The Burden of the Past
Earth, Wind, Water and Fire: Resource Exploitation in the Twentieth Century
J. R. McNeill
Ecological Displacement and Transnational Environmental Justice
Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century
Robert D. Bullard
How Much Should a Person Consume?
'If We Are Not Getting into Trouble, We Are Not Being Effective'
INTERVIEW: George Monbiot
The Perils of Panglossism
Climate Change: The Need for Action
Preserving the Forests: The Promise of Community Control
Roger D. Stone and Claudia D’Andrea
Justifying Sustainable Development: A Continuing Ethical Search
Holmes Rolston III
Ecofeminism, Lifeboat Ethics and Illegal Immigration
The Animal Invitation: Extending Human Rights to Other Apes
Paul Waldau and Sarah Whitman
REVIEW ESSAY: Ten Pinches of Salt: A Reply to Bjorn Lomborg
Debunking the Myth of a Lost Eden
A Social Contract for the Future
Hussein A. Amery
Volume 4 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2002—The Fragile Biosphere
How Much Should a Person Consume?
In his book, Galbraith highlighted the “preoccupation with productivity and production” in postwar America and western Europe. The population in these societies had for the most part been adequately housed, clothed and fed; now they expressed a desire for “more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment”.1 When Galbraith termed 1950s America the “affluent society”, he meant not only that this was a society most of whose members were hugely prosperous when reckoned against other societies and other times, but also that this was a society so dedicated to affluence that the possession and consumption of material goods became the exclusive standard of individual and collective achievement. He quoted the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, who remarked that this was a culture in which “any device or regulation which interferes, or can be conceived as interfering, with [the] supply of more and better things is resisted with unreasoning horror, as the religious resist blasphemy, or the warlike pacifism”.2
The Unasked Question
The essay I speak of was written months after the book, which made Galbraith’s name and reputation. “How Much Should a Country Consume?” is its provocative title, and it can be read as a reflective footnote to The Affluent Society. In the book itself, Galbraith had noted the disjunction between “private affluence and public squalor”, of how this single-minded pursuit of wealth had diverted attention and resources from the nurturing of true democracy, which he defined as the provision of public infrastructure, the creation of decent schools, parks and hospitals. Now the economist turned his attention, all too fleetingly, to the long-term and global consequences of this collective promotion of consumption, of the “gargantuan and growing appetite” for resources in contemporary America. The American conservation movement, he remarked, had certainly noted the massive exploitation of resources and materials in the postwar period. However, its response was to look for more efficient methods of extraction, or the substitution of one material for another through technological innovation. There was, wrote Galbraith, a marked “selectivity in the conservationist’s approach to materials consumption”. For
if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!3
A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that “the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical–geographical product”. This frontier attitude, he went on, “has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute”. Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer—speaking for his fellow Americans—noted wistfully that “we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists”.4
Galbraith himself identified two major reasons for the silence as regards consumption. One was ideological, the worship of the great god Growth. The principle of Growth (always with a capital G) was a cardinal belief of the American people, which necessarily implied a continuous increase in the production of consumer goods. The second reason was political, the widespread scepticism about the state. For the America of the fifties had witnessed the “resurgence of a notably over-simplified view of economic life which [ascribed] a magical automatism to the price system”. Now, Galbraith was himself an unreconstructed New Dealer, who would tackle the problem of overconsumption as he would tackle the problem of underemployment, that is, through purposive state intervention. At the time he wrote, however, free-market economics ruled, and “since consumption could not be discussed without raising the question of an increased role for the state, it was not discussed”.5
Four years later, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and the modern American environmental movement gathered pace. One might have expected this new voice of civil society to undertake what the market could not. As it happened, consumption continued to be the great unasked question of the conservation movement. The movement principally focused on two things: the threats to human health posed by pollution, and the threats to wild species and wild habitats posed by economic expansion. The latter concern became, in fact, the defining motif of the movement. The dominance of wilderness protection in American environmentalism has promoted an essentially negativist agenda—the protection of the parks and their animals by freeing them of human habitation and productive activities. As the historian Samuel Hays points out, “natural environments, which formerly had been looked upon as ‘useless’, waiting only to be developed, now came to be thought of as ‘useful’ for filling human wants and needs. They played no less a significant role in the advanced consumer society than did such material goods as hi-fi sets or indoor gardens”.6 While saving these islands of biodiversity, environmentalists paid scant attention to what was happening outside them. In the American economy as a whole, the consumption of energy and materials continued to rise.
