Exceeding The Limit
By Farooque Chowdhury
05 June, 2013
Painting a gloomy picture of the state of the world environment the UNEP report released in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, said: The earth’s environmental systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits. Several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded. “Abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur.” The changes include rising oceans, increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts, and the collapse of fisheries.
It said: Little or no progress has been made over the past five years on nearly a third of the main environmental goals including global warming. Significant progress has been made on just four of the 90 most important goals.
The report said: 90 percent of water and fish samples are contaminated with pesticides; about 20 percent of vertebrate species are under threat of extinction; coral reefs have declined by 38 percent since 1980.
Green Economy in a Blue World, the 2012 UNEP, FAO, IMO, UNDP, IUCN, World Fish Center, GRID-Arendal report, added more to the facts cited in above mentioned report:
More than 90 percent of those species formerly important to humans have been lost in coastal seas and estuaries, 35 percent of mangroves and 20 percent of all coral reefs have been destroyed. More than 30 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Over 400 oxygen-poor ‘dead zones’ are in the world that include the Black Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Baltic Sea. These have significant negative impact on fisheries, food security and livelihoods. The world’s fishing fleets are double the size these should be and the potential economic gain from reducing fishing capacity to a sustainable, economically optimal level and restoring over-exploited and depleted fish stocks is of the order of US$50 billion per annum. The undernourishment of about 20 million people could have been averted without over-fishing. Invasive species threaten biodiversity, marine industries and human health. The global economic impact of invasive aquatic species is US$100 billion per year. The rate of marine bio-invasions is one every nine weeks and over 80 percent of the world’s 232 marine ecoregions found invasive species.
The Green Economy … report added:
Now, the manufactured fertilizer industry annually produces about 100 million tones of nitrogen in fertilizer. Today, 40-60 percent of global crop yields are attributable to commercial fertilizer use. The link between industrial agriculture and reactive nitrogen pollution is well established with impacts on drinking water. The impact of excess nitrogen in the EU alone is €70-320 billion per year. The energy consumption and associated environmental costs for fertilizer production are significant: 1-2 percent of all consumed global energy.
Tourism, according to the report, is taking its toll: conversion of land for construction, declined biodiversity, destructed coastal wetlands, dune complexes and mangroves. Many coastal destinations have become heavily urbanized. For example, out of 8000 kilometers of Italian coastline, 43 percent is completely urbanized, 28 percent is partly urbanized. Only 29 percent of coastline could be considered ‘pristine’. Tourism accounts for about 5 percent of global emissions. Approximately 75 percent of this is caused by transports, and in particular aviation.
Some states, the report said, have shown interest in deep sea mining, a new industry with many unknowns, beyond national jurisdiction. There is a legitimate concern regarding deep-sea mining and its economic and social consequences.
The report reminds: “There are still large knowledge gaps in our understanding of the ecosystems associated with these deposits, and the resilience of the ecosystems. Destruction of ecosystems associated with deep-sea minerals might involve the loss of ‘existence values’ , or ‘bequest values’, or there may be future-use values of which we are currently unaware (‘option values’). Passive and option values (existence and bequest values) have the potential to affect local water and air quality, and will result in carbon emissions. The potential economic cost of these environmental damages has not been estimated. A reduction in local environmental quality may also pose a public health risk to local communities. Deep-sea mining may impinge on customary rights and connections to the ocean, including economic, cultural, social, political and religious rights.”
It should not be forgotten that too often mining appears to increase a country’s poverty (Sachs, J., & A. Warner, “Natural resource abundance and economic growth” in Meier G., & J. Rauch, Leading Issues in Economic Development, 1997). “The economic benefits of mining activity tend to be concentrated in the hands of a ‘lucky few’.”
The dangerous environment degrading journey has been mentioned many times. Four years ago, based on “Ecological Footprint” calculations, the Living Planet Report said: The world was using around 30 percent more biocapacity than the global ecosystems can provide in a sustainable manner. (WWF, Zoological Society of London, Global Footprint Network, 2008)
Unaltered course, unchanged character
Has the situation improved? The system that generates the crisis – crossing the earth’s capacity – has not changed its course and character, which is impossible for the world system, an ingrained incapacity of the system. Rather, the world finds a more deteriorated environmental reality as deepening crises – financial, economic and political – in the dominating world system, manifested in increment competition among capitals, and in invasions and aggressions, audaciously trample down peoples’ interests in countries. And, environment is one of the areas of peoples’ interests.
