The Planet’s First Layer Is Seriously Injured
Until now we thought the biosphere,
our planet’s top layer, was inexhaustible.
The increase in the world’s population,
the rapid building of super-populated cities,
¬the uncontrollable movement of raw materials,
the global expansion of horizontal motorized transport,
the brutal extraction of minerals from deep in the Earth
and the explosion of garbage, waste and poisons,
all facilitated by the abundance of oil,
are showing us that it’s not so.
Ramón Fernández Durán
In the 20th century we went from an “empty” world to a “full” one. This entailed a real historical mutation, causing us to now speak of entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene. It’s a new epoch for the Earth, resulting from the global deployment of the urban-agro-industrial system, accompanied by a historically unparalleled increase in the world’s population.
All of this has acted like an authentic geological force with serious environmental implications. The London Geological Society, the oldest and perhaps most prestigious in the world, has defined it as such.
The previous period was the inter-glacial Holocene epoch, with its unusually stable global temperatures. It coincided with the beginning of agriculture and the expansion and evolution of the different human civilizations, lasting approximately the last 12,000 years. It has now reached its end and we are apparently entering “a stratigraphic interval unprecedented for millions of years.”
We’re in a new eraThis new era is marked by the impact of human beings on the planet Earth. Certainly not all humans act the same way but an increasingly large number of our species has managed to alter the world’s ecological and geo-morphological system for the first time in history, driven and conditioned by present-day global capitalism, a firmly stratified system whose different societies and individuals have very distinct responsibilities and impacts.
This has altered not only the Earth’s climate, the composition and characteristics of its rivers, seas and oceans, and the magnitude, diversity and complexity of its biodiversity, but even the landscape and land itself, converting the urban-agro-industrial system into what is now the main geo-morphological force.
This is a tremendous anthropogenic force, activated and amplified by a system based on “endless” growth and accumulation of money. Its impacts will last for centuries or millenniums and will condition any future evolution.
Global capitalism: The massive global deployment of urban-agro-industrial capitalism that occurred in the 20th century as well as the so far unstoppable increase in population, and the production and consumption that accompanies it, would not have been possible without certain decisive, indispensable assistance. This included abundant and cheap energy, especially fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas), and also the cheap and abundant availability of key resources for its deployment: water, minerals (including uranium), food and biomass, which have been available throughout the century precisely because of the existence of cheap and abundant energy, except perhaps during the 1970s. This propagation was viable, of course, thanks to the unremitting rise in the supply of wage labor and unpaid domestic work (mostly female).
An interrelated whole
These factors have made unparalleled world economic growth possible. The urban-agro-industrial metabolism has constantly increased its consumption of resources and generation of waste and all kinds of environmental and social impacts, which have definitively reached a global scale.
This wouldn’t have been feasible without a technological system, an ever more sophisticated global mega-machine, whose development is based on the same premises. The consolidation and deepening of mega-structures of political, economic and financial power, made viable by their huge budgets, have also made this possible. They operate with important tensions and conflicts among themselves and are conditioned by this political-social conflictiveness.
All this forms an interrelated whole that is beginning to crack and fall apart in the current century, partly through these internal contradictions but especially through clashing with the planet’s geophysical and biological limitations. The 20th century inaugurated a decisive and unique moment in the history of both humankind and the planet. The fact that at the end of the last century the global urban-agro-industrial system squandered almost 100,000 times the energy consumed by human beings at the beginning of the Neolithic period has been decisive in bringing about this tremendous historic singularity.
The planet can’t take any moreThis system has used more energy in the 20th century than was used in all the previous history of humankind. Just one species, humans—or better said, a power system that has structured and conditioned a large part of our species—has managed to divert a large part of the planet’s resources for its own benefit: 40% of what is called the Net Primary Production of the global biomass. This has had a very harmful impact on key elements needed to maintain life: drinking water, fertile land, ocean fisheries, the forests, biological diversity and the planet’s atmosphere. The exploitation of fisheries, forests and fertile lands seems to have reached its historic maximum and faces progressive decline as a result of increasing depletion and climate change. “The 20th century is a diminutive fragment of time, but the scale of change it has witnessed dwarfs all of previous human history” (Christian, 2005).
