The Ecological Crisis Goes Global: The Development We Want Is Unsustainable
Ever since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro summit we’ve been sold the notion that we’re on the way to sustainable development.
Consumer societies latched onto this seductive idea the most.
Everyone felt good about moving towards sustainability without
changing lifestyles that make infinite economic growth unsustainable when it’s at the expense of Nature’s finite resources. That sustainable development illusion lasted
until the outbreak of the current global crisis. Now it’s no longer believable.
Ramón Fernández Durán
In the first half of the 20th century, the still very incipient global ecological crisis didn’t attract institutional interest much less the oratory of the power structures. Nonetheless, that was when the first environmental protection organizations emerged in the central countries. They were elitist, romantic and conservationist, and promoted the need to protect Nature.
The world’s first protected area, Yellowstone Park in the United States, was established in the late 19th century, in 1872. Others were established in the first half of the 20th century in both the US and other central countries, aimed at preserving relatively untouched areas of great natural value. This all happened within a context of rapid industrialization and militarization.
Reactivated after World War II, this dynamic would become clearer with the founding of the United Nations (UN) and the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948, launched by UNESCO. Its goal was to help preserve important natural areas and to warn about and seek protection for the most threatened species of flora and fauna. But UN member states would be responsible for establishing safeguards, motivated by nongovernmental environmental organizations, also members of the IUCN, which began to proliferate in the central countries during the so-called “thirty glorious years” (1945-1975).
GDP: Universal cult object It still wasn’t possible to talk of an environmental movement as much; that wouldn’t really develop until the end of the sixties and into the seventies. It was then, after three decades of aggressive growth and “development,” that the consequences of the silent war against nature became more apparent. In those three decades of intense world growth in both the western and eastern parts of the North as well as in the South, under the auspices of cheap oil and energy, the scientific community began to think about and warn of an ecological crisis. The 1955 Princeton symposium called Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth clearly pointed to the urban-agro-industrial system’s tremendous capacity for altering the functioning of the biosphere. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) would be one of the most significant publications of that era.
Despite increasingly evident collateral environmental effects, however, it became unthinkable to question growth’s achievements because at this time the gross domestic product (GDP) was enthroned and universally worshipped as the star indicator. Everyone wanted to and had to measure things in monetary terms; there was no space for taking account of any alteration or deterioration in the biophysical variables.
Furthermore, environmental degradation (indiscriminate logging, overexploitation of fisheries, expanding industrialized agriculture, savage urban sprawl, waste treatment, etc.) increased the GDP figures, hiding even further the negative aspects implicit in the expanded growth. The whole statistical and conceptual apparatus was exclusively dedicated to the quantitative growth of monetary aggregates, with no consideration for how such expansion affected the complexity of the biosphere. From the realms of Western power came warnings about the “population bomb,” i.e. the socio-political and environmental problems arising from population growth in the South, but none about the unsustainable production and consumption patterns of the North and all their varied impacts.
Stockholm 1972: More “development”The increasingly obvious evidence of serious environmental dysfunctions as a consequence of industrial society’s expansion resulted in a proliferation of early institutional attempts to create agencies and regulations to address them through “end of pipe” controls, especially for the water supply and air quality in urban-metropolitan areas.
In the United States this led to the adoption of the Clean Air Act (1963), the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the development of environmental impact studies. We witnessed similar processes in Western Europe and Japan. In the 1960s, inter-state environmental conflicts resulting from river pollution and acid rain started appearing and institutional ways to deal with them began to be sought. It all happened alongside a growing ecological awareness, primarily among the youth, in the hot May of 1968.
All this laid the groundwork to nurturing concern about the environmental crisis in the Western central areas. It wasn’t coincidental that the crisis was most intensely apparent there, in addition to in the Eastern European countries where state bureaucracy and a lack of freedom strangled the ecological debate.
These factors jointly created a breeding ground that led the UN to convene its first conference on environmental issues, titled The Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972.) It took place in a context of important center-periphery conflicts and in the middle of the Cold War, two realities that marked the discourse that came out of that meeting. The battle over the South’s development was in full swing and Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, openly stated that poverty was more detrimental than pollution in the South—the Bhopal disaster had not yet occurred.
The conference’s final declaration established that the fight against poverty—to which both the West and the East were theoretically “committed,” as of course were the South’s new elites—was indispensable to environmental protection. And this fight had to be waged with more “development,” which meant nothing other than ever-greater growth in GDP figures.
