December 11, 2017

An Environment Programme – but for whom and what?

This is an abbreviated version of Edward Goldsmith’s critique of the UNEP document, ref: UNEP/GC(SSC)/2.

Goldsmith was invited as a ‘resource person’ to attend the UNEP meeting in Nairobi from 3-18th May 1982, to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm conference on the Human Environment.

It was published as an editorial article in The Ecologist Vol. 12 No. 2, March–April 1982.


In mid May, the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP – is holding a meeting in Nairobi to celebrate ten years of existence and to consider how best to deploy itself in the future. To mark the occasion, UNEP has produced a document, The Environment in 1982: Retrospect and Prospect, which aims to give a realistic picture of the past ten years as seen from an environmental perspective and to indicate outstanding areas of concern.

Without question, UNEP has been party to some impressive achievements. In 1975 and 1976 for example it got the Mediterranean countries to agree on a convention, a series of protocols, as well as on an action programme to control pollution of the Mediterranean Sea. In May 1980, the same countries agreed on a third protocol; to control land-based sources of pollution and yet a fourth on endangered species and habitats is in the process of going through.

In another venture UNEP joined with the World Health Organisation to establish an International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals, the aim of which is to provide governments with guidelines on conditions under which those chemicals may be used. Keeping a weather eye on the global environment has been one of the cornerstones of UNEP’s activities, and through its Earthwatch Programme, UNEP has set up GEMS – a Global Environmental Monitoring System, the purpose being to collect data on potentially detrimental changes to the biosphere brought about by man’s activities.

Yet, as UNEP candidly admits, the last 10 years have not seen a striking improvement in the earth’s environment. On the contrary, environmental degradation continues apace and threatens the existence of Man, as well as of a host of other organisms. Nor is it straightforward pollution that is necessarily doing the wiping out; indeed UNEP refers to an estimate that in 1980 alone, as much as 20 million hectares of once productive land deteriorated “to a level at which it yielded zero or negative net returns”.

It is hardly surprising to see the same UNEP document informing us that as many as one thousand million people – nearly one quarter of the world’s population – may die of starvation before the end of the century.

What in effect can UNEP do about such horrifying prospects? At the conclusion of its report on the environment, UNEP lists a series of “trends” which, if continued will lead to widespread environmental deterioration and possibly to irreversible changes. UNEP thus refers to acid rains caused by the burning of fossil fuels, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, potential depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of fisheries through pollution and excessive exploitation, the loss of tropical rain forests, the spread of deserts and the dislocating effect on people of floods and droughts.

The growth of cities too, comes in for a mention, and UNEP reminds us that by the year 2000 developing countries between them may have as many as 60 cities with more than 4 million inhabitants each, compared with one such city – Buenos Aires – in 1950. Since some of those expanding cities may, like Mexico City, attain more than 20 million inhabitants, the strain on the local environment is bound to be immense.

What does UNEP suggest? Ways to halt the flow of migrants through incentives for people to stay in their villages? Not a bit of it: the priority is to establish “appropriate pollution control measures” and to expand “technical training programmes” presumably for the operation of those very measures.

Indeed, while it is hard to fault UNEP on its analysis of trends, when it comes to proposed actions, serious doubts must surely remain as to UNEP’s effectiveness. In practically every instance, UNEP’s priority it seems, is for more research, better assessment and expanded environmental monitoring. In effect the gathering of information is a way to avoid real action and confrontation; it is a technique for procrastination, a fiddling while Rome burns.

Thus UNEP tells us that we need “continued research on flood and drought predictions”. We must surely disagree, since we already know through documentation, going back to ancient times, that the way to avoid floods is to refrain from deforesting the areas that surround rivers and their headwaters. As for droughts, they too can be caused by altering regional climates through deforestation as well as by damaging soil structure so that its water-absorbing capacity is reduced even in the absence of any reduction in precipitation.

UNEP also tells us that we need “an expansion of current research on long-range transport of sulphur-dioxide”. Again we must disagree. Costly studies, like that of OECD, have already been carried out which shows the connection between sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rains, which may fall hundreds of miles away.

