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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘environment

Of seeds and swadeshi

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RG_Asian_Age_GM_20140810India has reached food security without GM crops. Portrayed by GM advocates as an ‘attack on science’, the movement to keep this technology out is firmly grounded in the national interest. In this article published in full by The Asian Age, I have refuted three common arguments that are advanced to the citizens of India as justifying the need for genetically modified crops.

None of these owe their intellectual genesis to the present NDA government (which is employing them nonetheless), and can be found as theses in both UPA2 and UPA1. They are: that genetically engineered seed and crop are necessary in order that India find lasting food security; that good science and particularly good crop science in India can only be fostered – in the public interest – by our immediate adoption of agricultural biotechnology; that India’s agricultural exports (and their contribution to GDP growth and farmers’ livelihoods) require the adoption of such technology.

The article has attracted a number of comments, including one which is pro-GM (and which in turn has been attacked). Here is a file of the support and exchanges till now.

Examining these uncovers a skein of untruths and imputations which have been seized upon by the advocates and proponents of GM technology and broadcast through media and industry channels. First, the food security meme, which has assumed an oracular gravity but which has not been supported by serious enquiry. On this aspect, the facts are as follows. Our country grows about 241 million tons of cereals (rice, wheat and coarse cereals), just under 20 million tons of pulses and between 160 and 170 million tons of vegetables (leafy and others together). This has been the trend of the last triennium.

Concerning current and future need, based on the recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Nutrition, an adult’s annual consumption of these staples ought to be 15 kg of pulses, 37 kg of vegetables and 168 kg of cereals. Using Census 2011 population data and the projections based on current population growth rates, we find that the current 2014 level of production of cereals will supply our population in 2028, that the current level of production of vegetables will be more than three times the basic demand in 2030, and that the current level of production of pulses will fall short of the basic demand in 2020.

In short, India has been comfortably supplied with food staples for the last decade (witness the embarrassingly large buffer stocks) and will continue to be so for the next 15 years at least. Why then are the GM advocates and proponents (including unfortunately the Minister of Environment, Prakash Javadekar) in a cyclonic hurry to bring the technology and its manifold risks to India by citing food security as a reason? Read the rest of this article on The Asian Age website, or find a pdf of the original full text here.

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This blog has carried a number of posts about GM and agri-biotech in India. Consult these links for more on the subject:

It’s time to confront the BJP on GM
Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public
Of Elsevier, Monsanto and the surge for Seralini
Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM
India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court
Monsanto drops GM crop plans in Europe
The year the GM machine can be derailed
Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India

Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public

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RG_GMO_quote_20140603Feckless EU politicians – the shallow brats of Brussels – have struck a deal between themselves and the agri-bio-technology corporations to sweep away the obstacles to genetically engineered crops in the European Union. This group, greasy fingers firmly in each other’s pocketbooks, want to allow (under limited circumstances, they say) individual EU member states to prohibit the growing of GMO crops on their territory, but to boost GMO crops in the EU overall.

The so-called “compromise pact” is likely to make it easier for the manufacturers of GM crops to win approval while allowing some countries to ban them. Not surprisingly, as the British government slavishly follows the White House line on every matter (except fish-and-chips), the deal was welcomed by Britain, which in a typically obsequious statement said it hoped the pact would allow for more rapid approval of GM crops in the EU.

Oddly, France’s agriculture ministry welcomed the “good news”, which coincided with a decision by the French constitutional court to uphold a domestic ban on GM maize. Just as oddly, Germany praised the deal for allowing “opt-outs”, saying it opened the way for a formal ban in Germany.

RG_EU_GMO_pact_201405This pact came following what is called an indicative vote of EU Member State representatives – taken in a closed meeting (obviously). A formal vote will take place at a meeting of Environment Ministers on June 12 and if agreed – very likely it will be – it will then go to the European Parliament for approval.

That approval (or not) may come in an environment riven by weaknesses in the EU’s GMO assessment and approval system and pro-GMO bias at the centre of the European Food safety Agency (EFSA). There has also been chronic failure to implement an EU-wide and rigorous co-existence and liability regime – to date the EU has only produced non-legally binding recommendations for co-existence (of GM and non-GM crops).