In the 19th and 20th centuries the biosphere was considered inexhaustible. Suddenly we’re finding that we have already exceeded its bio-capacity, as we brutally degraded the ecological and geophysical surroundings. In the last two or three decades the urban-agro-industrial system has gone beyond Earth’s regenerative capacity, thanks to increased cargo capacity and the intensification of destructive productive processes enabled by fossil fuels, which will soon reach their limit with the inexorable beginning of the decline in energy.
The world capitalist system and the societies that comprise it refused until recently to see this undeniable fact and still continue doing so to a large extent, encouraged by the tremendous capacity of the Image Society and Global Village for camouflage and concealment. However, crude reality is rendering them no longer able to circumvent the biophysical limits of their deployment and use. These limits are one of the main causes of the present global crisis, which has intensified their internal contradictions. The deadly and accelerating silent war against nature waged through the worldwide expansion of the urban-agro-industrial system can no longer be hidden and is presently acting against the system like a boomerang.
Urban-agro-industrialThe dominant ideology throughout the 20th century, based on the late 19th century neoclassic economy, with its faith in continual growth and indefinite progress, maintains that the expansion of the current production and accumulation model occurs as an isolated, self-sustaining bubble, disconnected from historical processes and the social and environmental reality. This is a tremendous fallacy.
Global capitalism’s metabolism can’t be understood without a growing consumption of all kinds of resources (biophysical inputs). Specifically, biophysical inputs are materials and energy extracted from the natural environment, causing important impacts on it, in order to be subsequently processed through a technological and organizational system (productive capital) that generates production with the fundamental aid of salaried or dependent human labor. Some part of this production is accumulated as constructed stock (buildings, infrastructure, etc.) while all kinds of manufactured goods are produced for consumption. Both processes engender important and very diverse waste or emissions (biophysical outputs) that are sent out into the natural environment.
Neoclassical economics takes these biophysical inputs for granted. It considers that they will always be available for unrestrained use by the unstoppable carrousel of production and consumption without impact. It doesn’t consider, and in fact even disparages, the idea of any environmental repercussion from the biophysical outputs of these productive and consumption processes. Even worse, it considers that neither the inputs nor the outputs can affect its endless dynamic of expansion, which is a dogma of the faith in an indefinite progress that cannot be restrained or conditioned by the finite and fragile biosphere, even though global capitalism’s operations are not innocuous.
There are no resources or waste in natureThe urban-agro-industrial metabolism shot up in the 20th century as a result of a variety of factors. Worldwide industrial production multiplied by more than 50. The level of planetary urbanization increased from 15% at the beginning of the century to almost 50% by the end, at the same time as the world population multiplied by 4 and the number of cities with millions of inhabitants by 40. Industrialized agriculture, starting from practically zero in 1900, is now largely globalized. And motorized transport, also starting from virtually nothing, took off tremendously by the end of the century, using specialized construction for means of transport and transport infrastructure.
All this was made possible by a constantly growing flow of energy, especially of the non-renewable variety, which increased almost 20 times over the century, despite improvements in the efficiency of its use. The impact of this metabolism on the biosphere has been increasing throughout this historical period as a result of the biophysical inputs required and the biophysical outputs generated. The effects have been cumulative, because one of the main characteristics of the urban-agro-industrial system’s metabolism is the opening of cycles in the use of materials, separated into “resources” (biophysical inputs) and “waste” (biophysical outputs), which in nature would form a closed system.
There are no “resources” or “waste” in nature. Everything works as an interrelated system, activated by the Sun’s external energy. What is waste for one organism, as a result of its internal metabolism, is a resource for another, thus closing the biophysical cycles that maintain, evolve and increase the complexity of the ecosystems and, ultimately, of life.
Oil is diabolically responsibleThe urban-agro-industrial metabolism’s perverse boom accelerated even more in the second half of the 20th century, especially in its last two decades, after the energy crises of the 1970s, when capitalism reached a truly global dimension and depth. This was not unrelated to the massive use of oil. Black gold was the key energy that made it possible and makes it viable. Only the use of fuels derived from crude oil can explain how world trade could multiply by 50 in the second half of the century, twice as much as industrial production.
The motorized transport boom became feasible because oil consumption was multiplied by 8 in the last half of the century and that consumption was increasingly dedicated to guaranteeing transport. All this permitted the urban-agro-industrial metabolism to operate on an increasingly global scale, which thus also globalized its impacts.
