Environment and development

Deep, deep green - C: Private Eye cartoon

Ok, I am late. I was meant to post this yesterday to tow the line with the rules of Blog Action Day, but didn’t have time. But really, in California it’s still the 15th. And the blogosphere is allowed to be chaotic…

Well, I am certainly not an environmental expert, but you don’t have to be a genius to understand that we are at a historical turning point on environmental thinking. Most of the environment-related blogs and sites I read – such as Grains of Sand, the outstanding blog of Caspar Henderson, award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs, who also writes on the Open Democracy site – agree that addressing environmental degradation and climate change should be the top priority for all politicians. Celebrating Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, Alex Steffen writes on WorldChanging:

“There is no longer any reasonable debate about whether or not we need to move with all possible speed towards a different way of living on this planet. To argue the contrary is now to prove oneself morally bankrupt”.

Point taken, you won’t hear a whisper from this blog, sir! But while there is (not) much talk of historical responsibilities, EcoEquity and of the right of developing nations to achieve our levels of economic welfare and prosperity, in practice most realist observers would admit that such rights will be trampled in the name of national economic self-interest.

With Western politicians more interested in wooing political constituencies, how can we expect them to make fair choices about who should bear the costs of carbon emission reduction? Are we honestly so deluded to think that the US and EU will consider slashing their economic growth perspectives, harm their own national companies, cause unemployment and possibly even political unrest, in order to help China, India or Brazil become wealthy, highly-industrialised nations? If we are, then perhaps we should simply ask Father Christmas to bring us a new atmosphere on 25 December.

The truth is, as a number of critical political ecologists concerned about international development put it, that the climate change debate could prove to be the hardest hurdle to jump for nations trying to develop. As Tim Forsythe and Zoe Young put it on Mute Magazine:

“There seems to be consensus among global elites about where to start (be afraid, be very afraid … but always trust the government), how to address the challenge (change development patterns in the South to ‘offset’ carbon emissions produced by business as usual in the North), and who is responsible (mainly you and me). Real doubts and arguments are suppressed while market-friendly ‘solutions’ are served up on a nice, glossy plate”.

For example, northern corporations – supported by government policies – are increasingly buying out large quantities of land to convert into ‘carbon sinks‘, often in areas where land tenure and land use rights are in dispute, so they don’t have to reduce their carbon emissions.

Many environmentalist would already have me gunned down for what I’ve written so far, but let me reassure them: I really do love trees! I’ve planted about 20 so far myself! But I just can’t see how we can expect our governments to solve this situation while lifting millions of people out of poverty.

So, what is to be done? Are we – generally concerned individuals, who are passionate about global justice, yet also care about passing on to our children a world where the air is breathable and the seas still populated by fish schools – just condemned to take sides? If we do not agree with this state of play, are we to be considered environmental foes?

I refuse to bow to this logic. The answers to the problems of climate change, environmental degradation and sustainable development are far more complex and intertwined than what we’re being told so far. On the one hand, we need to invest serious money into researching and identifying appropriate technologies to the economic development needs, energy consumption requirements and environmental challenges of developing countries. This would show developing nations that we are not just paying lip-service to the press when we say we want to help them fight poverty.

On the other hand, we need to engender a behavioural shift in the developed world, recognising that the neo-liberal economic principles that govern our economies and societies are also part of the problem, so it’s unrealistic to expect people not to discount the future when the socio-economic structures that surround them are giving them the opposite message. This is about much more than switching to energy-saving light bulbs. It’s about questioning one of the founding tenets of contemporary capitalism: consumerism.

Addressing climate change requires a deeper re-thinking than most governments, corporations and – dare I say – radical environmentalists are ready to concede. Gore is right: this is the end of the beginning. But – in Kevin Smith’s words – another end of the world is, indeed, possible.


Update 18/10/07

Blog Action Day was a resounding success, with over 20,000 blogs focusing on the 15th of October on the topic of the environement (or the 16th if you’re always late like I am). Check the statistics on the Blog Action Day site and make sure you enter your email address to be notified about next year’s Blog Action Day.