The significance of all this is that it breaks the political stalemate that has largely prevented GMO crops from being grown in the EU. The proposal is based on the deceit that both pro- and anti-GMO countries can have want they want, and the unity of the EU Single Market can remain intact.

This is nonsense because under the proposed terms:

* Before banning an approved GMO crop EU Member States have to seek agreement from GMO companies to having their product excluded from a specific territory.
* If the companies refuse, Member States can proceed with the ban but only on grounds that to do not go against the EU approval and assessment of health and environmental risk – which means that if the EU-wide assessment gives the nod to GM, the country must concur despite its own assessment and public opinion.
* EU Member States nevertheless still have specific grounds for a ban which can include aspects like protection of nature reserves, areas vulnerable to contamination, and socio-economic impacts. So EU ‘unity’ can be overridden, provided smaller and weaker EU members states assert that right.

The 400 million mark in urban India

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Urban_India_400million_201405By the end of 2014 June, a group of cities will cross important population thresholds. This upward procession of population numbers – for districts, cities and states – is scarcely observed by administration or by citizens, but continues apace. There is – in India’s 4,041 statutory towns (large cities included) and 3,894 census towns – little by way of monitoring and regular assessment of their populations.

Such an attitude simply means that policies and measures drawn up by administrations, universities, civic groups and voluntary organisations are out-of-date the instant they are final – because they are based on the population recorded in 2011 by the Indian Census of 2011 (which fixes the population in March of that year).

Measures to control and lower growth rates of population has become a subject on which there appears to be an unmentioned taboo, just as the subject of migration has become taboo, for as long cities and urban areas continue to absorb citizens who are forced to consume more, the growth rate of GDP can be maintained.

The implications of India’s urban population rising unchecked are not forecast or discussed by central and state planning agencies, nor is this done regularly by the many think-tanks and academic research units. Industry does so only insofar as estimating the size of various markets, for example the processed food, consumer finance, vehicle purchasing numbers, or dwelling units.

In 2011 March, the Census of India recorded the country’s population as 1,210.2 million – the rural population at 833.1 million (up by 90.47 million from 2001) and the urban population at 377.1 million (up by 91 million from 2001). The population growth rate for India between 2001 and 2011 was 17.64%, but while the rural population grew over the decade by 12.18% the urban population grew by 31.8%.

At the overall urban growth rates, here are the new population marks to be seen in 2014 June for a set of cities that will be familiar to many:

* Rohtak in Haryana will have a population of 406,400 (it was 294,577 in the 2001 Census); Gaya in Bihar 500,800 (394,945); Patiala in Punjab 501,600 (323,884); Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh 502,800 (413,616); Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh 506,400 (335,293).
* Udaipur in Rajasthan 509,900 (389,438; Nanded in Maharashtra 601,800 (430,733); Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh 1,006,400 (641,583); Hubli-Dharwad in Karnataka 1,006,700 (786,195).
* Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh 1,019,900 (669,087); Durg-Bhilai in Chhattisgarh 1,115,600 (927,864); Asansol in West Bengal 1,310,600 (1,067,368); Jamshedpur in Jharkhand 1,430,600 (1,104,713).
* Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh 1,526,500 (1,203,961); Meerut in Uttar Pradesh 1,532,400 (1,161,716); Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh 1,607,900 (1,039,518); Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh 2,067,300 (1,458,416).

These increases show the immense scale of this residential transformation, as every year several million citizens move to cities and towns. For what we consider a bloc of urban population, there is a band – which is imprecise, rather than a particular forecast, which does not take into account variations in the growth rate after 2011 – that lets us estimate the annual addition to total urban population.

The upper bound is the 3.18% annual urban population growth rate of the 2001-2011 decade, while the lower bound is the 1.76% annual total population growth rate of the same decade. In 2014 June, the total urban population of India will be between 399 and 417 million. Here is the result:

RG_urban_population_201405

An agency that has been specifically given the task of stabilising the country’s population is the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh, an autonomous society of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The Kosh runs activities aimed that help states and districts find ways to stabilise their populations – this means, halt and where possible reverse the growth rates. But the Kosh is also limited in its aims (and possibly its abilities) by what the central government says is the need of sustainable economic growth, social development and environment protection – that ‘growth’ delusion again has intervened in so serious a matter as controlling population growth.

