issue 235 - September 1992
Who is murdering the earth? It's time for our investigator to ponder the evidence -
and bring charges against the two most flagrant culprits.
Let's look at some countries where eco-systems have been pulverized: Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mozambique.
The kind of environmental degradation from which these countries suffer has little to do with rapid population growth. What it has got to do with is the military.
In 1989 Paul Shaw, UN advisor on population and development, wrote: 'No amount of deforestation in Brazil, desertification in the Sahel, or water pollution in the Nile can compare with the cumulative effects of war.'1 The Allied bombardment of the Gulf and Saddam Hussein's oil fires leave no doubt that Shaw has got it right.
Apart from the direct damage to land and air, war destroys the environment because it destabilizes traditional communities. Refugees flee for their lives to settle as best they can on fragile soils that cannot support unexpected cultivation. As usual, people-pressure' gets the blame for the damage to the soil, not the war-makers who cause the flight.
Between 1955 and 1985, Africa experienced more than 200 attempted coups d'etat. Such conflicts continuously disrupt agriculture. More than eight million peasants have fled their villages to escape terror and violence in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Sudan and Uganda. This chaos has upset transport and marketing, suspended the maintenance of irrigation and land systems, and forced people to migrate to places that cannot possibly sustain large populations.
In the past 40 'years of peace' there have been some 125 wars fought on Southern soil.2 Not all these conflicts begin and end with local politics: parts of Africa have been devastated by the superpowers fighting through the medium of local politicians. Now that the US has won, perhaps the coup-count will slow down.
Even when they are not political battles on behalf of Northern powers, they hugely benefit the North - for that is the home of the arms merchants. Four out of the five largest arms dealers in the world are Northern powers. All four - the US, USSR, UK, and France are members of the UN's Security Council. When it comes to setting the fashion for armaments-consumption, they call the shots.
With the thawing of the Cold War, Northern arms manufacturers like British Aerospace, Aerospatiale (France) and McDonnell-Douglas (US) are wooing the governments of the South at lavish arms fairs like the Paris Airshow - with the active support of their own governments. A senior Aerospatiale official commiserated with the UK when Mrs Thatcher left ministerial office: 'You have lost your best salesman.'
The declared global trade in 1990 was some 21 billion dollars of which the South bought 60 per cent - so yet another huge tranche of funds shifts from South to North, lessening the South's capacity to look after the more vulnerable of its people.3 In this way the poorer countries are devastated by the global war machine both during wartime, when their environment is wrecked, as well as during peacetime, when they channel their national income towards stocking up on more arms. The addiction to this particular form of Northern technology slides the South into more environmental unsustainability.
Behind the public scenes are the arms traders who actually strike the deals between the Northern manufacturers and the Southern defence ministries that are their customers. The victims of this sinister triangle include 22 million people who have died in wars in the South in the past 40 years.
If we look closer we can also see tens of millions more victims, families living diminished and uprooted lives. If we look more closely still, we can see the war-torn body of the planet itself. But the perpetrators of eco-death remain camera-shy.
The crowning irony is that all this planetary and human misery has been inflicted in the name of 'freedom' and 'security'.
But military interests are not doing all the damage. Other forms of big business - especially transnational corporations (TNCs) also play a major role. TNCs are massive polluters, directly responsible for 40 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas problem.
Their power is growing. The world's largest 500 companies now control at least 70 per cent of world trade, 80 per cent of foreign investment and 30 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product. One family-owned corporation, Cargill, accounts for 60 per cent of the cereals traded on the world market.4
As big business profits prosper the life of the planet and its poorer people ebbs away. TNCs use their muscle to force down prices for Southern commodities. Rice, coffee, cocoa, sugar and cotton were on average 20 per cent cheaper in 1989 than in 1980.
Naturally, rural people in these low-income - no, lowered-income - countries cannot compete in the market-place for good land. And so rural people move to the hillsides or to shanty-towns, and population pressure is blamed when the blame should be placed on market pressure.
If we are sincere about wanting rural people to stop cutting down trees we should remember how desperate developing countries are to get rid of their foreign debts. Selling timber is a fast way to make a buck, and bucks are in short supply as Northern banks insist on the debt being repaid in Northern, not in local, currency. Remember Fuentes' Mexican baby, born owing $1,000 to a Northern bank? It is the $1,000 rather than the baby that is causing the environmental headache.
So when the television-news reporters next tell me, in horrified and breathless tones, that the slashing and burning poor have pushed their way into the rainforest, I must remember what they have failed to remind me of: who pushes the poor who push into the forest. Just how much choice do these lowered-income farmers have?
