There are quite a few misconceptions about development and ecological degradation that shape the First World’s policies on the “development” of Third World nations. These countries are often used as scapegoats for environmental degradation, due to their lowered environmental regulations and large populations. It is commonly believed that by simply putting more money into the economy of these countries, by developing their economy into a model similar to the U.S.’s, these ecological problems will gradually diminish. This idea equates poverty with environmental degradation, when in fact, prosperity is the real problem in terms of the environment.
There are many different approaches environmental theorists take when thinking about these problems. One important approach is “ecologizing the economy,” which means making economic processes less environmentally destructive, of trying to remedy our existing problems. Another is “economizing the ecology,” or putting a price tag on nature. While these may sound like good ideas, “greenwashing” big business or advancing the technology of Third World countries will not halt, or even significantly slow, ecological degradation.
These theories of ecological modernization promote “sustainable capitalism,” but they do not question the underlying logic, and contradictions of capitalism. They do not take into account that capitalism and ecological sustainability are inherently at odds, and ignore that capitalism cannot ever stand still; it needs to constantly grow, but it cannot grow indefinitely.
The notion that capitalism is the “natural” economic system of any modern society is inherent. It is a common assumption that capitalism was born and bred in the city, and that any city is by its very nature capitalistic from the start. Only cities that had the “wrong” religion, type of state, or some other ideological, political, or cultural “problem,” could keep from becoming capitalistic, in other words.
In actuality, capitalism was born in the country as “agrarian capitalism.” For most of the time that humans have worked the land for material needs, we have been divided into classes: those who worked the land, and those who appropriated the labor of others. Even when there is no strong division between appropriators and producers in the Marxist sense, the market still perpetuates itself, ever expanding. Once established, it requires that everyone remain dependent on the market for their means of subsistence. Even when workers do own the means of production, individually or collectively, they are still forced to respond to these market imperatives.
These imperatives are pressed upon Third World countries by the developed world, as is the idea that they need to make their country more environmentally friendly. It is ironic that they are simultaneously being pressured by multinational (though ultimately, in terms of profit, American) corporations to lower their environmental and labor laws as much as possible to be considered potential bases for economic development.
Multinational corporations have shown us that if you control someone’s economy, you also control their politics. Economic policy usually shapes political policy, and if you are dependant on external forces to put bread on the table, you must be willing to sacrifice quite a bit. Third world countries must exploit their people and environment on a market where they don’t have any influence, where the buyer holds all the power, in order to satisfy needs that aren’t being satisfied internally. Capitalist market imperatives insist that companies constantly find new ways to maximize profits, so naturally the labor and materials must be procured as cheaply as possible. Lowered environmental regulations and sweatshops all over the world illustrate this concept precisely.
The idea that everyone should, or even could live as we do is preposterous. It is empirical fact that in order for the U.S. to enjoy this level of prosperity – this quality of life – the Third World must be denied prosperity.
The underlying conditions of a capitalist system cannot be ignored in any environmental movement. Compassion for, or understanding of the working class aside, we will never be able to “save the earth” while ignoring class issues. Hopefully, it will soon become clear to the environmental movement that our current economic system is inherently at odds with the environment, and cannot even conceivably be reconciled.
George Bush Sr. clearly articulated the imperialistic policies of the US at the 1992 global environmental summit conference. Representatives from many Third World countries asked him to reconsider the consumption habits of the United States, arguing that a major part of the current ecological crisis was the enormous demand for consumer goods from the U.S. and other industrialized nations. They felt it was unfair for them to be asked to manage their natural resources to the immediate detriment of their economy in the name of environmental sustainability, when relatively minor environmental demands were refused by the richer industrialized nations. Bush Sr.’s reply to these requests was simple, and to the point: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation”
Perhaps the labor and environmental movements would both be more effective if they acknowledged the capitalist economy as their mutual enemy and worked together towards solutions.