One of the aims of the Kosh is to “facilitate the development of a vigorous people’s movement in favour of the national effort for population stabilisation”. This cannot be done without a clear and firm statement that indefinite ‘growth’ must be abandoned as a central economic idea, for only then will population growth, environmental degradation and humane urban settlements take shape.

Water spikes of the 48,000 large dams that humans have built

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This is a three-minute film that narrates the impact of humans on the planet and on the water cycle. The global footprint of human habitation – built-up regions, water extraction, industrial agriculture, mineral and fossil fuel extraction – has driven Earth into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

Human activities such as damming and agriculture are changing the global water cycle in significant ways. The film quickly and dramatically describes Earth’s changing global water cycle, why it is changing and what this means for the future. The vertical spikes that appear in the film represent the 48,000 large dams that have been built. The film is part of the first website on the concept of humans as a geological force and was made for the the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

A pre-Rio pentagram from the IIED

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Energy equity, adaptation planning for food and farming, paying for watershed services, Costa Rica’s environment success and food system governance by citizens – these are the subjects of five new briefing papers prepared and released by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). These topics will feature – more or less prominently, we never know, given the politicisation that occurs at every inter-governmental meeting concerning environment and responsibility – in next month’s Rio+20 summit.

Here are the synopses and links:

1. Energy equity: will the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative make a difference?
Establishing inclusive governance of food systems — where farmers and other citizens play an active role in designing and implementing food and agricultural policies — is not just a matter of equity or social justice. Evidence shows that it can also lead to more sustainable livelihoods and environments. And yet, across the world, food system governance is marked by exclusionary processes that favour the values and interests of more powerful corporations, investors, big farmers and large research institutes. How can we tip the balance and amplify the voice and influence of marginalised citizens in setting the food and agricultural policies that affect them? Research points to six tried and tested ways that, when combined, can empower citizens in the governance of food systems.

2. Planning adaptation for food and farming: lessons from 40 years’ research
Local farmers and pastoralists in poor countries have long coped with droughts, floods and variable rainfall patterns. This first-hand experience is invaluable for those working on climate change adaptation policies, but how do we access it? IIED has 40 years’ experience working alongside vulnerable communities to help inform regional, national and global policies. Our research has shown that measures to increase climate change resilience must view food, energy, water and waste management systems as interconnected and mutually dependent. This holistic approach must also be applied to economic analysis on adaptation planning. Similarly, it is vital to use traditional knowledge and management skills, which can further support adaptation planning. Taking these lessons into account, we can then address the emerging policy challenges that we face.

3. Paying for watershed services: an effective tool in the developing world?
Payments for watershed services (PWS) are an increasingly popular conservation and water management tool in developing countries. Some schemes are thriving, and are pro-poor. Others are stalling or have only mixed success. Most rely on public or donor finance; and other sources of funding are unlikely to play a significant role any time soon. In part, financing PWS schemes remains a challenge because the actual evidence for their effectiveness is still scanty — it is hard to prove that they actually work to benefit both livelihoods and environments. Getting more direct and concrete data on costs and benefits will be crucial to securing the long-term future of PWS schemes.

4. Payments for environmental services in Costa Rica: from Rio to Rio and beyond
Costa Rica has shown how a small developing country can grab the bull of environmental degradation by the horns, and reverse one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America to become the poster child of environment success. Key to its achievement has been the country’s payments for environmental services (PES) programme, which began in 1997 and which many countries are now looking to learn from, especially as water markets and schemes to reward forest conservation and reduced deforestation (REDD+) grow. Within Costa Rica too, there is a need to first reflect on how the contexts for, and challenges facing, PES have changed; and continue building a robust programme that can ensure the coming decade is as successful as the past one.

5. Putting citizens at the heart of food system governance
Establishing inclusive governance of food systems — where farmers and other citizens play an active role in designing and implementing food and agricultural policies — is not just a matter of equity or social justice. Evidence shows that it can also lead to more sustainable livelihoods and environments. And yet, across the world, food system governance is marked by exclusionary processes that favour the values and interests of more powerful corporations, investors, big farmers and large research institutes. How can we tip the balance and amplify the voice and influence of marginalised citizens in setting the food and agricultural policies that affect them? Research points to six tried and tested ways that, when combined, can empower citizens in the governance of food systems.

