Poverty And Ecocide

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Social inequalities generated by neo-liberal globalization have kept large segments of the population in the global South in poverty. In 1990, 2 billion people subsisted on less than US $2 a day.18 Indeed, impoverishment is one of the main contributors to ecocide and environmental degradation in the global South. Without jobs and without productive land, poor people are forced on to marginal lands in search of subsistence food production and firewood, or they move to the cities. Those who stay on the land are forced to graze livestock herds in places where vegetation is sparse or soil and shrubs are easily damaged, and to create agricultural plots on arid or semi-arid lands. In tropical forests and ecologically sensitive areas, more and more people exploit open access resources in a desperate struggle to provide for themselves and their families. The toll on natural resources takes many forms - soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, desertification, depleted game and fish stocks, massive loss of species and their natural habitats, depletion of groundwater resources, and pollution of rivers and other bodies of water.19 As a result, the carrying capacity of land and its biological resources are reduced. This degradation further exacerbates poverty and threatens not only the economic prospects of future generations but also the livelihood, health, and well-being of current populations. The aforementioned debt crisis and structural adjustment programs deepen the correlation between poverty and environmental degradation.

Ghana, the Philippines, and Indonesia serve as warning examples of the damaging environmental consequences of structural adjustment programs that mandate intensified export production to gain foreign exchange. Ghana increased its production of cocoa to deal with its debt, but unfortunately the terms of trade deteriorated because the rise in cocoa production in Ghana was accompanied by a 48 per cent decline in the world cocoa price between 1986 and 1989. Burdened with deteriorating terms of exchange, Ghana was forced into even greater indebtedness to cover its burgeoning trade deficit, with its external debt risingfromUS$1.1 billion in1988toUS$3.4 billion in1988.20 To make up for declining foreign-exchange earnings from cocoa, the Ghanaian government with World Bank support revived commercial forestry. Timber production rose from 147,000 cubic meters to 413,300 cubic meters per annum from 1984 to 1987, accelerating the destruction of Ghana's already reduced forest cover. At the 1990s rate of deforestation, predicted political economist Fantu Cheru, Ghana would be stripped of its forests by the year2000.21 The same forces that, in the 1980s, accelerated the devastation of Ghana's forest resources, have since worsened degradation of the country's forests, wildlife, water, biodiversity, and health of the people by pursuing aggressive gold mining operations which involved the massive conversion of indigenous lands into mining areas and industrial estates.

Like Ghana, the Philippines has been a faithful implementer of the neoliberal structural adjustment formula. The country has been paying as much as 25 to 30 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings to service its debt. Out of the almost US $50 billion worth of products exported by the country between 1981 and 1989, traditional resource-based exports accounted for almost US $23 billion, or over 45 per cent.22 The portion of the Philippines covered by forests declined from 50 per cent in the 1950s to less than 18 per cent by the end of the 1990s, with most of the wood being exported to Japan. Its coastal fish resources were already depleted by the late 1980s. Of its original 500,000 hectares of mangroves, the coastal breeding grounds of fish, less than 30,000 hectares remained by the end of the century. Most of those important environments have been converted into fish or prawn farms geared mainly to producing for foreign markets.23 Indeed, the "blue revolution" of aquaculture, and in particular prawn farming in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Mexico, reveals the devastating environmental impact of debt-driven, export-oriented production. Not only has the creation of prawn farms to service the Japanese, US, and European markets entailed the destruction of mangroves and associated coastal breeding grounds for fish, it has also disrupted traditional agriculture. The inflow of salt water due to the elimination of mangroves threatens to lower productivity of adjacent rice fields. The high demand for fresh water leaves little of this most precious resource for rice farming. In some areas, water supplies have dropped precipitously, prompting local authorities to ration it.24