The growing popular interest in the wild and the beautiful thus not merely accepted the parameters of the affluent society but was wont to see nature itself as merely one more good to be consumed. The uncertain commitment of most nature lovers to a more comprehensive environmental ideology is illustrated by the paradox that they were willing to drive thousands of miles—consuming scarce oil and polluting the atmosphere—to visit national parks and sanctuaries, thus using anti-ecological means to marvel at the beauty of forests, swamps or mountains protected as specimens of a “pristine” and “untouched” nature.7
The Real Population Problem
The selectivity of the conservationist approach to consumption was underlined in the works of biologists obsessed with the “population problem”. Influential American scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Garret Hardin identified human population growth as the single most important reason for environmental degradation. This is how Ehrlich began the first chapter of his best-selling book, The Population Bomb:
I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, people arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.8
Here exploding numbers are blamed for increasing pollution, stinking hot air and even technological obsolescence (that ancient taxi!). During the 1970s and 80s, neo-Malthusian interpretations gained wide currency. Countries such as India and Bangladesh were commonly blamed for causing an environmental crisis. Not surprisingly, activists in these countries have been quick to take offence, pointing out that the West, and especially the United States, consumes, per capita as well as in the aggregate, a far greater proportion of the world’s resources. Table 1 gives partial evidence of this. For apart from its overuse of nature’s stock (which the table documents), the Western world has also placed an unbearable burden on nature’s sink (which the table ignores). Thus, the atmosphere and the oceans can absorb about 13 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. This absorptive capacity, if distributed fairly among all the people of the world, would give each human being the right to emit about 2.3 tons of carbon dioxide per year. At present, an American discharges in excess of 20 tons annually, a German 12 tons, a Japanese 9 tons, an Indian less than one ton. If one looks at the process historically the charges mount, for it is the industrialised countries, led by the United States, which have principally been responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases over the past hundred years.
These figures explain why Third World scholars and activists like to argue that the real “population problem” is in America, since the birth of a child there has an impact on the global environment equivalent to the birth of (say) seventy Indonesian or Indian children. There was a Bangladeshi diplomat who made this case whenever he could, in the United Nations and elsewhere. But after a visit to an American supermarket he was obliged to modify his argument—to state instead that the birth of an American dog (or cat) was the equivalent, ecologically speaking, of the birth of a dozen Bangladeshi children.9
As a long-time admirer of American scholarship, I might add my own words of complaint here. Consider the rich and growing academic field of environmental history, which is most highly developed in the United States. Scholars in other parts of the world have taken much inspiration from the works of American exemplars, from their methodological subtlety and fruitful criss-crossing of disciplinary boundaries. For all this, there is a studied insularity among the historians of North America. There were, at last count, more than three hundred professional environmental historians in the United States, and yet not one has seriously studied the global consequences of the consumer society, the impact on land, soil, forests, climate, etc., of the American Way of Life.
One striking example of this territorial blindness is the Gulf War. In that prescient essay of 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith remarked that “it remains a canon of modern diplomacy that any preoccupation with oil should be concealed by calling on our still ample reserves of sanctimony”.10 To be sure, there were Americans who tore the veil of this sanctimonious hypocrisy, who pointed out that it was the US government that had carefully armed and consolidated the dictator it now wished to overthrow. Yet the essentially material imperatives of the war remained unexamined. It was the left-wing British newspaper, the Guardian, which claimed that the Gulf War was carried out to safeguard the American Way of Driving. No American historian, however, has taken to heart the wisdom in that throwaway remark, to reveal in all its starkness the ecological imperialism of the world’s sole superpower.
