Nature’s Revenge of Plunder

by Oct 1, 2010All Articles

By Jacklyn Cock

We are living at a time of environmental crisis. This crisis means that we face serious threats to the natural resource base on which all economic activities depend. These threats are not ‘natural’ and inevitable. They are social in their causes and consequences in the sense that they are rooted in our behaviour, in damaging human action. Such damaging action is built into the economic system of capitalism with its emphasis on expansion and profit at the expense of human needs.

The most serious threat is climate change. The combustion of fossil carbon creates the gas carbon dioxide which is primary responsible for these changes. Carbon emissions are expected to lead to increased so-called higher temperatures, extreme weather fluctuations, ‘natural’ disasters, rising sea levels, desertification and shrinking freshwater supplies. Some scientists say that by 2100 a third of the Earth will be devastated by hunger, thirst, war migration, spreading diseases like malaria and death as a result of climate change.

This process will hit poor people around the world the hardest, particularly in Africa. Already the droughts in Ethiopia and different parts of Africa causing massive hardship are linked to the warming of the Indian Ocean. The conflict in Dafur has been called the world’s “first climate change war”. Julian Borger argues that the roots of the present conflict in Dafur between Arabs and Africans go back to the mid 1980’s when a drought and famine transformed Sudan. It killed more than a million people and laid waste livestock herds. Climate change will affect Southern Africa particularly severely by reducing rainfall and causing droughts and deserts which will affect agricultural production. (Mail and Guardian 4.5.2007)

The threat is largely created by the over-consumption of the rich and has the most devastating impacts on the poor people of the world. Rich people in the north produce the most carbon emissions. For example a citizen of the United Kingdom emits 9.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year and of the United states 20.0. (Monbiot, 2006: xiii). While the USA only contains 5% of the world’s population it produces 25% of carbon emissions.

It is the wealthy 10% of the world’s population living in the global North who are most responsible for the pollution generating climate change. For example, the motor car is a major source of pollution and at present there are 500 cars for every 1, 000 people in the US against 8 for every 1, 000 in India. (Elliot, 2005). Aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to climate change, and it is only the wealthy who can afford to fly (Monbiot,2006).The ecological economist Richard Douthwaite points out that “The peaks in world oil and gas production are about to be reached and, without rationing, energy prices could go much higher, so that poor people will be unable to cook their food while the better off will still be using their air-conditioning and running big cars” (Cited in Ecocity Newsletter. October 2005).

The ways in which the poor will suffer first and worst from climate change illustrates the connections between the crisis of nature and the crisis of justice. The crisis of nature refers to increasing environmental degradation. As Wolfgang Sachs writes, “if all countries followed the industrial example, 5 or 6 planets would be need to serve as ‘sources’ for the inputs and ‘sinks’ for the wastes of economic progress. (Sachs, 1999:75). The crisis of justice refers to increasing social inequality both within and between nations. At present about 20% of the world’s population consume almost 80% of the world’s resources.It is the rich who consume disproportionate quantities of energy and water and produce the most waste include carbon emissions. Their lifestyle cannot serve as the standards of justice or the goal of development. So Sachs argues that we have to talk about “the alleviation of wealth rather than the alleviation of poverty”. (Sachs, 1999:74). Because of resource constraints we can no longer talk of development as economic growth. The poor are sometimes pushed into destructive activities such as cutting down trees for firewood, but the main culprits of deforestation are the multinational corporations. They are responsible for the destruction of ancient forests, the overfishing of our oceans and the pollution of air. Globalisation is being driven by these corporations and many people are beginning to say that these corporations in their drive for profit are a major environmental threat.

This global pattern of deprivation and overconsumption is clear in post-apartheid South Africa, now the most unequal society in the world. Almost half (48%) of all households live below the estimated poverty datum line of R322 a month. At the same time the chief executives (mainly white men) of South Africa’s 50 largest and most influential companies are each being paid on average more than R15 million a year. They make more than 700 times the mimimum wage. (Crotty and Bonorchis, 2006).

The notion of sustainable development was supposed to address these two crises – the crisis of nature (whereby we have reached the limits of nature as a source and as a sink) and the crisis of justice (increasing social exclusion and inequality). But the crucial point is that ‘nature’ does not exist outside and totally independent of us. Many environmental disasters are blamed on ‘natural phenomenona’, like El Nino, as a means of downplaying human complicity in such events. But many natural disasters are not external events visited upon people by nature, but emerge from natural and social interaction. The damage caused by flooding for instance often involves human actions, such as planning regulations being too lax or being ignored so that building could take place in areas that were liable to flood. References to ‘natural causes’ like the weather presuppose a purified, abstract view of nature and society. There have been many environmental disasters provoked directly by human actions such as the deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India that killed thousands and left many more blinded and permanently disabled. References to ‘natural disasters’ often obscure the real causes in human action which contribute to the scale of destruction. For example the 2005 earthquake that struck Kashmir killing 73,000 in Pakistan and 1, 400 in India, exposed shoddy construction standards in homes and schools. In the 2004 Asian earthquake and tsunami which killed at least 22,000 people, the toll was amplified by coastal development which destroyed protective vegetation. This was especially true in Thailand where hotel complexes were built right on the beach directly in the path of a big wave and the mangroves and coral reefs which would have dampened much of the impact had been destroyed. Similarly the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which left a thousand dead exposed how New Orleans, a delta city built below flood level had coastal wetlands which would have been a buffer against storm surge, but they had been destroyed by so called ‘developers’. These were all natural events whose impacts were magnified by human action. As the Washington based environmental group, the Worldwatch Institute said at the time, “Indiscriminate economic development and ecologically destructive policies have left many communities more vulnerable to disasters than they realise”. (Cited in the Eastern
Cape Herald 30.12.2005).

As the crisis of nature deepens there are many different calls for change. George Monbiot warns of ‘ecological catastrophe’ unless we reduce carbon emissions by ninety per cent. This will involve rich people reducing consumption; to “live simply so that others may simply live” as Schumacher expressed it. (Schumacher, 1963:12). In the same vein, the German social theorist and activist, Wolfgang Sachs argues that calls for poverty eradication have to be accompanied by demands for ‘wealth alleviation’. He writes, “There will be no equity unless the corporation-driven consumer classes in North and South become capable of living well at drastically reduced levels of resource demand”. (Sachs et al, 2001:37).

These are necesssary steps on the road to socialism. The root cause of climate change as the main manifestation of the environmental crisis is capitalism, with its appeal to greed, self interest, and it’s unrelenting pressure to expand in the search for profits and new markets. Capitalism is inherently ecodestructive which is why Joel Kovel calls it a “suicidal regime”. (Kovel, 2002:6). Last century Rosa Luxemburg posed the future as a choice between “socialism or barbarism”. Today our choice is socialism or death.

Jacklyn Cock teaches at the, Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand.

Read more articles from Amandla! Issue #1, July 2007

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