Roots of the contemporary environmental crisis

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  • 1. ROOTS OF THE CONTEMPORARY ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS[Note: Most of the following is for Wednesdays class; click here for the sectiongermane to our final session (Friday)]IntroductionMost informed observers agree that humanity currently faces seriousenvironmental problems: resource depletion, extensive air & water pollutionwith major public-health consequences, massive deforestation, a huge spikein species extinctions, global warming (anthropogenic climate change), and soonMain disagreements concern 1) causes of these problems, and 2) whatshould be done about themThis lecture focuses on the first question, although the second one will beaddressed in the final sectionIn particular, I want to elaborate on the possible relationships between generalecological principles surveyed earlier in this course and the causes of thecontemporary environmental crisis (hereafter, "CEC")Western Cultural ValuesFirst argument I want to consider is that the CEC is best understood as aconsequence of Western cultural valuesThere are several variants of this argument, differing primarily by whichspecific values are charged as guilty, and why:1) Judeo-Christian religion (Lynn White 1967): for placing humans apart from(and superior to) nature, giving humans "dominion over nature" and reducedmotivation to take care of the planet given expectation of an eternal afterlifeand coming Armageddon2) Cartesian dualism (after 17th century philosopher Descartes) and/orscientific rationalism: for robbing nature of spiritual significance, andconceiving of humans (or at least human thought or culture) as separate fromnature
  • 2. 3) Patriarchal or phallocentric ideology: for identifying nature with thefeminine, and seeking to subjugate both to a masculine "will to power"This is of course a very brief and simplistic summary of some rathercomplicated argumentsThey could each be debated at length (and I expect well do some of that inclass), but let me just mention a few critiques of such viewsFirst, it can be argued that most of these "western values" arguments paintwith too broad a brush; thus, Judeo-Christian religion has been around forseveral thousand years, so if the CEC is an inevitable product of it, its surebeen a long time comingOn other hand, it may assign blame too narrowly, since non-Western culturesdo not have perfect environmental records (e.g., extensive deforestation inChina goes back several thousand years, and coexists with refined art, poetry,and philosophy celebrating transcendent beauty of nature; extensivedeforestation in the circum-Mediterranean preceded the spread of Christianity)This suggests that these explanations are at best partial; perhaps it takes acertain set of values (not necessarily Western) plus something else to producewidespread environmental damageA deeper or more subtle criticism is that any explanation of CEC in terms of"values" is inherently incomplete; in particular, it fails to explain where thevalues come from: What forces created them and made them so central tomodern culture?This criticism is an example of the general debate between "mentalist" (or"culturalist") and "materialist" explanations of social change, withmentalists/culturalists deriving values from other values, while materialistsderive the values from the influence of material factors (such as resourcescarcity, technology, population growth, natural selection, etc.) and incentiveson human thought and actionThus, a "materialist" would argue that values promoting destructive behaviortoward nature are merely symptoms (or intermediate links in a causal chain orcausal network), and that a satisfactory analysis should delineate the materialcauses favoring the cultural evolution and persistence of these values overothers
  • 3. For example, while an idealist would attribute the decreased sharing andincreased individualism seen in modernizing economies as reflecting achange in values governing generosity and identity, a materialist analysislooks for underlying material causes (e.g., increased mobility and decreasedneed for localized cooperation in production, leading to declining payoffs toreciprocity)(More on materialist views below)Human NatureAt the other extreme from values-based explanations of CEC are those thatpoint to one or another fundamental feature of human nature as root causesIn crudest form, this kind of explanation argues that it is "human nature" to begreedy, to act in self-interest, to convert resources into offspring as rapidly aspossible, and to be short-sighted and selfish enough to ignore long-term orbroader consequences of our actionsTaken at face value, this view suggests there is little hope for reforming ourbehavior and avoiding environmental crisesOne logical problem with such a view is that it uses a constant (human nature)to explain a variable (degree of environmental damage)An empirical critique might point to evidence that many human populationshave persisted in reasonable balance with their environments over longperiods of timeA more sophisticated version of the "human nature" view would thus have toargue that elements of human nature plus additional variables produce (orprevent) environmental problemsA logical corollary of this latter view is that environmental problems are arecurrent possibility in any cultural tradition, not just Western or industrial onesThis is in direct contrast with "values" explanations, as well as widely heldview that non-Western non-urbanized cultures live in harmony with theirenvironment regardless of the adaptive payoffs for doing so (a topic we havejust been considering in this course)
