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Identify and explain the main obstacles to solving global environmental problems.
by Stuart at 2006-04-24 09:39:55 (Blog::Stuart)
I attach a copy of an essay I wrote in 2003. I don't believe everything I wrote but it does canter through the various ideologies of ecology, and as such is interesting enough to post.
In this essay I intend to show that the main obstacle to solving global environmental problems is the consumer, and the individual. Too few of us as individuals are changing the way we live to one that is sustainable.

Human development is based on the exploitation of increasing resources combined with evolving technology. We in the West have never lived longer or better. The solution I believe is not to radically change our society, but to promote the development and then use of technologies that will make our existing lifestyle more sustainable. I believe that it is not the State, the company, or the system that is to blame, as ultimately they are shaped by individual demand.

We must look at what we mean by environmental problems. Ultimately the Earth will probably recover from whatever we do to it. The Earth has coped and been reborn from countless environmental catastrophes in the past; from comet impacts to global scale volcanic eruptions, all of which plunged the entire world into a long winter that killed many species. New eco-systems and species developed to fill the gaps created by these mass extinctions (for example mammals filling the place of dinosaurs). Less rapid changes also occur. The world goes through glacial stages with three huge ‘Ice Ages’ already occurring. In fact we are only in a inter stadial of the third ice age. It is highly unlikely that anything we do around global environmental problems will affect the Earth in the longer term (bar possible full scale global nuclear war which would poison the earth with radiation). So what we mean by environmental damage is ultimately what damages us.

As Held puts it

“We take environmental degradation to mean the transformation of Eco systems ……. Whose consequences, whether acknowledged by human actors or not, have an adverse impact on the economic or demographic conditions of life and/or the health of human beings.” P377 Global Transformations politics, economics and culture. David Held et al

Global environmental problems result from the following activities:

1. Pollution- man’s activities that contaminate and defile the natural world;
2. The overuse and misuse of natural and finite resources;
3. The destruction of the biodiversity levels of the world;
4. Habitat destruction.

Whilst on the face of it the cause of Global warming, for example, is simple (the over production of ‘green house’ gases) the underlying problem is of how we have allowed ourselves to get into this situation of such overproduction. To explain this and the root causes of other environmental problems there are a range of competing ideological views.

Paterson in his work ‘Understanding Global Environmental Politics’ outlines these range of views very well. They run from the liberal mainstream to ‘deep ecology’. These different ideologies all see different causal reasons for the Global environmental problems. They propose varying degrees of reform and change to the world political and economic systems. The obstacles one sees to solving environmental problems therefore changes as the perceived causes of global environmental problems vary. There are therefore different obstacles depending on your point of view of the causes of the initial problem.

Liberal institutionalists feel the root cause of the environmental problem is the failure of states (the tragedy of the commons) to come together and agree effective measures to counter them. There is a prevailing short-termism in democracies and a sense of ‘I am alright jack’. All the states of the world want all the other states to adopt the necessary green measures, whilst they try to get out of their own commitments for their own comparative advantage. The United States is happy to see other countries ratifying the Kyoto protocols, that itself is now reneging on.

For all these problems to be overcome liberal institutionalists believe that international institutions need to be set up to regulate and preside over states implementing agreed environmental measures. These could be the environmental equivalents of the World Bank and IMF.

The next school Paterson identifies are the realists and the eco-authoritarians who see some truth in the tragedy of the commons, but also think that the patterns of human development are also environmentally damaging. For example according to Ted Trainer the average American uses 617 times more energy than the average Ethiopian. This means that if the developing world is to develop to the present day level of the USA world energy production would have to increase correspondingly. This would lead to a hundred fold increase in green house gas emissions should nothing change. Another example is China - if every Chinese citizen who at the moment rides a bicycle eventually drove a car or motorbike, the environmental impact would be immense.

The eco-authoritarians also see the expanding human population as well as the onward march of technology as a problematic trend. So they see twin factors. Firstly as human society develops it consumes more per individual and secondly combining this with the rapid population growth of the race as a whole.

