ENVIRONMENT is a class issue. The attempt to obfuscate this fact is also motivated by class interests. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg drew attention to what had emerged as the outstanding global reality: predatory capitalism carved out colonies and empires as much for obtaining raw material at low prices as for dumping the products of its industries.
That phase continues. Maximisation of profit remains the guiding principle of capitalist enterprise and protection of the environment can have no place on its agenda. Predators have an inordinately short time-preference. The obligation to ensure environment protection cuts athwart this time-preference. If you do not take care of the balance in nature, your profit-raking will plummet in the long run. That is the rub. Capitalism is unable to resolve the contradiction between profit maximisation in the immediate period and the natural urge not to kill the hen that lays the golden egg. In the nature of Capitalism, short-term will triumph: in the long run, capitalists too are all dead.
The attitude of the US government towards the saving-the-earth junket at Rio de Janeiro is therefore understandable. Unipolarity has little to do with it. Even if the socialist bloc had not committed harakiri, the USA as the leading capitalist country, would still have been wary of attempts to put constraints on the modalities of neo-colonial exploitation.
The World Bank representing the collective clout of western capitalism flaunts two separate faces. The public face is projected in the sweet-worded World Development Report. The private face, which is what matters, is mirrored in the sophisticated optimising model it has worked out for the international distribution of pollution. Differential and difference equations have been commandeered for the task. Hack economists have proved to the satisfaction of their class fraternity that for global resource use to be optimised, all polluted industries should be re-located in the Third World.
This, in their view is impeccably sound economics: protection of the environment in the more "efficient" economies makes better sense than environmental protection of "inefficient" economic systems. The contribution to global production by the 5,000 people who died in Bhopal would, for example, have been insignificant compared to what the contribution of an identical number of people resident in Columbus, Ohio, would be.
The logic needs hardly any alteration when attention shifts to the situation obtaining within a Third World country. The distinction sought to be made between the behavioural patterns of comprador capital and capital of the "nationalist" genre loses its relevance here. If the compulsions of profit maximisation so dictate, all capitalists would cut down forests, pollute water or destroy the ecological balance. In tandem with the national government, they would make the usual noises about the necessity to avert planetary disaster.
But the devil and the scriptures do not go together. Most Third World regimes are dependent for their survival on periodic hand-outs from the West. Even otherwise, their approach to environmental issues would still be low-key. Save trees, protect biodiversity and so on are fine ear-catching slogans, but they must not interfere with profit-raking.
The grand save-the-planet bazaar that took place in Rio thus does not deserve to be taken seriously. In the final analysis, the UN continues to exist for the sake of the huge international civil service it spawns and fun-loving delegations who flock to its meetings . Poor people in the locations they meet experience a temporary windfall in their earnings. Otherwise, it is a huge make-believe. At the final hour a pistachio draft is circulated which says nothing, but saves everybody's face. Meanwhile the world continues hurtling towards self-destruction.
There is, however, one unintended spin-off of all this. A rabid anti-Marxist like Joseph Schumpeter had once made the sage observation that irrespective of what happens to the rate of profit, capitalism would still collapse because of the other contradiction bedeviling it: the system, nurtured as it is by science and technology, cannot prevent the coming into prominence within its fold of intelligent and sensitive individuals who see through the game of unscrupulous exploitation. They develop a distaste for the on-going racket and sabotage it from within. Some of these individuals smuggle themselves in national delegations to international meetings. At Rio, they must have had the opportunity of coming together with like-minded individuals from other countries. The result could be the germination of the seeds of an alternative movement which places appropriate emphasis on class issues. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The racket in Rio, one hopes, had at least this redeeming feature.
---Ashok Mitra is the former West Bengal finance minister and a noted columnist.
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