atmospheric content of these gasses and the climatic conditions most favourable to life are maintained. If, on the other hand, carbondioxide levels are allowed to fall below the optimum, the climate will, in general, become too cold; while if the levels are allowed to become too high, as is occurring today, it will become too hot.

Traditional man felt morally committed to returning all organic wastes to the soil from which they were derived. It was an essential part of his religious commitment to maintaining the harmony and balance of the natural world—so this essential ecological principle was closely adhered to. With the breakdown of traditional cultural patterns, this principle was rapidly lost sight of—as indeed it had to be if economic development was to take precedence over all other considerations.

Thus, if the produce of the land is to be systematically exported, as it must be in a market economy, it cannot be returned to the soil from which it was derived. The soil is thus deprived of its mineral nutrients and organic matter, as is occurring wherever modern agriculture is practised today. This process that can only be exacerbated if human excreta is to be flushed into the nearest waterway or consigned to the nearest landfill, rather than being religiously returned to the soil as in tribal and peasant societies.

The recycling of materials, as economic development proceeds, becomes impossible, in any case, because an increasingly degraded biosphere becomes incapable of coping with the ever more massive throughput of materials.

Consider the fact that modern man now coops for his own purposes some 40% of the net biological product of photosynthesis occurring in terrestrial ecosystems—a truly horrifying thought.

In addition he now produces massive amounts of synthetic organic chemicals such as PCBs, CFCs and nearly all modern pesticides which, being totally foreign to the natural world (xenobiotic), cannot be recycled within it and can only accumulate—or break down into decayed products that are often equally un-recyclable—and that more often than not must interfere particularly drastically with its normal functioning.

It will be argued that our present runaway economic activities can be brought under control by the State, assisted by the specialised agencies of the United Nations.

But this thesis is irreconcilable with our experience of the last fifty years. In no country has the State shown any serious concern towards the increasingly daunting environmental problems that confront us. The international agencies, such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), are part of the problem and not of the solution.

Thus though the world is losing some 20 million hectares of forest every year, nothing whatsoever is being done to bring this intolerable destruction to an end. FAOs Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) is an eight billion dollar economic development project that involves planting vast plantations of fast growing exotics for the benefit of the papermills and the rayon factories.

Though our agricultural lands are losing some 26 billion tonnes of topsoil every year, nothing is being done to reduce the impact of our activities on soil ecosystems. On the contrary, on the basis of FAOs current plans for “developing” agriculture in the Third World, this impact must just about double within the next decade or so.

In addition, though it is now accepted that our destructive economic activities are leading to the rapid destabilisation of world climate to the point that we are already condemned to living in climatic conditions in which man has never yet lived, and which could well render much of this planet uninhabitable, neither governments nor international agencies are doing anything about it.

In each case the reason is the same. To do so would mean taking measures that would reduce the rate of economic development -something that in the modern corporation-based market economy is not remotely acceptable.

In other words, the measures required to assure our survival on this planet cannot, in the aberrant society we have created, be undertaken because they are not “economic”. This implies that if we are to survive on this planet we shall have to create a very different sort of society; one in which economic activities can once again be brought under social control.

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