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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Social Organization and Environment

Primitive forms of social organization based on hunting and gathering or on subsistence agriculture imply relatively little disorganization of the physical environment. Societies that showed greater institutional differentiation, such as slave societies, produced more dramatic interventions into the natural world. These societies constructed large-scale hydraulic systems, for example, that intensified agricultural production and manipulated natural elements for the purpose of increasing the available food supply. But societies based on slavery devalued the human capability of labor, associating it with coercion and social inferiority, thus slowing the process of technological intervention into the natural environment. Intellectual activity was the property of the elite, who applied it to philosophy, politics, and the arts, divorcing it from the debased world of direct production.

Early in the European feudal epoch, the application of intellectual activity to the process of production was also disdained, but the development of feudalism produced the innovation of individualized private property, which changed this. By the late feudal period, the concept of superficies solo cedit—the absolute and unconditional ownership of land—was the operational definition of agricultural property in Western Europe.1 Once land ownership was defined, greater productivity resulted because individual landholders who employed more intensive agricultural techniques could be certain that they themselves would reap what they had sown.

So it was during the Middle Ages in Europe that profound technological advances occurred in agriculture which enabled the continent to sustain significant long-term population growth. These societies also produced more efficient means of aggression and domination, allowing them to spread forms of social organization that supported their own supply requirements to other parts of the world.

In feudal society, the primary means of territorial acquisition was the use of force, often thinly disguised as religious or familial pretensions. Externally, the monarchies of Spain, Portugal and England embarked on belligerent forays into Latin America and Africa for the purpose of acquiring gold and silver, as well as land. In the first instance, the European powers meant to mine the metals that now represented generalized value to them and so, it seemed, they might accumulate wealth.

In the early period of colonization, then, the physical properties and expanse of conquered territories took on great significance. Certain territories had highly prized natural “resources” such as precious metals. Gold and silver were coveted because they represented the medium of exchange, a form of currency. Controllable currency was necessary because production surpluses made a barter economy obsolete: money was required to distribute goods efficiently. Territories that possessed gold and silver were thought to be “rich,” and the new European nations that dominated them envisioned great prosperity. In the New World, however, the forms of social organization that coexisted with the deposits of these metals did not lend themselves to their extraction. As a result, these societies were attacked and destroyed, and new labor relations were established to facilitate mining.

The voyage of Christopher Columbus and his encounter with the New World late in the fifteenth century was not, therefore, an aberration or an accident of history. It was a single event produced by centuries of economic development and political conflict in Western Europe. As such, the purpose of Columbus, as revealed in his diaries, is telling. In his journal, between October 12, 1492, when he made landfall in what is now the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and January of the following year, Columbus makes reference to gold at least 65 times. He hardly mentions the vegetation, which must have appeared exotic to him, nor the color and clarity of the seas, nor the benign climate. His diary reports that the first question he asked upon arrival in the Caribbean was whether there was gold. It should be noted that at this time he also identified other potential commercial goods, such as aloes, gum and cotton, and took on cargoes of them.2

So there developed in Europe and spread to the rest of the world a conceptualization of resources, as opposed to natural elements, that represented a particular way of thinking about the earth in instrumental and utilitarian terms. From European feudalism and mercantilism came an historically unique form of social organization that established itself in opposition to the natural world, seeing the elements of that world as resources to be transformed rather than as naturally occurring systems to be maintained. When the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they brought with them the fundamentals of a social formation that was (and remains) extraordinarily hostile to nature. Forests were to be cut, land was to be cleared, metals were to be mined. Indigenous social structures that impeded these processes, or did not accomplish them quickly enough, were to be displaced or extinguished.

As a consequence, the dominant models of economic production that developed in the West and imposed themselves on other regions over the course of the past five centuries have ultimately caused a great imbalance between elements, or naturally occurring components of the Earth necessary for its own reproduction, and resources, or material features of the environment available for appropriation and transformation in the service of created and socially defined needs. More and more of nature’s components have come to be seen as resources and fewer and fewer are recognized as basic infrastructural elements of the Earth, which must be either conserved intact or replaced if the world is to continue to reproduce its ecological systems.3

Political Economy and the Environmental Crisis

In a capitalist society, when natural elements are defined as resources and appropriated for production purposes, the legal and economic systems impose an additional imbalance. For the right to appropriate natural elements is assumed by an individual or a group of them, and the benefits of the venture are most often appropriated privately also. But the large-scale, long-term consequences of these individual actions are socialized; they are absorbed by all.

