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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

The Environmental Crisis

In the literature about the environmental crisis, however, social inequality as a causal factor is often ignored. There has been a pronounced tendency to frame the issue in one of two ways, both of which obscure the central role of inequitable social structures and processes as forces driving the degradation of the natural environment.

First, there are those who believe in a technological solution to a technological problem. According to this line of reasoning, the environmental crisis has been brought about by the careless application of unsuitable technology to production processes, excessive consumption in some parts of the world, and rapid population growth in others. Resolution of the crisis, therefore, can be achieved by developing cleaner technologies, establishing recycling programs, imposing selective consumption constraints, and implementing effective family planning practices.

The Caribbean Environment Program of the United Nations, for example, cites as its goals, principles, and objectives the need for mutual technical assistance, strengthened environmental policy and legislation, integrated resource management, exchange of relevant information, human resource development, increased technology transfer, and the joint management of transboundary resources.14

The tendency to pose environmental problems only within these specific parameters occurs because the establishment of laws, the advance of science and the development of technology have taken place within specific structures of social organization. These structures conceal the choices that determine which actions are legal and which are not; which areas are chosen for research and implementation and which are neglected. Technology, science, and law present themselves as objective facts and do not tell us about either their ideological origins or their identification with specific economic interests. Like long-established institutional practices, their development takes place without witnesses. Thus, it has been legally possible to mount destructive large-scale interventions into the natural environment for private gain without having to account for the long-term social and biological consequences of such activities.

Any criticism of this technical/juridical approach to the environmental crisis has been complicated by the historical moment in which the crisis itself has been perceived. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, which recognized the deterioration of the natural environment as a crisis of global proportions, took place concurrently with the collapse of the socialist order. In the political world, it was therefore a time of triumphalism for technological efficiency, consumerism, and private property rights. It was not an auspicious time to begin talking about social planning, reduced consumption, and market regulation for these were the failed prescriptions of socialism. And yet, the crisis imposes these considerations upon us again because the environmental problems we confront are determined by socioeconomic rather than natural processes and political rather than technological choices.  

In a similar, although more complex, conceptual treatment of environment, employment and development, an ILO publication asserts: “Inadequate man-made capital, stagnant technology, lack of employment opportunities, inability to cater to basic needs, combined with a growing population, has [sic] forced the economy into a state where survival necessitates eating into the natural or environmental capital stock.”15 The author cites these socioeconomic conditions as if they literally fell from the sky, rather than analyzing them as consequences of human social activity. It is, after all, social groups and, specifically, the politically and economically elite who have made such economic choices as capital flight, disinvestment, allocation of national wealth to luxury imports, inefficient tax structures or widespread tax evasion, underfunding of social welfare programs, lack of investment in human resource development, and so on. In this descriptive account of “forced environmental degradation,” the real actors  behind the real  choices are transformed into a monolithic intangible: the economy. The human actors have disappeared; the economy is put forth as the causal explanation rather than the social groups or classes that have constructed, maintained and benefitted from it. Thus, it is possible to argue that the economy is responsible for “forced environmental degradation,” without ever specifying who is responsible for the economy itself. Countries are forced to degrade the natural environment by technological, scientific, demographic, and organizational conditions that are somehow imposed, apparently by no one at all.

The second type of environmental analysis assumes as a departure point the tension between industrialized and developing countries: the North-South antagonism. At UNCED in Rio de Janeiro, this perspective on environmental problems was much in evidence. “The Earth Summit was primarily about integrating environment and development and about increasing cooperation between North and South on these issues. That meant trying to achieve some consensus about the reciprocal responsibilities of industrialized and developing countries in making societies and economies sustainable.”16 This description of the summit represents a somewhat sanitized version of what in fact took place. In other reports subsequent to the meeting, UNCED was characterized even more generally as a North-South “dialogue,” replacing in a geographical context the receding East/West conflict.17

