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Green issues and organisations are being used as a stick with which the West can beat the third world, suggests John Gibson

Environmental imperialism

While green parties experience their ups and downs, green ideas have become part of the furniture of politics and life today. In Germany, Christian Democrat maverick Heiner Geissler has suggested that his conservative party should ally with the Greens to overcome their low standing in the polls. American vice-president Al Gore has written a book, Earth in the Balance, in which he declares that 'we must make the rescue of the environment the central organising principle for civilisation' (p269). Even the British government hosted a conference in Manchester in September - 'Partnerships for Change' - for 350 environmental pressure groups that attended the huge Rio de Janeiro 'Earth Summit' in 1992. This is only one high-level spin-off from the Rio conference which raised global environmental issues near to the top of the United Nations' agenda.

'Reign of Terror'

The adoption of green rhetoric by the mainstream has created a backlash on the free market right, especially in the USA. One right-wing commentator believes that environmentalism has 'dramatically skewed public policy for the past two and a half decades, slowing economic growth and unnecessarily increasing human misery' (R Bailey, Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, pxi). In his new book, Michael Fumento argues that America is 'clearly in the midst of an environmental revolution. This stage of the revolution, unfortunately, correlates with the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution' (Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment, p367). Fumento claims that the USA spends $100 billion a year on eco-legislation, knocking 2.6 per cent off GDP by 1990. At the international level, meanwhile, the right's fear is that environmental agreements provide a licence for third world nations to demand cash off theWest.

These complaints from the disenchanted free market right help to give green politics a radical image. They also help to obscure the real relationship between green politics and Western governments. The issue of the environment is, in fact, an example of how the establishment has taken up an apparently radical cause for its own benefit. As so often, this process is clearest in relation to the third world. Far from being a problem for the West, the rise of global environmentalism symbolised by the Rio summit has been another useful excuse for dictating orders to the third world.

Summit up

The Earth Summit, or the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to give it its official title, held in Rio de Janeiro from 3-14 June 1992, was the largest inter-governmental conference ever. It was the culmination of 25 years of international gatherings on the environment.

Green pressure groups believe that public pressure has finally forced reluctant governments to take the issue of the environment more seriously. They point out how the then US president, George Bush, appeared to be forced against his will to attend Rio. The same pressure, they believe, is responsible for the UN decision to integrate independent environmental groups into the decision-making process. Rio was attended in a semi-official capacity by most of the world's environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Third World Network. Post Rio, the UN has involved all these Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in its Commission on Sustainable Development, which is drawing up a declaration for the fiftieth anniversary of the UN in 1995.

If they really believe Western governments are responding to their pressure, environmental groups are fooling themselves.

The first thing to note is that, during the 25 years when the greens' influence was supposed to be growing, the human and natural environment has deteriorated. The Western powers have continued to show particular contempt for the environment in the third world, using it as a source of cheap resources and a toxic waste dump. Alongside the green rhetoric, it's business as usual.

For example, Principle 14 of the Rio Declaration states that nation states should not dump toxic waste on each other. Yet the UN has just downgraded its Centre on Transnational Corporations which is supposed to monitor dumping. The reality of US attitudes towards the environment was exposed by the leak in late 1992 of a memo sent by Bill Clinton's adviser, Lawrence Summers, to the World Bank. It begins 'shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the least developed countries?'. Summers argued that the third world should receive all the most toxic waste products from Western industry because a) the poor wouldn't live long enough to have to worry about it anyway, and b) the poorer the country the lower the value of life. That Summers went on without further ado to take up his post as Treasury Under-Secretary for International Affairs in the new Clinton administration gives the lie to the idea that Western governments are responding to public pressure on the green issue.

Summers' suggestions showed that, like all other issues in our society, the environment is subject to the laws of capitalist economics. There is no profit in treating toxic waste when it can be dumped out of sight in the third world; similarly, long-term management of forests goes against the grain for a system motivated by short-term cash returns.

The Western powers' lack of serious interest in environmental issues was reflected in the vapid content of the documents signed at Rio. A reading of the Earth Charter reveals it to be a banal collection of general statements, empty of any real meaning. This might suggest that the whole Rio process has been a waste of time for all concerned. And it would have been if the West's purpose was to protect the environment. But it is not.

The Western powers are using the environmental issue as a stick with which to beat the third world over a whole range of issues, and to assert their right to dictate global affairs - via the UN, which they control. This was the real issue behind the talk at Rio. As the Royal Institute of International Affairs put it, 'the Earth Charter slowly became a distillation of the political and conceptual arguments dogging the North-South debate' (M Grubb et al, The Earth Summit Agreements, p85).