Failure in a number of international negotiations on environmental issues is one of the images of competition among capitals engaged with environment demolishing activity. A forceful imposition of the environment-defacing regime is the order of the day. New areas are falling victim to it. Almost everyday news/facts of environmental erosion egress from corners of the world. It’s a bellum internecinum, a war of extermination, against all forms of life being waged by interests connecting Economy – Society – Politics – Environment (Ec-S-P-En) grid.
Hunger, poverty and deprivation of millions of people in countries have been intensified by the financial/debt/banking/economic crises, and the so-called austerity measures, essentially measures to intensify appropriation of surplus labor and, even, necessary labor. Countries considered rich are now residences of millions of poor, unemployed, debt-ridden, homeless, hungry souls. Greece is not only a single example. Today’s capitalist world, the advanced capitalist countries reeling under the Great Financial Crisis, the countries in Asia-Africa-Latin America, is the example. Should the human crisis being authored by the financial, etc. crises be considered a non-environmental issue?
Poverty, inequality, inequity are few of the biggest environmental problems in the present world. Reports on poverty, hunger, food, water, health, labor, employment, living condition pronounce this fact unequivocally.
Agriculture is the livelihood of about 1.3 billion small farmers and landless workers, of which about half – close to 560 million – are women. (IPS, “Rural Women Are Leading the Way – Will the World Follow?”, part 1, Feb. 25, 2012) Farmers in the poor countries are thrown out of local market by artificially cheaper exports from the richer part of the world that dumps highly subsidized commodities in poor countries’ markets. A few years ago, India’s National Sample Survey Organization found more than 40 percent of farmers were keen to quit agriculture as a result of market pressures. Does the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy, the regime mainly consisting of subsidies, stop the Union from threatening the poor farmers and food security in the poor countries? A new CAP is expected to come into effect in the beginning of 2014.
International Land Coalition stated that the demand for biofuels is driving more than 50 percent of large-scale land acquisitions world-wide. “Shell and BP invested heavily in Brazilian sugar cane last year. They want to remain leaders in the fuel sector. They are lobbying in Brussels.” (Daan Bauwens, “Biofuels and Hunger, Two Sides of the Same Coin”) A large percentage of Guatemala’s indigenous population is facing a new hunger crisis because of land grabbing, forced evictions and water diversion to create large-scale monoculture plantations for biofuel. ActionAid calculated that Europe’s target of producing biofuel would require converting up to 69,000 square kilometers of natural ecosystems into cropland, an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. The conversion would annually emit 56 million tonnes of extra CO2, the equivalent of an extra 12 to 26 million cars on Europe’s roads by 2020. Has this reality changed significantly?
Rather, an “amazing”, actually, a hostile policy-environment prevails. Rajiv Shah, USAID’s chief administrator, announced that large-scale private sector partnerships would lead the way to a hunger-free world. Identifying 17 global “champions”, Shah named transnational giants as leaders in the fight against food insecurity. These included Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro, Monsanto, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores and Yara International. But these companies have notorious track records in the areas of human and environmental rights. (Kanya D’Almeida, “Reimagining Food Systems in the Midst of a Hunger Crisis”, IPS, June 3, 2011) Profit driven governance of environment, plunder dictated governance, mal-governance, at national and international levels, and disenfranchising and disempowering peoples in countries have worsened the global environment reality.
A handful of TNCs with unparallel economic power control almost 80% of the global economy. There is a structure of control at a global level forming “a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic ‘super-entity’.” (Stefania Vitali, James B Glattfelder and Stefano Battiston, The network of global corporate control, ETH Zurich) “The structure of the control network of transnational corporations”, wrote Stefania, James and Stefano, “affects global market competition and financial stability.”
