SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN A GLOBALIZED ECONOMY
by Róbinson Rojas Sandford (1997)
Sustainable development is concerned with a long lasting relationship
the environment, and
In the report our Common Future, the Brundtland Commission (World
Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva, 1985) provides a
formulation of the concept of sustainable development that leaves a
good deal of room for individual interpretation. But, the main message
in the report that SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT is threatened by both
WEALTH (over-exploitation) and POVERTY(neglect) has been broadly
The Brundtland Report states that:
"In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in
which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments,
the orientation of technological development, and institutional
change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future
potential to meet human needs and aspirations".
The above definition makes it clear that sustainable development is
a) the continued well-being of humankind, and
b) the continued well-being of the environment
Present-day society, as driven by what loosely can be grouped in the
notion of capitalist relations of production, the later leading to
maximization of profits as a target AND NOT MAXIMIZATION OF SOCIAL
WELFARE, which, of course, must include maximization on environmental
welfare. As technology is the outcome of a particular system of
production, we can conclude, with the Scientific Council for Government
Policy in the Netherlands, May 1996, Background Paper No 10 for the
UN Commission on Sustainable Development, that
"the non-sustainable nature of present-day society is caused on the
one hand by the nature of the technology applied and on the other by
the forms of social organization".
(i.e. it is inevitable -in the present-day forms of social organization-
that people will use more energy, but sustainability demands that
non-fossil energy sources be explored, the latter being considered,
on the other hand, as non-efficient from the point of view of the
capitalist system )
A classical situation is the one uncovered in 1992, when the World
Bank was caught promoting pollution in the third world in order to
maximize profits for the transnational corporations. THE ECONOMIST,
February 8, 1992, reported the news as follows:
"LET THEM EAT POLLUTION
Lawrence Summers, chief economist of the World Bank, sent a memorandum
to some colleagues on December 12th. 'The Economist' has a copy. Some
of the memo has caused aa fuss within the Bank:
Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging
MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs? I can think of
(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution
depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and
mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-
impairing pollution should be done in the country with the
lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest
wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of
toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we
should face up to that.
(2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the
initial increments of pollution probably have very low costs.
I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa
are vastly UNDER-polluted; their air quality is probably
vastly inefficiently low (sic) compared to Los Angeles or
Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much
pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport,
electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of
solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade
in air pollution and waste.
(3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health
reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The
concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change
in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much
higher in a country where people survive to get prostate
cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200 per
thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial
atmospheric discharge is about visibility-impairing
particulates. These discharges may have very little direct
health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic
pollution concerns could be welfare-enhancing. While
production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a
The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals
for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods,
moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc)
could be turned around and used more or less effectively
against every Bank proposal for liberalisation.
The language is crass, even for an internal memo. But look at it another
way: Mr. Summers is asking questions that the World Bank would rather
ignore -and, on the economics, his points are hard to answer. The Bank
should make this debate public".
Of course, the World Bank never made the debate public. And it didn't
because the World Bank represents the capitalist system which has
GLOBALIZED the ways in which production is performed on our planet.
Al Gore, vicepresident of the United States did put it like this:
"...natural beauty and resources that took millions of years to develop
could be damaged and depleted in a matter of decades"..."My earliest
environmental lessons came from our efforts to prevent soil erosion -by
stopping the formation of gullies that would wash away the vital topsoil
on which our farm depended. For a time, some large farmers who leased
their land for short-term profits didn't worry about soil erosion; that's
one of the reasons more than three hectares of prime topsoil floats
past Memphis every hour, washed away for good" (Time Magazine, Special
Issue, Our Precious Planet, October 27, 1997)
In that same Special Issue, Time Magazine stated:
"Five years ago leaders from 178 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro for
the Earth Summit (which produced Agenda 21. R.R.), an effort to forge
agreements that would help preserve and protect the global environment.
On many of the critical issues, the rethoric and promises of Rio have
not been backed up by strong action since the summit.
Rhetoric: "The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result
of human activity, and represents a severe threat to human development".
Reality: The loss of species is accelerating as humans encroach on
habitats and carve up ecosystems into fragments. A weak Convention on
Biological Diversity has been ratified by 161 countries (but not by
Rhetoric: Recognizing global warming as a potential problem, delegates
approved a toothless Convention on Climate Change calling on nations to
voluntarily reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse
gases to 1990 levels.
Reality: Nations have roundly ignored the goals an released greenhouse
gases as if Rio never happened. Governments promise to decide on a
tougher plan in Kyoto, Japan, this December -1997-.( The worst polluter
in the world on this account are the U.S., with 22% of total released
greenhouse gases. The second is China, with 14%. R.R.)
Rhetoric: Noting the destruction of woodlands, delegates called for
'urgent' action and laid initial plans for negotiating a forest
Reality: The world continues to destroy an expanse of forest the size
of Nepal every year. Asia has lost almost 95% of its frontier woodlands,
according to the World Resources Institute. Efforts to draft a forest
agreement have run out of steam.( In the 1970s, 110,000 sq. km. of
rain forest were destroyed every year -see Box 1-, in the 1980s until
1990, the figure went up to 133,400 sq. km. per year -see World
Development Report 1997, table 10. R.R.)