Moreover, this process of appropriation can be directly conflictive. Clear cutting, strip mining, or uncontrolled industrial manufacturing undertaken by one group for the purpose of producing and consuming a greater quantity of more sophisticated goods, may leave another group to contend with contaminated soil, soil loss, polluted air, or poisoned water.

The dynamics of deforestation in the Amazon River Basin are an example of this displacement of effects. Research has shown that the energy liberated by condensation of water evapotranspirated from the forest cover of the Amazonian Basin represents an important contribution to the thermal equilibrium of the Earth. The deforestation of this region, therefore, causes a reduction in evapotranspiration, ultimately resulting in a higher temperature in the more central latitudes of the globe.4 Biological and zoological research also has catalogued more than 500,000 plant and animal species in the Amazon region. These represent only a fraction of the total number actually present, which extrapolations suggest may equal more than 10 million species, making the region the repository of the greatest biodiversity on Earth.

In this region, however, a single private corporation has been responsible for burning approximately 140,000 hectares of virgin tropical forest during recent years, the greatest destruction to occur to date on a single property. The land was cleared in order to create pastureland for 46,000 head of cattle.5 It is now widely recognized that cleared pastureland in the Amazon Basin produces a decreasing amount of grass due to a decline in phosphorus in the soil, soil compactation, erosion, and invasion by inedible weeds.6 In other words, a temporal, nonsustainable economic benefit was individually appropriated by a private interest group at the cost of the permanent, incontrovertible destruction of parts of an irreplaceable element of the Earth’s reproduction mechanism.

Like forests, wetlands are important repositories of biological diversity. These ecological systems also regulate water flow, remove silt and pollutants, and provide unique habitats for waterfowl, fish and other species. Yet in Latin America they, too, are systematically threatened by the encroachment of private economic interests. Mangrove swamps, for example, are one of the most critical types of wetland for species reproduction and water filtration, but they have been heavily damaged in the region. By 1991, nearly half of the mangrove swamps in Ecuador had been cleared, mainly for shrimp ponds, and additional plans called for the successive conversion of half of the remaining areas.7 Thus, a unique ecological system necessary to maintain water quality and serve as habitat for species not yet catalogued may be destroyed by a private interest in pursuit of nonsustainable financial gain.

Private sector mining activities have also had large-scale negative effects on their natural environs. According to the Worldwatch Institute Report for 1991, for example, the smelter in the Ilo-Locumbo area of Peru “emits 600,000 tons of sulfur compounds each year; nearly 40 million cubic meters per year of tailings containing copper, zinc, lead, aluminum and traces of cyanides are dumped into the sea each year, affecting marine life in a 20,000 hectare area: nearly 800,000 tons of slag are also dumped each year.”8

In Guatemala, forests constitute the natural resource most seriously affected by economic activity. Forest cover has been rapidly reduced in recent years: in 1950, 65 percent of Guatemalan territory was forest cover, but by 1983 this area had been reduced to approximately 40 percent. This reduction continues and studies show that the rate of loss has also been increasing, from 80,000 hectares per year between 1976 and 1980 to 90,000 hectares per year between 1981 and 1985.9 The loss of forests has been brought about by the encroachment of agriculture and by the harvesting practices of the timber industry.

The expansion of export agriculture since the 1950s, which formed the foundation of the dominant development model applied in many Latin American countries, has also aggravated environmental problems. In El Salvador, “the massive and indiscriminate use of pesticides associated with the expansion of cotton monoculture, particularly adjacent to the Bay of Jiquilisco, has generated an impact on ecosystems and human health of a considerable magnitude. The number of direct applications of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons rose to the highest level in the world at the end of the 1960s.”10 Moreover, a variety of pests subsequently developed a resistance to DDT, and agricultural producers in El Salvador responded by applying newer pesticides, such as parathion and organic phosphates, with long-term effects that are more toxic still.

In the whole of El Salvador, a major contributor to environmental pollution is the heavy exposure of people, land, rivers, lakes, and groundwater to the increasing use of pesticides applied in export agriculture, including both coffee and cotton production. The country, in fact, has the highest levels of pesticide poisoning of all the Central American countries.11  Large-scale cotton production has long been characterized by the pervasive use of pesticides not subject to organic breakdown, and unacceptable levels of these toxins have been found in both land and marine ecosystems. Dangerously high levels of DDT have been found in fish, shrimp, meat, dairy products, and human mother’s milk.12

In addition to the problems of pesticide poisoning, agricultural pollution has arisen from other sources. The indiscriminate application of fertilizers, also in the export agriculture sector, has caused nitrate and phosphate contamination in streams, rivers, and lakes fed by runoff waters, resulting in the rapid acceleration of eutrophication in these water resources and in groundwater pollution. This process has seriously affected some of El Salvador’s largest lakes, such as the Olmega, where eutrophication is far advanced, the natural lakes at Coatepeque and Ilopongo, and the artificial lake at Cerron Grande. The consequences of eutrophication under these conditions are lakes that have lost their aesthetic quality and contain a diversity of pathological organisms spreading both endemic and epidemic disease through the crops and animals cultivated in or near their waters.