In the 19th century the impact of industrial capitalism’s metabolism was confined to central areas and was relatively limited due to the lesser scale of the industrialization-urbanization processes and motorized transport in an “empty” world. But in the 20th century these impacts expanded and globalized due to the globalization of the urban-agro-industrial system and the explosion of motorized transport at a world level, generating a “full” world.
In addition, the environmental impacts of present-day global capitalism are rampaging in the peripheral and semi-peripheral areas while in the central areas they are largely contained as a result of world power relations. The repercussions of the urban-agro-industrial metabolism are thus increasingly being exported to the peripheral and semi-peripheral areas. Global capitalism adopts a geographical view of “winner” metropolitan states and regions, accumulators of capital and population magnets, over-consumers of resources (direct and indirect) and over-generators of waste; while other states and regions are seen as “loser” zones, places from which to extract more and more resources (seriously impacting the environment), capital and people and, along with seas, oceans and planetary atmosphere, increasingly used as sinkholes for the waste from the global urban-agro-industrial system.
This is done through an international division of labor and a functional specialization of land. Central lands are specialized in greater value-added activities by increasingly outsourcing their economies, while semi-peripheral and peripheral lands are increasingly involved in industrial processes, especially lesser value-added and extraction activities.
Better paid work predominates in the central zones. It’s more technologically and less materially intensive and therefore has relatively less environmental impact. Meanwhile, the more polluting industrial activities, more intensive in human and material resources, generally take place in the semi-peripheral and peripheral zones. An increasing asymmetry is occurring between monetary value and human labor (especially hard labor) and physical cost, which involves social and environmental impacts, clearly differentiated in the two zones.
A massive movement of materialsEvery year the current urban-agro-industrial system moves far more tons of raw materials than any geological force. World trade moves more tonnage than is carried by the floods of all the world’s rivers put together. Even worse, this process has accelerated since the 1950s, and following the 1970s interlude, it developed even more intensely between the 1980s and this current global crisis. In present-day global capitalism we are using 19 metric tons of materials per capita annually, but it is very unequally distributed through the world and, of course, within each society. This contrasts with the average of 4 metric tons per capita in agrarian civilizations and the just one metric ton per capita of the hunter-gatherer societies.
Added to the fact that the world population rose to 6 billion people by the end of the 20th century and all agrarian civilizations together didn’t reach 300 million, we can get an idea of the massive leap in the movement of materials produced since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the 20th century. This has geomorphologic consequences, since the bulk of the movement of materials occurring today consists of physical resources, the extraction and transportation of rocks and minerals, not of biomass, as in agrarian civilizations.
Today’s global capitalism moves more than a thousand times more materials on a global scale than human societies did some 500 years ago, having increased by more than 70 in the 20th century. And all this has cumulative effects, which is why worldwide urban-agro-industrial capitalism has now become the principal geomorphologic force on the planet.
Uncontrollable urbanizationWhat accounts for this excess? And what has made it viable? It is undoubtedly a direct consequence of the urban-agro-industrial system’s global expansion, but particularly the uncontrollable metropolitan land use, increasingly extensive and spreading like an oil spill, and the explosion of motorized transport that has accompanied it.
Primarily, all this has become feasible through the massive use of oil as an essential energy driving the urban-agro-industrial system’s metabolism, especially to move the materials required to sustain it. This metabolism is also guaranteed by other fossil fuels—coal and gas, and to a lesser extent by other energy sources (nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewable forms)—but over 95% of motorized transport depends on oil derivatives.
In the 20th century the world’s urban population rose from 250 million people in 1900 (with about 10 major cities of more than a million inhabitants) to 3 billion people living in major cities by at the end of the 20th century (with many more than 400 “millionaire” cities, 80 of which have over 10 million inhabitants and 5 with over 20 million). Some of these have melted together into gigantic megalopolises, truly urban-metropolitan monsters, with an increasingly diffuse direct footprint on the land.
This means that the so called “destructive uses” of land now occupy 2% of the world’s emerged land surface, a truly impressive figure that required an unprecedented movement of materials for the construction of buildings, infrastructure, etc. It’s not for nothing that three quarters of all the materials moved around the globe, in weight, are related to construction. And the construction of urban living space brings a heavy demand for materials (steel, aluminum, cement, glass and plastics) that seriously impact the land they’re extracted from and require substantial energy consumption to manufacture.
