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Some Like It Hot

The countries of the industrial north use a large part of the less developed south’s natural resources. For example, Japan, the largest importer of tropical timber, transforms 40 percent of the wood taken from the world’s jungles into paper, plywood, and disposable chopsticks, causing irreparable injury to the forests and the organisms dependent on them. In recent years, northern companies have also been selling banned pesticides to the southern countries and dumping toxic wastes in them. In the prediction of Martin Khor, a prominent third world environmentalist, “The greening of the North will lead to the export of the environmental crisis to Third World countries.”

For their part, the third world countries have been all too willing to degrade their own environments: by pursuing northern-style development, they have disrupted their cultures, societies, and ecologies. Helena Norberg-Hodge has witnessed such a transition firsthand in Ladakh, which nestles in the trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir. She first went to Ladakh sixteen years ago to study its language and collect its folk stories for the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has since spent half of each year there. Her Ancient Futures provides a sensitive, thought-provoking account of Ladakh’s departure from what was, in her description, a pattern of existence “based on a coevolution between human beings and the earth.”

Tibetan in culture and Buddhist in religion, Ladakhis have traditionally been self-supporting subsistence farmers who work several acres of land—the size of the farm depends on the number of people in the family—and live in small villages scattered through the high desert. The farmers rely on a variety of animals—sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cows, and yaks—for wool and milk as well as transportation and labor. They recycle virtually everything, including animal and human waste, which they use for fertilizer. They provide for most of their basic needs, largely without money, building houses for themselves with local materials. Norberg-Hodge notes, “With only scarce resources at their disposal, farmers have managed to attain almost complete self-reliance, dependent on the outside world only for salt, tea, and a few metals for cooking utensils and tools.”

According to Norberg-Hodge, Ladakh is a closely knit society, marked by cooperativeness, few disparities in income or wealth, and frequent sharing of private property. It has also been a stable society, not least because Ladakhis have long practiced polyandry, and still do, even though it has been technically illegal since 1942. A woman might marry several brothers, thus keeping landholdings intact and the rate of population growth low. Norberg-Hodge finds that the stable population has made it easier for Ladakhi society and the natural environment to sustain each other. It may also be responsible, she suggests, for the considerable social harmony, the sense of human connectedness, that she has found there.

Ladakh began to change in 1974, when the Indian government opened the region to tourism and financed development in Leh, one of the principal towns. In much of Ladakh, roads and schools were built, electrical power and health centers installed. The Ladakhis acquired a money economy and imported grains and goods. Banks, a court, and radio as well as television have come to Leh, and so have droves of tourists, some 15,000 of them a year by the mid-1980s. They arrived in jeeps and buses that, along with the trucks importing the outside goods, congested traffic and polluted the air.

A growing number of young Ladakhis leave their farms for the comparative glitter of Leh. Cultural differences have emerged between the generations, and material differences have to some degree fractured the social harmony of Ladakh. During the 1970s, the population rose some 30 percent. The traditional cooperativeness has been replaced increasingly by a cash economy, with paid labor taking the place of friendly helpfulness. The inhabitants of Leh now turn elsewhere for food, clothing, and building materials. Their human waste is now disposed of in flush lavatories and septic tanks that tend to leak, contaminating the soil.

Some 70 percent of Ladakhis still live in more or less traditional circumstances, but Leh has turned into “an urban sprawl,” Norberg-Hodge writes.

Soulless, cell-like “housing colonies” have eaten into the green fields and spread into the dusty desert, punctuated not by trees, but by electricity poles. Flaking paint, rusting metal, broken glass, and discarded plastic rubbish are now part of the scenery; billboards advertise cigarettes and powdered milk.

For Norberg-Hodge one of the culprits is the spreading “domination” of science and technology. Gordon and Suzuki contend that neither is a panacea for the depletion of resources: both may be reaching the limits of their ability to increase, say, agricultural productivity. They also severely take to task the free-market theories and attitudes that are invoked to justify the juggernaut of the industrial north countries and their approach to development.

For Gordon and Suzuki a flagrant example of wrong-headed free-market thinking is to be found in the work of the Reaganite economist Julian Simon, who insists that the claims of ecological crisis and dwindling resources are vastly exaggerated and that untrammeled “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will forever find new expedients, including new technologies, to offset shortages and ameliorate the environment. Gordon and Suzuki deplore this faith, which they say many economists embrace. Like many environmentally minded critics, they attack economic theories that ignore “the real cost of doing business on this planet, the cost to the environment in terms of depletion of non-renewable resources and pollution.”

Unlike many of the critics, Gordon and Suzuki even doubt the merits of economic theory that takes such costs into account. Economists use the term “externalities” for the costs that people not directly involved in transactions are forced to bear—for example, the cost to the world when logging destroys an ecosystem. Most environmental economists hold that the full costs of environmentally degrading activities need to be calculated and reflected in the price and accounting system. Gordon and Suzuki say that approach is unacceptable because “integrating the environment into the economy is backwards.” In their view, “the economy is really a subset of the natural world. So it is the economy that has to fit into the environment, not the other way around.”