The network generates power with implications for the world environment. The TNCs’ political-military-media arms facilitate devouring of the world environment. Leslie Sklair observed: Concentrated capital accelerates the exploitation of natural resources by private entrepreneurs. (The Transnational Capitalist Class, 2001) Moreover, international trading regime “contributing” to erosion of world environment has not changed today.
Section of economists from the South often penning pro-people words dream for an ideal society that will root out inequality, and they call for repurposing of market forces. The expression is blandae mendacia linguae, falsehood of a smooth tongue. They dare not admit that market forces are fundamentally and entirely anti-people, anti-environment, and are basically authoritarian and nihilist. Authoritarianism and nihilism does neither serve people nor environment, even in abstract sense, and, hypothetically, even if people are taken out from the environment and the environment is allowed to function only in physical term.
Has not the world listened to the brutal epic of market for decades and experienced its “glorified” failures? Can the world forget the Shock Therapy of neoliberalism inflicted by the “famous” Chicago boys in the continent of Latin America as Naomi Klein depicted in her book? The price, the cost the humanity and the world environment paid for the barbaric market concert, a concert of robbing the humanity and the nature, is extraordinarily high. Was it possible for the world environment to get rid of that curse during the long period? Has the scenario basically changed around the world other than alternative initiatives in smaller parts in the south? Doesn’t this signify the state of the world environment today?
There are efforts to perceive the global hunger catastrophe, an essential part of global environment, as an amalgamation of three distinct but inherently inter-related problems: poverty, environmental degradation, and an epidemic of malnutrition. (Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Agroecology and the Right to Food, report presented to the Human Rights Council, March 2011) But these perceptions fail or dislike recognizing the sources of poverty, environmental degradation (ED) and epidemic of malnutrition (EM). Isn’t it the scientific approach to ask the reason behind poverty, ED, EM? What’s the force that creates/functions behind poverty, ED, EM? Isn’t it the economy that creates the degradations, etc.? Should the food crisis be ignored while assessing the state of the world environment? Should it be logical to ignore the forces – the “invisible”, cruel hands of speculators, the financialization, the centralized and concentrated market forces – creating the current global food crisis while assessing the global environment? Compartmentalizing the relationship of economic-political-environmental forces isn’t possible if a scientific approach is followed while assessing the world environment.
Depriving hundreds of thousands of people of economic benefits Liberia has granted up to 60% of its rainforests to logging companies. These people depend on these forests. There were corrupt deals. (Reuters & BBC, Sept. 4, 2012) Liberia is only an example. States, many, bear the same signature of the same connection: to plunder the environment, economic interests operate with ruthless political machine. The extent and level differ only. The environment is not safeguarded as these states lack “political determination and strong governance”, a requirement suggested by the GEO 5.
A list, prepared by mainstream or conservative think-tanks, of failed/near-to-failed states, and of countries experiencing aggression, intervention and civil war helps calculate the total number of population suffering from environmental catastrophe in those lands as failed state, “illiberal democracy”, war, etc. negatively impact environment. Should the fact be ignored while assessing the state of the world environment? Ignoring the fact – failed/near-failed states negatively affect the environment – will be an exercise in error. Considering the concept of happiness in national measurements of development, as Bhutan tries, will push anyone to an absolute void in any failed/near-failed state, and the issue of environment is part of development.
Mainstream discussions on environment skip the issue of class interests. But individual, person or enterprise, can’t master the power and force that can deface the nature to today’s extent. Even smaller economies don’t have that money-power that can explore their own resources or potentials. Degrading the nature is a dream-impossible to them. Interests innovate, dominate and manipulate instruments – laws, conventions, institutions, technology, fire power, etc. – that are eroding the nature, from the deep depths of the oceans to the space and sun light.
Despite Tûranor PlanetSolar’s successful expedition, the first solar powered vehicle’s circumnavigation of the globe, today’s world environmentscape, as the reality shows, reflects dominance by the predatory class interests and contradictions that are intensifying the world environment crisis, a human crisis.
This is the concluding part of an article, the 1st part of which appeared in Countercurrents on June 4, 2013.
Farooque Chowdhury is Dhaka-based freelancer.
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