issue 230 - April 1992
Now's the time for the North to cut the eco-babble and listen to the
South for a change. David Ransom explains why - then shuts up.
The caged birds and animals were silent in the darkness. The place was deserted. I followed a familiar path, around the dozing exhibits in the Monkey House, past the life-sized memorial to Guy the gorilla and into the Reptile House of the London Zoo. Drinks were on offer at a private environmental function.
An iguana peered out from its brightly-lit box as I talked to a woman from one of the largest international nature conservation agencies. As it turned out we shared - with the iguana, no doubt - a degree of gloom about ecology. Private polls had revealed, she said, that her organization's supporters were not prepared to change their lifestyles to save the planet. Well, if they - the active supporters of nature conservation - weren't., who would be? Anyway, it meant no more campaigning to change lifestyles and consumption patterns in the North. That would put her organization out of business and her out of a job.
I should not have been surprised. It is, after all, election year in both the US and the UK. The environment is not a priority on the election campaign trails. Imagine this from one of the candidates: 'Read my lips! No more carbon emissions!'; 'Cut consumption and save the earth!' Such slogans would be, everyone agrees, among the shortest political suicide notes ever written. No-one - or almost no-one - in the North is prepared to vote for change. We all - or almost all - still require of our political leaders that they at least promise greater material prosperity all round.
This is a problem, and it is our problem in the North. Because, unless the evidence provided by scientists and our own eyes deceives us, the threat to the environment comes from what we consume in the North. It does not matter which measure you take - against emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, ozone-depleting chloroflourocarbon (CFC) gases, toxic or radioactive wastes, garbage or chemicals - the degradation of the earth and the threat of global warming comes from the wealthy minority who live largely in the North.
But it is not just a problem for the North. It is also a problem for the poor majority who live largely in the South. The unusual skin cancers that are appearing in southern Chile may be the result of a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, but the CFC gases that punched the hole come from the North. The truth that people on a small planet depend upon each other for their survival is self-evident.
What is less clear, however, is what that means in practice. Here the problem for the people of the South is not so much with the planet as with the people of the North. Because, since we in the North won't pay the real cost of living as we do, we look for an escape route. Almost by tradition, we find it to the South.
So, with a bit of fine-tuning of the evidence, we change the subject. We say that if the South fits itself out with refrigerators, cars or televisions on the same scale as the North, the pollution of the planet will spiral upwards out of control. Anyway there are just too many people in the South - its population is growing too fast. Their governments are incompetent and corrupt. Besides, the people of the South are more vulnerable to environmental disaster from, say, rising sea levels or soil erosion than we are in the North. We shift our attention away from what we can see happening here and now, onto what might happen somewhere else in the indefinite future.
There may be an element of truth in all these points. They are important issues that have to be tackled. But that does not matter. They are being deployed by the North not because we have the slightest intention of tackling them, but to get us off the environmental hook. It's not a question of blame and guilt, but of power and responsibility.
For, precisely because of its wealth, the North actually does have the power to inflict the environmental costs of its 'lifestyle' on the South. It can use the South as its environmental sink. It can impose conditions on the South for the receipt of aid or credit. It can and in practice does insist that the South remains poor and relatively 'green'. The vulnerability of the South has become the world's single biggest environmental problem. A psychologist might say that the South is being required to 'collude' with the North's self-deception about the responsible stance it thinks it is taking.
You can see this process at work in Rio de Janeiro, where in June the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) will convene. It's billed as the biggest-ever gathering of world leaders, a veritable 'Earth Summit', and it's meant to usher in a new era of global co-operation to save the planet.
Rio is a very tempting venue and no doubt there will be a good turn-out for the conference. But the city has its problems - violence, drugs, destitute children on the streets and the most terrible pollution.
The Avenida Brasil runs from the international airport into town and crosses one of the most run-down areas of the city. When it rains the road floods, the traffic stops and the more unruly elements have on occasion been known to make piratical raids on stranded vehicles.