The environment first and the economy second—an ethical program is implied in such an ordering. Indeed, part of the literature about the new environmental dangers is suffused with moral exhortations to change the way people of the industrial north live. Gordon and Suzuki themselves, pointing to our self-indulgent propensity to consume and pollute, write that “we are blinded by our complacent acceptance of a dangerously outmoded system of beliefs and values.” The clear implication is that we should reduce our numbers, consume and pollute less, and embrace an ecologically sensitive system of ethics as superior to all other systems of values.

2.

Such a moral and behavioral transformation has been explicitly demanded by the radical environmental movement, with its many organizations throughout the world, including in the United States, where it has been principally represented by “Earth First!” The movement’s development and the beliefs of its principals are described in Rik Scarce’s Eco-Warriors and Christopher Manes’s Green Rage. Scarce, a journalist, writes about the movement with some detachment; Manes, a former associate editor of the journal Earth First!, strongly supports it. Both their accounts are highly informative about attitudes within the movement—Manes’s especially so, since he writes from the inside.

Earth First! was formed in 1981 by five environmental activists on their return from a journey into the Pinacate Desert, in Sonóra, Mexico. Dave Foreman was their informal leader, a one-time enthusiast of Barry Goldwater and member of the Young Americans for Freedom who has said that he “couldn’t take orders very well.” Foreman and his fellow activists disliked conventional environmental groups like the Sierra Club, thinking them too ready to accept the basic industrial order, too professionally self-interested in maintaining a place within it, and in Foreman’s view, too inclined to “worry about clean air and water for the benefit of people.” Earth First! stood for the more radical proposition that has come to be known as “biocentrism”—a biological egalitarianism holding that the natural world should be preserved not for the sake of benefit to humanity but for its own sake.

Earth First!ers have been called—rightly, Manes observes—“deeply primitivist activists opposed to industrial civilization itself.” Foreman and his allies demanded the establishment of systems of vast wilderness preserves, running to tens of millions of acres, that would be wholly devoid of human development, and the restoration of developed areas to their natural state by removing roads, dams, and power lines. In 1982, Earth First!ers symbolically cracked open the Glen Canyon Dam, which controls the flow of the Colorado River in Arizona, thus creating Lake Powell, by hanging a huge sheet of black plastic down its side.

In 1985 Foreman published Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkey-wrenching, a catalog of methods for “ecotage,” that is, for throwing monkeywrenches into the machinery—real as well as social—that degrades the wilderness.4 In practice, ecotage has meant tearing down billboards, pouring sand into the crankcases of bulldozers, and driving large nails into trees—tree spiking—to hinder logging operations. (The buried spikes can explode from the trees with deadly force when they are hit by electric saws and at least one logger has been killed as a result.) On Earth Day, 1990, a radical action group monkeywrenched wooden and steel electrical transmission lines in central California, cutting off power to more than 140,000 Pacific Gas and Electric customers near Santa Cruz.5

By the end of the 1980s, Earth First! had grown to 10,000 members, yet it was losing ground, even among its friends, because it was increasingly divided by factionalism among counter-culturalists, anticapitalists, anarchists, conservationists, biocentrists, and humanists. The movement was on the defensive because of the tree spiking and other monkeywrenching that had been committed in its name (Earth First!ers in southern Oregon and northern California have renounced tree spiking). And five members of Earth First!, Dave Foreman among them, were under indictment in federal court in Arizona for conspiracy to damage power lines running into several nuclear plants in the West and for having vandalized lift supports at a ski resort and sabotaged the power lines connected to an aqueduct. In September 1991, the five men were convicted: two were given brief prison terms, two others terms of, respectively, six and three years. Foreman avoided a jail sentence by pleading guilty to one felony count of conspiracy. In a book that he published earlier in the year, he apparently anticipated the plea bargain with an announcement that it was time for him “to build a campfire elsewhere,” explaining, “In other words, I am no longer part of the Earth First! movement. I no longer represent it and I am no longer represented by it.”6

Earth First!’s absolutist opposition to modern life, its uncompromising biocentrism make up an ethical position that most people concerned about the environment would no doubt consider unrealistic and untenable. In a strongly argued essay on environmental ethics in Bormann and Kellert’s volume, the philosopher Holmes Rolston III, a member of the Colorado State University faculty, rejects the simplistic biocentrism that attributes equal rights to all life on the planet or the sentimental anthropomorphism that refuses to do injury to any animal because we now know that animals suffer and feel as we do. Rolston sensibly contends that such judgments are “insufficiently discriminating,” because they reduce human beings to animals and unnaturally elevate animals to a human level—in short, because they are “blind to the real differences between species.”

  1. 4

    The term comes from the title of Edward Abbey’s environmental novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (Avon, 1975).

  2. 5

    Earth First!ers have been outdone elsewhere by environmentalists who have blown up a hydroelectric substation in Canada, burnt down a chemical plant in Thailand, and destroyed bridges and dams as well as electrical towers in Europe.

  3. 6

    Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1991, p. 22; September 20, 1991, p. 4; Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (Harmony Books, 1991), p. 217.

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