Wealth engenders debt...

... seems like a paradox, but when that wealth is produced by affluent countries through importing undervalued resources of the poorer regions, while exporting waste, they are consuming more environmental space than the boundaries of their own countries, and are, thus, indebted to the South

By J Martinez-aliers
Published: Wednesday 31 July 1996

-- (Credit: Vishwajyoti) that wealth provides the means to correct environmental damage; that wealthy people are environmentally more conscious because they can afford to care for the quality of life; and that poverty is one of the main causes of environmental degradation, are politically correct beliefs. However, for many ecologists from the South, this provokes outrage, even when the speaker comes from the South. The former finance minister of India, Manmohan Singh, was one who justified his programmes of trade and market liberalisation on the grounds that they would generate resources for cleaning up the environment.

In the report Zukunftsfahiges Deutschland , we find a realistic description of the prospects for decreasing the 'environmental space' ( umweltraum ) used by the German economy, which imports cheap natural resources (such as oil), and exports residues (like carbon dioxide -- co2). This report comes in the wake of the Friends of the Earth's report on the Netherlands (that the country uses an environmental space about 15 times larger than its own territory), and also in the footsteps of the report by the Wuppertal Institute, Towards a Sustainable Europe (February, 1995).

Another physical measure of environmental unsustainability (not used in Zukunftsfahiges Deutschland) is the human appropriation of net primary production which if calculated for different regions and countries of the world, would show how some of them live beyond their own biomass production, and some of them are still much below their own production levels. In an urban context, they are the ones who have developed the notion of the ecological footprint (implicit already in the 'organic' urban planning of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford).

The other interesting contrast is the one between 'ecosystem people' and 'ecological trespassers'. The occupation of an environmental space larger than one's own territory gives rise to ecological debt. If increasing wealth means more use of undervalued natural resources from other territories and also an increased production of residues, there is an increasing ecological debt (which is admittedly difficult to quantify in terms of money).

Such a debt is not only towards future generations, it is also towards those members of our own generation who are using little environmental space. The report gives information on German emissions of co2 historically, which is relevant to this issue.

Certainly, a strict thesis of global ecological limits would reduce economic growth to a zero-sum game and this may lead (in the rich North) not so much to feelings of guilt over the burden of the debt as, on the contrary, to an aggressive reaction (like the colonial war against Iraq in 1991 or the present emphasis in nato towards the Southern flank rich in oil and gas). Fortunately, there are no strict global ecological limits because there is much scope for 'dematerialisation' and 'de-energisation', without a decrease in living standards.

"Do not get frantic and aggressive," is the main message to the Germans which comes out of Zukunftsfahiges Deutschland . However, in the meantime, the debt which arises from excessive use of environmental space is piling up. What message does the report have for the Southern peoples? In this respect, I am disappointed because it puts no emphasis either on the ecological debt or on the environmentalism of the poor. On the contrary, the report uncritically accepts the 'postmaterialist' thesis. Let me explain.

The relationship between wealth and environmental degradation varies with each factor analysed. Let us, for instance, consider the emission of sulphur dioxide (so2), water quality, the production of co2, and domestic waste. Emission of so2 increases with industrialisation, but diminishes when a country becomes richer. Water quality is lower in poor countries and increases with wealth, but the consumption of water also increases with wealth and thus water reserves are overexploited in some rich countries and suffer salinisation in coastal areas. Emissions of co2 increase with wealth. The production of domestic wastes increases as living standards improve and their composition makes them harder to recycle.

There was a recent discussion on the relationship between wealth and its environmental impact, in terms of the so-called "inverted U relationship". This relationship applies to so2. Emissions per head increase in the early stages of industrialisation and then decrease as filters are installed in metal smelters or in power stations, or by changes in fuel (from brown-coal to lignites to gas). If one defines 'environmental quality' by one indicator, such as so2, then one might conclude that most industrialised countries are achieving substantial improvements in environmental quality. And these are the result of both, a cultural change and a change forced upon by environmental degradation. There then seems to have come a shift towards so-called 'postmaterialist' values which makes some rich societies increasingly sensitive towards environmental issues.

By providing the results of a few selected indicators, it can be argued not only that wealth increases appreciation for environmental values but also that wealth itself is good for the environment. The report Zukunfsfahiges Deutschland does not agree with the view that economic growth brings its own cure to environmental degradation. On the contrary, it recommends a substantial decrease in the material and energy consumed, which will not come about spontaneously by the process of economic growth. The change will come about by changes in the fiscal system, through the improvement of technical efficiencies, and also through a feeling of 'sufficiency', and satisfaction among the people that they have enough.

What could be the reasons for this feeling of 'sufficiency'? What are the reasons for the growth of environmentalism? Some authors believe that environmentalism in the rich countries is not a materialist reaction against the "effluents of affluence", but rather a post-1968 shift to postmaterialist cultural values. This optimistic position, which takes "dematerialisation" for granted, is known as Inglehart's "postmaterialist" thesis. But I do not agree with it. Inglehart (1977,1995) accepts that in affluent countries, there is concern about the deterioration of some environmental indicators, and about the increasing part of gnp which must be spent on 'protective', 'defensive', 'corrective' or 'mitigatory' expenditures against environmental damage. Nevertheless, quite apart from 'objective' environmental impacts, Inglehart's thesis is that the cultural shift towards postmaterialist values is making some societies more sensitive towards environmental issues.

This was also the consensus among mainstream environmental and resource economists in the us, until challenged by the new ecological economics. Indeed, mainstream environmental economics had proposed that the demand for environmental goods increases with income and that the poor are "too poor to be green".

In trying to disentangle the sources of support for environmentalism in various countries, Inglehart describes the environment of the Netherlands as relatively "pristine". This is a most optimistic assessment since the Netherlands is a country with a population density of 400 persons per sq km and nearly as many cows, pigs and cars as humans. This misrepresentation attributes most Dutch environmentalism mostly to 'postmaterialism'.

The Scandinavian countries are also classified by Inglehart as relatively "pristine" environments. They are certainly less populated than the Netherlands. Scandinavian environmentalism is also attributed by Inglehart to postmaterialism, with no regard to the following facts: their economies are partly based on extraction of natural resources; one of them (Sweden) has an excessive number of nuclear power stations relative to its population; they have been subject to irradiation from Chernobyl; and they have been subject to acidification from external sources. There are enough material reasons to become an environmentalist in Scandinavia, as there is in the Netherlands or Germany.

There are even more reasons to become an environmentalist in poorer countries and regions, whose environmental space is being used to benefit the rich. This is after all the well-known environmentalism of the poor (of Chico Mendes or Ken Saro-Wiwa), potentially the best kind of support for the Northern environmentalists, whose domestic task would become easier if loud voices were heard from the South asking for repayment of the ecological debt.

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