The Blue Planet warning, and prescription

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Painting by Shraddha Satish Shenoy of St Columba School, Mumbai, India

This February in London, Britain, a group of the world’s leading scientists and experts in sustainable development called for urgent changes to policies and institutions to enable humanity to tackle environmental crises and improve human well-being. They had gathered to finalise a paper launched at the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on 20-22 February.

Now available, the paper emphasises transformational solutions to key environment and development challenges. It highlights the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to protect the local, regional and global environment, stimulate the economy and enhance the livelihoods of the poor. Called ‘Environmental and Development Challenges: The imperative to act’, this group wrote the paper as a prelude to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June, which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit).

The paper’s authors are all past winners of the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organisations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

“The challenges facing the world today need to be addressed immediately if we are to solve the problem of climate change, loss of biodiversity and poverty,” said Bob Watson, who is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a Blue Planet Prize winner in 2010 and a co-author of the new paper.

Here are the salient messages from their paper:

There is an urgent need to break the link between production and consumption on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. This can allow risking material living standards for a period that would allow us to overcome world poverty. Indefinite material growth on a planet with finite and often fragile natural resources will however, eventually be unsustainable. Unsustainable growth is promoted by environmentally-damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture and should be eliminated; external environmental and social costs should be internalized; and the market and non-market values of ecosystem goods and services should be taken into account in decision-making.

Painting by Siddhi Sudhakar Ghadi of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

The immense environmental, social and economic risks we face as a world from our current path will be much harder to manage if we are unable to measure key aspects of the problem. For example, governments should recognise the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions.

Green taxes and the elimination of subsidies should ensure that the natural resources needed to directly protect poor people are available rather than via subsidies that often only benefit the better off.

The present energy system, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, underlies many of the problems we face today: exhaustion of easily accessible physical resources, security of access to fuels, and degradation of health and environmental conditions. Universal access to clean energy services is vital for the poor, and a transition to a low carbon economy will require rapid technological evolution in the efficiency of energy use, environmentally sound low-carbon renewable energy sources and carbon capture and storage. The longer we wait to transition to a low carbon economy the more we are locked into a high carbon energy system with consequent environmental damage to ecological and socio-economic systems, including infrastructure.

Painting by Sanchana Laxman Jadhav of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

Emissions of GHG emissions are one of the greatest threats to our future prosperity. World emissions (flows) are currently around 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (COe) per annum and are growing rapidly. As the terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems are unable to absorb all of the world’s annual emissions, concentrations (stocks) of GHG emissions in the atmosphere have increased, to around 445ppm of CO2e today and increasing at a rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.

Thus we have a flow-stock problem. Without strong action to reduce emissions, over the course of this century we would likely add at least 300 ppm COe, taking concentrations to around 750 ppm COe or higher at the end of the century or early in the next. The world’s current commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3 C rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5 C rise: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 30 million years. Given there are some uncertainties present in all steps of the scientific chain (flows to stocks to temperatures to climate change and impacts), this is a problem of risk management and public action on a great scale.

There are serious short-comings in the decision making systems at local, national and global levels on which we rely in government, business and society. The rules and institutions for decision making are influenced by vested interests, with each interest having very different access over how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. At the local level public hearings and social audits can bring the voices of marginalized groups into the forefront. At national level, parliamentary and press oversight are key.

Globally, we must find better means to agree and implement measures to achieve collective goals. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

Painting by Pooja Badhe of Udaychal High School, Mumbai, India

The Blue Planet laureates who gathered in London to work on the paper are:

Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London; Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University; Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University; Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation; Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil’s interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Dr Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia; Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development; Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College; Dr Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University; Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International; Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, Founder of The Natural Step, Sweden.

World Risk Report 2011 – which world and whose risk?

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This is a document which does much to ensure that there is a North-South development divide and which also ensures that the flow of ‘aid’, of ‘development’ theory and of ‘development’ competence is one way only – North to South.

In the World Risk Report 2011, the philosophy of this view of the world is as much political as it is racially biased. I’m sorry for having to say that as bluntly as that, but there’s no getting around it or away from it. You can’t dress it up in pseudo-scientific gibberish and expect readers in the Brown and Black Two-Thirds World not to notice.