There’s no infinite growthStockholm led to the creation in 1974 of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and opened the way for development principles such as the “polluter pays,” fervently defended by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in that decade. All these changes made way for the development of a growing international, state and private bureaucracy—ecocracy, as it has been called—dedicated to environmental issues, although always within the logic of the constant growth and accumulation model, which further enhanced faith in “end of pipe” controls and regulations.
The increasingly visible environmental crisis was seen in the seventies as completely interwoven with the energy and raw materials crisis, the political-social crises in the center countries and the intensification of the South’s rebellion. All this profoundly altered institutional thought, discourses and priorities during that decade. The publication of The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972 marked a before and after in the thinking. This text laid out the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite ecosystem such as the biosphere. It sparked considerable debate that was only intensified by the impact of the spikes in oil prices (1973, 1979-80) and those of raw materials, which strongly affected global growth, specifically in the central countries.
In those years publications abounded on the subject of resource finiteness and the ecological impact of the urban-agro-industrial model, which was consolidating but also in crisis. This happened in the midst of an important upswing for the ecology movement in the central countries, marking the debate and political agenda on environmental issues. Rhetoric addressing environmental issues became an international battlefield, with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger going so far as to veto the term “eco-development” launched by the UNEP. By the late seventies, however, the Carter report titled Global 2000 (1979), partially linked to that of the Club of Rome, again pointed out that serious socio-political conflicts were foreseeable by the end of the 20th century due to over-population, resource scarcity and the increasing environmental impacts.
The seventies were sprinkled with the adoption of international environmental conventions and conferences: Ramsar, on Wetlands, in 1971; CITES, against trade in protected or endangered species, in 1973; UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program, to conserve biosphere reserves, in 1977; and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, in 1977.
Towards “sustainable development”In the midst of the 1970s debacle, conservative think tanks were created in the United States to play an important role in the ideological battle, especially with the shift toward globalized, neoliberal, finance capitalism at the start of the eighties. One of them was The Heritage Foundation, which was behind the publication of The Resourceful Earth, a response to the Democratic administration’s Global 2000. The book presents a cornucopian vision—Nature overflowing with natural resources—with a techno-optimist approach to its use, denying the existence of biophysical limits to the expansion of economic growth and progress.
In the same years, within its overall privatizing and de-regulating agenda, the Reagan administration began a gradual liberalization of the environmental regulations developed in the sixties and seventies, in order to sponsor and not hinder growth. In this area, the pendulum of state interventionism began to swing backwards in the US, while in Western Europe it continued strengthening.
At the same time, once OPEC capitulated, the prices of oil, of energy in general and of raw materials began to fall sharply. Growth got put back on track, although generating increasing social and territorial inequalities at state and international levels and intensifying environmental impacts. That was the decade that the foreign debt problem exploded in the countries of the South, causing what would be called “the lost decade.”
Chernobyl exploded in 1986, putting the cap on the nuclear debate and halting the construction of nuclear power plants. This happened just as the Brundtland Report (“Our Common Future,” 1987) was being prepared, the product of the work by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. It was a preparatory text for the Rio Summit (1992), which would promote the term “sustainable development,” a concept with a very important future impact.
Squaring the circleThe Brundtland Report didn’t consider the foreseeable future oil shortage and, after highlighting some of the major environmental problems, focused on stressing the need for an era of vigorous, yet socially and environmentally sustainable growth. Concerns passed from possible resource scarcity to issues that especially affected the central areas—pollution and waste—hiding problems associated with the urban-agro-industrial metabolism’s inputs. Only problems related to outputs appeared in the institutional debate. The Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1987, banning the production of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which were destroying the ozone layer. Neither China nor India, the two major countries of the South, signed it.
At that time, resources were being increasingly extracted from the peripheral areas and no problems were visible in the foreseeable future. Sustainable development, presented as the magic solution to all problems, was a term that tried to bridge the gap between developmental and conservationist approaches, to please both. But it was a contradiction in terms. The noun “development”—or rather, growth—clearly overshadows the adjective “sustainable.” But the term was sufficiently ambiguous to please everyone, hence its great success.
Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” a development that would fight both poverty and the ecological crisis. Once again it hid the different character of the present generation’s “needs” in the central and peripheral countries and within each territory, subtly tending to blame the South, concretely its overpopulation, for the environmental crisis. In no way did it raise the need for solidarity and social and environmental justice among people of the same generation on a global and national level.