The economic activities typically associated with development in Latin America, such as agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, mining, and ranching require an intrusion into ecological systems with disturbing and far-reaching effects on the environment. In the cases cited here, these effects are significant and often permanent. The scale of the damage is also substantial.

The negative impact on the social groups affected, however, is not uniform. This is to say, quite simply, that we have not all benefitted or suffered equally as a result of the disorganization of the natural world that we all must now confront. Typically, ownership confers upon a titleholder the right to define irreplaceable natural elements as resources and to “exploit” them. So it is that specific  groups within societies have acquired the right to despoil lakes, waterways, forests, seacoasts, soils, and even the air for their individual economic gain. This is the power of the property right. Nothing that is done is necessarily illegal, corrupt, or even unethical because of the social and juridical definition of what is officially acceptable and permissible within Western society.

And, perversely, oftentimes those groups responsible for environmental damage are best positioned economically to protect themselves from the ill effects of their own actions. Access to energy, clean water and air, food that is free of pesticides and herbicides is increasingly expensive. Thus, the exploitation of resources for private gain generates, for some, the wealth necessary to escape the generalized consequences of this same exploitation, such as fuel shortages, air pollution and water and soil contamination, at the same time that it forces upon others a deteriorating quality of life.

Yet oftentimes in Latin America, the poor themselves, who suffer most directly the effects of ecological disequilibrium, are held responsible for environmental destruction. Their relentless search for fuel, their “colonization” of land unsuitable for cultivation, their high birth rates are cited as causes of environmental deterioration without analysis of the origins of these same processes. The urban and rural poor consume firewood for lack of access to other forms of energy. Subsistence farmers cultivate steep slopes because they have been pushed to these marginal lands by the extension of commercial plantation agriculture. Birth rates in many countries began to rise again in the 1980s as family planning programs were curtailed and social services were scaled back in response to the fiscal crises of the public sector.

In discussions of environmental problems, participants are quick to assert that accurate analyses require only an identification of solutions and not an assignment of blame. On the one hand, this is correct, for assignment of culpability presupposes individual responsibility. In a crisis of global dimensions, such as this one, it is clear that individuals cannot be responsible for systemic problems. Entire social systems are driving the development of the environmental crisis, and individuals simply play their assigned roles. On the other hand, we cannot identify solutions to problems if we have no notion of what has caused them. And while individuals or specific economic interests cannot be held responsible for the environmental destruction wrought for their benefit because they operate within a system that legally permits such despoliation, the history of political efforts to protect or restore the natural environment clearly demonstrates the reluctance of these interests to relinquish their privileges.

An important aspect of the struggle to maintain the unrestricted right of property over exploitable natural resources is the ideological battle waged over the terms in which the environmental crisis will be cast. Interestingly, at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, where the features of the deepening environmental crisis were first outlined, the basic discussion document was entitled Only One Earth.13 This document and others, such as Spaceship Earth and Our Common Future, pose the problem of deterioration in a collegial fashion, as if we are all in this together: as if we are all equally responsible and equally affected. If this were the case, however, environmental restoration and protection would be a matter of education and information only, followed by a scientific and technological fix. Environmental problems could be easily resolved through administrative and technical corrections taken by competent, well-informed specialists. There would have been, in short, no resistance to environmental protection and restoration. But attempts to restrict the rights of private interests to appropriate resources have encountered fierce resistance during the years since Stockholm. While the image of a unified earth is a comforting one, our world is a divided world. Left out of the “Spaceship Earth’s” conceptualization are the ugly facts of plundered resources, great wealth and extreme poverty. The contamination of the environment and the consumption of the planet, as such, are structurally linked to the simultaneous existence of rich and poor countries with rich and poor people. The blight of environmental destruction, like the scourge of poverty, is caused by unequal distribution and not by inadequate resources. Five centuries of a specific type of socioeconomic development have brought about the current environmental crisis. This development path has clearly demonstrated that gross social inequity despoils the natural world: extremes of wealth or poverty wreak environmental havoc and ultimately destroy the natural world on which the human species and all other species depend. The task of environmental education is, therefore, to reveal this relationship and show alternatives to it.