This philosophy is contained in the six maps that describe, in this strange way, ‘risk’ to the countries of the world. As you can see, the pinks which represent risk are overwhelmingly in Africa and Asia and in general in countries of the South. The green hues represent little or no ‘risk’ and are used to shade the countries of the North – USA, western Europe, the OECD countries.

I have extracted the maps and provide their titles so as to better understand why ‘aid’, ‘development’, ‘technical assistance’ and ‘knowledge’ flows the way it does, helped along its magnetic North-to-South channels by arm-twisting, by WTO, by the World bank and International Monetary Fund and their lesser lending cousins in all continents, and particularly by the thousands of economists who have been installed in the countries of the South, who have been trained and programmed by these institutions, and who are the purveyors of disastrous neo-liberal economics and social destruction from Manila to Morocco.

Internationial aid agencies and their partners large and small will use documents such as this and indices of misery such as this to deepen the dependencies of the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable and the voiceless in the South, photographs of whom in poster size will nevertheless adorn the walls of Northern exhibitions and collaborationist Southern conclaves.

On to the maps. These are captioned with their titles and followed by short commentaries guided by the experiences of our ‘developing’ peoples and their tribal roots.

Map 1 – “susceptibility, dependent on public infrastructure, nutrition, income and the general economic framework”. What we say: True, true, public infrastructure in the Brown and Black Two-Thirds World is lousy, fly-ridden and stinks. But, comrades, have you noticed how the working classes of the First World have, for well over a decade now, been complaining mightily about privatisation and its ills? Susceptibility to nutrition? Why, now, we didn’t invent Starbucks and KFC did we? We’re the ones who like our indigenous millets and tasteful tubers to be untouched by GM. Income? No we’re flat broke. But listen to the moanings of the European Central Bank these days and you’ll notice we’ve plenty of company.

Map 2 – “lack of coping capacities, dependent on governance, medical care and material security”. What we say: Let’s take this governance thing first shall we. You comrades in the First World long ago, for reasons unknown to us but risky in the extreme, ditched your tribal roots and turned to markets and finance and supermarket shopping carts. Shame you did, for that was the abandoning, the throwing away, of the original caring sharing wise governance that’s brought humans through generations. Coping capacities is a good one. We hereby solemnly invite all friendly First World comrades to come and spend a week in our shanty towns, our barrios and our favelas where they can learn what coping is and how to go about it. For medical care we recommend to you a journey to Havana, Cuba. For material security we recommend to you a rereading of any holy book of your choice.

Map 3 – “lack of adaptive capacities, related to future natural events and climate change”. What we say: Comrades and friends, we don’t sadly have as many shamans, diviners and ancient wise folk as we used to, but we can surely tell you this: future natural events and climate change is not going to choose between us and you, and you and them. We’re all in this together, you with your food coupons and us with our kitchen gardens. Adaptive? I do think we’ve got that covered good and proper.

Map 4 – “exposure, of the population to the natural hazards, earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise”. What we say: Friends and fellow inhabitants of Gaia, if we stop making Mother Earth angry every single day, She may relent. It’s up to you too. Oh and as for exposure, we’re used to it, you’re not, sad but true.

Map 5 – “vulnerability, of society as the sum of susceptibility, lack of coping capacities and lack of adaptive capacities”. What we say: Well, we’ve had quite enough of these colour combinations now. Our sincere and heartfelt advice is that you turn us all the same shade of pink, or turn us all the same shade of green. But that will ruin the difference between Us and Those Danged Others, you protest. Dear comrades, we do share the same air, water and sky. It’s about time you stopped seeing people coloured differently and started seeing people.

Map 6 – “world risk index as the result of exposure and vulnerability”. What we say: We must correct you. The real risk is to your perception, friends, which you can remedy by coming to live with us and learning our ways.

More about the World Risk Report 2011 – “The Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (Alliance Development Works) publishes the World Risk Report to examine these issues at the global level and to draw conclusions for future actions in assistance, policy and reporting. The core of the World Risk Report is the World Risk Index, which was developed on behalf of the Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany. The World Risk Index indicates the probability that a country or region will be affected by a disaster. The index is the result of close cooperation between scientists and practitioners. Experts in the analysis of natural hazards and vulnerability research as well as practitioners of development cooperation and humanitarian aid have discussed and developed the concept of the index. Globally available data are used to represent the disaster risk for the countries concerned.”

