In It’s a Matter of Survival, Anita Gordon and David Suzuki report that in a 1989 radio interview, Lucien Bouchard, the Canadian minister for the environment, said of global warming:
If we don’t move now there will be a disaster. I don’t want to scare people but we’re dealing with the survival of the species. It is a question of great, great emergency. We must stop saying the burning of fossil fuels is the only way to live in Canada.
Nevertheless, Bouchard added, “While we’re concerned about the environment, we’re also deeply concerned with other aspects of life, like jobs.”
Conflicts between environmental preservation and economic development are an old story. They can be found in much of the debate of the past thirty years over the principal environmental issues—air, water, and ground pollution. But the conflict has been sharpened by the recent emergence of new concerns—global warming, ozone depletion, destruction of the rain forest, and loss of biological diversity.
The new issues involve a new type of damage to the environment. The main insults to it used to be evident: people could see smog, would get sick from toxic wastes, or notice that the fish had disappeared from the foul-smelling river. Scientific analysis was called on to explain what was happening and to suggest technical remedies for recognizable injuries.
The new dangers such as global warming and ozone depletion are much less visible and often will not materialize until years to come. We know about them primarily because of the analytical predictions of scientists. Indeed, without science, the threats would have gone largely unrecognized until—probably too late for effective countermeasures—they became tangible.
The scientific observations have accumulated over the last two decades. Ozone depletion was first recognized by the chemists Frank S. Rowland and Mario Molina in 1973, when they undertook to track the fate of fluorocarbon molecules that were being generated by the growing commercial and industrial uses of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in, for example, spray cans and air conditioners. At first they could hardly believe their findings that chlorine atoms broken off from the CFCs would seriously reduce the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which normally blocks ultraviolet light from reaching the earth’s surface. Such loss of ozone could wreak havoc on human, plant, and animal life because ultraviolet radiation can induce skin cancers and cataracts, lower the yields of basic crops, and kill tiny organisms in the ocean food chain. Rowland and Molina’s analysis, though much disputed for years, was gradually confirmed by scientists conducting computer simulations of the atmosphere and, more dramatically, by a British team who in 1985 detected an enormous depletion of the ozone layer over a huge region of Antarctica.
Apprehensions of global warming rest on a scientific theory that concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a product of burning fossil fuels, and of gases such as methane, trap radiation reflected from the earth, creating a greenhouse effect that raises temperatures in the region close to the planet’s surface. While the theory dates from the late nineteenth century, convictions that the warming is increasing to a threatening degree rest on the detection by scientists of substantial recent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases and on computer simulations of the consequences of the increases. The accelerating rate of deforestation has compounded these apprehensions, since among the indispensable services that plants and trees provide the world’s ecology is the absorption of carbon dioxide.1
Biologically sophisticated geographers have long worried about the decimation of tropical rain forests because, although these forests occupy only six percent of the planet’s land surface, the majority of the earth’s species live within them.2 In the mid-1970s, several biologists showed how rates at which species were being lost could be quantified, and in the years since then satellite surveys have revealed more exact estimates of the rate of rain forest destruction. In a persuasive chapter on biodiversity in the volume of essays entitled Ecology, Economics, Ethics, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson notes that the tropical rain forest has been reduced to about 55 percent of its original size and that the total size is now being eliminated at an annual rate of 1 percent (an area roughly equivalent to the Netherlands and Switzerland together). Having estimated that species would be lost at the rate of two to three tenths of a percent per year, Wilson writes,
Taking a very conservative estimate of two million species confined to the rain forests, the absolute loss due to this process alone could be four thousand to six thousand species a year. That in turn is as much as ten thousand times greater than the prehuman extinction rate.
