November 17, 2017

What to do?

Chapter from La Terre Vue du Ciel by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand (Paris, 3 September 2002).

Edward Goldsmith reflects on the many changes needed in human society and governance to ensure our survival.

I am afraid that there are few superficial changes that are going to save our beleaguered planet. What needs to be changed is industrial society itself and the world-view that underlies it and rationalizes its policies. In terms of this world-view economic growth and increasingly international trade provide a solution to just about every problem that we face today, whether it be poverty, unemployment, ill health, malnutrition, crime and drug addiction. The implication is that money provides a veritable panacea to all our problems.

That every one of these problems has got considerably worse in the last 50 years – in spite of the fact that during this period economic growth has increased by 6 times and world trade by more than 18 times does not seem to lead people to question this incredibly naïve assumption. [1]

In general terms economic growth by its very nature must necessarily give rise to a new organization of matter, which we can refer to as the technosphere or the world of human artefacts, or the surrogate world, which is rapidly supplanting the natural world. As the former expands so must the latter correspondingly contract, and unfortunately it is on the former that we ultimately depend for our livelihood and indeed for our very survival.

As readers of this book will already have realized, we have reached a point where the impact of the surrogate world on the real world cannot be allowed to increase any further. On the contrary it must be reduced, and reduced quite substantially.

This must clearly be so if we are bring to an end the destruction of our forests, the compaction, erosion, desertification, and salinization of our agricultural lands, the draining of our wetlands, the systematic chemicalization of our land, rivers, seas, groundwaters, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe – all of which trends are increasing rapidly and are in effect totally out of control.

Global warming

Even more out of control is by far and away the most daunting problem that humanity has ever faced; global warming. [2] It is so serious that, if it were allowed to proceed at the current rate, our planet would be made largely uninhabitable, possibly by the end of this century, but almost certainly before the end of the next.

Global warming has been almost entirely caused by our industrial activities over the past two hundred years. One can even say that the moment we learned how to mobilize the energy contained in fossil fuels, in the context of a market economy, we were condemned to global warming, and this in itself provides an indictment of the very principle of the industrial society, which we are so proud of ourselves in having brought into being.

We have been warned that no more than a 1ºC change in temperature is all that is tolerable if we wish to avoid the climatic discontinuities such as droughts, storms, floods and sea level rises, that would make life very much more difficult for us on this planet. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with its 2,000 climatologists, tells us in its Third Assessment Report that we can expect anything up to a 5.8ºC change by the end of this century with a sea-level rise of up to 88 cms – enough to affect a significant proportion of the world’s agricultural lands. [3]

But the situation could be far worse, for the IPCC’s forecasts are based on a mathematical model that fails to take into account a number of important factors that its scientists found it difficult to quantify with any sort of credibility. Among them is the fact that our forests which contain some 400 billion tonnes of carbon, and our soils which contain some 1,600 billion tonnes, more than twice as much as is contained in the atmosphere itself, are being seriously degraded – the former mainly by the logging activities of increasingly powerful logging companies and by forest fires, that are often lit by developers, and the latter by large-scale industrial agriculture, whose impact on the often very vulnerable soils of the tropics, can turn reasonable agricultural land into dust in a matter of decades.

However the Hadley Centre of the British Meteorological Office has now built a model that takes these factors into account, and this has led its climate scientists to take the view that the world’s average temperature could increase by up to 8.8ºC. This would create climatic conditions that have not prevailed for some 45 million years – conditions in which it would be extremely difficult for humans to survive.

What is more, this model does not take into account other important factors such as the probable release, as temperatures rise, of carbon from the permafrost and tundra in the Arctic and from that contained in the methyl hydrates in the shallow water of the Continental Shelf.

This being so, something pretty drastic has got to be done, and so far nothing of any consequence has either been done or even seriously contemplated. Even the very weak Kyoto Protocol, which has been further watered down at the more recent meeting at Bonn, over which so much fuss is being made, would make very little difference. [4]

Clearly the first thing required is the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels and their partial replacement by renewable energies. I say partial because it is unlikely that renewables would be able to replace oil completely, which means that, whether we like it or not, we must learn to make do with less energy.