“In the framework of the World Risk Index, disaster risk is analysed as a complex interplay of natural hazards and social, political and environmental factors. Unlike current approaches that focus strongly on the analysis of the various natural hazards, the World Risk Index, in addition to exposure analysis, focuses on the vulnerability of the population, i.e. its susceptibility, its capacities to cope with and to adapt to future natural events as well as the consequences of climate change. Disaster risk is seen as a function of exposure and vulnerability. The national states are the frame of reference for the analysis.”

[World Risk Report 2011, Published by Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (Alliance Development Works) of Germany in cooperation with: United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Bonn (UNU-EHS)]

The carefully constructed mirage of the ‘green economy’

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Not a week goes by nowadays without one high-profile institution or high-powered interest group directing us all to be part of the ‘new, green economy’. That’s where the next jobs are, where innovation is, where the next wave of financing is headed, where the best social entrepreneurship lies. There are the big inter-governmental organisations telling us this: United Nations Environment Program, UNCTAD, OECD, International Energy Agency, the big international lending agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. There are big think-tanks telling us the same thing – backed up by hefty new reports that are boring to read but whose plethora of whiz-bang charts are colourful. There are big companies, multinationals and those amongst the Fortune 500, also evangelising the new green economy and patting themselves on the back for being clean and green and so very responsible.

Artisanal blacksmith and his family, Maharashtra, India

What on earth are they all talking about? Does it have to do with us average, salaried, harassed, commuting, tax-paying types who are struggling with food inflation and fuel cost hikes and mortgages and loans that break our backs? Are they talking to our governments and our municipalities, who are worried about their budgets and their projects and their jobs too?

Here are a few answers from working class Asia. Let’s start with restating a couple of trendlines. One, the era of growth in the West is over. Growth is Asia is what is keeping the MNCs and their investors and bankers and consultants interested, and this means China and India (also Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia). Two, the environmental consciousness which began in the 1970s to spread quickly in the West led to many good laws being framed and passed. These were responses to the industrial and services growth in the Western economies. As globalisation took hold, people in less industrialised countries – ordinary citizens – saw what had happened in the West and learnt from their experiences with industrialisation. Green movements took root all over Asia and South America, protests were common, confrontations just as much, and global capital found itself being questioned again, even more fiercely.

These are the two major trends. The forces of production want to move much further into what used to be the ‘developing’ world, but want to meet much less resistance. That’s why they appeal to the consumer minds of China, India and the other target countries – you need jobs, homes, nice cars, big TVs, cool vacations, credit, aspirations, and lifestyle is what the messages say, whether they’re from telecom companies or condominium salesmen. But it’s hard to market all this stuff – real stuff, virtual stuff – to people who are still struggling to make ends meet.

This was after all the old 'green economy'. A late 19th century painting in a maritime museum near Mumbai, India

That’s where the ‘new, green economy’ tagline and its earnest-sounding philosophy comes in. “The main challenges to jump-starting the shift to a green economy lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to specific local and sectoral needs, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and provide incentives and mechanisms that will facilitate their diffusion and knowledge-sharing,” said one of these recent reports. Look at the text which contains all the right buzzwords – ‘scale up’, ‘jump-start’, ‘applications’ (that’s a favourite), ‘knowledge-sharing’, ‘local’.

This makes the ‘old economy’ sound good but changes nothing substantial on the ground, or on the factory shopfloor or for the tens of thousands of little manufacturing units that do small piecework jobs for the bigger corporations up the chain. The world’s business philosophy has changed drastically even without the impact of environment and energy. To drive home this point, it has been a long time since we heard anything like ‘industrial relations’, and that alone should tell us how far the dominance of capital has reached, when labour, whose organisation gave the West its stellar growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s, has now become all but ignored. This is because the dominant interests associated with capital have insisted, successfully for investors and for pliant governments, that the manufacturing firms break loose from the industrial relations moorings they had established. The restructuring of firms to emphasise leaner and meaner forms of competition – as the ruthless management gurus and greedy consulting agencies instructed – was in line with market pressures that are viewed by the powers-that-be as crucial to the revitalisation of the economy.

Read their greenwash carefully and the control levers are revealed. “Further innovation and scaling up are also needed to drive down unit costs. Technologies will need to be ‘transferred’ and made accessible, since most innovation takes place in the developed countries and private corporations in those countries are the main owners of the intellectual property rights covering most green technologies.” So says ‘World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation’ (UNESCO, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Rights and access are built in from the start, as you can see.