The creation of the urban-metropolitan system has other important indirect effects on the land (quarries, dams, inter-urban infrastructure and other services that also involve a high demand for cement). Perhaps the evolution of worldwide cement consumption indicates better than anything else the impressive scale of construction that took place in the last half of the 20th century, as industrializing construction also tends to abandon other local materials. The daily functioning of the urban-metropolitan system behaves like unbridled bulimia for energy and manufactured and biotic resources (mostly foods), each leaving ecological footprints.
Horizontal versus vertical transportMass motorized transport has become an absolutely central element of the worldwide urban-agro-industrial system, colliding head-on with the functioning of the biosphere, as Gaia principally favors vertical instead of horizontal transport. Vertical transport is generated by an exchange of material between the plant kingdom, the atmosphere and the earth as well as by the internal flow of nutrients within the plant species.
In the biosphere, horizontal transport is only done by animals, representing a very small percentage of the biomass compared to plants: approximately 1%. Furthermore, animals usually move over small distances, economizing on the consumption of endosomatic energy. Animals moving horizontally over long distances, such as migratory birds and large terrestrial mammals, are a rarity in nature and are related to the seasonal search to ingest biomass that will give them the necessary endosomatic energy to continue to live and reproduce.
The current urban-agro-industrial system operates exactly the opposite way to nature. Powerful infrastructure (roads, highways, parking lots, service areas, railroad tracks and stations, ports and airports—in some cases of enormous size) are needed to make this massive horizontal displacement of materials, manufactured goods and people feasible. These structures invade, destroy and cut through the land, affecting biodiversity and its maintenance. Furthermore, this motorized displacement requires a range of vehicles whose construction involves a very important demand for metallic minerals (the automotive sector consumes more minerals than any other) whose extraction requires the movement of huge quantities of non-metallic material using machinery powered by oil derivatives, greatly impacting the land. These are called hidden flows and “ecological backpack.”
Motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, trains, boats and planes operate almost exclusively on black gold derivatives. This heavy dependence on oil for motorized transport by the end of the last century has been a momentous change.
Motorized transport was very limited at the beginning of the 20th century and was almost exclusively based on coal (steam boats and trains). Other forms of transport used animal traction on roads, sailing ships for maritime transport and, above all, pedestrian transport including, to a much lesser extent, bicycles. Subways and trams, transporting people using electricity, was very residual and only occurred in the main central cities.
The boom in motorized transportMotorized transport boomed throughout the 20th century, especially in the second half and particularly after the oil crisis of the 1970s. The new global capitalism expanded international trade in goods and food, creating an especially intense growth in road but also in marine and air transport. Railroads, however, which grew considerably in the first half of the century, largely stagnated from that time on.
The boom in motorized transport has been particularly acute in urban-metropolitan areas, paralleling their uncontrollable growth. Indeed, three quarters of all world oil is consumed there, despite the fact that throughout the century many of the world’s cities installed important and in some cases very important electrically operated collective transport systems (trains, subways and trams). In these same places vertical electric transport skyrocketed in the form of elevators. But motorized road transport far exceeded all else.
Motorized transport permitted an increase in cargo carrying capacity, along with increasingly complex technology for extracting materials from the Earth’s crust and surface. The tremendous concentration of the world’s population in urban-metropolitan areas would have been unfeasible without it. In fact, if these cities had had to be built and survive using only the physical and biotic resources (including food) of their surroundings, it simply could not have happened and their growth would have been halted. Oil has made possible this “miracle” of both extraction capacity and motorized transport. Islands of “apparent order” have been created while growing “oceans of disorder” are created around them and in increasingly more remote areas of the world.
Urban-metropolitan areas, especially those in the central territories, can’t survive without long-distance transport. It’s curious how the bulk of long-distance transport is taken up with fuel, followed by agricultural products, minerals and manufactured goods, which occupy a similar volume.
The planet turned into one big mineIt should be remembered that the extraction of minerals (for energy or not) involves removing large amounts of material. Thus, the impact of the urban-metropolitan areas can be felt not only in their more or less immediate surroundings, where a large part of their building materials come from, but also in nearby, further away and even far distant rural areas, where their food comes from, as well as in many lands throughout the world, whose mines satisfy the insatiable thirst of these cities for non-biotic resources. This is turning Planet Metropolis into one huge mine.