I would now like to contrast the American case with the German one. Environmentalists in Germany have been more forthright in their criticisms of the consumer society. “The key to a sustainable development model worldwide,” writes Helmut Lippelt, “is the question of whether West European societies really are able to reconstruct their industrial systems in order to permit an ecologically and socially viable way of production and consumption.” That Lippelt does not here include the United States or Japan is noteworthy, an expression of his (and his movement’s) willingness to take the burden upon themselves. West Europeans should reform themselves, rather than transfer their existing “patterns of high production and high consumption to eastern Europe and the ‘Third World’ [and thus] destroy the earth”.11
For the German greens, economic growth in Europe and North America has been made possible only through the economic and ecological exploitation of the Third World. Rudolf Bahro is characteristically blunt: “The present way of life of the most industrially advanced nations,” he remarked in 1984, “stands in a global and antagonistic contradiction to the natural conditions of human existence. We are eating up what other nations and future generations need to live on.” From this perspective, indeed,
The working class here [in the North] is the richest lower class in the world. And if I look at the problem from the point of view of the whole of humanity, not just from that of Europe, then I must say that the metropolitan working class is the worst exploiting class in history … What made poverty bearable in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Europe was the prospect of escaping it through exploitation of the periphery. But this is no longer a possibility, and continued industrialism in the Third World will mean poverty for whole generations and hunger for millions.12
Bahro was a famous “Fundi”, a leader of that section of the German greens which stood in the most uncompromising antagonism to modern society. But even the most hardheaded members of the other, or “Realo”, faction acknowledge the unsustainability, on the global plane, of industrial society. The parliamentarian (and now foreign minister) Joschka Fischer, asked by a reporter where he planned to spend his old age, replied: “In the Frankfurt cemetery, although by that time we may pose an environmental hazard with all the poisons, heavy metals and dioxin that we carry around in our bodies.” Or as a party document more matter-of-factly put it: “The global spread of industrial economic policies and lifestyles is exhausting the basic ecological health of our planet faster than it can be replenished.” This global view, coupled with the stress on accountability, calls for “far-reaching voluntary commitments to restraint by wealthy nations”. The industrialised countries, which consume three-quarters of the world’s energy and resources, and which contribute the lion’s share of “climate-threatening gaseous emissions”, must curb their voracious appetite while allowing Southern nations to grow out of poverty. The greens urge the cancellation of all international debt, the banning of trade in products that destroy vulnerable ecosystems, and most radical of all, the freer migration of peoples from poor countries to rich ones.13
These elements in the green programme were, of course, forged as an alternative to the policies promoted by the two dominant political parties in Germany, themselves committed to the great god Growth. Since October 1998, the greens find themselves sharing power at the federal level, junior partners, but partners nevertheless, in a coalition dominated by the Social Democrats. Being in power will certainly tame them. They will work only for incremental change, instead of the wholesale restructuring of the consumption and production system some of them previously advocated.
Fifty years before the founding of the German green party, and thirty years before the article by Galbraith alluded to above, an Indian politician pointed to the unsustainability, at the global level, of the Western model of economic development. “God forbid,” he wrote, “that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”14
The man was Mahatma Gandhi, writing in the weekly journal Young India in December 1928. Two years earlier, Gandhi had claimed that to “make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation”. As it appeared that the Western nations had already “divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover”, he pointedly asked: “What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?”15
Gandhi’s critique of Western industrialisation has, of course, profound implications for the way we live and relate to the environment today. For him, “the distinguishing characteristic of modern civilisation is an indefinite multiplicity of wants,” whereas ancient civilisations were marked by an “imperative restriction upon, and a strict regulating of, these wants”.16 In uncharacteristically intemperate tones, he spoke of his “wholeheartedly detest[ing] this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and [to] go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic”.17
At the level of the individual, Gandhi’s code of voluntary simplicity also offered a sustainable alternative to modern lifestyles. One of his best-known aphorisms, that the “world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed”, is in effect an exquisitely phrased one-line environmental ethic. This was an ethic he himself practised, for resource recycling and the minimisation of wants were integral to his life.