And yet it is this very system of production, of the arrangement of capital and of the effort to weaken working regulations that is now talking about the ‘green economy’. Why do they even imagine we should believe them? They are the ones who have remained locked into the fossil fuel economy and who have partnered the enormous influence of the finance markets, who have followed every micro-second of the way the dictates of capital flows and what the market investors want in their endless quest for greater profits in ever-shorter cycles of production. For the major business of the world, ‘green economy’ is yet another route to super-profits and the consolidation of both forces of production and masses of consumers. The difference between now and the 1970s is that today they are able to successfully enlist the apparently authoritative inter-governmental organisations with their armies of economists and social scientists and engineers, to support this new profiteering. Only now, the cost is planetary.

When humans use up the planet – why we need to do less with a lot less

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By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is the central recommendation of a major new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth’.

Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says.

That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.

Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, said a news report by IPS on the UNEP study.

[The ‘Decoupling’ report in full, a summary, factsheet and slides can be found here.]

During the 20th century, the rate of resource use has increased twice as fast as the increase in global population. Now, resources are being consumed at an even greater rate and are on pace to triple by 2050, the report calculates. Except there simply aren’t enough resources left on the planet to manage that – the average person in Canada or the United States currently consumes 25 tonnes of key resources every year.

Industrialised countries need to reduce their consumption by making significant reductions in waste and major improvements in the efficiency with which they use resources. At the same time, developing countries need to create new low-carbon, super-efficient resource use pathways for their economic development. Developing countries have to change their idea of what development means in a resource-scarce world. They need to forge a new resource- efficient, low carbon development path, said Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

There is a pressing need for sanitation in much of Africa, but instead of building expensive Western-style water treatment infrastructure, countries can use their wetlands and natural vegetation to provide the same service, Swilling, a co-author of the report, told IPS. “We will miss out on these kinds of opportunities if we follow Western development patterns,” he said.

Public infrastructure is the biggest determinant of future energy and resource use, said Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna. North America’s infrastructure, including transportation, sanitation, food production and so on, are all high-energy, high-material-use systems, said report co-author Fischer-Kowalski. They were designed with the assumption of never-ending access to cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Efficiency improvements can be made but it is more expensive and limits to what can be done.

The benefits of a slower China

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The last days of old Nanjing: a resident's final nap before moving home. Photo: Economic Observer

“Can we slow down? In the year 2020, how will we interpret China’s historical changes up until 2010? Will we regret developing so quickly when we did not have a clear idea of our goals? If that’s true, how can we claim that we are in the process of creating a beautiful new world that justifies sacrifices?”

These questions are posed in the latest editorial of the Economic Observer, the English edition of the weekly Chinese newspaper. After listing several of the economic, infrastructure and trade achievements of the People’s Republic in the decade of 2001-10, the newspaper asks, is it time to revise China’s development model.

“We have exhausted our natural resources. Our environment will not recover even if we doubled our investment efforts in the future, and we have parted ways with our green hills and clear water. We have dismantled old walls but history will remain in our memories; our countryside has strived to enter the era of urbanization. But we will eventually learn that if we seize farmers’ lands in the name of establishing a new life, we are destroying not only their land, but their respect for public authority.”

The last days of old Nanjing-flyers advertising moving services pasted on the wall of a home for senior citizens. Photo: Economic Observer

The last days of old Nanjing: flyers advertising moving services pasted on the wall of a home for senior citizens. Photo: Economic Observer

We can slow down, suggest the Economic Observer’s editors, if we examine China’s rapid economic growth of the past three decades. “If we can have more dialogue with the world, if we can listen to the voices of the people and design development path that reflects their needs, if we give up fast profits for steady earnings, and a decent, happy life, why shouldn’t we slow down?”

“If we choose to maintain our current development speed at any cost, it will be impossible to slow down in the future. Slow growth does not need to signal failure; nor will China’s strength be overshadowed. If a country chooses to make its citizens happy instead of seeking recognition solely based on economic figures, it will receive more respect from the whole world. To its population of over a billion, China will be a kinder, more attractive place to live.”

Written by makanaka

January 5, 2011 at 19:57