issue 206 - April 1990
6. Fight for fairness
Western countries have built their wealth on 200 years of cheap fossil fuels. In the process they've distorted the world economy and Third World debt has ballooned. Poverty is now the biggest threat to the environment. Restructuring the world economy in favour of the poor is critical to fighting global warming.
Cry foul, cry freedom
China and India are refusing to abide by international agreements
to cut pollution. Outrageous? Save your condemnation until you have
understood why, asks Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva.
When the mercury hit 100°F in many North American cities in the summer of 1988, the issue of global warming took on a whole new urgency. Thermometers registering a few degrees more in the United States suddenly turned climate change into a 'global' issue. The entire scientific community was immediately mobilized.
Contrast this with three years earlier when thousands of famine victims in Ethiopia and Sudan weren't enough to move governments in the North to respond to desertification and drought as global environmental emergencies. True, they sent food aid, but the climate problem remained a local difficulty. These deaths, after all, took place in Africa - they were still 'out there'.
The Northern bias which pushed the greenhouse effect' into sudden prominence continues to dominate discussion of the global climatic crisis. The facts are clear: the threat to the atmospheric commons has been building over centuries, mainly because of industrial activity in the North. Yet international discussions seem to focus more on developing countries: the North refuses to assume extra responsibility for cleaning up the atmosphere. No wonder the Third World cries foul when it is asked to share the costs.
Countries like China and India continue to resist global protocols, like the Montreal Accord to cut CFC production by 50 per cent, because they are viewed as instruments to make the Third World pay for damages caused primarily by the North. India and China account for only two per cent of total CFC consumption while the US alone consumes 29 per cent. Other Third World critics resist this 'eco-imperialism', charging that it undermines national sovereignty while generating new costs for those already marginalized by colonialism. The imperative of ecological democracy, they say, demands that the worst polluters pay the heaviest price for cleaning up. Should the Chinese and Indians pay for the Americans to continue using huge gas-guzzling cars?
The contribution of the North to global warming does not stop with its own greenhouse- there is also the aggressive way it has pushed the Third World onto an energy-intensive path of development. Experts advised Third World governments to switch to the era of 'modernity', assuming that an economy without oil and gas was 'backward' and primitive'. The World Bank used energy consumption as a barometer of 'development'. Renewable sources of energy (and economies based on them) were assumed to be unproductive. A popular 1960s text book on the Indian economy was typically dismissive: 'Production is achieved through humans and animals, rather than mechanical power. Most agriculture is unproductive; human or animal manure may be used, but chemical fertilizers and pesticides are unknown.'
The alternative was farming based on fossil fuels and dependent on the petrochemical industry: a system of agriculture that pumps CO2 into the air from tractors and nitrous oxide from fertilizers in the name of increasing productivity. Welcome to the greenhouse effect.
Yet there is nothing inherently productive about agriculture based on oil and chemicals. In India traditional farmers use about half a calorie of clean renewable energy to produce one calorie of food, while highly mechanized, chemically-based agriculture uses ten calories of polluting, non-renewable energy to produce one calorie of food.
In the cultural transformation associated with development the tractor and automobile were symbols of progress; the plough and bullock cart symbols of backwardness. Now the global climate crisis is forcing us to look again at these symbols - through an ecological prism.
The threat of climate catastrophe is forcing us to measure progress by how much energy we conserve rather than how much we consume. It also allows us to see Third World elites, with their resource-wasteful lifestyles, as part of a global system that impoverishes the planet and the poor. Their privileged status is a major hurdle blocking the Third World's path to ecological survival.
Unfortunately, we do not have the tools to calculate how much damage has been done to developing nations through expensive and ill-conceived advice from the North. But there is no doubt the introduction of energy-wasteful technology has been helped immeasurably by international aid agencies.
Aid for fertilizer, tractors, transport and energy mega-projects: all of these have primarily been ways for Western corporations to sell more machinery, equipment and engineering services to the Third World. For every dollar of aid given, three dollars worth of business is generated in the industrialized countries.
Multilateral agencies like the World Bank have also helped pave the way for fossil-fuel dependency. In India, the Bank plans to double its assistance for power projects by 1995 to one billion dollars a year. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) which operates coal-based power plants, is the single largest beneficiary of World Bank assistance. Even today the Bank earmarks 25 per cent of its funds for energy projects. And the Bank too is turning a profit: last year it received $1.9 billion more in repayment than it loaned out.
Who is responsible for the greenhouse gases created by these internationally-financed energy projects? Can we leave out the bankers (with their drive for interest) or the corporations (with their drive for markets)? How much of the Third World's growing energy demand is propelled by the profit imperative of the North?
Tropical deforestation is also influenced by rich-world economic pressure. Amazonia is disappearing mainly because of foreign market demands: the land is used to grow cheap beef for Northern consumers and to supply charcoal that will smelt iron for export. South-East Asia's forests are being ravaged to suit the taste for hardwood in Japan and Europe. And as commodity prices fall and debt burdens spiral, the Third World is trapped into exporting more to earn less.
This debt burden now stands in the way of increased spending by the Third World on the environment, a priority which both its own citizens and the global-warming crisis demand. The Northern financial system is centrally responsible for the debt crisis - the result of bad loans and unjust interest demands. As US economist John Kenneth Galbraith has written: 'Such loans, given by foolish banks to foolish governments for foolish purposes, generally are not - and perhaps should not - be repaid.'
If the North is really serious about coming to grips with global warming - whether caused by higher levels of fossil-fuel use or faster rates of deforestation - then debt and unequal trade must be tackled first. Both are reflections of the deep rift between rich and poor which frustrates our search for environmentally sustainable development. (Third World Network)
Dr Vandana Shiva is director of the Research Foundation for Science and Ecology, India. She is the author of Staying Alive.