Gandhi’s arguments have been revived and elaborated by the present generation of Indian environmentalists. Their country is veritably an ecological disaster zone, marked by excessively high rates of deforestation, species loss, land degradation, and air and water pollution. The consequences of this wholesale abuse of nature have chiefly been borne by the poor in the countryside—the peasants, tribespeople, fisherfolk and pastoralists who have seen their resources snatched away or depleted by more powerful economic interests. For in the last few decades, the men who rule India have attempted precisely to “make India like England and America”. Without the access to resources and markets enjoyed by those two nations when they began to industrialise, India has had perforce to rely on the exploitation of its own people and environment. The natural resources of the countryside have been increasingly channelled to meet the needs of the urban–industrial sector, the diversion of forests, water, etc., to the elite having accelerated environmental degradation even as it has deprived rural and tribal communities of their traditional rights of access and use. Meanwhile, the modern sector has moved aggressively into the remaining resource frontiers of India—the northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This bias towards urban–industrial development has resulted only in a one-sided exploitation of the hinterland, thus proving Gandhi’s contention that “the blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built”.18
The preceding paragraph brutally summarises arguments and evidence provided in a whole array of Indian environmentalist tracts.19 Simplifying still further, one might say that the key contribution of the Indian environmental movement has been to point to inequalities of consumption within a society (or nation). In this respect they have complemented the work of their German counterparts, who have most effectively documented and criticised the inequalities of consumption between societies and nations.
Omnivores and Others
The criticisms of these environmentalists are strongly flavoured by morality, by the sheer injustice of one group or country consuming more than its fair share of the earth’s resources, by the political imperative of restoring some sense of equality in global or national consumption. I now present an analytical framework that might more dispassionately explain these asymmetries in patterns of consumption.20 Derived in the first instance from the Indian experience, this model rests on a fundamental opposition between two groups, omnivores and ecosystem people. These are distinguished above all by the size of their “resource catchment”. Thus, omnivores, who include industrialists, rich farmers, state officials and the growing middle class based in the cities (estimated at in excess of one hundred million people), are able to draw upon the natural resources of the whole of India to maintain their lifestyles. Ecosystem people, on the other hand—who would include roughly two-thirds of the rural population, say about four hundred million people—rely for the most part on the resources of their own vicinity, from a catchment of a few dozen square miles at best. Such are the small and marginal farmers in rain-fed tracts, the landless labourers and also the heavily resource-dependent communities of hunter–gatherers, swidden agriculturists, animal herders and woodworking artisans, all stubborn pre-modern survivals in an increasingly postmodern landscape.
The process of development in independent India has been characterised by a basic asymmetry between omnivores and ecosystem people. A one-sentence definition of development, as it has unfolded over the last fifty years, would be: “Development is the channelling of an ever-increasing volume of natural resources, through the intervention of the state apparatus and at the cost of the state exchequer, to serve the interests of the rural and urban omnivores.” Some central features of this process have been:
1. The concentration of political power/decision-making in the hands of omnivores.21
2. Hence the use of the state machinery to divert natural resources to islands of omnivore prosperity, especially through subsidies. Wood for paper mills, fertilisers for rich farmers, water and power for urban dwellers are all supplied by the state to omnivores at well below market prices.
3. The culture of subsidies has fostered an indifference among omnivores to the environmental degradation they cause, aided by their ability to pass on its costs to ecosystem people or to society at large.
4. Projects based on the capture of wood, water or minerals—such as eucalyptus plantations, large dams or opencast mining—have tended to dispossess the ecosystem people who previously enjoyed ready access to those resources. This has led to a rising tide of protests by the victims of development—Chipko, Narmada and dozens of other protests that we know collectively as the “Indian environmental movement”.