A final striking example is provided by Indonesia, perhaps the most richly endowed center of biodiversity in Southeast Asia. In this country widespread poverty exists in spite of its immense natural resources. Ruthless partnerships of foreign investors and local elites have implemented economic liberalization to acquire personal wealth at the expense of Indonesia's indigenous population and environment.25 During the last two decades of the twentieth century, more than 1 million hectares of Indonesia's tropical forests - one of the world's richest genetic storehouses - were cut down. Former Indonesian President Suharto articulated the relationship between Indonesia's debt and deforestation in the late 1970s when he noted: "We do not have to worry our heads about debts, for we still have forests to repay those debts." Two decades later, deforestation rates had risen threefold, and Indonesia produced about 70 per cent of the world's hardwood supply. Overall, wood products have become Indonesia's main non-fossil fuel commodities, earning more than US $3 billion annually.26 A large proportion of Indonesia's pristine environments was developed into new industrial plantations of rubber, oil palm, and pulpwood. These activities required the clearing of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, and setting fires was the cheapest option.

Hence, since the 1980s, Indonesian forests have been subjected to the largest artificial forest fires in human history, irreparably destroying much of the evolutionary vestiges of the most biologically diverse patchworks of ecosystems and habitats of the planet. These apocalyptic fires exposed some 100 million people to a thick smoky haze (which could be viewed through satellite photographic transmission on the Internet). The poor visibility due to smoke caused fatal airplane crashes and ship collisions in a region ranging from Borneo to Singapore. The air quality became so poor that the governments in the region were forced to declare a temporary state of emergency. At one point, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad even wore a surgical mask in public - and urged his compatriots to do the same.27 Mike Davis offered an insightful comment: "Billionaire arsonists set almost the entirety of [the] Malay Archipelago ablaze with their greed."28

The ecological damage is largely irreversible. For example, some 80 per cent of Indonesia's orangutan habitats were destroyed, only 2 per cent of the original habitat of orangutans in Indonesia were left intact.29 Overall, the world is now losing forest cover at a rate without historical precedent: during the last 15 years of the twentieth century, total global forest cover dropped by about 180 million hectares, an area nearly as large as Mexico.30

The New World Order created by neo-liberal globalization is perhaps manifested most starkly through the chilling fact that more forest fires burned in any single year of the last decade of the twentieth century than in all of human history. In the process, these fires irreparably destroyed precious biodiversity resulting from millions of years of evolution.31


Among critical voices in the field of social ecology, there is an overwhelming consensus that the present situation is fundamentally unsustainable. Various commentators have coined different terms for this predicament; some call it "ecocide" or "terracide," others refer to it as "planetocide." Unfortunately, the gap between this insight and existing social and ecological practice has even widened in recent years. Population growth during the 1990s alone exceeded the growth experienced in the previous 10,000 years. Given the population growth of 40 per cent in the last 30 years, and a quadrupling of consumption, how can we reverse the loss of biodiversity, the damage to the global atmosphere, and the degradation of the environment?32 It is clear that the prevailing mode of global development cannot be "sustainable," that is, we are in the process of compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs.33

William Catton was the first environmental sociologist who diagnosed the late modern global trajectory of human social and ecological relations in progressive ecocidal or speciescidal terms of what he called "overshoot." "It is becoming apparent," he noted already in the early 1980s, that nature must, in the not far distant future, "institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh," just as nature had done many times in response to previous episodes of overshoot.34 "Overshoot" simply means that we have exceeded the carrying capacity of planet Earth.35 If the present world population of 6.1 billion people were to live at current North American ecological standards, a reasonable first approximation of the total productive land requirement would be more than 10 billion square miles (assuming present technology). However, there are only just over 5 billion square miles of land on Earth, of which only 3.4 billion are ecologically productive cropland, pasture, or forest. In short, we would need at least two more planets of Earth's size to accommodate the increased ecological demands36 as there are obvious limits to the regenerative capacities of nature. The loss of species and the associated reduction of biodiversity are, for all practical purposes, irreversible and final.

