Continuing College Professor at Okanagan College, all views are my own, not those of Okanagan College. My background includes graduate work in Political Science at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies, a one-year travel-study tour around the world focused on issues of peace and conflict resolution, and almost 20 years of teaching subjects from International Development to Canadian government. I have researched and published on topics like ecological modernization, global environmental governance issues, protected areas governance in North America, environmental discourses, and environment and trade in Canadian foreign policy. I am also energized by educational technologies and the latest news and information about teaching and learning in higher education.
I have focused on those that are free, semi-free or web-based. I have also focused on those that are best suited to educators’ purposes, or are customizable for particular functions, or are particularly inspirational examples of what is possible.
In 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein argued that the world was composed of three types of economies: a core, a semi-periphery, and a periphery. In the core countries, capital-intensive manufactured products with high levels of complexity and value-added were the primary source of national wealth. In the periphery, labour-intensive primary resource industries were the main source of wealth. The semi-periphery countries mediated between the two, but all countries acted in accordance with the principles of the global capitalist system. What characterized the relationship between the three regions was the terms of trade among them: core countries accumulated wealth by extracting resources and labour from the periphery. In the outskirts, raw materials were traded for machinery and technology. The semi-periphery managed the relationship between the other two, with a mixed economy based on trade.
Even though Wallerstein’s analysis was applied primarily to Western and Eastern Europe, no one had any illusions at that time about who constituted the core, and who the periphery. At the commanding height of the world economy, the US was unrivalled as a trading powerhouse, the most efficient and competitive economy in the world, the driver and reference point for development for all countries (including the Soviet Union, the ostensible rival). Americans were the world’s consumers, traders, thinkers, workers, and investors. America defined the ‘core’ of the world economy.
Today, Asia is the world’s factory and an exporting powerhouse, sucking in raw materials from abroad at a ferocious rate. China is becoming the world’s braintrust, transforming trade goods into high-end tradable commodities and changing their workforce using technical and business knowledge to ‘reverse innovate’ new products and services. Today, Hollywood movies are released in China and India a full month before anyone in the US can see them. Australia, Canada, the Middle East, and South Africa, formerly the nimble trading members of the semi-periphery, are now repositioning themselves as raw materials and commoditiesproducers, supplying the forests, minerals, food, and fuel for the new core countries.
In this post-modern world-system, unrecognizable as it is fromthat of 50 years ago, the core and periphery have switched places. It is not so much ‘flat’ (as claimed by Thomas Friedman) as ‘bumpy’; with hills and valleys defined by the underlying forces of finance and production. Sometimes the ‘bumps’ create stranged bedfellows, as Greece and Germany are discovering. It is highly intermingled, more like a ‘neo-Medieval’ system of interlocking interdependencies coupled with rigid underlying hierarchies.
But as Wallerstein recognized, exactly which country plays which role is irrelevant. All of the things that are often deemed to make civilizations unique, like values, culture, soft power, technology, and even military prowess, are less important than the underlying patterns of wealth and exchange that dictate the range of motion that a country has. Assuming, as America and Canada have recently, that one is immune to the disciplining forces of capitalism, and that capitalism will only ever work in your own interests and against those of your competitors and partners; is a myopic failure of vision. It assumes that only one vantage point exists or even matters, and neglects the realities of the new post-modern topsy turvy world.
With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life. These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time. Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.
2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level. Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross. The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited. This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced. Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but transformational. They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources. The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters. This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.
Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008. As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses. Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?
Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation. However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.
Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field. Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped. Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.
President Barack Obama launched a new plan to create jobs last week. Although Obama’s speech was not about the environment but creating jobs, underlying it was the implicit premise that there is an unequivocal synergy between government spending on clean energy, increases in economic growth, and job growth. But how are jobs and the environment related?
Sometimes there is a stark conflict between jobs and the environment: for example, protecting old-growth forests means that some foresters may have less work, full stop, end of story.