Not, you might think, a problem that ranks high among Rio's priorities. But somehow it crept to the top of the list. Very little can happen in debt-strapped Brazil these days without the say-so of its Northern creditors. Since they will be turning out in large numbers for the 'Earth Summit', and doubtless would not take at all kindly to being hijacked on the road to Rio, one can only assume they had at least some influence over the preparations.
So, in a city where just last year I was all but blinded by air pollution, hundreds of millions of dollars are now being spent on an elevated motorway - the 'Red Route' - that will smash up the communities of the turbulent citizens of Rio in the interests of whisking UNCED notables over their heads and into CFC-consuming air-conditioned hotels.
These notables will then focus on an agenda they have fixed for themselves - and particularly on climate change and biodiversity. The general principle is that the South should sign up to an agreement to limit emissions of 'greenhouse' gases like carbon dioxide, and preserve tropical rainforests as 'gene banks' for scientific research and the medical industry in the North. As for 'development', the only specific suggestion so far is that a 'Green Fund' should be set up to support environment-friendly initiatives, administered by the World Bank.
Now, the World Bank may be many things, but an environmental protection agency it certainly is not. Lawrence Summers, the Bank's chief economist, observes flippantly in a leaked internal memo that in some African countries air pollution is 'probably vastly, inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City'. He argues that the only thing pre venting the export of more pollution from North to South is the physical difficulty of moving it. The London Economist remarked, on publishing the memo, that 'on the economics, his points are hard to answer'.1
But shifting the stuff is getting easier all the time. Carlos Milstein, deputy director of the Office of Technology Imports in Argentina, claims that 'in 20 years of working at customs I have never seen the quantities of industrial waste and trash [that are now] coming into this country from the US and Europe.' Last October it amounted to 200 tons a week of hazardous waste; local entrepreneurs are now planning to import 250,000 tons of plastics a year for incineration and land dumping.
Ironically, the worst dumpers are the nations with the toughest environmental laws, like the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the US. Tough laws at home mean higher costs and so instead of cleaning up their act many companies simply ship their filth elsewhere. It may look good locally in the rich world - but it makes no difference in global terms. In Brazil, for example, huge lead smelting plants are working flat out recycling the lead from car batteries returned by well-meaning motorists in the North. Workers in and around these smelters now have very high levels of lead in their blood.2
To the free-market economists of the North it all makes perfect sense. Goods come and go as they please, and disposing of Northern toxic wastes in the South is cheaper and easier than it is in the 'environmentally-conscious' North. This is the way North-South trade usually works - and has worked for the past decade. During this time heavily indebted Southern countries have been required by the World Bank to follow what are called 'structural adjustment' policies. These policies demand exports of any kind in exchange for credit. If you have natural resources like copper or wood, then you must produce more of them and cheaper. Because everyone else is required to do the same thing there is a glut on the world market, your exports get cheaper and cheaper and so you must export more and more.
The net result is that the North gets plentiful raw materials cheaply - and therefore doesn't have to worry about conservation - while the South is left with torn up forests, polluted rivers, gigantic holes in the ground and an impoverished people living in an almighty mess. All that's new is that the South now has the option of importing toxic wastes as well as exporting raw materials.
The body that sets the rules for world trade - and so could intervene to stop this happening - is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Its latest round' of negotiations has been trundling along since 1987, trying to reach agreement on things like 'Intellectual Property Rights' and 'Trade-related Investment Measures'. It is currently stalled on a dispute between the US and the European Community over farm subsidies. It does have a committee on the environment, set up in 1972. But, in all that time, it has never actually met.
The undeniable truth is that, in practice, the North is much less bothered about the environment than it pretends to be. We might churn out scientific papers and documentaries, we might listen with rapt attention to environmental Jeremiahs, but given a chance most of us still go shopping in cars - and only use our feet when we vote against self-denial. Hit by the most severe economic recession in 50 years, yet finding the pollution of the planet continues unabated,3 we may well discover that the rest of the century will have to be spent revising conventional wisdom on both the environment and the economy of the North. But we have not started yet.