But even that is not enough, it also means preserving the sinks, such as the forests, and the rest of the terrestrial vegetation, the soil, and of course the oceans, which still absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide. If we do not, as temperatures rise, they will, we are told, not only cease to act as sinks but will actually become sources of carbon dioxide, which could thereby give rise to an unstoppable ‘runaway’ process of climatic destabilization. [5]

Of course, so long as the global economy lasts and the world continues to be dominated by powerful transnational corporations, that are only interested in maximizing their immediate profits, the requisite measures will be extremely difficult to undertake.

For instance, the sheer political power of the oil industry makes it very difficult to phase out oil and replace it with sources of renewable energy. In the USA, which is the biggest consumer of oil in the world, the recent Bush energy plan cuts expenditure on renewables by 27 percent, while increasing funding for research into coal technology by 813 percent. [6]

Even investment in energy efficiency has been reduced by 7 percent, [7] which suggests that to maximize the sale of oil even has precedence over increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of American industry, which the Bush administration claims to be an economic priority.

In the UK the situation is not much better. Spending on research and development in renewable energy has fallen by 81 percent from 1987 to 1998. Admittedly the government has recently agreed to spend more money on renewables, but the sum proposed is pitifully small.

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Even if a more responsible government were to come to power it would be very difficult to pass a law to force the oil industry to disinvest in oil and invest instead in renewables. Let us not forget that in joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) a country gives up much of its sovereignty to what is in effect a world government that has its own legislature since it can pass laws, its own executive since it can implement these laws, and its own judiciary in that it can penalize those countries that violate the laws. What is more, it is not just concerned with trade, as we shall see, but with virtually all aspects of government, and its overriding priority is to assure that nothing is allowed to interfere with the immediate interests of the corporations that control it.

Hence, not surprisingly, an attempt to phase out fossil fuels would run foul of a number of WTO regulations, such as that on Process and Products Methods (PPMs), [8] which makes it unlawful for governments to discriminate against the production methods used by a corporation so long as the final product is judged to be the same. Worse still, and in accordance with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) the entire energy production and distribution process is to be privatised.

What is more, the US administration proposes to introduce the new concept of technological neutrality, which it is almost sure to succeed in doing. This will mean that corporations must be granted access to markets for the services they provide, regardless of the technologies made use of to provide them:

“Les engagements en matières d’accès au marché devraient être pris sans qu’il soit tenu compte de la technologie utilisé pour fournir les services.” [9]

This means that what is true of production processes is now true of the provision of services as well, and this would clearly make it illegal to force any country to replace oil by renewable sources of energy and hence to prevent the fossil fuel industry from maximizing the production of fossil fuels – to hell with climate change!!

It is also to hell with the climatically essential task of saving the world’s tropical forests. Consider that the huge Avanca Brasil development plan in Brazil, which, if implemented, would lead to the annihilation of something like 40 percent of the climatically critical Amazonian rainforests, has been approved by the Brazilian government and the World Bank. [10]

Four huge American logging companies; International Paper, Weyerhauser, Boise Cascade, and Georgia Pacific, aggressively lobbied Bill Clinton, when President, who accepted to make it his priority at the WTO Ministerial at Seattle in November 1999 to pass a law known as the ATL Initiative – known by its critics as the “Free Logging Agreement”.

This would have made it illegal for the loggers to be denied access to any source of timber, or to any market for the sale of their products. Tariffs on wood and wood products would have been eliminated, “performance requirements” would have no longer been allowed, which means that the loggers could no longer have been made to observe sustainable forestry practices, while eco-labelling would have been outlawed. [11] In other words the protection of the world’s remaining forests – as essential as they are for climatic and other ecological reasons – would have been made illegal.