I have problems with the Eco-authoritarian view on over population, as it must be noted that there is a sharp decrease in population growth and family size with increased living standards. So much so that in many parts of the OECD we have stable or shrinking populations. A lot of this theory also has Malthusian tendencies. As the world’s energy demands have expanded so has the efficiency of energy production. The over population issue aside, the realist view on technology combined with the inabilities of governments to address the problem makes the realist school explanation of the obstacles that we are struggling to overcome a very persuasive one.

Heilbroner a proponent of this view sees a failure of “rational argument”. That although we all know we are living in an unsustainable way, we all continue regardless. He states

“….suppose we knew with a high degree of certainty that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up, our wasteful diet of meat, abandoned driving and cut back on every energy use that was not essential to the bare minimum. Would we care enough to pay the price for its survival? …. I doubt it. A thousand years is unimaginably distant…. My children, great grand children will all be dead by then. .. There is no argument based on reason that will lead me to care for posterity or to lift a finger on its behalf.”
Robert Heilbroner ‘What has posterity ever done for me’ New York times magazine 1975 from Ideals and Ideologies a reader. P 421

To overcome these problems human development must be made more sustainable. This will involve the role of the state outlined by liberal intuitionalists. It will also need strict environmental security, and fundamentally it will need us all to grasp the importance of posterity.

Heilbroner thinks we will have to experience tragedy and suffering at the hands of famine and war before we finally realise that we will have to change our lives. I am not that pessimistic, but totally agree that changing the consensuses of the individual is key. When we want sustainable lives we will buy sustainable goods, and then capitalist economy will respond to this demand and provide the sustainable technology we need. When energy waste is viewed with the distain that wearing a baby seal skin fur coat, or drink driving is now, we will get things moving and make the alternative technologies viable. A change in consumer demand, aided by states imposing environmental taxes and tax breaks, with global treaties in place will solve the sustainability problem.

Paterson outlines three other more radical schools of thought. The first of these is eco-socialism. Eco-socialism sees actual capital accumulation as bad for the environment. Eco-socialists feel the whole economic system is to blame with Capitalism and accumulation as inherently damaging the environment. Ecologism’s main critique of the modern industrial society is industrialism’s tendency to expand production and consumption which is incompatible with the finite nature of the planet. As Jonathan Porritt puts it

“Sustainability and industrialism are mutually exclusive”
Seeing green The Politics of Ecology Explained p 49 Extract taken from Contemporary Political Ideologies edited by Roger Eatwell

We are consuming resources as if they where infinite. They are not, and should be husbanded not squandered.

Jonathon Porritt describes industrialism;

“The politics of the Industrial age, left, right and centre, is like a three lane motorway, with different vehicles in different lanes, but all heading in the same direction….. Both Capitalism and Communism are dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to the materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development….. From a view point of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance.
Seeing green The Politics of Ecology Explained Extract taken from Contemporary Political Ideologies edited by Roger Eatwell

Green criticism of the capitalist model, can be shown with this interpretation of the production cycle.

‘Depletion to production to consumption to waste’.
P224 Andrew Dobson Ecologism Contemporary Political Ideologies

They see capitalist action as trying to maximise the first three factors with no thought to the fourth. The solution the ecologist would advocate is minimizing all four factors.

“Not only do our societies aspire for unending growth in a finite system, our political and economic system are both symptom and cause of an anthropocentric that places the human beings at the apex of existence, makes us measure value and encourages us to see the world simply a means to the end of Human satisfaction”. P224 Andrew Dobson Ecologism Contemporary Political Ideologies.

The solution for these problems is the overthrow of Capitalism, and all other industrial systems that accumulate capital. This would necessitate a complete change in the way we live all aspects of our lives. It would be an unnecessary change as all we need to do is make Capitalism take account of environmental damage. The Capitalist market is highly efficient method of distribution, but at the moment it does not take account or cost environmental damage. If it did, and the environmental factors were applied with cost benefit analysis it would become a powerful tool for the planet. It would be Green Capitalism, which would push and promote the most efficient and less polluting practises.

The other two ideologies identified by Paterson extend the themes of domination. They are social ecology and green politics, and then the more radical deep ecology. What separates these from each other is the depth they see of the problem, and the extent to which the existing system and technologies are to blame and correspondingly the depth of change that is needed.