Knowledge of actual losses of species is imprecise because only a fraction of species have been surveyed, yet it is extensive enough to suggest the ecological complexity on which species depend, the scope of their destruction, and the suddenness with which they can die out. The destruction of virgin forest in the south-eastern United States typically killed off the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Bachman’s warbler disappeared from the same region probably because its forest wintering grounds in Cuba were turned into sugar-cane plantations. Out of ten endemic subspecies of birds on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, nine, including, for example, the Cebu hanging parakeet, have been extinguished because of destruction of the rain forest. And soon after a botanist found thirty-eight previously undescribed endemic species of plants in the rain forest on Centinela Ridge, in Ecuador, the forest was logged and most of the thirty-eight were gone. 3
Neither Rowland and Molina nor Wilson and other scientists have been reluctant to warn of the new dangers, and by the late 1980s, the newly identified threats were attracting anxious attention far beyond the scientific community. In the fall of 1988, Margaret Thatcher declared that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself,” and the next day, at the United Nations General Assembly, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze warned that ordinary human activities were “turning into a global aggression against the very foundations of life on Earth.” Now, in one form or another, the same message leaps out from a torrent of newspaper articles, magazine features, TV specials, and a great many recent books (some twenty-five of which have lately crossed my desk).
It is evident from these publications that the new dangers to the environment differ in magnitude from what preceded them. The familiar cases of pollution—smog or toxic wastes or discolored rivers—by and large injured only particular localities such as metropolitan regions or ground resources or river basins. About the environmental jeopardy that we now face, Ralph Nader has remarked, “It’s one thing to have a river that’s polluted here, and an air-pollution inversion in a city there. But now the new ecological spectacles are global.”
The recent books also raise the question whether the planet can continue to sustain unlimited economic growth. The question has been raised before, of course, notably in the early 1970s, when several theorists predicted that eventually growth would hit a barrier of finite natural resources. However, the current concern is decidedly different. It is, in the words of an influential 1987 report from the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, whether economic growth will ultimately be constrained by “the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.”
The biosphere is already suffering deep, measurable damage—including accelerating losses of topsoil, mounting acid-deaths of maple trees, drastic reductions in wheat production by drought, and increasing toxic leakage from landfills. According to much of the literature on the new dangers, if current trends continue the environmental situation will drastically worsen. Anita Gordon and David Suzuki, imagining themselves a half century into the future, estimate that global warming alone, if it proceeds unchecked, will have tripled the number of 90-degree days per year in the cities of the mid-Atlantic region. The warming will have depleted the forests as climatic change drew them northward and dried out the great wheat growing regions of the world. It will also have induced famines and epidemics, driven millions of ecological refugees from the midwestern United States into Canada, swelling the populations of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and crowding most people into shantytowns. Gordon and Suzuki’s trip to the future has convinced them of a simple truth—“that we are the last generation on Earth that can save the planet.”
Gordon is a Canadian science writer and radio producer. Suzuki, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, conducts television and radio shows on science. Their It’s a Matter of Survival is a popularly written, broadly conceived survey of the new dangers. Although sometimes strident and one-sided, it is by no means idiosyncratic in its apprehensions of apocalypse. Such fears pervade the soberly restrained essays in Ecology, Economics, Ethics, where one contributor typically likens the impact of our current intervention in the evolutionary process to that “of a major glaciation,” and Edward O. Wilson observes that human beings are “now changing the global environment more than that environment has changed at any previous time since the end of the Mesozoic Era sixty-five million years ago.” Hardly a single writer in this or any other survey judges the overall environmental effects of human activity to be benign. Quite the contrary. The volume’s editors, F. Herbert Bormann and Stephen R. Kellert, both professors in Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, summarily call the impact of recent environmental changes “so profoundly powerful as to alter nature in ways inimical to human welfare and survival,” and Wilson pronounces the extinction of species “the fourth horseman of the environmental apocalypse”—the horseman of Death.
Visions of pending apocalypse are usually accompanied by outcries against social and moral failure, and some of the literature about the new dangers emphasizes the propensity of human beings to multiply at a high rate and of industries to exploit natural resources. Gordon and Suzuki note that at current growth rates the world’s population will expand by more in the next forty years than it has in the last several hundred millennia. They declare that “too many people equal too much pollution, too much destruction of the natural habitat and the Earth’s life support systems”; by implication they castigate the Roman Catholic Church for its stand against contraception and abortion. (They quote Lester Brown of the respected Worldwatch Institute: “For the Pope to go around saying you don’t need to worry about population pressure, and that family planning is a no-no, is in the minds of many people a crime against humanity.”)