5. But development has also permanently displaced large numbers of ecosytem people from their homes. Some twenty million Indians have been uprooted by steel mills, dams and the like; countless others have been forced to move to the cities in search of a legitimate livelihood denied to them in the countryside (sometimes as a direct consequence of environmental degradation).22 Thus has been created a third class, of ecological refugees, living in slums and temporary shelters in the towns and cities of India.
This framework, which divides the Indian population into the three socio-ecological classes of omnivores, ecosystem people and ecological refugees, can help us understand why economic development since 1947 has destroyed nature while failing to remove poverty. The framework synthesises the insights of ecology with sociology, in that it distinguishes social classes by their respective resource catchments, by their cultures and styles of consumption, and also by their widely varying powers to influence state policy.
The framework is analytical as well as value-laden, descriptive and prescriptive. It helps us understand and interpret nature-based conflicts at various spatial levels: from the village community upwards through the district and region and on to the nation. Stemming from the study of the history of modern India, it might also throw light on the dynamics of socio-ecological change in other large developing “Third World” countries such as Brazil and Malaysia, where conflicts between omnivores and ecosystem people have also erupted and whose cities are likewise marked by a growing population of “ecological refugees”. At a pinch, it might explain asymmetries and inequalities at the global level, too. More than a hundred years ago a famous German radical proclaimed, “Workers of the World, Unite!” But as another German radical23 recently reminded this writer, the reality of our times is very nearly the reverse: the process of globalisation, whose motto might well be, “Omnivores of the World, Unite!”
What, then, is the prospect for the future? Consider two well-known alternatives already prominent in the market place of ideas:
1. The Fallacy of the Romantic Economist, which states that everyone can become an omnivore if only we allow the market full play. That is the hope, and the illusion, of globalisation, which promises a universalisation of American styles of consumption. But this is nonsense, for although businessmen and economists resolutely refuse to recognise it, there are clear ecological limits to a global consumer society, to all Indians or Mexicans attaining the lifestyle of an average middle-class North American. Can there be a world with one billion cars, an India with two hundred million cars?
2. The Fallacy of the Romantic Environmentalist, which claims that ecosystem people want to remain ecosystem people. This is the anti-modern, anti-Western, anti-science position of some of India’s best-known, neo-Gandhian environmentalists.24 This position is also gaining currency among some sections of Western academia. Anthropologists in particular are almost falling over themselves in writing epitaphs for development, in works that seemingly dismiss the very prospect of directed social change in much of the Third World. It is implied that development is a nasty imposition on the innocent peasant and tribesperson who, left to themselves, would not willingly partake of Enlightenment rationality, modern technology or modern consumer goods.25 This literature has become so abundant and so influential that it has even been anthologised, in a volume called (what else?) The Post-Development Reader.26
The editor of this volume is a retired Iranian diplomat now living in the south of France. The authors of those other demolitions of the development project mentioned in footnote 25 are, without exception, tenured professors at well-established American universities. I rather suspect that the objects of their sympathy would cheerfully exchange their own social position for that of their chroniclers. For it is equally a fallacy that ecosystem people want to remain as they are, that they do not want to enhance their own resource consumption, to get some of the benefits of science, development and modernity.
This point can be made more effectively by way of anecdote. Some years ago, a group of Indian scholars and activists gathered in the southern town of Manipal for a national meeting in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. They spoke against the backdrop of a life-size portrait of Gandhi, depicting him clad in the loincloth he wore for the last thirty-three years of his life. Speaker after speaker invoked his mode of dress as symbolising the Mahatma’s message. Why did we all not follow his example and give up everything, thus to mingle more definitively with the masses?