As for carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect on the earth’s climate, we need to do more than wait for UNEP and other organisations to tell us that an irreversible change has been set in motion. We need to make sure through positive action, that the amounts of green-house type gases reaching the atmosphere are significantly reduced and to achieve that, in today’s terms, means burning less fossil fuel.

Having ascertained through research and monitoring, the mechanisms of environmental change beyond all reasonable doubt, it is UNEP’s intention to persuade governments, industries and public bodies to accept technological and institutional controls. Without question, many of the larger industries in industrialised countries have made considerable advances over the past decade to control discharges and emissions and even to reduce their energy requirements.

Indeed, pollution control in certain industries, the pulp and paper industry for example, has proved to be well worthwhile and cost-effective. Yet the experiences of individual industries are insufficient in themselves; the problem is that neither technological nor institutional controls have succeeded in slowing down, let alone reversing any of UNEP’s list of major trends.

Not that UNEP is naive. It is wholly aware that the establishment of rigorous controls must lead to added administrative technical cost and hence to the temptation, particularly with struggling industries, to find illegal ways out; to get a Mafia to do the dumping of hazardous waste, or to find a country prepared to write off its heritage for the sake of business.

As for certain hazardous substances, the pesticides, they are literally manufactured for disposal and in effect agro-industry has obtained such a hold on agricultural and horticultural production that the notion of any real control over their manufacture and use is simply ludicrous.

Moreover the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation is among the largest promoters of the use of pesticides in the world and has even engineered such a crackpot and environmentally dangerous scheme as the spraying of DDT across the entire strip of savannah in Africa, to get rid of the Tsetse fly, so that farmers can get rich on beef-raising. In reality the Tsetse fly is the last bastion against the total environmental rape of Africa.

If UNEP is inadequate it is hardly its fault, since it came into existence at the end of the 1972 Stockholm Conference with little financial support and with limited powers. Moreover its income in real terms has been steadily eroded away through inflation and through countries backing away from their obligations.

In addition, UNEP’s creators wanted an environmental organisation which would faithfully reflect their attitudes. Thus the industrialised countries were keen to show that environmental issues were grossly exaggerated, and when they did exist, that they had technical solutions. According to such countries, Britain included, hasty actions to counter pollution and other environmental degradation on the basis of inadequate data were likely to be counterproductive, leading to overpriced, non-competitive goods for little real environmental gain.

The developing countries too were quick to see themselves threatened by a flurry of environmental activity that could put up the price of goods and in certain instances, such as pesticides, limit their availability. Indeed Indira Gandhi herself made a heart-rending plea for the millions of destitute in the world, not least in her own India, claiming that it was not the pollution of plenty that was causing misery but the pollution of poverty.

Consequently UNEP became party to the slogan “development without destruction”, the notion being that industrial development per se was not the root cause of environmental damage. As an extension of that notion, UNEP now states that

“in developing countries particularly, economic growth is vitally important and remains a major force for improving the health and welfare of people”

and that

“economic growth can often be managed not only to avoid environmental degradation but also, in many cases, to improve the environment.”

UNEP suggests that the best remedy against bad development is to foster the use of environmental impact assessment and of cost-benefit analysis.

But the success story of a well-sited factory, equipped with the latest pollution-control technology and buffered from population centres by a green belt, says nothing about the real damage done to the environment through the breakdown of traditional values and culture, and their replacement with the need for the artefacts of the consumer society.

The ‘clean’ factory is the other side of the same coin, as the unchecked flow of humanity to the shanty towns, to the wholesale cutting down of the tropical rain forests and to potential climate change. Indeed UNEP calls for a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels. Yet what alternative to fossil fuels is there for powering a developing world industrial system?

Nuclear power we know to be a red herring and the energy renewables inadequate to the task of giving all humanity the kind of lifestyle practised in Western industrialised countries. Without actually boldly stating it, UNEP is calling upon governments to forego economic growth for environmental reasons and that we know they will not willingly do.

Of course in its struggles for existence, UNEP can hardly bite the hand that feeds it. Yet if it wants a real function over and above that of offering palliatives, UNEP must have the courage to tell the truth – to tell industrialised and developing countries alike that it is development that is the scourge of mankind and destroyer of worlds.

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