Open face mining, which in some cases reach almost a mile deep, is increasing throughout the world, especially in the peripheral areas. Mines are also bored as much as two miles into the Earth’s crust, which is almost 25 miles thick. The urban-agro-industrial system’s insatiable demand for minerals is reaching almost into the bowels of the Earth with the use of fossil fuels.
The extraction of minerals and energy generally doesn’t take place without social resistance, especially if the areas where it is carried out are inhabited, and even more if the affected population depends on the land’s natural resources, as with farming and indigenous peoples. In fact, the 20th century began with important indigenous uprisings in Tampico, Mexico, protesting the beginning of oil exploration. And this trend will continue throughout this century, in greater or lesser degree, as the Great Global Mine expands and takes shape.
Nonetheless, while this resistance is important and on occasion very important, it hasn’t halted the uncontrollable advance of mining although it has at times restrained it. Perhaps the main problem the resistance has faced has been lack of support from the urban-metropolitan population. Urban dwellers tend not to perceive that their forms of production and consumption, their way of life, defined by global capitalism, are responsible for the destruction and upheaval caused by the extraction of the biophysical inputs needed to maintain and expand the Industrial Society.
The impacts are seen as so remote that if the Global Village deigns to comment about them even in a manipulative way, they hardly merit attention. So this resistance has been defeated—with substantial repression on many occasions, but also by dividing and seducing the affected communities with small concessions (school construction, new houses, etc.). By the end of the last century it intensified in many peripheral areas of the world, paralleling the Great Global Mine’s increasing deployment.
We’re losing the The planet’s first layer of skin, its natural cover, the biosphere, is diminishing and degrading at a massive rate, profoundly modifying the original landscape, already being altered and made artificial, more industrialized, to satisfy the growing demand for biotic products (food, lumber, etc.). Thus, the century-old dialogue between the pre-industrial urban centers and their immediate natural surroundings, which often generated cultural landscapes of enormous beauty, diversity and complexity, has been replaced by the Metropolitan Monologue, profoundly autistic and highly destructive of its immediate surroundings and in fact the whole world. As a result, the rapidly expanding, urbanized second layer of skin is currently forcing the first natural layer to retreat and degrade.
planet’s first layer of skin
Urban-metropolitan systems, specifically those centrally situated, are not only giant sinkholes of energy and resources creating deep local and global ecological footprints. They’re also like effervescent volcanoes of waste and emissions of all kinds that impact even the biosphere (soil and water resources and the atmosphere), altering and overwhelming its capacity for absorption and regeneration. The same could be said of industrial and agro-industrial systems, demanding and insatiable users of fossil energy, whose polluting metabolism creates a tremendous impact on the natural environment.
Waste and pollution: The territorial and environmental impact of the demands for material and energy required by the urban-agro-industrial metabolism are very largely hidden in the official statistics by the dominant economic focus, especially from the eyes of the urban city dwellers, the main “beneficiaries” of this consumption and, at the same time, those subjugated by the Image Society and the Global Village. Furthermore, the urban city dwellers live far from where the impacts of their metabolism’s biophysical inputs can be seen, which is generally in distant and remote places.
The dark and hidden side of metabolism
Once generated, the resulting waste and pollution of the other side of the urban-agro-industrial metabolism, its biophysical outputs, remain even more hidden, disparaged or simply not seen. Eyes are closed to the growing undesirable consequences of the environmental degradation already affecting the maintenance of life. They are often less visible physically (most emissions go into the atmosphere, rivers, oceans and soil) and principally afflict the peripheral and impoverished areas so are less obviously apparent in the central zones.
This happens for two reasons: first, the most polluting activities and wastes are increasingly being exported to the periphery, and second, certain regulations and corrective measures were taken throughout the 20th century in the central zones, presented as a panacea to deal with these effects. Which they didn’t do.
This dark side of the metabolism has primarily been treated by “sweeping the garbage under the carpet,” or as far out of sight as possible. It has only been highlighted (and then with difficulty) in the case of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause the greenhouse effect, but the “garbage” refuses to disappear and become invisible. It’s growing exponentially in the form of solid, liquid and gaseous waste, in many cases pollutants. This has been accentuated by the fact that in the second half of the 20th century, especially in its last decades, we entered a civilization of consumerism to the full, a “use and throw away” society, which has made closing the material cycles even more difficult and has aggravated the consequences of urban-agro-industrial pollution.