Because at a conference such as UNCED there is obvious disagreement between First and Third World nations about the nature and possible resolution of international issues, the North-South argument has the ring of truth to it. Nonetheless, the real nature of the geographical conflict is typically concealed. Observing the deliberations at UNCED, it was clear that representatives from the developing countries saw in the environmental crisis a justification for appropriating substantial amounts of additional financial aid from governments and multilateral funding agencies in the industrialized countries. In contrast, representatives of these agencies and of the United States, Canada, Japan, and European governments saw in the crisis an opportunity to control more directly the resources and natural reserves of the Third World and were concerned with trying to do so as economically as possible.
The developing countries tried to make the case throughout the negotiations in preparation for the conference that the industrialized countries must address inequalities in North-South economic relations and provide more financial assistance if they want the developing countries to do more to prevent and reverse global environmental degradation. They made little headway in this effort, but they did rebuff efforts by the industrialized countries to suggest policies or principles that could constrain the options of developing countries in exploiting their natural resources to speed up economic development.18
Discussions concentrated on which governments would provide funding for environmental cleanup and protection, how much funding would be made available, and—to put it crudely—who would control the money. Heated and prolonged debate surrounded such questions as the funding levels and the organizational structure of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), established to provide developing countries with financing for projects addressing international environmental threats. Conflict was also aggravated over the patent rights and the transfer of environmental cleanup technology in cases of ecological catastrophe, such as Bhopal. This was the character of the discussions at UNCED. The conference was not a forum for identifying the most urgent environmental problems and reaching consensus on how to approach them most effectively, but was instead a debate about which countries would pay to repair the destruction, how much it was going to cost, and what they would get in return.

In its most strident form, the North-South approach pits the consumerism of the North—or advanced industrialized countries—against the population growth and deepening poverty of the South—or developing countries—in seeking to identify the single most significant threat to the preservation of the natural environment. But multidimensional forms of this debate also include the putatively different perspectives between North and South on such issues as climate change, ozone protection, biodiversity, external debt and trade. Often, in these discussions, the consumerism of the North is described in such a way as to imply that there is no poverty, hunger, or homelessness in the developed world; that environmental problems there are of secondary concern, and only need to be addressed in order to make a good thing better. Further, these arguments suggest that socioeconomic conditions in the South, which have apparently come about independent of any policy-making power on the part of national political or economic elites, force these countries to destroy the natural environment in order to prevent a bad thing from getting worse.
For the prosperous countries of the North, the environmental issue is a question of quality-of-life. These countries have solved their development problems; their goals of wellbeing, as measured by traditional indicators such as calorie consumption, education, income level, leisure time, etc., have been met and exceeded. For them, the issue is not one of struggle to subsist or satisfy basic needs, but rather one of creating new forms of consumption that are generally superfluous and satisfying them with better quality, highly sophisticated goods and services.
For developing countries, many of which have not been able to satisfy the basic needs of the majority of the population and must confront rampant hunger as the number of the dispossessed and the underfed increases, the essential concern is how to utilize natural systems in order to accelerate development and economic growth without exhausting natural resources or damaging the environment. These countries are aware of the environmental problem, but they confront the urgent task of addressing poverty under extremely difficult conditions: population growth, unfavorable international relations, scarcity of technical and economic resources, and, frequently, the inertia of an economically stagnant decade and continuing negative growth rates.19
The sole use of national-level statistical indicators to analyze socioeconomic status leads very quickly to these kinds of conclusions. National indicators, in themselves, immediately obscure all manifestation of social inequality within societies, which is where it really matters when looking for causes and solutions to environmental problems. And the implications of this argument are inevitably bankrupt: in the overfed and overindulged North, environmental destruction is not a significant issue, and in the emaciated and victimized South, there is little alternative to continuing deterioration.

The simplistic nature of this type of analysis has derived from a more complex theoretical approach to environment and society, best articulated by Osvaldo Sunkel of the Economic Commission for Latin America. Sunkel argued in 1980 that the development pattern followed by Latin American countries was a poorly adapted version of earlier North American industrialization processes which would ultimately devastate the natural environment of the region. Sunkel amplified the analysis, however, by identifying social forces internal to Latin American countries which benefitted substantially by pursuing this particular socioeconomic course.
In the late fifties, when this newly created industrial base could have been used to expand the industrial production aimed at satisfying fundamental needs of the majority of the population and to diversify the export structure in order to reduce the excessive reliance on primary exports, a dramatic reorientation took place. Several factors were involved in this change: the influence of the local elites and the higher income groups who wanted to continue to improve their new lifestyle; the demonstration effect of these local elites and of the newly expanding mass media in impressing the new lifestyle on the rest of the population; and the renewed vigorous national and international expansion of U.S., Western European and Japanese capitalism, as evidenced by the phenomenal growth and diffusion of transnational corporations. The emphasis in development patterns shifted to the reproduction locally of the production patterns of the industrialized countries—those production patterns that were the basis of the lifestyle of the industrialized societies.20
This critical refinement of the theory has been lost, however, in latter day versions of it, which take as units of analysis the different countries themselves rather than the agents within those countries who promote or choose one policy over another for specific purposes and advantage.21 As with the purely technological approach to the crisis, the North-South analytical framework causes the real actors to disappear. In this case, they hide behind the abstraction of a seamless national entity that does not really exist.