Everything was posited in very general terms and in the distant future. Environmental deterioration was directly linked to poverty, at the same time stressing that “development” in the North was allowing for a better resolution of environmental problems and encouraging the South to follow the same path. That led to the proposition that poverty and underdevelopment can’t be resolved without a “new era of growth” sustainably benefiting both North and South to achieve a balance with Nature: squaring the circle.
Río de Janeiro summit:The illusion winsSustainable development, was the main leitmotiv of the Earth Summit (1992), definitively crowned at this international event.
The Rio meeting took place shortly after the first Gulf War and the implosion of the USSR—two important events of 1991—and at a time when the US was consolidating its position as the only superpower in a now unipolar world. These were also the years when the image, entertainment and information society would triumph. It was the heyday of NGOs, which had forcefully burst forth in the eighties. It was also the era in which capitalism was becoming more globalized and controlled by large transnational corporations. All this came together in the Earth Summit, the largest in history.
More than 120 heads of state and government came to Rio de Janeiro. President George Bush Sr. made it clear from the outset that the presiding superpower was not prepared to have the American way of life questioned. That lifestyle was non-negotiable. Many of the world’s major transnational companies, among them some of the world’s most polluting companies, helped prepare for the summit through the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Industry was presented as a new “global citizen” trying to help the UN achieve its environmental goals. The official summit was accompanied by a large parallel NGO forum, with the United Nations helping to establish bridges between the two.
A new era seemed to be opening up in the decade of Happy Globalization. With the collapse of the USSR, the “evil empire,” everything seemed possible. The Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21 were adopted in Rio: the spirit of sustainable development imbued all the rhetoric. These documents also made clear that this kind of development could only be achieved by liberalizing and expanding global trade, among other neoliberal measures. Sustainable development was presented as the way to end poverty and resolve the environmental crisis through growth. Agenda 21’s “greenness” made it an attractive policy guide for local and regional governments and authorities. But it was voluntary, without binding commitments, and it operated within the logic of the urban-agro-industrial model.
Three conventions: Biodiversity,The Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit also addressed three new conventions. One concerned climate change, following the first report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990. Arduous negotiations ultimately produced the Kyoto Protocol (1997) which was supported by President Clinton’s administration but subsequently rejected by a Republican-dominated US Congress and later definitively buried by Bush Jr.
climate change and desertification
This protocol would not be internationally ratified until 2004. It bore the imprint of the United States: market mechanisms, emissions trading, etc.). The Clinton administration participated directly in its design, bringing to it the interests of the financial world that supported his mandate, along with the new information, communication and biogenetics technologies companies. It was impossible to think that an international initiative would prosper without approval by this superpower’s government. However, the complexity of US economic interests, particularly those of the oil, automobile and other major energy-consuming companies, prevented the United States from ratifying “its” protocol.
Two other new conventions came out of Rio. The one on biodiversity faced enormous tensions due to the interests at stake. It’s no accident that the Western North, largely lacking biodiversity, has the technology to exploit it and the will to appropriate it; while the South, the planet’s main biodiversity reserve, lacks the technology to exploit it and has indigenous and peasant communities opposed to its commercial exploitation.
The Convention on Biological Diversity was widely-ratified and adopted, but the United States was one of the few countries in the world not signing because it didn’t get everything it wanted. Not atypically, It decided to get its way by other routes: those of the World Trade Organization. Under the guise of conserving planetary biodiversity, the convention opened the way for commercial access to the resources of biodiversity, positing a “fair,” not unrestricted, share in the benefits derived from the exploitation of genetic resources.
That was the carrot given the countries of the South in exchange for allowing Western biogenetic, pharmaceutical and other such companies to come into their territories in search of biodiversity. The local peasant and indigenous peoples, who had hitherto preserved the biodiversity, were marginalized or bribed with a residual interest in the benefits to disable their potential opposition.
The other convention coming out of the Rio Summit was the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Its results were ratified in an international agreement in 1994. So far, this agreement has had few resources and few concrete results; meanwhile soil erosion and desertification continue advancing worldwide, now affecting 40% of the Earth’s landmass, mainly the most impoverished zones, especially in Africa, although now also including certain parts of southern Europe. As a result, more than a billion people from 100 countries are being hit by the advance of droughts, exacerbated by climate change.
