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