However, more often, the choices are less stark, and more complex. Building wind turbines means using plastics, steel, energy, and other materials that must come from nature in the here and now. Building turbines may create fewer jobs in the short term than (for example) drilling for oil. On the other hand, building turbines now may help reduce the reliance on oil in the future. This would, paradoxically, increase job losses in the fossil fuel industry. On the other hand, employment from wind production is less subject to declines in the supply of the resource, since wind is, in theory, not limited in supply the way that oil is. On so it goes.
What I want to argue is that both unemployment and environmental degradation are functions of the same problem: the way in which capitalist economies produce wealth. Unless the fundamentals are addressed, meaning changes in the way that work and nature are imagined and valued, then governments will be able to do little to solve either problem.
Both work and nature in capitalism are what is termed ‘factors of production’. This means that, essentially, the application of work to nature is what makes production of goods happen. John Locke was among the first thinkers to elaborate this idea, arguing that the mixing of labour with nature produced property rights and ownership. Others, like Karl Marx, also postulated that work and nature combined together to create value (although emphatically not a right to property) and in fact Marx attributed the value of all goods to the amount of labour included in its production. The relative neglect of nature, and the resulting environmental and resource degradation, is to a large degree what has driven the environmental movement in the West since the beginning of industrial capitalism in the 17th century.
Industry and factories in the Industrial Revolution required, and voraciously consumed, both work and nature. In the process, through the adept use of technology, politics, and the forces of supply and demand, industrialists were able to ensure that their costs were kept low and the prices of goods high. The effect of the productive forces of capitalism was to progressively and systematically devalue both nature and work as factors in the value of goods. The disconnect between work and nature therefore became one of the key features of industrial capitalism.
The devaluation of work and the devaluation of nature in production have now reached a crisis point. Since there is not a US economy or a German economy or a Chinese economy but a global economy, the same factors that devalue work in China also devalue the work of thousands of middle-class Americans and Canadians who production has become, not less efficient, but more efficient, in the process of adding work to nature. Efficiency has, perversely, increased waste by making workers redundant and nature incidental to the calculation of wealth.
The disconnect between nature and work, and the devaluation of both, has been accompanied by distorting imbalances in economic activity: the havoc wreaked upon the value of thousands of people’s work (in the form of homes, infrastructure, and businesses) by a hurricane is counted as a plus in the national accounts, because it makes possible more production rather than less. The manufacture and monitoring of weapons of mass destruction becomes a productive activity, since the damage it potentially causes is discounted, omitted from the national accounts that focus solely on the present value of the application of work to nature. Drilling for oil and even cleaning up an oil spill becomes productive work, while taking measures to prevent the spill and protect oil workers is counted as a cost, and so is devalued. Oil companies roll in profits, while governments compensate them for their costs, feeding the devaluation cycle.
So, the problems of unemployment and the problems of environmental degradation are related. However, increasing economic growth with little attention to the devaluation of nature will not solve unemployment in the long term, since it activates the very forces that devalue both work and nature. Unemployed workers, like ecosystems, represent overutilized and undervalued factors of production. As long as growth is calculated in a way that devalues work and nature, then governments will continually play catch-up to try and make up the difference. Ultimately, as we are seeing, government’s efforts to bridge the gap, in the form of payroll tax cuts and spending for stimulus, become devalued themselves. Subsidizing the costs of these inputs in the production process makes them less, not more, valuable for industry. Valuing nature for the ecosystem services it provides, and valuing work for the usefulness of the goods it produces, ultimately improves efficiency and reduces the waste, both human and natural, that capitalism creates.
Looking back at the historical development of human rights, one could easily point out the depressing record of genocide, oppression, discrimination, violence and hatred that has characterized the world. One can paint a similar picture with respect to the environmental record: every graph and equation seems to show a decline in biodiversity, environmental quality, and in prospects for a sustainable future.