Their principal indictment is of the industrialized north’s commitment to unceasing economic growth, its insatiable appetite for the planet’s natural resources. The nations of the industrial north have about 24 percent of the world’s population but use about 80 percent of its processed energy and mineral resources. About 33 percent of those resources are consumed by the United States alone, which has only about 5 percent of the world’s population. In 1989, the parliamentary vice-minister of Japan’s environmental agency told Gordon and Suzuki, “I think we should be growing and growing forever. It’s my personal philosophy. Quite often materials, or amount of materials available, and the degree of happiness have a very strong correlation, so I think the more we have, the better it is.”
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.
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.”
Earth First! ethics also self-righteously ignore the complexity of environmental and economic problems and solutions. Wes Jackson, who works at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, which tries to find ways to reconcile ecology and agriculture, writes in Ecology, Economics, Ethics that monomaniacal advocates of wilderness say little to protest “the spread of lethal farm chemicals over more than half a million square miles of the best agricultural land in the world, and soil erosion may be no concern of theirs.”
I do not object to either saints or wilderness, but to keep the holy isolated from the rest, to treat our wilderness as a saint and to treat Kansas or East Saint Louis otherwise, is a form of schizophrenia. Either all the earth is holy, or it is not. Either every square foot deserves our respect, or none of it does…. The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved by lots of people. In other words, Harlem and East Saint Louis and Iowa and Kansas and the rest of the world where wilderness has been destroyed will have to be loved by enough of us, or wilderness is doomed.
Surely it is ethically questionable for righteous environmentalists to demand that the poorer countries limit new development—by, for example, forgoing the use of fossil fuels—so as to reduce further pollution of the global atmosphere, a public good whose benefits would be shared by the industrial north and paid for disproportionately by the less developed south. Economic development has its own imperative ethical claims. A recent United Nations survey reported that in the industrialized north some 200 million people live in poverty, while in the third world about 1.1 billion people are poor, half of them “extremely poor.”7 Even when poverty does not grind people down, lack of development extracts its costs. Norberg-Hodge, who is admirably concerned to avoid giving a rosy tint to her account of Ladakh, writes:
There was a lack of what we would consider basic comforts, like heating in the freezing winter temperatures. Communication with the outside world was limited. Illiteracy rates were high; infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower than in the West.
In a preface to Norberg-Hodge’s book, His Holiness The Dalai Lama reminds us, “No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development. However,…development and learning should not take place in one direction only.” The problem is how to foster economic development that does not ruin the environment, and that maintains what Wes Jackson nicely specifies as “a harmony between the human economy and nature’s economy that will preserve both.”
Accomplishing such a task will not be easy, but it may be assisted by collections of expert essays like Bormann and Kellert’s Ecology, Economics, Ethics and Mathews’s Preserving the Global Environment. The two books resemble each other in recognizing, as Bormann and Kellert state, that the several issues posed by the new dangers cannot be treated in isolation. The essays collected by Bormann and Kellert, which discuss biodiversity, agriculture, pollution, ethics, and markets, among other subjects, try to explain how scientists and ecologists think about such issues. Those in Mathews’s book—for example, on population growth, energy and climate change, and managing the transition to new institutions—suggest the kinds of policies one might pursue to deal with them.
Holmes Rolston writes that environmental ethics “alone asks whether there can be nonhuman objects of duty.” In Rolston’s view, such objects can be identified through an approach that substitutes for humanism
a wilder ethic that is more logical because it is more biological, a radical ethic that goes down to the roots of life, that really is conservative because it understands biological conservation at depths.
