New Internationalist

Whose Environment?

Issue 232

new internationalist
issue 232 - June 1992

Illustration by P J POLYP
Whose
environment?
The rise and rise of the environment idea... How anti-growth became 'sustainable growth'...
Why subsistence cultures have good reason to fear the conservation movement.

NEIL ARMSTRONG's journey to the moon cast new light not on the neighbouring celestial body, but on our own earth. Looking back at the distant earth from the Apollo spaceship, he shot those pictures which today decorate the cover of nearly every report on the future of the planet: far away, a small, fragile ball standing out brightly against the darkness of outer space, its water and continents veiled by a fine layer of cloud. This is nothing less than a visual revolution: only since Armstrong have we been able to see the globe. This has made it possible for the first time to speak of our planet.

Yet the possessive pronoun betrays at the same time a deep ambivalence. 'Our' can express an attachment, a common destiny, an all-encompassing reality, but it can also indicate ownership and refer to freely usable property. Consequently the photograph may arouse a feeling of responsibility - but also renew a taste for control.

The idea of the 'environment' has been subject to exactly the same ambivalence. Whereas this was first understood as something opposed to economic growth, it is now taking on a new meaning, heralding a new round of 'development'. Indeed, now that the crises of 'ignorance', 'poverty' and 'hunger' have run their course, it seems that the crisis of planetary survival will trigger off a new flood of 'development' in the 1990s. It is hardly a coincidence that the report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report) opens with a reference to the photograph of the planet from space and subsequently concludes: 'This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized - and managed'.

On the international stage, 'environment' moved into the limelight for the first time in 1972 at the UN Environment Conference in Stockholm. The Swedes, worried by acid rain and poisonous residues in birds and fish, had proposed the conference and were met with a swift response, especially in the US and Canada, where environmental conflicts were already daily subjects of conversation.

The world as a system
A new category of problems - 'global issues' - emerged which demanded a forum and the UN seized the opportunity. Stockholm was only the beginning of a series of major conferences (on population, food, science and technology, desertification and so on), which helped alter our perception of global space. The world had previously been seen as open country in which a multitude of nations pursued economic growth, each for itself and against all the others. This was slowly replaced by the image of an interconnected global system in which all nations had to operate under an array of restrictive conditions. Global space was experienced less and less in terms of opportunity and ever more clearly in terms of limitation.

The world was now conceived as a system made up of population, technology, food, resources and environment. Its stability was jeopardized as soon as these components were no longer in equilibrium. Indeed, disaster was predicted, since the demands of population and technology were threatening vastly to exceed the capacity of the world's resources. Unlimited growth was thus called a dangerous illusion because the world was in fact a closed space with only a limited carrying capacity.

The Club of Rome popularized this perception of the future. But the global ecosystem approach was successful only because it was wholly compatible with the interests of the development elite: it shared their perspective - the lofty heights of worldwide planning - and sorted the confusion in the world neatly and tidily into clear sets of data that practically clamoured for action.

Although such a critique of growth was initially a blow for conventional wisdom, it cleared the ground for the definition of a new development problem: the long-term conservation of natural resources. Governments had little interest in the 'limits to growth' but, on the other hand, could hardly ignore the fact that growth depended on much more than previously cherished conditions like 'capital formation' or 'manpower training'.

The message was that whoever wanted long-term growth had better refrain from squandering all resources today, and this insight led to talk of 'the efficient management of natural resources'. By translating an indictment of growth into a problem of conserving resources, the conflict between growth and environment had been defused and turned into a managerial exercise; development planners now had to think of nature too. The Brundtland Report derives its strength from precisely this perspective: 'In the past we have been concerned about the impacts of economic growth upon the environment; we are now forced to concern ourselves with the impact of ecological stress upon our economic prospects.'

However, a further obstacle stood in the way of the happy union of 'environment' and 'development'. If you protected the environment weren't you failing in your mission to 'eliminate poverty'? Would not the poor be left empty-handed if growth came under attack? Lo and behold, the poor were discovered to be agents of the destruction of resources - so that growth for the sake of 'eliminating poverty' could be presented as a strategy of environmental protection. If there are no more poor people looking for firewood or overtaxing the soil, so the argument runs, then the environment will also be helped. This is why the Brundtland Report calls for the 'satisfaction of basic needs' as a method of resource conservation.