Then, on the last evening of the conference, the Dalit (low-caste) poet Devanur Mahadeva got up to speak. He read out a short poem in the Kannada language of southwest India, written not by him but by a Dalit woman of his acquaintance. The poem spoke reverentially of the great Untouchable leader B. R. Ambedkar (1889–1956) and especially of the dark blue suit that Ambedkar invariably wore in the last three decades of his life. Why did the Dalit lady focus on Ambedkar’s suit, asked Mahadeva? Why, indeed, did the countless statues of Ambedkar put up in Dalit hamlets always have him clad in suit and tie? His answer was deceptively and eloquently simple: if Gandhi wears a loincloth, we all marvel at his tyaga, his sacrifice. The scantiness of dress is in this case a marker of what the man has given up. A high-caste, well-born, English-educated lawyer had voluntarily chosen to renounce power and position and live the life of an Indian peasant. That is why we memorialise that loincloth.
However, if Ambedkar had worn a loincloth, that would not occasion wonder or surprise. He is a Dalit, we would say—what else should he wear? Millions of his caste fellows wear nothing else. It is the fact that he has escaped this fate, that his extraordinary personal achievements (a law degree from Lincoln’s Inn, a PhD from Columbia University, the drafting of the Constitution of India) have allowed him to escape the fate that society and history had allotted him, that is so effectively symbolised in that blue suit. Modernity, not tradition, development, not stagnation, are responsible for this inversion, for this successful and all-too infrequent storming of the upper-caste citadel.
A Blueprint for India
Let me now attempt to represent the story of Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s suit in more material terms. Consider the simple hierarchies of fuel, housing and transportation set out in Table 2.
At the same time, to move down these levels is generally to move towards a more intensive and possibly unsustainable use of resources. Unsustainable at the global level, that is, for while a car admittedly expands freedom, there is no possibility whatsoever of every human on Earth being able to possess a car. As things stand, some people consume too much, while others consume far too little. It is these asymmetries that a responsible politics would seek to address. Confining ourselves to India, for instance, one would work to enhance the social power of ecological refugees and ecosystem people, their ability to govern their lives and to gain from the transformation of nature into artefact. This policy would simultaneously force omnivores to internalise the costs of their profligate behaviour. A new, “left–green” development strategy would feature the following five central elements:
1. A move towards a genuinely participatory democracy, with a strengthening of the institutions of local governance (at village, town or district levels) mandated by the Constitution of India but aborted by successive central governments in New Delhi. The experience of the odd state, such as West Bengal and Karnataka, which has experimented successfully with the panchayat or self-government system suggests that local control is conducive to the successful management of forests, water, etc.
2. Creation of a process of natural resource use which is open, accessible and accountable. This would include a Freedom of Information Act, so that citizens are fully informed about the intentions of the state and better able to challenge or welcome them, thus making officials more responsive to their public.
3. The use of decentralisation to stop the widespread undervaluing of natural resources. The removal of subsidies and the putting of proper price tags will make resource use more efficient and less destructive of the environment.
4. The encouragement of a shift to private enterprise for producing goods and services, while ensuring that there are no hidden subsidies and that firms properly internalise externalities. There is at present an unfortunate distaste for the market among Indian radicals, whether Gandhian or Marxist. But one cannot turn one’s back on the market; the task rather is to tame it. The people and environment of India have already paid an enormous price for allowing state monopolies in sectors such as steel, energy, transport and communications.
5. This kind of development can, however, succeed only if India is a far more equitable society than is the case at present. Three key ways of enhancing the social power of ecological refugees and ecosystem people (in all of which India has conspicuously failed) are land reform, literacy (especially female literacy) and proper health care. These measures would also help bring population growth under control. In the provision of health and education the state might be aided by the voluntary sector, paid for by communities out of public funds.