What is conserved in nature is not individuals, which come and go, but species, which ordinarily survive over many individual lifetimes. Species not only flourish in their ecological niches; they also contribute to their vitality. They thus have “intrinsic value”—which, in Rolston’s reasoning, qualifies their preservation as an object of human duty.
Such an analysis is fraught with the pitfalls of the naturalistic fallacy: it proceeds from the statement that “a species is” to the statement that therefore “a species ought to be.” Rolston himself recognizes the difficulty, noting that “it takes ethical courage…to move past a hedonistic, humanistic logic to a bio-logic.” By that standard of courage, we might do well to be cowardly. To establish maximum bio-diversity as an absolute goal would be as indiscriminate as to concede equal rights to people and, say, bugs. And it could be dangerous for human economies and health, since it would grant the right to survive to well-adapted species of, for example, predatory and virulent organisms, including the AIDS virus.
Yet one need not go from is to ought to recognize that human-centered value systems must also take account of how the natural world works and the diverse ways in which it is important to us. Out of self-interest, we might arrive at the same conclusion as Rolston when he says “that it is right for humans to let them [species] be, to let them evolve.” We could find it right because, short of some miraculous leap forward in genetic engineering, “a lost species is never reproducible,” as Rolston says, and because we have good reasons not to want to lose too many. The earth’s species are a rich source of economically and medically useful materials—foods, pharmaceuticals, and biochemical products among them; they form a kind of drawing account to be held in reserve for purposes as yet unanticipated, quite apart from the aesthetic and emotional satisfactions many of us take in the diversity of nature. Mass extinction of species in the biosphere will impoverish not only living members of our own species but also future generations, to whom, it can be argued, we are naturally obligated. What bio-logic reveals is that, yes, we have a duty to nature, not primarily for its sake but for ours.
The rate at which we are consuming the biosphere—species, resources, clean air and water—means, in the apt observation of the chemist Paul H. Connett, one of Bormann and Kellert’s contributors, that “a few generations are using up resources that should be spread thin across centuries, if not millennia.” To Connett, “it is almost as if we are colonizing the future.” It is hard to fault critics of this trend for insisting that reducing the population growth rate is essential to any policy that claims to defend against the new dangers. At the end of World War II, the industrialized countries accounted for 40 percent of the world’s population. In the future, they will likely account for less than 15 percent, since more than 90 percent of future population growth is expected to take place in the third world.
However, while the new dangers to the environment are exacerbated by population growth, demographic pressures are not entirely responsible for them. Some of the greatest threats to the global environment come from the industrial countries, which together account for 25 percent of the world’s population but which are responsible for some 65 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, and from China and Russia, where the population explosion has largely been checked but where the temptation to burn abundant fossil fuels is enormous. Population control is a necessary weapon against the new endangerment, but it is by no means sufficient.
Essential to any defense against the new dangers, as many economists now insist, is that policies for the management of development and consumption must factor in environmental costs. This is not news to most of the contributors in either the Mathews or the Bormann and Kellert volumes, several of whom explicitly argue that the accounting system of the human economy—most commonly, calculations of GNP—needs to incorporate the workings of the natural economy. In a lucid essay in Preserving the Global Environment, Tom H. Tietenberg, a prominent environmental economist, notes that as ordinary capital goods—say, a factory—wear out, they are depreciated and counted as a debit against income. When natural capital goods, say, trees, are harvested, they should be similarly debited as reductions in the value of natural capital—but they are not. On the contrary, they are entered as income.
Tietenberg writes that standard financial practice does not allow an educational institution to use the principal of its capital,
that is, to draw down the endowment and to treat this increase in financial resources as income. Yet that is precisely what the national accounts allow us to do in terms of natural resources. We can deplete our soils, cut down our forests, and spill oil over ocean coves, and the resulting economic activity is treated as income, not as a decline in the endowment of natural capital.
When losses in natural capital are factored into the national accounts, GNP growth rates in the third world become substantially smaller.8 A number of industrial countries have adopted or are considering an alternative system of national accounts, one that either redefines the standard GNP or establishes a complementary natural-resources account.