The very marginalization of these territories, the poverty of their soils and their scant biodiversity have resulted in so little attention being paid to them. There is little wealth to be shared in these areas—except in the Middle East—and desertification is barely affecting the North’s central countries.
The world’s forests, particularly tropical forests—which are the ones most under pressure from industrialized exploitation—merited only a Declaration of Management Principles at the Rio summit; there was no agreement to curb commercial exploitation, as major interests in both the South and the North prevented it. One of the main sources of foreign exchange in southern countries with tropical forests involves exploitation of those forests by companies in the North, which make huge profits doing so. Furthermore, exploiting forests elsewhere allows the countries of the North to protect their own and to engage in important industrialized reforestation.
The “sustainable development” shamWhat happened in Rio de Janeiro can be considered a big pretence to show the world that hereafter we would be gradually moving towards sustainable development. The lie—and the economic bonanza in the central areas of the North—lasted through virtually the whole decade and the first years of the new millennium, right up to the arrival of the current global crisis.
The persuasiveness of world ecocracy originating in Rio de Janeiro was important. Starting then everything was done in the name of sustainable development, legitimized by the seductive power of this idea in media-sedated consumer societies. Everyone thought it wonderful to move towards sustainability without modifying their lifestyles, in fact even amplifying them. People in both the South and the East aspired to head in the same direction despite the growing industrialization and the occasional brutal lessons market excesses taught them about which peripheral or super-peripheral place the system had assigned them.
In those years, the new geographic information systems (GIS), based on new information and communication technologies, enabled us to know almost real time the tremendous degradation of biospheric cover. But the media-induced institutional and social worries had already definitively shifted with the conviction that, despite everything, the impacts of the urban-agro-industrial metabolism’s outputs could be managed through market mechanisms so that the market could continue its eternal advance toward “progress”—even in spite of climate change, as the Stern Report warned (2006).
The idea was to deal with all these problems with more market, which came out the big winner in the shadow of Rio 1992. It was no accident that the decade of Happy Globalization would be the golden years of globalized finance capitalism, even in the environmental field.
The anti-ecological role ofWhile the world was enraptured with events at the Rio Summit, increasingly globalized capitalism was shaking off the state regulations that had gagged it since the 1930s—from the New Deal to the late seventies.
the IMF and the World Bank
Capitalist logic began to prevail even more perversely in all fields, especially the financial one. Wall Street once again prevailed over Washington. And on a global scale, financial capital and the huge corporations began to reign with increasingly fewer political, social and, of course, environmental restrictions, despite the sustainable development promised in Rio.
It couldn’t be otherwise at a time when globalizing and neoliberal policies were prevailing throughout the world. The dynamic of intensifying market globalization meant that the Western North, increasingly less able to compete with a South that based its competitiveness on low labor and social costs and almost absolute absence of environmental regulations, had to gradually undertake ever greater environmental deregulation. This happened even in the very “green” European Union, despite the fact that the preamble to the formative Maastricht Treaty emphasized its commitment to sustainable development.
EU environmental guidelines started to relax as did the impact studies, to ensure that environmental protection policies didn’t hinder the construction of infrastructure, promotion of motorized transport and growing urbanization for the increasingly comprehensive and globalized single market that needed the currency of the future: the euro. It also required the EU’s ambitious expansion into Eastern Europe.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) played a strong role in the Southern countries in the nineties. It continued imposing structural adjustment programs on peripheral countries in Latin America and Africa, promoting their economies’ growing orientation towards exports, especially of raw materials, in order to pay off their massive foreign debts. That context left no room for possible environmental protection from predatory activities that provided the cash needed to meet their debts. The same thing happened with the savage industrialization policies they imposed on these countries, specifically in the free trade zones. Growth without environmental niceties was needed in order to answer their creditors’ demands. But it had to happen under the glamorous label of “sustainable” because that’s what international public opinion demanded.
In this venture the IMF was taught by the World Bank, an expert in “environmentalist” and “fight against poverty” rhetoric. Its financial plans impelled intense infrastructural construction in the South (highways, major ports, gigantic dams, pipelines) and support for the most aggressive projects (both industry and mining-extracting of fossil fuels, including coal). This defender of “environmentalism” was assigned to manage the new World Fund for the Environment in Rio, and it would be under pressure from the central countries, whose companies would be the biggest beneficiaries of this Fund. In the nineties the World Bank, an organization severely questioned throughout the world, developed a range of “green marketing” initiatives to appear to take account of the criticism, meanwhile continuing business as usual.