Global capitalism throws “garbage” out the window into nature and, as nature is incapable of assimilating and metabolizing it, it comes back in through the main door, as it must, increasingly spoiling the party. So far it has only made it to the lobby; it’s not quite filling the ballrooms, where the party’s still going on, although somewhat palled at the moment by the arrival of the global crisis. Or perhaps, better said, the garbage hasn’t become sufficiently visible in the main rooms to make those still enjoying themselves fully aware that the consequences of their very unequal revelry’s metabolism aren’t only affecting the disinherited or those in remote places.
The uncontrollable garbage explosionThe explosion of solid waste, both urban (household, industrial and tertiary) and agro-industrial, much of it toxic and hard to recycle, increased in the second half of the last century with the intensification of “citifying” processes and a major increase in industrial production.
There is indeed less residue from many sectors of tertiary activity but this is by no means an innocuous activity. In fact, the significant expansion of large commercial distribution in the last decades of the 20th century contributed decisively to the proliferation of solid waste due to over-packed and over-packaged industrially prepared foods transported over long distances. Equally, the intense growth of large-scale production and distribution has made it unviable—because it’s unprofitable—to return and reuse bottles that were previously made of glass and traveled short distances, hence the spectacular evolution in the use of plastic containers, which are non-returnable and difficult to recycle.
All this has resulted in considerable savings for the producer and distributor, but it has fallen to taxpayers to bear the unrestricted rises in the cost of collecting urban waste, while other large corporations make money from garbage collection and treatment, activities previously conducted by small players, which helped recycling and went a long way to closing the material cycle. Another factor that contributes to making the collection and treatment of waste more expensive is the fact that, due to urban expansion, waste has to travel increasing distances. Nearby landfills are filled to the brim or are no longer used due to the pressure of “public opinion,” while waste incineration programs are undertaken to drastically reduce the volume of garbage and help its energy “valuation,” a new euphemism that requires more fossil fuels to make it happen. What this “valuation” does is convert a large part of the solid waste into gaseous waste, some of it highly dangerous (dioxins, furans) but invisible. In short, recycling is largely being abandoned at the same time pollution is increasing. Even the very “green” European Union now blatantly promotes this “solution.”
We’re living with thousands of poisonsIn the last half of the 20th century we witnessed a truly impressive expansion of the chemicals industry, which has generated an enormous variety of persistently toxic synthetic substances, as well as an explosion in the production of plastics (petrochemicals), which are very difficult to recycle. Currently some 140,000 more or less harmful chemical substances are freely circulating in the world, put on the market and sold with no or very minimal security checks. The precautionary principle is conspicuous by its absence so we don’t know how dangerous many of the chemical substances we live with are.
Illnesses due to environmental exposure to chemical substances have skyrocketed around the world: cancer, especially but also reproductive diseases (infertility, birth malformations), hormonal alterations (diabetes, thyroid problems), immunity dysfunctions (allergies, dermatitis) and neurological problems (learning difficulties, autism, hyperactivity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s…). Some have reached epidemic proportions, with children being especially vulnerable to exposure to these toxic substances, particularly this cocktail of thousands of chemical substances whose harmful effects we have known about for some years.
The first alarm was given by Rachel Carson in her book The Silent Spring (1962), alerting us to the dangers of DDT. But that first voice cried in the wilderness when the chemical industry, particularly the petrochemical industry, was just beginning its global launch, and when the consequences of its activities were affecting the central zones. Later its impact reached the whole world, although with a different intensity, becoming more evident in the peripheral lands through an absence of regulations.
Perhaps the chemical industry’s first disaster with a truly global repercussion was the explosion of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984. A cloud of very toxic gas, like the heavy metals that generated it, killed about 20,000 people and affected 600,000 more, 150,000 of them seriously. It was an unmitigated chemical disaster, the largest in history, and the victims have so far received not a cent from Union Carbide. The Indian government has only minimally dealt with the consequences of this catastrophe, with totally symbolic “help” from the transnational, which pulled out of the area leaving thousands of tons of pollutants that are still today affecting the aquifers.
International efforts to prosecute Union Carbide have been impossible to consolidate, as no world court is authorized to judge these human and environmental tragedies. This struggle became almost impossible once Union Carbide was taken over in 2001 by Dow Chemical, the largest chemical transnational in the world. Although no disasters of this magnitude with such international repercussions have occurred since then, it doesn’t mean that “mini-Bhopals” haven’t happened from time to time in the Center and especially in the periphery, with serious repercussions for the affected localities. Furthermore, daily pollution from heavy chemicals, resulting from 20th-century industrialization, is spreading into the surrounding environment and increasingly being introduced into the food chain.