If the new environmental dangers are to be dealt with, not only must their impact on material resources be recognized but also the ways in which they diminish the world’s ecological assets—for example, species diversity, water quality, and atmospheric stability. Injuries to all these, now generally left out of economic accounting, need to be acknowledged in calculating the cost of development, and, more particularly, the cost of doing business. To be sure, this is easier said than done. It is difficult to measure the precise costs of greenhouse warming or ozone-hole skin cancers, or reduced biodiversity.
It is far more difficult—most economists would say it is impossible—to assign quantitative values to some of the costs that Norberg-Hodge believes are incurred by the standard forms of economic development, particularly the reduction in “psychological, social, and spiritual wealth” that she laments among the Ladakhis. To Norberg-Hodge, quoting the king of Bhutan, the measure of a society’s well-being should not be gross national product but “gross national happiness.”
In the 1970s, Norberg-Hodge started a project to redefine progress in Ladakh so as to maintain the traditional human community and natural ecology. Urging such policies upon the Indian authorities, she organized small successful pilot projects to use solar energy (the sun shines on Ladakh three hundred days a year) for heating, cooking, and greenhouse growing of vegetables in the winter. Since then, the Ladakh Project and an affiliated group have experimented with other solar energy devices and alternative technologies such as water pumps that are made from standard plumbing parts and draw their energy from gravity rather than from petroleum.
The Ladakh program—“counter-development,” as Norberg-Hodge calls it—has stimulated wide interest and is one of countless local initiatives throughout the world to substitute ecologically and humanly conservative modes of economic activity for rampant industrial development. In Brazil, Chico Mendes led an effective movement for a dozen years to preserve the Amazonian rain forests and the way of life of the Indians inhabiting them, who sustained themselves with an economy based on tapping the rubber trees. (In 1988, Mendes was killed by the son of a cattle rancher who wanted to turn more of the rain forest into pasture.) Cities from Los Angeles to Singapore have imposed increasingly severe restrictions on the emission of pollutants from automobiles, while in the US hundreds of environmental action groups have been organized, including Kids Against Pollution, which has raised money to buy 300 acres of rain forest in Belize.9
Yet local initiatives are insufficient to deal with the new dangers. In view of their global scope, they have to be approached globally, through enforceable international agreements, and in ways that bring to bear all the instruments of science, law, and policy that the world community, such as it is, can muster. Science, technology, and economics are indispensable for detecting and dealing with the new threats to the environment, and it therefore makes no sense to indict them broadly, which such writers as Norberg-Hodge and Gordon and Suzuki sometimes do.
The problem, one might say, is how to call forth more Ladakh Projects for the many regions where the sun shines less frequently, where both the societies involved are less isolated and the technological challenges they face are rather more complicated than Ladakh’s. One strategy is to remove such resources as air and water and biodiversity from the category of freely available goods, by, for example, establishing a system of local, national, and global property rights applying to each. But the most difficult question of all is how to maintain essential ecological resources such as rain forests while creating more equitable relations between the rich and the poor, especially between the nations of north and south.
Several of the contributors to the books edited by Mathews and by Bormann and Kellert recognize that—the Ladakh Projects of the world notwithstanding—ecologically clean science and technology are unlikely to spring forth voluntarily as the result of good intentions, while they may do so in response to regulatory restrictions and market incentives. The contributors also realize that third world countries cannot be fairly expected to make financial sacrifices to preserve their ecosystems or to pursue the kinds of development that will benefit the first world; but that they might well do so if they are compensated for the costs of such development or the revenues lost by preservation. Some of the contributors believe that such matters—and many others—can be negotiated because at least a start was made in dealing with them in the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement that has by now been signed by sixty nations.