Incidentally, White African wrote a post listing a number of African bloggers that have taken part in the initiative and have posted about Africa and the environment. I particularly enjoyed AfriGadget’s post entitled: where the world sees junk, Africa recycles.


5 responses to “Environment and development

  1. Woah! Nice post. I heard Al-gore’s speech sometime back on BBC. Apparently the amount of CO2 increased in the past 50 years is the same amount that increased in between two ice ages. At this rate, we are all doomed by next 35 years. But let us all join hands and do every bit to save this wonderful place.

    That said, I have explained my stance for KISS (keep it short and simple) in my blog. I hope you understand it. And it certainly isn’t time to fret over who is right and who is wrong, but on how we can save this place. Best of luck, fellow activist :d

  2. In order to create political change you need to give the public a clear narrative with heroes and villains, problems and solutions. Environmentalism provides one compelling story, social justice another. But when we look at the intersection of these two, the tendency for simple narratives leads us into dangerous territory. We either conclude that environmentalism and social justice are at odds with one another, or that we can do both. As you note, the reality is in fact a complex combination of the two, with complicated trade-offs and synergies, but complexity is not something you can build a mass movement around. And clearly we need to generate a lot more political action on both these fronts. So what to do?

    I think critics like Forsythe are right to encourage reflection on the environmental discourse, but I also think it is naive to expect complicated, reflective movements to generate enough support to solve problems as massive as climate change or global poverty. Mass politics is going to be simple politics, so to the extent we need mass solutions we’re going to have to accept that these will be a bit crude. We certainly should refine our blunt solutions to the extent possible, but it seems that critics like Forsythe would have us reflect and criticize to the point of utter paralysis. When the stakes are this high, that is clearly unacceptable.

    Fortunately, successful policymakers like the architects of Kyoto and its successor face incentives that lead them to understand this, unlike university lecturers who face other incentives. Let’s not loose sight of of the forest for the trees.

  3. I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts to respond but they are many and varied! I agree sustainability and climate change goals must be in line with one another, and their interactions are far more complex than we think. I just heard about a report on climate change in India where the authors were trying to understand the benefits of non-traditional technologies like rickshaws – to keep India from just shifting wholly to motor vehicles. This obviosuly brings up some other labour issues! But suffice to say, these tradeoffs will never be simple.

    I usually also say that our innovation agendas (the amount of R&D spending, patenting, university support etc) needs to be in line with our societal aims. I think sustainability is like democracy – you’ll never get there, but we’ll keep trying to create systems that get us closer.

    I have to believe that the market solutions will drive change, because that’s all that’s available to us in the short term. I happen to think there will need to be radical change at some point – either through conflict or disaster – but that we are only going to get there through tipping points in awareness, political will and business focus combined. We may be surprised at what seem like incremental steps suddenly appearing as a sea change – like slime mould, where one minute there are a lot of disparate cells you don’t see and the next minute, you see a blog moving across the ground toward a food source.

    I think we have no idea, really, about the emergent properties of human activity. We think climate change is showing us how complex our interaction with the world is, but we are only beginning to understand it. Sometimes I think we’re engaged in a big rain dance to the science gods – with all these rock concerts, celebrities driving priuses, documentaries, clean teach booms etc – and future generations will shake their heads at our simplistic solutions (and call it superstition). But it doesn’t stop me from trying to understand all this — the complexity in the everyday choices businesses and citizens have to make. What frustrates me more is handsoff view, that we’re not doing enough and that the way we do things today can be wished away. They won’t.

    So what’s the next slime mould? Or even better, what will make it hungry enough?