Murray Bookchin, an anarchist and social ecologist, traces the roots of our contemporary environmental crisis to the ideas and ideologists that have dominated the Western World. He sees the root of the problem as more than just class domination that the Marxists see, but a ethos that nature is there to be dominated conquered and tamed. He see this trend date back to the classical times.

“Promethean drama in which man heroically defies and asserts himself against a brutally hostile and unyielding natural world.”
And that
“Progress is seen as the extrication of humanity from the muck of a mindless, unthinking, and brutish domain or what Jean-Paul Satre so contemptuously called the ‘Slime of history’ into the clear light of reason and civilisation.”
Murray Bookchin ‘The Modern Crisis’ New Society Publisher. 1986 Extract taken from Ideals and Ideologies a reader edited by Terence Ball

Bookchin feels that our so called civilisation, with its warped priorities, is the root of all environmental problems, with our desire to compete and dominate the foe.

“The authentic jungle of ‘claw and fang’ we call the free market is an extension of human competition in nature—an ideological, self serving fiction that parades under such labels as social Darwinism and socio-biology---hardly requires emphasis any longer. Lions are turned into ‘kings of the beasts’ only by human kings, be they imperial monarchs or corporate ones; ants belong to the ‘lowly’ in nature only by virtue of ideologies spawned in temples, palaces, manors in our own time, by subservient apologists of the powers that be. The reality is different but a nature conceived as hierarchical not to speak of the other brutish and very bourgeois traits imputed to it, merely reflects a human condition in which dominance and submission are ends in themselves, which has brought the existence of our biosphere into question.”
Murray Bookchin ‘The Modern Crisis’ New Society Publisher. 1986 Extract taken from Ideals and Ideologies a reader edited by Terence Ball

Bookchin believes the whole concept of the struggle to exist and the Darwinian survival of the fittest is wrong. It may be that mutual cooperation and symbioses between organisms is just as important as competition and domination. The fittest may be the one that helps another to survive.

Bookchin sees a place in human future for science and technology, but they must operate inside new ecological contexts that do not deny life to other life forms. Bookchin sees a world where we have to

“…foster a new sensibility towards otherness that, in a non-hierarchical society that is based on complementarity rather than rivalry, and new communities that, scaled to human dimensions, are tailored ecosystems in which they are located and open a new decentralised, self managed public realm for new forms of social management”.
Murray Bookchin ‘The Modern Crisis’ New Society Publisher. 1986 Extract taken from Ideals and Ideologies a reader edited by Terence Ball

An ideal society may then be

“a sharp break with the modern era, for the simpler frugal sustainable society would be characterised by a relatively low through put, income-energy economy designed to elicit an optimum amount of material from nature – in other words a modicum or a sufficiency of material well being rather than the maximum”
William Ophuls ‘The Politics of the sustainable Society. P164 Praeger New York and London

Such a society would be characterised by

“decentralisation and local autonomy; simpler, smaller scale, face to face life closer to nature; labour intensive modes of production; de-emphasis on material things; individual self sufficiency and cultural diversity.”
William Ophuls ‘The Politics of the sustainable Society. P164 Praeger New York and London

The main obstacles the Social ecologists see to overcoming the global environmental problems is the concept of domination inherent to the philosophy of human especially western civilisation. As such this ideology is widely optimistic and naive. It wants to turn round thousands of years of human existence and civilisation. It will just not happen in a democracy.

The final school of though that Paterson identifies is deep ecology. Deep Ecology is a continuation of Social Ecology. The leading proponent is Arne Naess. Deep Ecology questions the notion that humans have rights above other life forms. It sees all ecosystems as linked. According the Deep Ecology Organisation the principles of the ideology are:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realizations of these values & are also values in themselves.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs.
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

“Respect for diversity leads us to recognize the forms of ecological wisdom that grow out of specific places and contexts. Supporters of the deep ecology movement embrace place-specific, ecological wisdom, and vernacular technology practices. No one philosophy and technology is applicable to the whole planet. Diversity on every level is good!”
Ecophilosophy, Ecosophy and The Deep Ecology Movement:*An Overview Alan Drengson ©1999 from http://www.deep-ecology.org/

The deep ecology movement sees very local solutions to global problems. Human society would be have to be broken down to small groups living in harmony and respect of nature. Most of our technology and lifestyles would have to be forgone, for the good of the Earth as a whole.