In a sense, the Protocol originated in 1977 with the passage of the Clean Air Act, which authorized the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate any substance likely to affect ozone in the stratosphere and led to a phasing-out in the United States of aerosol use of chlorofluorocarbons. In 1980, the European Commission imposed CFC controls on Community members, but the restraints were weak and accompanied by disingenuous rhetoric. In 1986, the United States produced about 30 percent of the world CFC output and consumed most of that percentage within US borders, while the European Community consumed only some 45 percent of its output and was the principal exporter of CFCs to the third world. American CFC producers and users, who had adamantly opposed international controls, suddenly found them more attractive, partly because of the threat of ozone depletion but also because of the gigantic competitive advantage that was accruing to the European Community. The American government took the lead in urging international controls, and in September 1986, on the eve of the Montreal negotiations, a group representing five hundred American producers and users of CFCs declared themselves in favor of them as well.
The Montreal Protocol reflected both scientific knowledge and economic interests—that is, it took account of how much various chemicals contributed to ozone loss and how important any of them might be to a nation’s manufacturing. The agreement was thus a flexible one, requiring participating nations to limit production of selected groups of ozone-depleting chemicals rather than each and every one. Seeking equity for developing countries, it also aimed to prevent most of the reduced CFC production from being sold only in the countries that manufactured it. The method was to make the applicable standard equal to the sum of production, plus imports, minus exports to other signers of the Protocol. An importing (that is, a developing) nation could thus, if faced with inadequate supplies, turn to another producer among the parties signing the Protocol or make up its shortfall by its own production.
For the limiting standards, the Protocol froze CFCs at 1986 levels within one year after the treaty entered into force, to be followed by a 20 percent reduction in 1993–1994 and a further cut to 50 percent in 1998–1999. It took effect on January 1, 1989, having been ratified by twenty-nine nations and the Commission of the European Community, which together accounted for 83 percent of global consumption of CFCs and a related class of chemicals called halons.
In Ozone Diplomacy, Richard Elliot Benedick provides a detailed, authoritative account of how the Montreal Protocol was adopted. Benedick, a career US foreign service officer, headed American preparations for the Montreal deliberations and was the chief US negotiator of the Protocol. Ozone Diplomacy is an honest book, as revealing about American opposition to international controls, including from some officials in the Reagan administration, as it is about resistance to it abroad. It is also thoughtful in its attempt to explain why so many nations—the number of ratifying nations represents 99 percent of the world’s production, and 90 percent of its consumption—accepted an economically costly treaty designed to forestall a scientifically identified trend that menaced the future but whose effects were hardly felt in the present.
In Benedick’s judgment, particularly important to the outcome was the leadership of the United States, which had gained moral credibility by passing the 1977 Clean Air Act, and of Mostafa Tolba, the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program, himself a scientist, who well understood the technical dimensions of the issue. Benedick also applauds the Montreal Protocol for employing realistic market incentives to encourage technological innovation. He, too, notes that a market left completely on its own may not necessarily call forth technologies for environmental protection; indeed, DuPont, which produced 25 percent of the world’s CFCs, had in 1981 dropped efforts to develop substitutes for them. By getting the Protocol on the books with a goal of 50 percent CFC reductions, the negotiators gave a signal to the market that research into solutions would now be profitable. Private companies soon started finding previously unanticipated substitutes for CFCs and halons. At the end of 1988, it already appeared that a reduction of at least 50 percent in combined CFC and halon use could be accomplished quickly and cheaply.
Benedick stresses that the Montreal Protocol was designed to be modified—without extensive formal renegotiation—in response to new scientific, environmental, economic, and technological information. In 1988 and 1989, it became clear that CFCs and halons were indisputably implicated in the ozone collapse over Antarctica; that ozone had diminished by small but significant amounts over heavily populated areas of the world; and that further significant depletion of the ozone layer would occur even if every nation in the world conformed to the Montreal Protocol. Combined with the rapid appearance of CFC-substitutes, the new scientific results helped lead in 1990 to a toughening of the protocol’s requirements, particularly to an increase in the types of ozone-depleting chemicals it covered and a speed-up in the rate at which they were to be drastically reduced and then phased out. While the provisions of the Montreal Protocol would have allowed chlorine pollution of the atmosphere to increase by the year 2075 by a factor of almost three, the revisions negotiated at a subsequent conference in London would reduce it by 50 percent, to a level below what it had been prior to the detection of the ozone hole.