  • 4. Materialist CausesIntermediate between "cultural value" and "human nature" explanations ofCEC lie analyses that point to materialist determinants -- i.e., aspects ofdemography, economics, and environment that appear to be causally relatedto environmental problemsMain material causes relevant to CEC = population growth, technology, andeconomic growthPopulation growth if unchecked must lead eventually to some forms ofresource depletion and environmental degradation -- that much seems certainin a finite worldBut asserting what must eventually happen is not same as showing what hasin fact happened (just as saying that anyone who lives long enough must dieof old age is not same as showing that people mostly die of old age ratherthan malaria, cancer, or AIDS)More specific criticisms of population-growth paradigm are:1) It is not sufficient in itself (e.g., much of Asia has been densely populatedfor centuries without destroying ecosystem; U.S. = major contributor to CEC,but not densely populated nor growing all that fast)2) Malthusian account blames society in aggregate, rather than looking at howenvironmental problems may be due to some subset of society which benefitsfrom the activities causing an environmental problem, and imposes its costson less powerful segmentsWhile I agree (up to a point) with the anti-Malthusians, I think they aresometimes as one-sided as Malthusians; theyre right in pointing tosociopolitical inequalities as important contributors to environmental problems(e.g., famine), but incorrect in presuming or implying that things would be nodifferent if population were stable or decliningTo the contrary, if inequalities exist, then population growth can onlyexacerbate their effects in face of competition over increasingly scarceresources, even if this scarcity is (at least in part) a product of unequal access
  • 5. On the other hand, blaming population alone while ignoring other causes isobviously incorrect, and morally and politically suspectTechnology is another prime nominee for chief environmental villainIt is clear that certain kinds of industrial technology are major causes of CEC,particularly for such impacts as chemical pollution, ozone depletion, andglobal warmingWe can also hold technology (in the form of fossil fuel extraction and industrialprocesses of various sorts) responsible for producing tremendous impacts onsoils, fisheries, and other environmental factorsAs Rappaport (1971, "The flow of energy in an agricultural society," ScientificAmerican 225(3):132) notes,When such energy sources are available, the pressures that can be broughtto bear on specific ecosystems are no longer limited to the energy that theecosystem itself can generate, and alterations become feasible that wereformerly out of reach.On the other hand, it is not technology per se that is directly to blame fordeforestation in Nepal or Amazonia, since the technology being used there isoften no more complicated than fire and axes -- thousands of years oldEconomic Growth is another factor that many people hold responsible (inwhole or part) for CECSome see this as specifically a problem of capitalism, because of itscompetitive dynamic and resultant tendency for continual economic expansionBut economic logic based on competition, on extracting surplus from onelocale or class to benefit those in another locale or class, and on economicgrowth, is characteristic of other economic systems besides capitalist ones,including mercantilism, tributary empires, as well as industrial "socialism"(e.g., USSR, PRC)In any intensely competitive socioeconomic system, long-term sustainability islikely to be sacrificed to short-term gains in an attempt to best ones opponent
  • 6. Thus, perhaps the root problem here is not economic growth per se, but thefact that competition rewards short-term gains (even if this leads to resourcedepletion and political collapse in the long run)Among economic systems, capitalism pre-eminently rewards quick profits,and the elites who make the major economic decisions are often able toescape the negative consequences of environmental degradation by pullingup stakes ("take the money and run"), by sucking one area dry and moving onto the next, squeezing the goose who lays golden eggs dry and using one ofthe golden eggs to buy another goose (e.g., cattle ranch, copper mine,factory) in another region, country, or continent ("reinvesting profits")Quoting again from Rappaport (1971: 132)As man forces the ecosystems he dominates to be increasingly simple,however, their already limited autonomy is further diminished. They aresubject not only to local environmental stress, but also to extraneouseconomic and political vicissitudes. They come to rely more and more onimported materials; the men who manipulate them become more and moresubject to distant events, interests and processes they may not even graspand certainly do not control. National and international concerns replace localconsiderations, and with the regulation of the local ecosystems coming fromoutside, the systems normal self-corrective capacity is diminished andeventually destroyed.The roots of this system lie in the origins of stratified societies severalthousand years ago (just yesterday in terms of the full span of humanexistence, but long before the rise of capitalism), and have been unleashed infull force by colonial expansion of European mercantilism (and thencapitalism) over the whole globe in last 500 yearsWhere Do We Go From Here?Given the massive historical inertia at work here, and the ever-expandingpower and worldwide spread of capitalist production, is there any obvious wayout of the CEC?Our assigned readings provide some contrasting views on these issues