We live in a risk societyAnother tremendous tremor from the hidden side of the Industrial Society’s metabolism was the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power station (Ukraine) in 1986, just two years after Bhopal. The explosion precipitated the collapse of the USSR and caused dozens of deaths in the first few days and the displacement of more than 200,000 people from their homes. Thousands of people have subsequently died from cancer and hundreds of thousands have been affected to a greater or lesser extent. Radioactivity generated from the accident has affected almost the whole of Europe to differing degrees.
As the atmosphere doesn’t respect geopolitical frontiers, the so-called “Iron Curtain” was unable to contain the impact of this Eastern bloc nuclear accident, which surpassed by far another one, also very important but on a smaller scale, that occurred on the United States’ eastern seaboard: the collapse of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979. The two accidents put an abrupt halt to the expansion of the nuclear industry, beset by a costly public outcry in the West.
These and other accidents and dangers of the “Industrial Society” caused Ulrich Beck (1994) to name it, especially in its most contemporary manifestation, the Risk Society. By the end of the 20th century it had extended over the whole planet as a result of international trade in hazardous waste sent from the center to the periphery, a practice on the increase since the 1970s despite its theoretical prohibition at the international level. Waste is also often dumped at sea in the southern oceans, to later end up on the African or Asiatic coasts, as occurred following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The environmental impact of weaponsIt’s also important to highlight the chemical, biological and radioactive pollution caused by war and the military industry throughout the 20th century. Chemical and biological armaments were used significantly in the First World War, with tremendous human impact. As a consequence, the Western countries decided in Geneva in 1923 never again to resort to these kinds of weapons. Notwithstanding that, they were widely used in the interwar period against national liberation movements in countries under colonial rule.
During the Second World War their use was “contained” as each side feared that if it used them massively the other side would retaliate in like fashion. Perhaps Japan used this weapon the most. But the production and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons continued to grow, especially during the Cold War. The United States used them in Vietnam in the 1960s and they were also widely used in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, having been given to Saddam Hussein by the Western countries. They weren’t banned until after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The Convention on Chemical and Bacteriological Weapons was signed in 1993, theoretically prohibiting their production and stockpiling and considering them “weapons of mass destruction.”
The production and use of these weapons throughout the 20th century has had important environmental effects, yet to be accurately determined as military secrecy prevents it. The same can be said of nuclear armaments and of the many nuclear tests carried out in many parts of the world by the nuclear powers (Nevada, Algeria, Polynesia, Siberia…) after the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened the worldwide nuclear race.
The serious radioactive impact caused by weapons using depleted uranium in military action against Iraq or in the war on Serbia should also be emphasized. The human impact of these conflicts is increasingly known about and denounced but the environmental repercussions remain largely hidden.
Fear as a weapon and ecocide as a goalSocial resistance to the environmental and human impact of the urban-agro-industrial metabolism’s biophysical inputs has generally been greater than the resistance to the impact from its biophysical outputs, its darkest and most “invisible” side—including its military aspect. Nonetheless, the globalization of the so-called Risk Society at the end of the 20th century, with the intensification of this risk in certain peripheral areas, made it come to be regarded as yet another way for global capitalism to facilitate political power.
Activating mass fear of present or future risks, and especially the media’s treatment of the risks proliferating in the periphery, makes people value the greater “normality” of the central regions where “these things don’t happen thanks to good political-business know-how.”
By the end of the 20th century pollution was already as global a problem as capitalism, while at the beginning of that century, although serious and even very serious in some cases, it was a purely local problem in industrial areas and concrete cities. The capitalist Industrial Society is now clearly the only one existing on a global level after the crisis and collapse of Real Socialism, the state version of the Industrial Society, which caused ecocide on its demise. This capitalist Industrial Society, led by the West although increasingly supported by its new and powerful emergent countries, is heading towards its own particular form of ecocide.
Ramón Fernández Durán, an engineer and urbanist, is a member of Ecologists in Action and a university professor. This text (and those we plan to publish in coming editions) is the nucleus of his forthcoming book on the crisis of global capitalism and the foreseeable collapse of civilization.