Remedying Global Inequalities
The charter of sustainable development outlined here27 applies, of course, only to one country, albeit a large and representative one. Its raison d’etre is the persistent and grave inequalities of consumption within the nation. What, then, of inequalities of consumption between nations? This question has been authoritatively addressed in a recent study of the prospects for a “sustainable Germany” sponsored by the Wüppertal Institute for Climate and Ecology.28 Its fundamental premise is that the North lays excessive claim to the “environmental space” of the South. The way the global economy is currently structured,
The North gains access to cheap raw materials and hinders access to markets for processed products from those countries; it imposes a system (World Trade Organisation) that favours the strong; it makes use of large areas of land in the South, tolerating soil degradation, damage to regional eco-systems, and disruption of local self-reliance; it exports toxic waste; it claims patent rights to utilisation of biodiversity in tropical regions, etc.29
Seen “against the backdrop of a divided world,” says the report, “the excessive use of nature and its resources in the North is a principal block to greater justice in the world ... A retreat of the rich from overconsumption is thus a necessary first step towards allowing space for improvement of the lives of an increasing number of people.” The problem thus identified, the report goes on to itemise, in meticulous detail, how Germany can take the lead in reorienting its economy and society towards a more sustainable path. It begins with an extended treatment of overconsumption, of the excessive use of the global commons by the West over the past two hundred years, of the terrestrial consequences of profligate lifestyles—soil erosion, forest depletion, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution. It then outlines a long-term plan for reducing the “throughput” of nature in the economy and cutting down on emissions. The report sets targets for substantial cuts by the year 2010 in the consumption of energy (at least 30 per cent) and non-renewable raw materials (25 per cent), and in the release of substances such as carbon dioxide (35 per cent), sulphur dioxide (80–90 per cent), synthetic nitrogen fertilisers (100 per cent) and agricultural biocides (100 per cent).
The policy and technical changes necessary to achieve these targets are identified as including the elimination of subsidies for chemical farming, the levying of ecological taxes (on gasoline, for example), the adoption of slower and fuel-efficient cars and the movement of goods by rail instead of road. Some examples of resource conservation in practice are given, such as the replacement of concrete girders by those made with steel, water conservation and recycling within the city, and a novel contract between the Munich municipal authorities and organic farmers in the countryside. By adopting such measures, Germany would transform itself from a nature-abusing to a nature-saving country.
The Wüppertal Institute study is notable for its mix of moral ends with material means, as well as its judicious blending of economic and technical options. More striking still has been its reception. The original German book sold forty thousand copies, an abbreviated version selling an additional hundred thousand copies. It was made into an award-winning television film and discussed by trade unions, political parties, consumer groups, scholars, church congregations and countless lay citizens. In several German towns and regions attempts have begun to put some of its proposals into practice.
Inequalities of consumption thus need to be addressed at both national and international levels. Indeed, the two are interconnected. The Spanish economist Juan Martinez-Alier provides one telling example. In the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, firewood and animal dung are often the only sources of cooking fuel. These are inefficient and polluting, and their collection involves much drudgery. The provision of oil or liquefied petroleum gas for the cooking stoves of Somali or Nepalese peasant women would greatly improve the quality of their lives. This could easily be done, says Martinez-Alier, if the rich were very moderately taxed. He calculates that to replace the fuel used by the world’s three thousand million poor people would require about two hundred million tons of oil a year. Now, this is only a quarter of the United States’ annual consumption. But the bitter irony is that “oil at $15 a barrel is so cheap that it can be wasted by rich countries, but [is] too expensive to be used as domestic fuel by the poor”. The solution is simple: oil consumption in the rich countries should be taxed, while the use of liquefied petroleum gas or kerosene for fuel in the poor countries should be subsidised.30
Allowing the poor to ascend just one rung up the hierarchies of resource consumption requires a very moderate sacrifice by the rich. In the present climate, however, any proposal with even the slightest hint of redistribution would be shot down as smacking of “socialism”. But this might change, as conflicts over consumption begin to sharpen, as they assuredly shall. Within countries, access to water, land, and forest and mineral resources will be fiercely fought over by contending groups. Between countries, there will be bitter arguments about the “environmental space” occupied by the richer nations.31 As these divisions become more manifest, the global replicability of Western styles of living will be more directly and persistently challenged. Sometime in the middle decades of the twenty-first century, Galbraith’s great unasked question, “How Much Should a Country Consume?”, with its corollary, “How Much Should a Person Consume?”, will come, finally, to dominate intellectual and political debate.