This approach to environmental deterioration plays well politically in developing countries. It allows local elites to displace responsibility for species extinction, water contamination, deforestation and other problems by laying it at the door of some nebulous external force ominously referred to as “the North.”

While both approaches contain some useful elements of analysis, neither is effectively applicable to specific environmental problems. On the contrary, such proposals and debates debilitate efforts to address environmental issues effectively by continually posing the question of responsibility and redress in the wrong way. In the first instance, a strictly technological approach to a given environmental problem presupposes that no resistance to a reasonable remedial course of action will be encountered. This is most often false.

In the second instance, the tendency to identify the cause of an environmental problem as something unreachable “out there” implies that local people are helpless and unable to devise measures to address the prejudicial things that are happening “right here.”

So, the crucial role of education, as it relates to environmental protection and repair, begins to appear. Environmental education, in its broadest sense, must become a program that identifies the dimensions of the crisis and the characteristics of its causes. This is not a simple proposition because these same causes tend to dress themselves up as established social institutions and to disguise particular economic policies and practices as “human nature.” The confusion that results obscures the great crisis of our time, which can broadly be described as an increasingly intense conflict between the need to reproduce the natural world and the need to reproduce the social order just as it is. This conflict has been recognized as a relationship between environment and development, a conceptualization linking, albeit vaguely, socioeconomic and natural processes. The envisioned resolution of the conflict has been deemed “sustainable development,” an epithet that expresses the prevailing perplexity, in that the dominant economic models established heretofore are, in terms of their own dynamics, not sustainable. Many people already know this:
It has been noted that ‘beyond a vague consensus—born more out of fear than hope—there is little understanding yet [sic] about either the concept of sustainable development or a concrete plan of action to achieve it.’ Striking in this regard was the failure of most participants at the Rome Round Table to discuss the concept and role of sustainable development even though the term ‘sustainability’ figured in its title.22
Development as it is currently understood, theoretically converts all natural elements to raw materials and then transforms them into goods to be commercialized for profit. As the process of development through social production and reproduction becomes more complex and demanding, the fund of natural elements is directly diminished. And so, ironically, at precisely the moment when our civilization glitters most brilliantly, it is—in this sense—most internally decayed, most impoverished. “A country can cut down its forests, erode its soils, pollute its aquifers and hunt its wildlife and fisheries to extinction, but measured income is not affected as these assets disappear. Impoverishment is taken for progress.”23

However, it is only infrequently that this incompatibility between development and sustainability is explicitly recognized in general terms, although recent history is replete with specific conflicts in which powerful economic interests succeed in extracting a natural resource at the cost of irreplaceable habitat or species. Economic interests prevail because, within the confines of the dominant economic system, two fundamental laws apply. First, development is synonymous with the increasing production of things and the increasing velocity of their circulation. Secondly, these things are produced not because they are either needed or wanted initially, but rather because they are a source of private profit for some people. So it is that allegedly disinterested public sector bodies, faced with evidence of environmental destruction related to “development” projects or programs, persist in authorizing and funding them.