Overshoot lowers carrying capacity. Transgressing the carrying capacity starts an ecocidal downward spiral toward zero. Biologist David Klein's classic study of the reindeer on St Matthew Island in Alaska illustrates the point. In 1944a population of 29 animals was moved to the island, without concern for its impact on the local ecosystem. Within two decades, the reindeer population swelled to 6,000, only to "crash" within three years to a total of 41 females and one male, all in miserable condition. Klein estimates that the carrying capacity of the island was about five deer per square kilometer. At the population peak, there were 18 reindeer per square kilometer. After the crash, there remained only 0.126 animals per square kilometer. The recovery of depleted food resources would take decades; indeed, with a continuing resident population of reindeer, it may never occur.37

The example shows that overshoot is a temporary condition, to be followed by a drastic decline in population. A possible human crash in the twenty-first century is a distinct possibility. So far, the world's governments have done very little to avoid such a possible crash. For example: the 1992 UN Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, failed largely because of corporate resistance. The world's only remaining superpower, the United States of America, has failed to ratify several important treaties on biodiversity and climate change drafted during the 1990s.38

In the era of neo-liberal globalization, human beings have turned into "Future Eaters," or Homo esophagus colossus. Our species engages in what is the largest - and perhaps the terminal - Grand Buffet in the history of our planet. Everything people consume has an impact on the environment -taking a single branch from the forest leaves some mark on the ecosystem. Still, not all consumption is necessarily bad. For one, our intervention in nature is essential to human survival, but many of our activities, particularly in the late twentieth century, constitute wasteful luxuries. Indeed, the existence of widespread poverty on Earth shows that many consume too little of the essentials of life - food, fuel, and shelter. According to the UN Human Development Report, 3 billion humans, or half of the world's population, are now malnourished, suffering from micronutrient deficiencies brought on by a combination of low income and inadequate distribution of food.39 Some forms of consumption, such as the excessive burning of fossil fuels, are inherently harmful, whereas others, such as the use of forest products and the growing of food crops can be sustained virtually indefinitely - if done wisely - without causing damage to the environment.

It is the nature and scale of consumption that matter, and much of the consumption that is taking place in the global North is extremely damaging to the environment. For example, the coal we are burning to generate electricity produces particulates, acidic compounds, mercury, and other toxic materials that pollute the air, soil, and water. The gasoline we use to keep our cars on our congested highways creates smog and harmful gases. To supply the late-capitalist industrial global demand for wood products, the timber industry thins and clearcuts millions of acres of publicly and privately owned forests annually. Even our appetite for meat has become a serious problem, since the amount of grain needed to feed livestock multiplies the impact of intensive methods of agriculture on air, soil, and water. Hence, reducing fossil fuel consumption, changing our agricultural practices, and distributing environmental risks more evenly are critical steps toward the collective survival of our species.40

The people who claim the lion's share of the Grand Buffet disproportionately reside in the rich countries of the northern hemisphere, particularly in the United States. Compared to people living in the poorer countries of the global South, the members of this group consume enormous quantities of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fresh water, fish, grains, and meat. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a typical citizen of an advanced industrial country uses 3 times as much fresh water, 10 times as much energy, and 19 times as much aluminum as a typical citizen of a developing country. The average American citizen uses twice as much fossil fuel as the average resident of Great Britain and two-and-a-half times as much as the average Japanese. The United States produces and consumes one-third of the world's paper, despite having just 5 per cent of the world's population and 6 per cent of its forest cover.41 The sheer waste of materials by this "planetary consumer class" is astounding: the average American discards nearly a ton of trash per year, two to three times as much as the average European, not to speak of less privileged citizens in the global South.42 Of course, not all Americans fall into the same consumer category, given the tremendous social inequalities existing in the richest country on Earth. Obviously, affluent people tend to consume far more. They tend to travel farther and more frequently, ride in gas-guzzling cars like sports-utility vehicles. Likewise, there exists enormous wealth even in the poorest developing countries. Indigenous elites are eager to spend their money the same ecocidal way as many affluent Americans do. Consumerism is not just a facet of American life, but a burgeoning and highly differentiated worldwide trend. The term Homo esophagus colossus fits this global consumer class, given their enormous negative impact on the planet's species and biodiversity.

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  • enrico
    What is desparete ecocide of the poor?
    3 years ago

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