This would result in the complete break down of society as we know it and would push man back to a subsistence life style that we have worked so hard to get away from. Medical services would be non-existent, starvation would be wide spread as we give up efficient mechanised farming etc. I could go on analysing this but there seems little point as it is not going to happen.

There are two basic schools of thought then on what is the cause and therefore the obstacle needing to be overcome to solve Global environmental problems. The first school (that the Liberals the Realists and the Eco Authoritarians belong to) is based around a failure of management of the system of the world, that has allowed environmental damage to get out of hand. They all see system as needing some form of adjustment and reform to control it bring it back to a sustainable position. Basically they want change the management of the world’s existing political and economic system, to varying degrees.

The second school (that the Eco Socialists, the Social Ecologists and finally the Deep ecologists belong to) is one that sees the system itself is endemically at fault. They see solutions revolving around revolution and creation of a wholly new system of government, lifestyle and philosophy for the world.

Simplistically, or maybe not, one could say all varying views have one obstacle in common and that is human kind. Human kind and the way we live is the fundamental obstacle that needs to be overcome, in solving global environmental problems. All the debate is over the type and degree of change that needs to take place.

As the proposed causes and solutions can be seen as a movement from small reform of the way we live right through to a complete radical change of every aspect of the way we live I feel it is logical to start at the least radical end of the spectrum and move along it until a viable position is found, that identifies the obstacles and how they can be overcome.

It is not possible within the scope of an essay to critique all the competing ideologies. This would involve examining the majority of all aspects of political and economic thought. The competing explanations encompass all aspects of traditional left/right politics as well as philosophical notions of the nature of man. For example Deep Ecology questions the Christian belief of the relationship between humans and beasts.

I believe that all the solutions proposed to the radical side of realism would solve the problems of Global environmental problems. I would not advocate the more radical solutions though nor would I want to live in them. I think we must opt for the solution that involves the least amount of change, and therefore is the most likely to succeed. The more radical solutions that are proposed are unnecessary as I believe environmental problems can be solved more simply and with less drastic change than they advocate.

The liberal solution of states legislating and agreeing adequate environmental controls, is in my view too optimistic. We have seen how it is hard for the states of the world to agree the Kyoto protocols. There must be hope though as successful agreements have been reached around the reduction of CFC's and other Ozone destroying chemicals, at the Montreal Conference. The Western World has successfully regulated and vastly reduced emissions of Sulphur and Nitrogen Dioxide that lead to acid rain. They have agreed protocols on the protection of rare species and environments. They have agreed protocols on transporting dangerous chemicals and radioactive materials. We have largely stopped whaling and got agreements on anti dumping at sea.

The fact remains though that the scale of potential problems means that without a change in consumer patterns and attitudes, solutions to global problems remain beyond the capacity of the state. I believe that it is only with a change in public attitude that these problems can be solved. With consumers selecting greener products, less polluting technologies will become cheaper and more wide spread. This coupled with governments doing all they can with green taxation like the ‘climate change levy’ will start to turn things round. I certainly agree with Zaki Yamani the former Saudi oil minister who said that

“Just as the stone age did not end because of lack of stones, so the oil era will not be over for shortage of oil”.

The oil age will only end when consumers demand alternative greener forms of energy production. The obstacle that stands in the way of solving global environmental problems is us, the world’s inhabitants. Until enough of us actively want to solve these problems they won’t be overcome.

Global Transformations politics, economics and culture. David Held et al

Contemporary Political Ideologies Edited by Roger Eatwell and Anthony Wright.

Political and the environment from theory to practice. James Connelly

Global Risk Politics Ulrich Beck article in Greening the Millennium

Environmental Politics Robert Garner

The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World Edited by Joel Krieger

Ideals and Ideologies a reader. Terence Ball and Richard Dagger

The Politics of the sustainable Society. New York and London William Ophuls ‘

‘Understanding Global Environmental Politics’ Paterson

Stuart Bean
2nd Core Essay
23rd March 2003

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