The Seattle meeting proved to be a fiasco (for the corporations) and the Free Logging Agreement never became law, but at the Doha meeting it has been put back on the agenda. Not surprisingly the Director General of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated (even before the last Ministerial at Doha) that only a miracle can save our tropical forests.

One of the most important problems facing us is how we are going to feed ourselves under a regime of climate change? What is certain is that modern industrial agriculture is no longer an option. To begin with we need to grow a wide diversity of crops, and of varieties of such crops as we do not know which ones are likely to prove resistant to the parasites and pathogens that, as temperatures rise, we are likely to inherit from tropical areas and elsewhere.

Nor do we know which ones are likely to survive predictable heat waves, storms, floods, and droughts. Ideally we would concentrate on traditional varieties that were designed to provide often very high yields without the aid of off-farm inputs, such as artificial fertilizers, and require minimal irrigation.

We also need to maximize self-sufficiency by drastically cutting down on imports and exports and concentrating on feeding local people. This would drastically reduce our dependence on the US corn belt and much of Australia, both of which are likely to be vulnerable to climate change. It would also minimize transport and hence the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that it gives rise to. Finally, as much food as possible must be stocked at both the level of the individual farm, the village, the region, and the nation itself, in order to tide people over the various crises that climate change will undoubtedly give rise to.

Unfortunately, to make any of these essential changes would be violently opposed by transnational corporations and the governments and international agencies that they control, and it would mean violating at least one if not more WTO regulations. Thus to increase crop diversity would be very difficult as the WTO and other international agencies actively promote monoculture, and on as big a scale as possible.

To return to traditional varieties would also be very difficult, though the protection of the remaining traditional varieties is called for by the Convention on Biological Diversity, because of the WTO Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) – which legalize the patenting of indigenous knowledge and of whatever traditional crops it has given rise to. [12]

For a country to produce its food locally, and more so for it to seek to achieve self-sufficiency in food, is the most difficult thing of all to achieve. Indeed, the WTO and the corporations that control it, as Agnes Bertrand points out, are at war with self-sufficiency. For them it is the number one enemy. Indeed, if every country were to become self-sufficient, as was once largely the case, there would be no international trade and no transnational corporations.

Not surprisingly, to achieve it would contravene any number of WTO regulations – for instance that on “National Treatment” which forces countries to treat foreign corporations and their products in the same way as they would domestic ones. It would also contravene the WTO regulation forbidding “quantitative import and export controls”, as well as the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) – one of whose many provisions forces countries to open up their markets to highly subsidized American and European food with which small farmers, who in countries such as India have little more than a few acres at their disposal, cannot possibly compete, [13] the bulk of them – about 500 million in that country alone – being condemned sooner or later to seek refuge in the burgeoning slums.

Another AOA provision forces countries to export their food even when they are suffering from serious food shortages. It also forbids setting up food stocks to tide people over serious food shortages. Outrageous as this may seem, to do this is seen as but a means of diverting funds which should be used for repaying debts to Western banks. Faced with a food shortage, Third World governments are thereby forced to buy food on the open market and, given the great volatility of prices on the global economy, this could often be way beyond their means.

However, what must make it still more difficult to create the conditions in which we could feed ourselves under a regime of climate change is Article 23.3 of the GATS, which is based on Chapter 11 of NAFTA (the free trade agreement between the USA, Canada, and Mexico). This gives a corporation the right to take legal proceedings against a country that dares pass a law preventing it, for health or environmental reasons, from making an investment in or exporting a specific product to the country in question. Outrageous as it may seem, the corporation can now force the government of the country in question to rescind the regulation, and compensate it for the profits which, on its own estimation, it would have made if the regulation had never been passed. [14]

There have already been a number of such cases, the most famous being that brought by the Ethyl Corporation, a US based chemical company, against the Canadian government, which it sued for $250 million – under chapter 11 of NAFTA – for banning the sale of one of its products, MMT, an additive to petrol which is a known neurotoxin and can cause brain damage. The Canadian government, fearing that it would lose the case, paid the Ethyl Corporation $13 million for damages and withdrew its ban on MMT. [15]