Goodbye orangutansThe Washington Consensus of the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and the World Bank) would reach its climax with the monetary-financial crisis that affected all Southeast Asia in 1997-98, a peripheral area of the planet that until then had managed to escape from its dictates more than others by being less indebted than Latin America and Africa, and having significant industrial development.
But speculative attacks launched from the world’s major financial centers (Wall Street and London) caused a serious collapse in their currencies and economies that put them in the hands of the IMF and World Bank. These two international financing institutions provided abundant credit to cope with the debacle and save the interests of the international speculators, which only deepened the affected countries’ debt. Finally, both institutions imposed adjustment policies that exacerbated the situation even more.
Acute foreign debt was the incentive for greater “reprimarizing” of their economies, in which these countries fostered all kinds of intense extraction activities and logging of their forests to obtain the dollars needed to pay their debt. Once again, there was increased logging in Indonesia’s tropical forests—the most important in the world along with those of Brazil and the Congo—and sale of the lumber on the international market, and the promotion of an unchecked expansion of palm oil plantations, also destined for the world market, especially to meet the central countries’ demand. The environmental impact in Indonesia and in other countries in the region was—and still is—major, involving an enormous loss of biodiversity, including our valuable cousins, the orangutans.
WTO: Without environmental limitsThe World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in 1995, following the Uruguay Round of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). Along with the IMF and the World Bank, it made up the third leg of Bretton Woods, remaining poorly developed and without international legal status. Since its inception, it acted to reinforce world capitalism’s dynamics through the globalization of trade and investment and with the ongoing removal of government barriers to its expansion. Some of these barriers were environmental.
There have been many complaints against the WTO for undermining international environmental treaties and conventions signed by governments, because its policies, which are binding on its member States, frequently collide head-on with these treaties’ agreements. The WTO can even authorize economic sanctions if those policies are not complied with, while international treaties within the UN framework are much harder to implement because state sovereignty is inviolable and States are often reluctant to comply with what they have signed.
Many of the environment protection policies on fishing or the limitation and regulation of resource exploitation have been appealed in the WTO. The WTO extolled intellectual property in its TRIPS agreement for patent protection, opening the way to patents on living things, which has been widely denounced by many countries in the South and by social and ecological organizations around the world.
The WTO promotes both bio-piracy and free trade in GMO (genetically modified organisms). The US didn’t sign the Biodiversity Convention precisely because it hoped to access life resources with fewer restrictions and satisfy the interests of its biotechnology industry through the WTO’s standards and instruments. The biogenetic industry roundly rejects the so-called precautionary principle encapsulated in Rio’s Agenda 21, which questions the WTO’s regulatory framework. The free trade agreements being signed and activated between central and periphery countries [such as DR-CAFTA, between the United States and the Central American countries and Dominican Republic] promote policies and dynamics that are definitely within that questioned framework.
Privatizing the ozone layer?A debate began in the eighties about the “Tragedy of the Commons” which updated, magnified and manipulated a debate cautiously started in two decades earlier. This debate did not prosper in the seventies, because at that time both capitalism and the national and international regulatory structure were reluctant to develop it. The advent of new financial and globalized capitalism, as well as the neoliberal policies that accompanied it, rescued and reintroduced this debate, linking it to the environmental crisis.
The new proposition is that global common assets (water, earth, fisheries and biodiversity—all defined as global commons) are overexploited because there is no private ownership to take care of them.
The lack of clear ownership is favoring the depletion and deterioration of these resources, which would not happen if they had owners, so the argument goes, but it is absolutely false and misleading. Its purpose is to seek to privatize the Earth’s last areas of global commons, making them yet another area for capital’s appropriation, accumulation and even speculation using the excuse of the environmental crisis.
Elinor Ostrom (winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics) has shown numerous cases in which local communities have preserved varied ecosystems for centuries with communal management and exploitation that respects the natural cycles and replacement rates. She has further shown that indiscriminate industrialized exploitation of ecosystems is exhausting them and degrading their quality.