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
And, for that matter, how much actual, choice do we - the high-consuming, high-polluters - have? We don't start our day intending to act anti-environmentally. We 'choose' to consume and waste only in a very superficial sense, since we make these choices based on very little information. Our conscious intention is only to make ourselves, or the people we provide for, healthier or happier in some way. We have very little reliable knowledge about how seriously our consumerist behaviour impacts upon the planet.
But each of us becomes a sorcerer's apprentice for the TNCs, helping them to abuse the environment when we succumb to their enchantments. Each purchase that we make gives them another mini-boost of energy. I wouldn't choose to wear Lycra or drink Costa Rican coffee - nor come across coffee as a drink at all - if it were not for the consumer choices made for me by anonymous men and women running TNCs.
I am dazzled, as I am meant to be, by their calculated displays in shop-windows and supermarkets. I am seduced by the shifting images they place before my eyes on television screens, even when I know - and I know they know I know - that advertisements are deliberately-created illusions. I can see in the mirror that I am being tricked, and in the opposite mirror I can see myself seeing myself being tricked... but I allow myself to be tricked anyway, like a child willingly entranced by a stage conjuror.
And somehow, I still tell myself that my 'choices' as a consumer express my individuality. I swallow the advertisers' shameless lie that I can do this by buying their mass-produced goods. But where, really, is my own choice?
We shouldn't be surprised that individual consumers are so caught in the TNCs' clutches. They can even hold the most powerful governments to ransom. At the Earth Summit's preparatory meeting in New York in April, they managed to get deleted from the Rio discussions all references to the impact of trade on the environment.
Once a country is caught in these macro-economic spells, it is easy to see how 'the Earth is being stripped naked, abused, wounded, and left bleeding to death!' as Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai puts it.
Seeing some of these forces hidden behind the surface helps explain another mystery: why the rural people do not look after the land and the forests in the sustainable ways so long embedded in their cultures. They haven't just forgotten these sustainable practices or stopped caring about them.
The brutal reality is that rural people are reluctant to invest in long-term land management such as tree-planting and terracing if their investments are likely to be expropriated by big farmers. 'Instead,' says environmental campaigner George Monbiot, 'they will plant crops which extract the maximum from the soil in the shortest amount of time, even if this results in the destruction of the land and its wildlife.'
The quick-profit value system of big business is catching. When rural people can't beat 'em, they are forced to join 'em.
So it is not only all of us in the North - and the elites of the South - that keep the global economic system going, through our consumerism and through voting in governments (closely allied to the military and to TNCs) who operate by its tenets: people in the South are enmeshed in it too. Most Southerners will dislike the global economic system not because they see that it is inherently destructive but because they are its victims rather than its beneficiaries. There is nothing intrinsically pure about being a Southerner, or intrinsically wicked about being a Northerner: We are all caught in the same net.
All modern governments are committed to a 'pro-growth' economic policy - one that perceives its voters primarily as consumers who must want to consume more and more. Ever-increasing consumption is the breath that inflates the industrialized world's economic balloon; as soon as you stop buying, it shrivels up into a pathetic wrinkle. You have to keep on buying - until the balloon bursts and we are left with grubby scraps of rubber on a wasted planet. How did we come to fall for such a ridiculous way of running our world?
1 Paul Shaw, Populi, Vol.16 No.2
2 Dr mahbub ul-Haq, The Double Edged Sword, a BBC/Word-Pictures television documentary.
3 SIPRI, 1991.
4 John Vidal in Oxfam/Guardian Earth supplement, ( June 1992).
Also Worth Reading on... Population
Edward Goldsmith's lifework and ecological cri-de-coeur has finally appeared. Despite mind-boggling polysyllables like 'homeotelically', the thesis of The Way (Rider, London/Sydney/A uckland/Johannesburg 1992) is both clear and inspiring.
Alternative Economic Indicators by Victor Anderson (Routledge, London/New York 1991) is the first book on global economics I have actively enjoyed. Anderson is a researcher for the New Economics Foundation, the charitable and educational arm of TOES (The Other Economic Summit). The Foundation, which consistently challenges the current global economic order, is based at Universal House, 88-94 Wentworth Street, London El 75A.
Thomas Keneally is neither economist nor ecologist, yet his latest novel Flying Class Hero (Hodder and Stoughton 1992), about a group of Australian Aborigine dancers on board a plane hijacked by Arab revolutionaries, is packed with insights into issues such as the clash of post- and pre-industrial societies. It is especially good on the tension between the wish for change through force and ideological domination on the one hand, and through a more complex and sometimes confusing process of individual empowerment on the other.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.