It’s our environment, stupid!

by Feb 14, 2012All Articles

stupid-environmentAMANDLA ISSUE 22 | EDITORIAL : It’s our environment, stupid!
Global collision of the ecological and economic crises
The financial crisis that broke out in 2008 is a symptom of a much wider crisis of the global system. It is not only a crisis of the neoliberal model, but also a deeper crisis of the over-productivist, endless-growth, financial-speculative model which puts humanity and the planet at great risk. We are confronted by a simple but stark reality, namely, that an economic system based on unlimited growth contradicts a limited planet.
This dilemma is increasingly evident as humanity and the biosphere are confronted by a series of intersecting crises. Crises around energy, food, water and the climate place resource depletion and constraints at the forefront of global attention. It is not just that we are facing peak oil and peak carbon – the problem is that we are, metaphorically speaking, two minutes to midnight and the clock is ticking. A global problem calls for global solutions
Consider greenhouse gas emissions. Unless there is a 90% reduction of emissions from developed countries by 2050, the runaway climate change of 5 degrees will ensure unimaginable devastation and disruption to life on the planet.
In this context, it is impossible to leave the problem of the environment to the environmentalists. Recall how the slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ arose from the challenge of integrating issues of globalisation into locally based activism for social justice. Today, the threats of climate change impel popular forces to expand their visions and programmes to integrate environmental justice into their strategies.
Marketisation, a false solution
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (launched in 1992) the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a host of multilateral processes were established to arrest the environmental crisis. Almost 20 years later, the situation is worse. The UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties and the discussions in preparation for Rio+20 are in danger of shifting away from regulating the market. On the contrary, powerful transnational corporations and business councils, over-represented in negotiations, press for the dramatic expansion of the commercialisation of the environmental and life services.
We are made to believe that the very processes that have brought us the crisis – extreme marketisation – can somehow overcome the crisis. The green economy and extreme technologies (such as geo-engineering) under the monopoly control of giant corporations are promoted as instruments to solve the ecological crises. This is done instead of paving the way towards a low carbon economy.
Since we cannot increase the capacity of the environment to bear the economic, population and resource burdens placed on it, it follows that the adjustment must come entirely from the operating and structuring of the global economy.
Yet, it is the dynamics of this system that have set humanity up against the limits of the plane. As fish need water and humans need air to survive, the market economy needs increasing profit rates and unlimited growth. It is the average compound economic growth of 3% that is breaching planetary boundaries. The process of neoliberal globalisation accelerates this process while creating inequality and polarisation between and within countries.
Shifting the crisis to the poor
The reality of the cascading economic crisis, triggered by the 2007/8 financial crisis, is not receding. Short-lived recoveries give way to outbreaks of contagion in new parts of the world – without being contained to these areas. Even though economic liberalisation and market fundamentalism are increasingly seen as the causes of the economic turmoil, elites push the costs of the crisis onto the shoulders of the poor and marginalised.
All the while, the social crisis affecting the majority of the population becomes worse. Mass unemployment, the dispossession of land and essential services through privatisation, the dumping of toxic waste on poor communities, disorganisation of community through ghettoisation and slumification of working-class living spaces are some of the most obvious manifestations of the current crisis. For women who have to bear the responsibilities of sustaining everyday life, this situation compounds their efforts to survive – the violence of the economic system and the consequent social tensions burst out in intensified forms of domestic violence to further brutalise the already unequal relations between women and men.
South Africa in the crisis
South Africa faces many challenges and pressing problems. It is impossible to build a united and cohesive society with the current obscene levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Two worlds separate township and suburban life and an even greater divide separates life in the former Bantustans from the major metropolitan cities. We face extreme difficulties in dealing with mass unemployment and poverty.
Economic decline
Underpinning this social crisis is the decline of the South African economy. At the heart of this decline are three inter-related factors:
  • SA’s declining resource base;
  • Weak internal markets and demand for consumer goods;
  • A policy framework that has encouraged an open and externally oriented economy that facilitates financialisation and capital flight.
While the post-apartheid literature has focused on both the structural weaknesses of the South African economy and the neoliberal policy framework as barriers to sustained development, less focus has been centred on SA’s declining resource base. However, unless economic growth is decoupled from rising rates of resource use and negative environmental impacts, economic development will suffer with negative consequences for society and the environment.
Resource degradation and the energy crisis
In South Africa there is a common pattern of resource depletion across a wide range of key resource sectors, such as energy, minerals, water (by 2004, 98% of the total water resource had already been allocated) or soil fertility (land degradation has already occurred on 41% of cultivated land). Even South Africa’s biodiversity is under extreme stress from industrial processes and climate change. The depletion of these sectors will have an adverse effect on South African exports and drive up the input costs of locally produced goods, further undermining the economy.
Against the background of the global crisis, South Africa’s vulnerability to external shocks from the global economy has been successively demonstrated through currency crashes, capital flight, export declines and massive job losses. During the Great Recession of 2008/9, a million jobs alone were lost.
In these circumstances, the government has developed a new growth path and established the Ministry of Economic Development to drive its implementation. A major concern of this new economic policy is the creation of jobs: 5 million over the next 10 years, 300 000 in what it calls the green economy. Green jobs will be created in the renewable energy sector, manufacturing and in rural development.
However, these good intentions are contradicted by the government’s plan to address the current energy crisis where demand is overtaking supply. South Africa is listed as the 12th biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, producing annually a total of 433 527 metric tons per year. The decision to commission two of the biggest coal-fired electricity plants, Medupe and Kusile, will dramatically increase South Africa’s already very high per capita C02  emissions. The Medupe power station alone will put out about 30 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per annum, which is greater than the total emissions of 130 countries.
On a global scale, the South African economy is uniquely electricity intensive, with levels of consumption comparable to those of rich industrialised countries like Britain. Yet, household consumption constitutes a fraction of electricity use. Most electricity is consumed in mining, mineral processing and related industries. Coal is responsible for over 80% of the primary energy needs (50% converted to electricity, 30% into oil).
The energy crisis of 2008, which saw a number of blackouts, and which has led to a new energy plan and a massive build-programme for increased electricity generation, reduces renewable energy to the margins of overall generation and supply. Essentially it is business as usual.
In reality, a shift in policy by the South African government will require advocacy and the mobilisation of public opinion on a very high level, given the weight of the mineral energy complex in shaping energy and economic policy. In the current Integrated Resource Plan 2010, South Africa’s energy strategy for the next 20 years, the country’s energy needs are overestimated and the possibilities for reducing energy wastage underestimated. The Plan reinforces the role of coal and of nuclear in providing for SA’s energy needs while minimising the potential of renewable energy. The reproduction of the minerals and energy complex that has been so detrimental to South Africa’s development, especially for poor communities, is a convergence of interests of a new elite anxious to use its political influence to accumulate wealth and an old elite heavily invested in the minerals, energy and finance sectors of the economy.
Another energy perspective is necessary. One that coincides with an economic policy oriented to overcoming poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Yet the alliance of the elites is closing off possibilities for new policies to emerge. Rather than breaking with the Mbeki administration, the Zuma regime has given greater space for elite capture and accumulation. The failure to deal with the structural crises gripping the South African social formation is fuelling the very same tensions in society that emerged under the Mbeki government. These are made worse by the impact of the global crisis. Fundamental economic and energy alternatives are urgently needed to put South Africa on a different trajectory.
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