The London revisions succeeded in part because they dealt more directly than the Montreal Protocol with inequalities between northern and southern countries. A number of third world countries had come to conclude that the 1987 agreement was inequitable because it allowed developing countries a per-capita consumption of the chemicals between twenty and forty times lower than that for industrialized countries. Third world countries, believing that CFCs are essential to raise their living standards, especially for air conditioning and refrigeration, therefore insisted, as their price for conforming to the Montreal Protocol, that they be given technical and financial assistance for acquiring substitutes.
The northern countries had good reasons to heed the third world demand on grounds of both equity and self-interest. Since CFC technology was inexpensive and uncomplicated, the developing countries, if they wanted, could obtain it easily, use it to produce CFCs, and sell huge quantities of the chemicals to their enormous populations. They could thus undermine the north’s efforts to protect the ozone layer. Since the costs of further damage to the ozone layer would be high, assisting the countries of the south to develop technology that would cut down the need for CFCs appeared to be a wise investment. In the London revisions of the protocol, the industrial nations set up a fund to do so.
Benedick sees the Montreal Protocol as “a prototype for an evolving new form of international cooperation” to deal with the other new dangers. However, the other issues, especially global warming, are likely to prove far tougher to manage. They will probably be beset for years by conflict, rather than consensus, among scientists, by data that is inadequate for policy-making both because not enough of it exists and because what exists is often contradictory and colored by economic and political bias.10
More important, since fossil fuels are central to developed and developing economies, drastically reducing the use of them, or the rate at which their use is increasing, would be economically disruptive, to say the least. What might be substituted for them is not at all obvious. Solar and wind energy will not likely supply a significant fraction of world energy demand, and nuclear energy poses its own deep environmental and safety problems. In short, replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources poses far greater technical challenges than devising substitutes for CFCs. (In November 1989, Ray Turner, an engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company, decided to find something that could be used in place of CFCs to prepare the metal surfaces on electronic circuit boards for soldering. Experimenting in his kitchen, he concocted a successful substitute out of lemon juice.) 11
In a provocative chapter on energy and climate change in Mathews’s volume, the MIT physicist and economist George W. Rathjens notes that, under the circumstances, people might well be willing to tolerate a moderate rate of global warming, especially people in the higher northern latitudes who might benefit from a more temperate climate.
Most important, the United States has recently not been providing the kind of political leadership that helped achieve the Montreal Protocol. Indeed, alone among the leading industrial nations, the US has refused to consider significant action on what many scientists consider to be the fundamental culprit of global warming, carbon dioxide emissions. Some administration officials recognize that the new dangers may be real, but they contend that drastic action by the United States is unnecessary. In their view, the United States has a far more responsible record on the environment than, say, the countries of Eastern Europe, which burn enormous amounts of dirty coal. As evidence of America’s good citizenship, they point, rightly, to the Clean Air Act of 1990, which the Bush administration worked hard to get enacted, which authorized the use of market incentives to meet goals for reducing pollution, and which gave the government discretionary power to speed up the phase-out of chemicals that threaten the ozone layer.