There is no reason to suppose that we would obtain a different decision if a government sought to pass a regulation that would disallow the setting up of some vast new coal mine, or a development plan that would annihilate a huge area of tropical forests – like the Avanca Brazil plan – already referred to in this chapter, or a vast export-oriented agricultural project like Vision 2020 plan for Andhra Pradesh which involves creating a 600 square mile plantation growing genetically modified crops for export, and which involves driving millions of small farmers off their land into the nearest slums – a project which the British government has been irresponsible enough to support financially. Nor is there any reason to suppose that any large-scale commercial project which would further reduce our ability to feed ourselves in the difficult conditions that lie ahead would be any easier to prevent.

Clearly then the most important step in a campaign to save our planet must be to phase out the global economy – in this way massively reducing the power of the corporations that control it and that are preventing us from taking the necessary action. This may sound Utopian, maybe it is, but is it not just as Utopian to suppose that our increasingly unstable global economy that struggles from crisis to crisis, and that is creating poverty and misery on an unprecedented scale, has a chance of surviving for very long.

However, ultimately the answer, as suggested at the beginning of this chapter, is to change the industrial system itself and return to a largely rural, community-based society in which economic activities are conducted on a very much smaller scale and that cater as much as possible for the local economy. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for India was that of a nation of loosely organized village republics. The Swiss Confederation was originally very much like this. Practically all the power resided with its rural Communes, in which real participatory democracy prevailed, while the Cantons were to begin with but loose alliances created by the Communes in different areas, largely for purposes of defence against some external threat, the Confederate government itself having very little power.

This is clearly the way to minimize the impact of our activities on what remains of the natural environment instead of maximizing it, as we must do if we continue on our present course, and it is certainly the only way that we can possibly hope to bring climate change under control.

I am also sure it would provide a much more human and more satisfying life than that which would face the bulk of humanity that is otherwise condemned – even without climate change – to the sordid, dehumanising life of the city slums. Let us remember that the choice for most people is not between the village and the city itself but between the village and the city slum. If we take climate change into account it is between having a future and not having one.

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1. From Address by Renato Ruggiero, Former Director-General of WTO Entitled, “A New Partnership For A New Century: Sustainable Global Development In A Global Age”. Given At: Bellerive/Globe International Conference: Policing The Global Economy; Geneva, 23 March 1998.
2. The Ecologist Report: Climate Change, Time To Act. November 2001 Also: L’Ecologiste (Edition Francais de The Ecologist), hiver 2000 Vol. 1 No. 2.
3. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report 2001.
4. UN Kyoto Protocol October 1997; UN Bonn Agreement July 2001.
5. Peter Bunyard, “How Climate Change Could Spiral Out Of Control”. The Ecologist Special Issue: Climate Crisis Vol. 29 No. 2, 1999; pp.68-74.
6. The Ecologist Special Report, November 2001: Climate Change, Time to Act, p.21.
7. Ibid, p.21.
8. Debi Barker & Jerry Mander, “Invisible Government: The World Trade Organisation: Global Government For The New Millenium?”. IFG, 1999, pp.14-15.
9. Agnes Bertrand and Laurence Kalafatides, “OMC, Le Pouvoir Invisible”, Chapter 15, La Privatisation des Entrailles de la Terre. Fayard, March 2002.
10. P. Jacquacu, “When Forward Is Backward”. The Ecologist Vol. 31 No. 3, April 2001; pp.58-59.
11. Victor Menotti, Free Trade Free Logging; How The World Trade Organisation Undermines Global Forest Conservation. IFG 1999, p.12.
12. Debi Barker & Jerry Mander, Invisible Government. IFG, 1999, p.31.
13. Ibid. pp.32-34.
14. Debi Barker & Jerry Mander, “Invisible Government”. IFG, 1999, p.9.
15. Ibid. p.41.
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