  4. I start from one of Molly’s thoughts:
    “I think sustainability is like democracy – you’ll never get there, but we’ll keep trying to create systems that get us closer”.
    The good point is about the possibility of getting it or not,but there is a difference. Democracy is a SACRAL need, but unfortunately its lack can generate equilibriums, although negative. Be honest enough to acknowledge it (and that’s why “you’ll never get there”).
    Sustainability, if we believe in ecology (some people simply do not do it), is technically an absolute need. In the sense that when we have passed the K (carrying capacity of the ecosystem) the system is going to fall and to destroy itself until its resilience brings it back to the status of equilibrium (wars?, hunger? Lack of water?).
    I mean. The debate FACING development and ecological sustainability one against each other by a moral point of view is a false debate. It should be better and more honestly explained. Philosophically speaking, the need of environmental quality have nothing to do with people’s welfare, while people’s welfare is absolutely connected to the first. I’m just provoking, so don’t kill me guys. I’m just trying to underline the need of intellectual honesty necessary to recognize NOT RELATIVE needs.
    Of course we (basically G8 countries and another couple) are the problem. I’m not saying that the wife if Isaya, my maasai friend, should not be helped when she walks 5 hours to bring home the water. But are we asking ourselves about the impact of exporting our model of development?
    Most of our needs are needs since a few years. Is not the welfare concept something relative, always comparing our welfare to our neighbours’s? Are we sure that we (European men and women) were less happy when, a few centuries ago, life expectation was much lower, with no cars and no mobile phones? Simply it was a different life.
    Why are we not understanding and accepting the need of decrease (ecologic footprint as well as demographic rate and size)? Developing countries have the right to get more developed, while we should have the duty to come back. Of course, we’ll not do it.
    I’m not talking only about macroeconomics and utopia, but simply about leaving the car at home and using bicycles. In Milan, someone tried to create a “pollution fee” like in London you did . People around claimed they “had the right” of using the car and that it was a lack of democracy. If we all, I say all, should leave the car home, people would do it without asking “why am I supposed to leave my car home and he’s not?”.
    So, basically. Problems, not only environmental problems, are problems because of a lack of management. There is a lack a global management (UN does not exist), exposing the “earth-system” to the influence of dominant species and of dominant countries inside our species. This is going to change and upgrade the concept of need, generating other impacting needs.
    The difference between an ideal ecosystem and the earth system is this. A lack of management implies a lack of homeostasis which is basically what ensures sustainability to every natural (solar powered). We keep on think of our rights without thinking that every social system must temporarily change the concept of right and duty in times emergency. No way to come back without a top-down decision. I’m not looking for the lack of democracy, but for the lack of anarchy.


  5. All good points:

    Tom – right to emphasize the need for a clear political solution because politics – to use Molly’s term – are a major determinant of the blob’s directionality.

    Molly – I share your futuristic slow-shaking-of-the-head at our current, fumbling attempts to a) understand climate change and b) imagine how to reverse it. To wit…

    Guid0 – indeed; are we concerned about climate change because of the impact it will have on the environment or on our welfare?

    Well, it’s a mix of both, if those tragic commercials about the drowning polar bear (a friend of mine – who’s in a good position to know – says the polar bear is doomed) and the anxiety about rising sea levels and water access are any indication. (The NYT ran this excellent article (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/magazine/21water-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&ref=magazine&pagewanted=print) about the other likely outcome of climate change and its impact on growth and migration patterns within the US – the picture of Lake Mead is harrowing to anyone who’s been there.)

    If the problems of ‘reversing’ climate change are too intractable – as they may well be – it is time to take up Forsyth’s other recommendation that we anticipate the problems that are likely to arise and begin implementing mitigation mechanisms. These should include:

    1) A global migration institutional framework; and
    2) National policies on population relocation.

    The former will rely on unprecendented commitments by some nations to accept the refugees of others if international anarchy is to be avoided.

    The latter can be accomplished with an appropriate scheme of incentives, provided the policymaking apparatus can be effectively shielded against corruption (viz: a ‘Chinatown’ scenario).

    If anything tangible and good comes of the climate movement, it will be an increased awareness that we’re all in this together, for better or worse, as the Franklin quote suggests.

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