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ENVIRONMENT [image, unknown] Keynote

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[image, unknown] Wayne Ellwood
New Internationalist

[image, unknown] Issue No. 114 : Editor, Wayne Ellwood

Assault on the Earth
Photo: Nick Hedges
Photo: Nick Hedges
The world environment is caught in a tightening vice. On the one hand the Earth is squeezed by massive over consumption and waste; and on the other by the Third World's poor who destroy their resource base just to stay alive. Wayne Ellwood looks at how the Earth is coping with this twin threat.

CUBATÃO is not a typical Brazilian city. For one thing the Mayor refuses to live there. And for another the small community has the highest per capita income in the country. That is because the city is one of Latin America’s largest petrochemical centres with more than 24 major industrial plants.

Many are Brazilian owned but there are also international giants like Dow, Du Pont and Union Carbide. Each spews out its own particular noxious and deadly effluent. The smoke is many colours, but the sky is a uniform grey. Environmentalists in Brazil call Cubatão the ‘valley of death’. Pollution has poisoned the birds and most of the insects. The four rivers that dissect the city are lifeless, chemical sloughs— fish from the nearby ocean outlet are deformed.

The residents of Cubatão are just beginning to see the effects of their nation’s wink-and-nod approach to industrial polluters. Miscarriages, stillbirths and birth deformities have suddenly shot upwards causing panic and fear. Respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis and emphysema are the norm. Unlike the Mayor (and despite the city’s reputation of prosperity) most of Cubatão’s citizens can’t leave. More than one third of them live in the tumbledown slums which are cheek-by-jowl with the offending industries. For them the Brazilian miracle is a mirage destroying their community, their health and the world around them.

As the Third World strains to pull itself out of poverty by a quick injection of industrialization, there are other ‘Cubatãos’ waiting in the wings. But myopic governments and polluting industries are not confined to the Third World. Nor are they especially new.

Writers from Engels to Dickens have described the ‘dark, Satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution in Britain. And James Nasmyth. inventor of the steam hammer, wrote this description of the town of Coalbrookdale in the 1890s:

‘The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys: and every herbacious object was of a ghastly grey— the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect.’

Despite sporadic warning signals of ecological collapse, until the mid-1950s it was assumed that economic growth geared to rapid industrialization was the only way in which human welfare could be improved.

The natural environment was assumed large enough and ftexible enough to absorb all the depradations of pell mell growth. Not so. In fact, about the time the post-war consumer society was coming into its own the Earth was showing definite signs of fatigue.

Despite obvious material wealth many in the developed world began to look at the other side of the ledger. A century and a half of economic growth had increased material prosperity. No question of that. But even in the richest countries in North America and Europe poverty was not abolished. And the focus on disembodied economic statistics camoflaged more important concerns about the quality of life.

Although people were in general richer they weren’t necessarily much happier. Then, too, there were the mounting costs of sullying the natural environment and attempting to live amidst the poisonous wastes of our own prosperity.

Western countries were munching their way through an increasing quantity of non-renewable resources.

This great binge was spurred along by commercial advertising. a mammoth increase in consumer debt(credit cards, easy loans, hire-purchase and the like) and a seemingly endless cornucopia of shoddy and often frivolous consumer goods.

Fears of the Third World’s population ‘bomb’ vanished in the face of the industrialized world’s consumption explosion. While Western nations stripped resources from around the world to feed massive over-consumption, Third World countries were actively impoverished and underdeveloped. The average person in the developed world consumed ten times as much and put ten times the strain on the globe’s resources as their Third World counterpart.

According to one United Nations estimate, if all the nations of the globe were to consume resources at the rate of the United States, the Earth would be a crumbling, spent shell within a few decades. Known recoverable services of copper would be exhausted in nine years, bauxite in eighteen years, zinc in six months, lead in four years, petroleum in seven years and natural gas in five years.

Still, Third World nations for the most part continue to re-construct Pittsburgh in Brazil, and Birmingham in India. And as they do they also import the environmental destruction that goes with such development. Short of technical expertise and desperate for foreign investment and the jobs that go with it, many Third World countries simply waive environmental restrictions and turn a blind eye to unsafe working conditions.

Rapid growth of Third World cities is helping to fuel the environmental problems that spring from poverty. In Mexico City, unplanned highly-concentrated industrialization has led to a chaotic, urban nightmare in just 30 years. Two million cars clog the streets and 14 million people generate over 7,000 tons of refuse a day. Of the 1.3 billion people who come into the world during the next 25 years, 75 per cent will live in urban slums.

Urban pressure
The pressure of those poor city-dwellers on their surroundings will be one of the great challenges of the coming decades. Clean drinking water, the safe disposal of human waste, access to hygienic washing and cleaning facilities: these are all problems of the environment — and poverty.

But the clash between the poor and the natural world on which they depend for survival is especially evident in the countryside. It is here where poverty and under-development have taken their greatest toll. And it’s here where the links between ecological catastrophe and economic injustice are clearest.

Desertification is one of the great environmental issues of the moment. It was hauled into the public spotlight by the headline-grabbing draught and famine in sub-Saharan Africa from 1968-73. The slow march of the desert directly threatens nearly 20 per cent of the earth's surface and the lives of over 80 million people.

But the loss of once productive land to scrub-infested, sterile wasteland is not just a whim of changing climate. Semi-arid grasslands and bush country on desert fringes can be surprisingly productive, supporting a wide variety of small farmers and nomadic herds.