Polanyi, the Hungarian-born polymath, has said that there are certain goods on which it is very difficult, and in some cases impossible, to put a market price. Nature and all of life’s diversity are areas of enormous complexity that squarely fall into this category. How can property rights be assigned to the fisheries of the world? How can the Earth’s ozone layer be privatized? How can a price be put on a ton of carbon? How can the biodiversity of the Earth or of the Amazon be privatized? Well, yes, they are trying to put a price on a large part of all this, especially now, based on its growing scarcity and progressive deterioration or appropriation.
The degradation of Nature’s so-called “environmental services,” until now free, opens up a huge field for their potential commercialization, allowing access and enjoyment only to the people or industrial activities and services that can pay for them. Parallel to this, people or activities without sufficient monetary income will be inexorably excluded from their use and enjoyment. Water is the clearest example of this. The WTO is trying to place it and many other global assets within this environmental area. The free trade agreements are doing the same. And they are using the pretext that it’s the most efficient way to conserve what remains of Nature; preventing its destruction until preserving it becomes more profitable than destroying it.
But private capital doesn’t like to operate in so slippery an area because openly privatizing activities in this field risks a serious crisis of legitimacy. That’s why it seeks to join governments and NGOs, and even the IUCN, to make its predatory practices more palatable to public opinion. This is why public-private “partnerships” began to proliferate in this field starting in the nineties. They are trying to increasingly incorporate the large environmentalist NGOs, especially the World Wildlife Fund, into the new natural resource privatization, management and appropriation strategies.
To savage capitalism This strategy was consecrated on the Rio Summit’s 10th anniversary at the Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg (2002), which spotlighted this kind of treaty, called Type Two, which is voluntary, without any kind of commitment and without international supervision. The Type One treaties were those where governments were the only players involved and, according to the UN framework, were theoretically binding. Everything was done with media propaganda to reinforce the image of corporate social and environmental responsibility: yet another way to take control of environmental protection agreements away from governments and further weaken what was approved in Rio.
everything has a price
Although it was called the Johannesburg Summit for Sustainable Development, it opened a big hole for much greater unsustainability. The context for this summit was the post 9/11 world. and one in which the Bush administration was breaking up the UN’s multilateral framework and promoting an increasingly savage global capitalism, while it prepared to launch—with support from Great Britain and the “Coalition of the Willing”—a war against Iraq in order to directly appropriate its oil resources.
At this stage a growing trend predominated to measure everything monetarily. It was an attempt to project the illusion that the environment forms part of the statistical apparatus when what was really going on was that market logic was penetrating into the environmental field, until recently separated from this logic. Interestingly, this happened just as they were beginning to measure bio-geophysical changes, which were kept conveniently distant from state and private environmental management policies and hardly affected them.
In line with market logic, a focus on “weak sustainability” and the monetarizing of environmental externalities predominated. Meanwhile, the proposals for “strong sustainability,” many related to the so-called “green” economy, remained marginalized from the institutional environmental focus. These proposals refused to accept that impacts could be reduced to a single quantitative variable, the monetary one, and pointed out the need to resort to a multiplicity of bio-geophysical and qualitative evaluations to address environmental management. Many bio-geophysical fluxes still remain totally hidden from the conventional statistical apparatus, as they experience no real valuing in the existing market.
Through unstoppable use of energyIn the last thirty years, since the crisis of the seventies, we have witnessed a very important technological development along with the new information and communication technologies that allowed the development of more efficient technologies. Advances in efficacy have led to greater use of resources.
In the case of energy, the paradox implies that the introduction of more energy efficient technologies can increase total energy consumption. This is also known as the “rebound effect”: achieving less consumption per unit produced or per mile doesn’t necessarily imply that energy consumption or the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced. The reality is that increased efficiency is exceeded in absolute terms by the unstoppable rise in consumption, especially in a system like today’s, based on the need for constant growth and accumulation, in which social inequalities and the consuming capacity of an important part of humanity, especially the elites, have manifestly increased.
This is what happened from the eighties until the advent of the global crisis. The expansion of renewable energies hasn’t helped reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. On the contrary, they have helped increase total energy consumption even more, adding to other energy sources instead of replacing them and contributing to more unsustainable “development.”
Engineer and urbanist Ramón Fernández Durán is a member of Ecologists in Action. This text, the fourth in a series we have been publishing in recent issues, is the nucleus of his book, The anthropocene: the environmental crisis goes global. The expansion of global capitalism clashes with the biosphere, to be published by Virus this year.