In a recent decision, for example, the executive directors of the World Bank voted to continue funding a large-scale dam project in Asia after an independent review commissioned by the Bank showed the project to be “disastrous” and “unmanageable” from an environmental point of view.24 Construction of the dam through a World Bank loan to the national government threatens the lands of approximately 100,000 rural people. Those affected have staged protests at the dam site, charging that resettlement plans are inadequate, that they have not been consulted about the progress of the project, and that the environmental impact of dam construction will be devastating. These charges were corroborated by the Bank’s own review process. Nonetheless, the Bank continued its pattern of resisting pressure to suspend the loan, despite repeated violations of the loan conditions by the government involved. The country requesting the loan is the Bank’s largest borrower and wields considerable influence with World Bank member states, some of which have proposed similar dam projects or stand to gain in trade or construction contracts through this project. In response to the decision, a spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States wrote, “By ignoring the hard evidence presented against this project, not just by affected communities, but by its own independent review, the Bank has failed the ecological and social litmus test of its commitment to change.”25

The example shows the improbability of an investment institution acting according to the dictates of environmental concerns when they conflict with economic imperatives. The political weight of the government and other interested parties simply overwhelms the arguments against the project, however objective and accurate they might be.

This case, however, also shows the bankruptcy of the North-South perspective on wealth and poverty that has consistently plagued analyses of global environmental problems. For here is a case where a Board of Directors of a “North-dominated,” multilateral lending agency collaborates with political elites in a “South” government for the profit and benefit of these same elites and their private sector contracting counterparts in other countries, both North and South.

This example of interference in the natural world illustrates a number of important themes. First, that the tension between the protection and the degradation of the natural environment is not a tension between North and South; second, that the displacement of 100,000 people, the destruction of their homes, crops, and lands is perceived, under prevailing financial arrangements, not as a disaster but rather as economic growth; third, that the reach of technological possibilities is such that it allows deliberate disorganization on this scale; fourth, that institutionally independent public sector bodies operate under the imperatives of powerful private sector interests; fifth, that, in the pursuit of private economic advantage, these interests can and will damage irreparably the natural infrastructure on which other people depend; and sixth, that those who must suffer the consequences of ecological disturbance are very often not the same people as those responsible for it.

All of the features of this inicident, and a multitude of others like it, point to a more general conclusion which is so obvious that it is not often stated, i.e., displacement, impoverishment, expropriation and environmental destruction, executed in this way and on this scale are perfectly legal within the juridical constructs of most countries in the international community. Operating through existing political and legal systems, governments do not protect the natural world within their jurisdictions when the public conservation of resources conflicts with the private exploitation of resources. Quite the opposite, in fact; governments are frequently facilitating agents for economic interests whose activities threaten ecological systems.26

The features of private sector economic activity and the corresponding support role governments play show quite clearly that the systematic destruction of the natural world in the course of human productive activity is not peripheral to our socioeconomic system. It is not anomolous; it is not an accident or a mistake that more careful planning, structural fine tuning or technological advance might eliminate. It is a central feature of a social system of production that has been maturing for five hundred years. It is a central feature of “development.” And this poses a problem for us. What in the world is really meant by the term “sustainable development”?

The Brundtland Report defined the term as a process of meeting the needs of the world’s current population without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In practice, however, development policies have little to do with meeting the needs of the world’s population directly. If this were in fact the primary goal of development policies, we would not have continuing food surpluses and energy gluts that coexist with widespread malnutrition and deprivation. In implementation, development refers to a specific tendency internal to our form of social organization that dictates that we must force a given environment to produce more in order to contribute to the continuing accumulation of private wealth. For example, increasingly sophisticated agricultural technology is consistently applied with greater intensity for the purpose of achieving this effect. In the long term, however, it does not, for the elements are, in the end, finite. Instead, it ultimately brings about a series of ecological imbalances, causing us to puzzle over the problem of needing to produce more without depleting further the natural reserves—or resources—that remain.

We sit on a thinning layer of topsoil. We have honeycombed the sphere we inhabit, extracting gold, silver, copper, tin, coal, oil, iron, and diamonds. We then consume and extinguish these materials in their original form. And in this process of exploration, extraction, transformation, and utilization, we finish with these resources and countless others that were in the way. There is no accounting for the fact that the destruction of tiny organisms we cannot even see, or the removal of complex compounds from the soil can cause far-reaching effects that have not yet been imagined.

The study of living systems as such, and the relations between them, is still a relatively new form of structural analysis. But it is these systems and their interrelations that are threatened by the economic activities of identifiable human groups which can establish, perpetuate, legitimize and spread specific institutional practices of production and consumption. The growing scale of these practices and of things that can be used by humans to manipulate and disorganize life for the purpose of producing more things has now endangered the system that perpetuates life itself.

And so we come to the environmental crisis and the problem of initiating a resolution.