As Richard Franke and Barbara Chasm discovered in their research on the African Sahel (see p. 20) the ecological balance can be easily disrupted by outside forces. Cash cropping of groundnuts by French colonizers set in motion a complex chain of events. Overcultivation led to over-grazing on marginal lands which in turn led to worthless desert. Famine followed. This same exploitation of marginal land is occurring in over 60 countries — mostly in Africa and Asia.

In the Sudan, once touted as a potential breadbasket of the Arab world, greedy entrepreneurs are now re-enacting the Sahel tragedy. There the Sahara is creeping forward at the rate of 10km a year. American anthropologist Jay O’Brien has pinned the blame squarely on the extension of rainfed, mechanized farming into traditional grazing areas.

Investors move in and out as quickly as possible; abandoning the land as soon as yields decrease, then moving on to clear-cut vast areas of forest and bush. Fallow periods are ignored in the rush for high returns. Subsistence farmers and herders are forced to compete for even more marginal land — a conflict which is a recipe for further disaster. According to O’Brien, most of the Sudan’s mechanized farms have overrun the ‘principal grazing areas of pastoralists’ and carved into ‘seasonal migration routes of livestock.’

Food and fuel
Like the spread of eroded, sun-baked desert, the plundering of the earth’s once vast forest reserves stems mostly from poverty. Small farmers and peasants pour into thick forests looking for land to grow food and fuel for cooking. Over 40 per cent of the earth’s natural tropical rain forest cover has now been destroyed— most of it in the last decade.

According to a recent FAO survey tropical forests were being lopped down at the rate of7.3 million hectares a year, or 14 hectares a minute. in the late 1970s.

Forests are a natural resource and like other resources their careful harvest and use should be encouraged. But if current trends continue, tropical forests are faced with extinction. And that could spell trouble. Forests not only keep soil in place, stopping erosion and siltation of rivers and lakes. They also help to check severe flooding and destruction of valuable foodlands.

Stripping the Himalayan slopes of trees for fodder and terraced fields lets monsoon rains tear down the steep mountain sides and crash out in destructive torrents on the thousands of villages below. Between 1953 and 1978 India spent on average $250 million a year on flood damage. Fertile topsoils washed into the sea have formed a huge undersea island of 50.000 square km in the Indian Ocean.

‘ Greenhouse’ effect
The felling of tropical forests may also effect global climate. As the trees recede, rainfall patterns could change and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase. CO2 levels have risen nearly 30 per cent since 1825 according to the UN Environment Programme. Most of that has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels in industrial countries. Deforestation will further increase CO2 levels which some scientists say may eventually lead to a warming of the earth’s atmosphere — known as the ‘greenhouse’ effect.

The actual results of the projected 2—3 C increase are unknown. Some studies show a change in world rain distribution which would dramatically reduce the food producing potential of today’s temperate areas (Europe and the North American ’cornbelt’). Even such a seemingly small temperature increase could cause global ice caps to melt, increasing sea levels, flooding cities and farmlands and prompting enormous relocation problems.

All this may sound like imaginative science fiction and a long way from a poor Latin American peasant slashing down a few acres of bush to grow maize and beans. But the connections are alarmingly direct. In fact, the forest frontiers are used as safety valves to take pressure off wealthy landowners who control the best agricultural land in lush valley bottoms.

Latin America is the most extreme example: 93 per cent of the arable land is owned by only seven per cent of all landowners. In Brazil. which has a startling one-third of the earth’s entire tropical forests, 70 per cent of the country’s 130 million people are landless. So the Amazon forests have been opened up for new settlers. But the thin tropical soils are exhausted quickly without long fallow periods and shifting cultivators leave humous-poor soils so badly drained of nutrients they are incapable of natural regeneration.

In Central America where the number of landless peasants has increased over the last decade, nearly a quarter of the region’s forests have been cleared since 1960 to make way for large-scale cattle ranching. Over 80 per cent of the beef is shipped to the US for pet food and hamburgers. Meanwhile, in Guatemala beef exports skyrocketed from nearly zero to over 13,000 tonnes in a decade while domestic beef consumption dropped by 50 per cent.

In West African countries like Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and Asian nations like Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia the combination of rapacious commercial lumbering and poor farmers clearing land is chipping away one of the key supports in the global ecosystem.

Both desertification and the destruction of tropical forests are vast, even overwhelming examples of the slippery slope to ecological catastrophe. And there are dozens of other environmental horror stories ranging from acid rain to nuclear power. Most are buried in obscure science journals. But you will also find them catalogued in the UN Environment Programme’s ten-year round-up, The World Environment, 1972-1982.

Horror stories apart, the environment movement has taught us a valuable lesson over the last decade: people do not stand apart from nature. They are an integral part of the ecological system. Environmental protests abstracted from the day-today realities of the life of people on this earth are not just limited, they are also doomed to failure. For example, it is no good trying to save the white Rhino if peasants next door to the nature preserve are starving.

Whatever the symptoms of environmental destruction — whether it is killing off the world’s whales or killing off the Sahel’s inhabitants — the cause can be traced back to political systems. What some people call the balance of power. It’s that balance which is the major stumbling block to restoring the finely turned balance of the global ecosystem.

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New Internationalist issue 114 magazine cover This article is from the August 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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