After these readjustments had been made, both conventional and socially-aware adherents of growth were able to live with a call for a conserver society; environmentalism was no longer in contradiction with the traditional debates on growth and basic needs. In effect the Brundtland Report incorporated ecological concern into the idea of development by erecting 'sustainable development' as a conceptual roof under which the environment could be both violated and healed. As so many times in the last 40 years, when the destructive effects of development were recognized 'development' was stretched in such a way as to include both injury and therapy.

The trend towards ecocracy
Catchwords are crystallizations of desires. 'Ecology' has become the motto of our age because it holds the promise of reuniting what has been sundered and of healing what has been wounded - in short, of nurturing the whole. Indeed, the inability of modern institutions to see beyond the horizon of their specific interests and to answer for the (so-called) side-effects of their actions is now on record. Their high level of efficiency is based on indifference to all consequences that do not enter their own immediate calculations. Even the Third World has not been spared this: intensive agriculture causes the water table to sink; energy policies tolerate the clearing of rainforests; chemical factories sow disease, sometimes even death.

The language of control
All the environment reports on development policy respond to this with calls for farsightedness and integrated planning. One of their key concepts is that of the 'system'. But beware! Systems language is not innocent; it tailors your perception. If you look at a habitat, be it a pond in the forest or planet earth, as a 'system', you are implying that you can identify the fundamental components that make it up. In the case of the pond, the system may constitute an interplay between energy, mass and temperature; with the world system, it may involve population, resources and environment.

Essentially it means reducing a confused reality to a handful of abstract notions. Systems language purges reality of local particularities, of quality and uniqueness; it is insensitive to the individuality of a situation.

Moreover, systems language cannot resist looking at living communities from the standpoint of control. It is, in its origin, the language of engineers and managers. The systems concept was invented between the world wars in order to describe organisms in a sober, mechanistic manner, 'whole' being interpreted as 'equilibrium' and, in the tradition of engineering, the relationship between the whole and its parts as a 'self-regulating mechanism' with the function of maintaining this equilibrium. The terms 'ecosystem' or 'global system' cannot shake off the legacy of engineering; the language is committed to an interest in regulation and control.

Even the apparently harmless word 'environment' obeys this interest splendidly. In contrast to 'nature' for instance, it does not reveal any life: it is abstract and colourless and the embodiment of passivity. On closer examination this is not surprising, for 'environment' as a concept has no existence in itself, but rather is something surrounding a subject which is usually not specified. What does the environment surround? What is important about it and for whom?

In the international environmental reports, the hidden subject is usually nothing other than the national economy. Environment appears here as the sum total of physical barriers hampering the dynamics of the economic system. And the solution to the environmental problem here is usually for the economic system to leap to even higher levels of complexity - rather than for its own dynamics to be questioned.

Rural communities in the Third World do not need to wait for experts from hastily founded eco-development institutes to descend on them and deliver remedies for, let's say, soil erosion. Provision for the welfare of their children and grandchildren has always been a part of their cultivation methods and economies. In the future, however, centralized environmental planning threatens to come into conflict with local ecologies.

For example, in the Indian Himalayas the Chipko Movement made the combative courage and wisdom of the women, who protected the trees from chain-saws with their bodies, into a symbol of local resistance reaching far beyond the borders of India. Yet their success had its price: forest managers moved in and claimed responsibility for the trees. They brought along surveys, showed around diagrams, pointed out growth curves, and argued with optimal felling rates. Those who had defended the trees to protect their means of subsistence and to give testimony to the interconnectedness of life saw themselves unexpectedly bombarded with research findings and the abstract categories of resource economics. The suppression of local knowledge by experts and bureaucracies may increase even further through environmental planning.

The threat of conservation
Furthermore, subsistence economies may be led into disaster by the movement towards conservation. Subsistence cultures are, after all, intimately bound up with nature: they live directly from it and can thus keep the money economy at arm's length. Wherever forests are converted into tree plantations or national parks, communities which use them as their living space are threatened not only with banishment but also with economic downgrading.

The reafforestation programmes in the wake of the Chipko movement, for example, favoured fast-growing species of wood whose effect on the soil and water balance were such that they could no longer provide a home for the indigenous people. An ecology that aimed at the management of scarce natural resources clashed with an ecology that wished to preserve the local commons. In this way national resource planning can be a continuation of the war against subsistence.

Satellite pictures of the earth scanning crops, pastures and forests evoke a spurious universalism. In these pictures, human beings and what nature means to them and their lives are missing. Global resource management tends to disregard the local context. Such disregard used to go under the name of colonialism.

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