2. Ibid., p. 96.
3. John Kenneth Galbraith, “How Much Should a Country Consume?”, in Perspectives on Conservation, ed. Henry Jarret (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958), pp. 91–2.
4. Carl Sauer, “Theme of Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History” (1938), in his Land and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), p. 154.
5. Galbraith, “How Much Should a Country Consume?”, p. 97.
6. Samuel Hays, “From Conservation to Environment: Environmental Politics in the United States since World War Two”, Environmental Review 6, no. 1 (1982), p. 21.
7. For details, see my essays, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique”, Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1 (spring 1989), and “The Two Phases of American Environmentalism: A Critical History”, in Decolonizing Knowledge, ed. Stephen A. Marglin and Frederique Apffel-Marglin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
8. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 15.
9. See Satyajit Singh, “Environment, Class and State in India: A Perspective on Sustainable Irrigation” (PhD dissertation, Delhi University, 1994).
10. Galbraith, “How Much Should a Country Consume?”, p. 90.
11. Helmut Lippelt, “Green Politics in Progress: Germany”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 12, nos. 4–7 (1992), p. 197.
12. Rudolf Bahro, From Red to Green: Interviews with New Left Review (London: Verso, 1984), p. 184.
13. This paragraph is based on Werner Hülsberg, The German Greens: A Social and Political Profile (London: Verso, 1988); but see also Margit Mayer and John Ely, eds., Between Movement and Party: The Paradox of the German Greens (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), and Saral Sarkar, “The Green Movement in West Germany”, Alternatives 11, no. 2 (1986).
14. Mahatma Gandhi, “Discussion with a Capitalist”, Young India, 20 December 1928, in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWMG) [New Delhi: Publications Division, n.d.], vol. 38, p. 243.
15. “The Same Old Argument”, Young India, 7 October 1926 (CWMG, vol. 31, p. 478).
16. “Choice before Us”, Young India, 2 June 1927 (CWMG, vol. 33, pp. 417–8).
17. “No and Yes”, Young India, 17 March 1927 (CWMG, vol. 33, p. 163).
18. See Harijan, 23 June 1946.
19. See especially the two Citizens Reports on the Indian Environment, published in 1982 and 1985 by the New Delhi–based Centre for Science and Environment. See also the magisterial essay by the centre’s director, Anil Agarwal, “Human–Nature Interactions in a Third World Country”, Environmentalist 6, no. 3 (1986).
20. The following paragraphs expand and elaborate on some ideas first presented in Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (London: Routledge, 1995).
21. See Pranab Bardhan, The Political Economy of India’s Development (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
22. See Eenakshi Ganguly-Thukral, ed., Big Dams, Displaced People (New Delhi: Sage Publishers, 1992).
23. The environmentalist and social critic Wolfgang Sachs.
24. See, for example, Ashis Nandy, ed., Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989); Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed Books, 1989).
25. See, for example, Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); and especially Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (London: Zed Books, 1992).
26. Majid Rahnema, ed., The Post-Development Reader (London: Zed Books, 1998).
27. And elaborated in more detail in Gadgil and Guha, Ecology and Equity.
28. Wolfgang Sachs et al., Greening the North: A Post-Industrial Blueprint for Ecology and Equity (London: Zed Books, 1998), on which the rest of this section is based. See also F. Schmidt-Beek, ed., Carnoules Declaration: Factor 10 Club (Wüppertal: WIKUE, 1994), which sets the target of a 90 per cent reduction in material use by the industrialised countries.
29. Sachs et al., Greening the North, p. 159.
30. See Martinez-Alier’s essay, “Poverty and the Environment”, in Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (London: Earthscan, 1997). See also Juan Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment, Society, rev. ed. (London: Basil Blackwell, 1991).
31. In this connection, see Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism? (New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment, 1992).