However, recent events suggest that pessimism on human rights may be misplaced. If we look at the big picture, we might start to see that there are some lessons for environmental activists in the history of human rights. For example, it was once accepted as natural or inevitable that military campaigns necessitate mass bombing of civilian targets, that violent regimes would persist beyond the ability of the international community to act or even to comment on them, and that individual despots were beyond the reach of justice, likely to spend their retirement years in obscure luxury.
All of these assumptions are now, if not gone, severely strained. The fight for human rights continues throughout the world, individual people have shown over and over that there are limits to their toleration of oppression. Similarly, environmentalists might consider harnessing frustrations that are emerging around the world, in order to change international environmental norms in fundamental ways. Here are my suggestions:
1. Work from the inside out
With global environmental initiatives stalled, local action will become more important than ever. The fundamental barrier to progress on climate change has always arisen from the tensions between countries at differing levels of economic development. As with human rights, differences between countries historically stood in the way of new legal instruments to structure international norms. In the case of the UN Universal Declaration, Cold War differences stalled the development of the two major Protocols for decades after the 1948 effort. Given these differences, beginning work on the ground, and working within the norms, rules and procedures that operate locally will have greater effect on the international process than starting at the top.
2. Use moral and ethical arguments
Environmentalists have sometimes shied away from appealing to ethical arguments, preferring to couch the case for environmental sustainability in the stale language of self-interest and economics. This strategy should now be abandoned, as it guts the vision and content that is needed to inspire change. Systems change in response to fundamental cultural and normative shifts, not to instrumental rationalist appeals to individual gain. Human rights have made strides because of the universal power of the ethical arguments for human dignity. Everyone can relate to the struggles of others, and this is why the suppression of rights and freedoms (including rights to economic opportunities) has inspired resistance all across the world, from Tunisia to Britain to Libya.
3. Appeal to states & peoples, not to governments
Governments, whether democratic or not, are ill-equipped to deal with ecosystem breakdowns. Governments in democratic countries are focused on electoral cycles and polls. Governments of non-democratic countries are focused on keeping power. Although it may sound like heresy in some circles, states (in the sense of political institutions and communities that sustain a common identity and legal personality over the long term) are better equipped to deal with these problems than individual governments. Human rights language has always transcended governments, and human rights activists have always used government statements and commitments against them, entangling them in commitments that end up constraining them in ways that never could have been predicted.
4. Think long term
Human rights struggles continue, but progress should be acknowledged and recognized. The institution of slavery, which had existed in various forms for millennia, has now virtually been abolished, and any group who practices it now does so in the shadows, surreptitiously and shamefully. It could be argued that the planet can’t wait, and I agree with this sentiment, however, it is short-termism that has gotten us into this situation of ecological crisis, and changing the view to a planetary one should also involve a shift in thinking beyond the 20-year window that presently hampers societies.
5. Quiet efforts pay off
After Live Earth (Al Gore’s massive public relations global conference event) in 2007, interest in addressing climate change seemed to fade away. Big, splashy events are temporary, they ignite but lack the ‘long tail’ needed to create sustained change. The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia with the actions of one individual, seemed to come out of nowhere. Closer examination, however, reveals that the work of thousands of activists, journalists, and ordinary people created the conditions for change that enabled the revolutionary movements to transnationalize quickly. Contrasting these two examples also reveals the key role of information technology. Live Earth was primarily a visual and broadcast-style ‘industrial’ event, while change now happens through microblogs and ‘post-industrial’ social media. These efforts are necessarily more dispersed, less hierarchical, and less predictable, but clearly they are potent.
None of this is to say that torture, oppression, and genocide are (or perhaps ever will be) eliminated. The reports out of Syria and other places like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Congo, and Colombia suggest that there is a long way to go to achieve respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and dignity. Nevertheless, environmentalists should take heed.
The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training offers training in disaster and humanitarian response training. Interested applicants can apply directly on our webpage or send their inquiries to the Program Manager, Melanie Coutu at firstname.lastname@example.org