Not, you might think, a very auspicious point from which to launch a UN Conference on Environment and Development. Alternatively, you could say that never was such a conference more sorely needed - so long as it produces results. But what results? What is to be done?
Well, that's not really in dispute. Ever since the first environment conference in Stockholm in 1972 - and the publication of the Brandt Report in 19804 and the Brundtland Report in l9875 - there's been very little argument about what should be done.
The catchphrase today is 'sustainable development'. It comes from Brundtland and it contrasts a largely 'unsustainable' present with our duty to respect the interests of future generations and the need for minimal standards of well-being world-wide. Arguing against 'sustainable development' these days is tantamount to arguing in favour of sin.
But saying things is not enough. Protection of the environment requires conscious, positive, human intervention - legislation, enforcement, education, public information and debate. It needs action like that taken by the Organization of African Unity in 1988, banning the import of hazardous wastes and substantially reducing the trade as a result. There's no way round this. But conventional wisdom at the World Bank and GATT runs in precisely the opposite direction, towards unfettered competition for profit, open borders, deregulation, commercial secrets and letting the market decide.
Junkets like the UN Conference on Environment and Development may produce more cynicism than action. But unless we think of them as at least one of the available tools, we are toying with pessimism as if it were some self-indulgent luxury.
For a start, outside the official conference, Rio is likely to see the largest-ever gathering of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) at what's being called the '92 Global Forum. Their vitality, both North and South, is one of the more hopeful signs. The most effective weapon they have is their ability to think radically - to reflect and influence public attitudes. On environmental issues in the North they have clearly had an impact already. The challenge now is to develop and modify that experience by learning from the South.
Is there anything that the North can learn from the South? Environmental organizations in the North have in the past tended to treat the South as if it were a mirror of their own preoccupations. At best there's been a romantic interest in the environmental wisdom of indigenous peoples. Deep as that wisdom runs, and much as we may have to learn from it, the most relevant fact about indigenous peoples is that they continue to be persecuted to the verge of extinction.
But what about the vast majority who live in the cities, towns and villages of Latin America, Africa, Asia? What about those whom we in the North tend to think of as population rather than people? Is it true that people who live without adequate education or health care, often on the edge of hunger, are preoccupied with 'survival' and have no wish to explore the global village?
Well, human survival is what 'sustainable development' is supposed to be all about. When it comes to developing survival strategies the people of the South are experts. In fact they know a lot more about it than the self-proclaimed experts of the North - the World Bank officials who have the power to decide what shape survival should take. It is these people who should be taking lessons from the people of the South - not the other way round.
But something more than an exercise in humility is required. The experts of the North need to recognize that the people of the South matter as much as they do. If that were to happen the world would have to become a very different place.
Take just one example. These days 'democracy' is as much in vogue as 'sustainable development'. But do we have a democratic world? Do we have one-person-one-vote in the global village? If not, why not? What do we have and why? Answer these questions as you will, you are still left with the fact that if we did have global democracy then the views of people in the South would count a great deal more than they do now - they are, after all, the majority.
A couple of months ago I was listening to the veteran ecologist Edward Goldsmith at a public meeting in London. He was berating the powers that be for failing to tackle the world's environmental problems. It was, he confessed, a negative and depressing message. So what was to be done? He turned to a Canadian priest and a group of activists from the Pastoral Land Commission in Brazilian Amazônia who were sharing the platform with him. They had been struggling for years against brutal repression and for land reform. Also on the platform were campaigners against the Narmada valley dams in India. 'Our future', said Edward Goldsmith, 'rests with them.'
It was a dramatic gesture. I suppose there was a dash of 1960s 'Third Worldism' about it. I half expected a suitably green ghost of Che Guevara to descend onto the platform. But I also thought he was right. It's time to start listening.
1 The Economist, London, 8 February 1992.
2 John Vidal, 'The new waste colonialists' in The Guardian, 14 February 1992.
3 The Sunday Independent, 16 February 1992.
4 North-South: A Programme for Survival, Pan Books 1980.
5 Our Common Future. The World Commission on Environment and Development, OUP 1987.
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