However, the Bush administration has tended to be reactive in dealing with the ozone issue and relatively inactive on global warming. In April 1991, following the discovery that the ozone layer was being reduced over the United States in winter and spring, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that during the next fifty years the depletion would cause 12 million more skin cancers and as many as 200,000 additional deaths. In October 1991 the Ozone Trends Assessment Panel, a scientific group working under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Program, reported worse news—that ozone depletion had been detected over the middle latitudes of the northern and southern hemisphere during the spring and summer, the time when risk of skin cancer was greatest. The Bush administration remained silent about these results, even though they prompted many observers to declare that the London revisions of the protocol would quickly have to be strengthened.12
On February 3, 1992, a team led by NASA scientists reported that two weeks earlier they had detected unprecedentedly high concentrations of ozone-destroying chemicals over the upper northern hemisphere. The team described the concentrations as intense enough to cause an ozone hole this winter over populated regions of the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Senate promptly voted ninety-six to nothing for a faster phase-out of the culprit chemicals. In the face of the new findings and the Senate’s resolution, the Bush White House finally bestirred itself, announcing on February 11, 1992, that under the authority of the 1990 act, it would accelerate by five years the United States’s program of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals.13
The administration claims that the relationship of carbon dioxide emissions to global warming is so far too uncertain to warrant the economic dislocations that major restrictions on fossil-fuel burning would entail. It emphasizes what has been called a “no regrets” environmental policy. Such a policy promotes measures, like those in the 1990 act, that produce direct environmental benefits—for example, reduction of toxic chemicals in the atmosphere—and that may secondarily ease atmospheric warming.14 The government’s position can be defended on scientific grounds, yet it is also politically disingenuous. Factions in the Bush administration have sought to impose administrative rules on the 1990 act that would weaken its restrictions on industrial firms. And the administration’s commitment to a “no regrets” approach has not extended to imposing higher taxes on gasoline or higher miles-per-gallon requirements for cars sold in the United States. Both measures would, while conserving fossil fuels, also slow carbon dioxide emissions.
In August 1988, speaking in Michigan, George Bush said that “those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”15 So far, the effect of the Bush White House on the new dangers to the environment has been to emphasize the uncertainties that surround most of them and to give the benefit of the doubt not to the nation’s, let alone the world’s, long-term economic or environmental interests but to the administration’s own short-term political advantage.
—February 27, 1992
March 26, 1992
On global warming, see my “Paradise Lost,” New York Review, December 21, 1989), pp. 32–38; Richard L. Wyman, editor, Global Climate Change and Life on Earth (Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1990); John Firor, The Changing Atmosphere: A Global Challenge (Yale University Press, 1990). ↩
A rich graphic banquet of the exotic foliage, plant, and animal life of the tropical rain forests is Edward G. Atkins, editor, Vanishing Eden: The Plight of the Tropical Rain Forest (Barron’s, 1991). ↩
I am indebted to the evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond for this information. ↩
The term comes from the title of Edward Abbey’s environmental novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (Avon, 1975). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1991, p. 3. ↩
Tietenberg reports: According to a study by Robert Repetto, of the World Resources Institute, the unadjusted GNP of Indonesia grew between 1971 and 1984 by an average of 7.1 percent per year, but only by 4 percent per year when adjusted for natural-capital losses. ↩
Priscilla Painton, “Greening from the Roots Up,” Time, April 23, 1990, pp. 76–86. ↩
A Danish study has recently found a close statistical correlation between sunspot cycles and cycles of global warming, a result that critics of global-warming theorists were quick to seize upon, suggesting that the role of CO2 emissions in the phenomenon may have been overstated. Similarly, several federal agencies have recently indicated that the peril of dioxin may have been overstated. The New York Times, November 5, 1991, p. B7; August 15, 1991, p. 1. ↩
Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1992, p.3. ↩
Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1991, p. 1; The New York Times, October 23, 1991, p. 1; editorial, February 5, 1992. ↩
The New York Times, February 4, 1992, p. B7; Michael D. Lemonick, “The Ozone Vanishes,” Time, February 17, 1992, p. 60; Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1992, p. 1. ↩
The position of the Bush administration has been knowledgeably advanced in C. Boyden Gray and David B. Rivkin, Jr., “A ‘No Regrets’ Environmental Policy,” Foreign Policy, Vol. 83 (Summer 1991), pp. 47–65. ↩
The New York Times, August 25, 1991, p. E1. In late February, responding to foreign and domestic pressures, the Bush administration announced a modest shift in policy on global warming. The US will contribute some money to help developing countries deal with the problem but it still will not take significant measures to stabilize CO2 emissions produced at home by, for example, the burning of gas and oil. ↩