When George Bush and the rest of the Western posse rode into Rio, they made it clear who was calling the shots. The USA refused to sign the bio-diversity treaty, despite its anodyne character, just to make clear that third world states had no chance of getting any new bio-technologies which the Americans didn't want them to have. The official Rio agenda contained no criticism of Western governments, nor even of big corporations. Instead, the major industrial nations which have done most to damage the natural and human environment set themselves up as judge and jury, and pronounced verdicts on the rest of the world's behaviour.


A recent example of how the leaders of international capitalism use environmental issues for their own purposes came in a lecture given by the World Bank's vice-president for east Asia in October. He castigated east Asians for polluting their own environment, claimed that their car exhaust emissions were a threat to the world environment, and warned that they would have to temper their future economic growth with environment-friendly measures.

For an international financier to pose as a friend of the environment, and the spokesman of an American-based institution to lecture Asians about exhaust pollution, would be laughable if it wasn't serious. Barely a month before, the World Bank had published a report on the economic growth of east Asia's rising industrial nations, which noted the competitive threat it posed to the major powers. As they say, could these events be in any way related? Behind the green-speak, the World Bank's message to east Asia is clear: we deny you the right to develop your industry to the point where you threaten Western interests. All in the best interests of the world environment, of course.

The Western powers are using concern for the environment to justify their own agenda of asserting global authority. For example, the Rio Declaration stresses the principle of national sovereignty. Yet, at every opportunity during the conference, the Western powers made plain that they were not going to respect the principle. The Royal Institute has noted that 'some greater flexibility with respect to sovereignty appears a necessity if the political dialogue on global sustainability is to advance much further' (p35).

The notion that national sovereignty should be subordinate to the interests of the international environment may sound fair enough to some. We do live in One World after all. But so long as that world is dominated by a handful of major powers, an environment-friendly call for 'greater flexibility with respect to sovereignty' will simply be another pretext for the West to bully the third world. One thing we can be sure of is that the nations expected to be 'flexible' with their sovereignty will not include the USA or any of its Western allies.

Green Somalia?

There is a parallel here with the use of famine and disaster relief by the Western powers. In 1991, the UN passed a resolution declaring that the agreement of national governments needn't be sought in order to provide food aid. And no, they didn't have in mind Saddam Hussein handing out food parcels in the Bronx. They were thinking about the kind of 'humanitarian' military intervention staged under UN banners in Somalia, without consulting the Somalis. At the end of 1992, under the pretext of responding to a famine (which was in fact abating at the time) the US authorities launched an invasion designed solely to bolster their own global prestige; to date it has led to the deaths of at least 1000 Somalis.

The use of the environmental issue by Western governments has yet to go that far. Instead they are using green rhetoric to reinforce their right to say what goes in the world, and to intervene if necessary. But how long until we witness the green equivalent of Somalia? How long before trade sanctions are imposed on third world nations on the pretext of environmental protection? How long before US marines (wearing green hats?) are taking hold of the rainforests?

This is not simply a question of Western elites manipulating a popular issue for their own benefit. The green issue is good for them because it is intrinsically conservative. Free-marketeers may take issue with the emphasis on non-market mechanisms which accompany green initiatives; Ronald Bailey refers to one of the main Rio declarations as 'the mother of all five-year plans', for example. But the emphasis on conservation places environmentalism easily within a more traditional conservative framework, and means it certainly poses no threat to the status quo.

The conservative character of the issue is reflected in the ease with which the Western powers have got the 'independent' environmental groups and other NGOs on board, giving a radical gloss to their activities in the process. The so-called independent and alternative Global Forum, held by the NGOs in Rio at the same time as the main summit, was in fact funded by governments and major oil companies. A UN document made it clear how the West was using the NGOs. Their primary role was to 'serve as an important channel to disseminate [Rio's] results, as well as mobilise public support'. The Western governments write the lyrics, the environmental NGOs give them a folksy tune and sing them to the world.

NGOs are now happy to participate in the UN discussions on the environment, directed by Rio chairman Maurice Strong. Aside from his long-term involvement in the American oil industry, millionaire Strong's recent business ventures have included the building of a luxury 'ecotourism' hotel in Costa Rica.

The pay off

Of course there are tensions between greens and Western capitalists. British environment minister John Gummer's labelling of Earth First! activists as 'fascist' at the Manchester conference makes it clear that he wouldn't want them round for tea. But the British government is happy to encourage the activity of more mainstream groups like Friends of the Earth; it gives them £41 000 a year for a start.

At the international level, the USA was particularly keen to involve NGOs in the process after Rio. Washington puts up with NGO criticisms of its activities because the pay-off is that these 'independent' bodies can be used as a counterpoint to third world nations which obstruct American wishes. Indeed the NGOs can get away with denouncing the sovereignty of third world nations far more freely than can an imperial American president.

All in all, not a bad return for the Western elites from the modest sums invested in organising some conferences and the discomfort of talking to a few eco-activists.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 62, December 1993



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