  • 7. Low & Heinen propose that people will only avoid environmental destruction ifit is in their short-term self-interest to do so, implying that this is nothing new inhuman history (though perhaps intensified)Alcorn takes a more conventional environmentalist position, arguing thatmajor env. destruction is a novel problem which must be corrected bychanging our environmental values or ethicsNorgaard takes a middle ground of sorts, locating the primary source of ourcontemporary envir. crisis in an economic system (market capitalism) thatprofits disproportionately from overconsumption, and fosters it worldwide;hence he implies that effective change must be socioeconomic in form (andwill be difficult to achieve), but also argues that we need to "derive a viableimage of the future, to change the vocabulary of our political discourse" (p180), and abandon a worldview based on progress--a rather mentalistprescription of how to combat the CECClay provides summaries of various cases which could be used to supporteach of the above positions to varying degrees, though his views seem closerto Low & Heinen than to the othersWhere the various views perhaps converge is in viewing communalmanagement by indigenous or local communities as often better at conservingresources than are market forces or bureaucraciesAlcorn argues that "traditional conservation systems maintain biodiversity forsubsistence and survival purposes" (323) but also that "the subsistence needsof the burgeoning global human population" is undermining conservation (324)There is some tension between Alcorns statement that traditional subsistencecultures conserved resources via rules limiting exploitation (p. 326) and herstatement that "Biodiversity has persisted up to present time partly because oflimited human population size and limited human technological abilities" (p.325)In any case, the era in which small, localized, communally-organized peopleswith long-term familiarity with their homelands held sole control over asignificant portion of the inhabited biosphere has ended, and everywhere wefind nation states, multinational corporations, and NGOs vying for the upperhand in setting and enforcing land-use policy
  • 8. This does not mean that locally-adapted populations are doomed or irrelevant,just that they are no longer masters of the political or environmental arena intheir homelands, and must work out some sort of partnership with the morepowerful actors just listed if they hope to survive and retain any measure ofcontrolTowards SustainabilitySo what can we do about the accelerating crises of habitat degradation andbiodiversity loss that appear to be driven both by "the subsistence needs ofthe burgeoning global human population" (Alcorn) and by "the rise of theglobal exchange economy" (Norgaard)?One possible resolution to the CEC is a catastrophic one: the global industrialeconomy implodes, human population plummets, and subsistence once againbecomes local affair for the survivors, with the result that decision-makersonce more have to live with the local or regional consequences of theirresource utilization and environmental use decisionsBut is there a less apocalyptic way out? In particular, given the great materialattractions of economic growth, and the poverty in which most people in theworld live, is it possible to pursue so-called "sustainable development"?From the materialist perspective, this would require three things:1) zero or negative population growth: maybe possible, given the tendencyfor more developed economies to undergo "demographic transition" to low(even zero or negative) population growth2) thorough substitution of non-destructive technology: arguably technicallypossible, though counter to some strong special interests in current system3) steady-state economy: not just recycling, but zero net growth in materialcycles and energy flowsMy feeling is that this last goal would be the hardest to achieve, not onlybecause it would reverse some 5,000 (or perhaps 50,000) years of culturalevolution, but because it is so unstable in the face of free-riders who seekcompetitive sociopolitical advantage (no matter how temporary) through short-term economic growth
  • 9. It also flies in the face of the aspirations of the "developing" (less-industrialized) world to achieve the levels of material prosperity characteristicof the "north" and seems to unfairly say "Well, it was a great party while itlasted, but its over now and you cant have your own party"So though I would rather not be, I am at least partly convinced by those whoargue that "sustainable development" on a large scale is an oxymoron, autopian delusionI would be pleased to hear cogent arguments to the contrary, however; seeyou in class....References citedAlcorn, Janis B. (1991) Epilogue: Ethics, economies, and conservation. In Biodiversity: Culture, Conservation, and Ecodevelopment, ed. M. L. Oldfield and J. B. Alcorn, pp 317- 349. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Brooks, Jeremy S., et al. (2006) Testing hypotheses for the success of different conservation strategies. Conservation Biology 20(5):1528-1538.Cashdan, Elizabeth (1992) Spatial organization and habitat use. In Evolutionary Ecology and Human Behavior, ed. E. A. Smith and B. Winterhalder, pp 237-266. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.Clay, Jason (2004) Borrowed from the future: Challenges and guidelines for community-based natural resource management. NY: Ford Foundation [Environment and Development Affinity Group].Low, Bobbi S. and Joel T. Heinen (1993) Population, resources, and environment: Implications of human behavioral ecology for conservation. Population and Environment 15:7-41.Norgaard, Richard B. (1994) Development Betrayed: The End Of Progress And A Co- Evolutionary Revisioning Of The Future, pp. 173-190. NY: Routledge.