Jayati Ghosh: Beyond ecological imperialism

The row over climate change isn’t just a battle between rich and poor, it illustrates the futility of obsession with economic growth

So the Copenhagen summit did not deliver any hope of substantive change, or even any indication that the world’s leaders are sufficiently aware of the vastness and urgency of the problem. But is that such a surprise? Nothing in the much-hyped runup to the summit suggested that the organisers and participants had genuine ambitions to change course and stop or reverse a process of clearly unsustainable growth.

Part of the problem is that the issue of climate change is increasingly portrayed as that of competing interests between countries. Thus, the summit has been interpreted variously as a fight between the “two largest culprits” – the US and China – or between a small group of developed countries and a small group of newly emerging countries (the group of four – China, India, Brazil and South Africa), or at best between rich and poor countries.

The historical legacy of past growth in the rich countries that has a current adverse impact is certainly keenly felt in the developing world. It is not just the past: current per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world are still many multiples of that in any developing country, including China. So the attempts by northern commentators to lay blame on some countries for derailing the result by pointing to this discrepancy are seen in most developing countries as further evidence of an essentially colonial outlook.

But describing this as a fight between countries misses the essential point: that the issue is really linked to an economic system – capitalism – that is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this “growth” does not deliver better lives for the people. So there is no questioning of the supposition that rich countries with declining populations must keep on growing in terms of GDP, rather than finding different ways of creating and distributing output to generate better quality of life. There is no debating of the pattern of growth in “successful” developing countries, which has in many cases come at the cost of increased inequality, greater material insecurity for a significant section of the population and massive damage to the environment.

Since such questions were not even at the table at the Copenhagen summit – even a “successful” outcome with some sort of common statement would hardly have been a sign of the kind of change that is required. But this does not mean that the problem has gone away; in fact, it is more pressing than ever.

Optimists believe that the problem can be solved in a win-win outcome that is based on “green” growth and new technologies that provide “dematerialised” output, so that growth has decreasing impact on the environment. But such a hope is also limited by the Jevons paradox (after the 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons), which states that the expansion of output typically overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy.

This is forcefully elucidated in an important new book by John Bellamy Foster. Foster argues that a rational reorganisation of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. “The immense danger now facing the human species … is not due principally to the constraints of the natural environment, but arises from a deranged social system wheeling out of control, and more specifically US imperialism.” (p 105)

How does imperialism enter into this? “Capital … is running up against ecological barriers at a biospheric level that cannot be overcome, as was the case previously, through the ‘spatial fix’ of geographical expansion and exploitation. Ecological imperialism – the growth of the centre of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thorough-going ecological degradation of the periphery – is now generating a planetary-scale set of ecological contradictions, imperilling the entire biosphere.” (p 249)

This does not mean that the interests of people in the centre are inevitably opposed to those of people in the periphery, since both are now adversely affected by the results of such ecological imbalances. Instead, it means that it is now in all of our interests to shift from an obsession on growth that is primarily directed to increasing capitalist profits, to a more rational organisation of society and of the relation between humanity and nature.

So there is indeed a win-win solution, but one that cannot be based on the existing economic paradigm. The good news is that more humane and democratic alternatives are also likely to be more environmentally sustainable.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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