Rhetoric: Getting unusually specific, delegates called for rich nations
to increase development aid to 0.7% of their gross national product.
Reality: Such aid, now averaging 0.3% of GNP, has been dropping steadily.
U.S. official assistance to other countries declined 37% between 1992
Rhetoric: Because of the sensivities of the Vatican and some developing
nations, recommendations for population control were muted by fuzzy
bureaucratic language calling for 'appropriate demographic policies'.
Reality: This is a potential bright spot. Although the ranks of humanity
still grow by about 80 million a year, an unexpected and rapid drop in
birth rates continues around the world." (Time Magazine, October 27, 1997)
The above plus Box 1 illustrate the relationship between the environment
and society, the latter understood as a social organization agreeing on
producing goods and services in a particular way (in our case, the
Therefore, sustainable development is a two-sided relationship as both
the well-being of mankind and society and that of the environment play
a role in evaluating those activities. Social well-being can be measured
in terms of the extent to which needs are satisfied and the well-being
of the environment in terms of the extent to which environmental functions
and assets are left unharmed.
Particular activities can impose a burden -have an impact- on the
environment in many forms. We can think of them as
The impact of human activities on the environment shows a relationship
with the number of people involved in a particular activity and the
way in which the activity is carried out.
Example: production and use of paper. The impact on the environment
the number of people using paper,
the amount of paper each person uses, and
the way in which the paper is manufactured.
Therefore, we can think of interrelations between activities, needs
and the environment depending upon
intensity of production,
intensity of consumption,
mode of production, and the
cultural habits created by the mode of production.
For example, the consumption of culture (e.g. going to a concert,
reading a book) is less harmful to the environment than the procurement
and use of a speed boat.
The above relates to another set of variables which are the outcome of
the mode of production:
type of technology, and
All the above will form barriers to the construction of sustainable
development, a process which will need
a guaranteed freedom of action,
the visibility of the interests of future
generations in the decisions taken, and
dramatic adjustments in the production sphere.
A TWO DIMENSIONAL PROBLEM
Environmental damage can be grouped in two sets:
1) the one that affects only those within the range of the event
a) water pollution
b) water scarcity
c) air pollution (smog, acid rain, etc)
d) solid waste
e) hazardous waste
2) the one that affects all living species on planet earth:
a) soil degradation
b) deforestation (weather changes)
c) loss of biodiversity (reduction of ecosystem
d) atmospheric changes (greenhouse effect, ozone
The following industries are heavily polluting:
4) building materials
The following activities are heavily polluting:
1) urban transport driven by internal combustion engines
(particularly individual cars)
2) advertising (energy consumption)
The following social status are heavily polluting:
1) extreme wealth (consume and create consumption habits in the
rest of the population)
See the following:
D. Caverhill: TNCs and the world economy.1994
M. Butler: How Europe can fight the multinationals. 1986
O. Sunkel: The transnational corporate system. 1985
R. Rojas: The transnational corporate system in the late 1990s
Transnational corporations dominate the system of production in the
world, they are the ones who create "globalization" and they are
the ones who own agribusinesses all over the world. Transnational
corporations not only are responsible for about 70% of the global
industrial production, but also, of much of the production and almost
the totality of the trade on commodities.
The following table is illustrative:
CORPORATE CONTROL OF GLOBAL COMMODITY TRADE, 1980
Commodity Percentage marketed by 3-6
AGRICULTURAL RAW MATERIALS:
Forest products 90
Natural rubber 70-75
Hides and skins 25
ORES, MINERALS AND MATERIALS
Crude petroleum 75
Iron Ore 90-95
Source: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 1985
Note: Due to a heavy process of merging and acquisitions in the late
1990s, is safe to predict that the level of concentration is
higher in the 1990s. R.R.
From LINKS No.19, 1984 BOX 1
THE UNNATURAL CYCLE
THE DEGRADATION OF THE AGRICULTURAL LAND
is closely associated with its inequitable distribution and the problems
only 11% of the world's land areas (excluding Antarctica) is immediately
'suited' to agriculture; the rest suffers from drought, nutritional
defficiency, excess water or permafrost.
large areas of prime land are every year taken out of agricultural use
before the year 2000, if present rates of land degradation continue, one
third of the world's remaining arable land will be destroyed.
THE BEST LAND tends to be in the hands of rich landowners or large
transnational corporations, who exploit the land for profit with
plantation and cash crops for export to Northern countries.
in South America, according to an Oxfam study in 1973, the top 2% of the
farming population had control of 47% of the land; in India 22%
controlled 76% of the land.
NORTHERN AGRIBUSINESS TECHNOLOGY is often inappropriate for Third World
it encourages dependence on northern expertise and management and
intensifies the economic, and therefore political, stranglehold on
it is often inappropriate for southern soil and climatic conditions
leading to loss of fertility and soil erosion.
domestic food production declines, as in Central America, where the best
land grows coffee and bananas. The local population go hungry.
intensive farming techniques, including the use of chemicals in
fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, contribute to environmental
AS THE LAND IS SWALLOWED UP the poor become landless and migrate.
in Brazil the displaced poor are trying to clear the forest for
agriculture, so contributing to the destruction of the rain forest.
in the Sahel the poor are forced to the marginal lands where they
contribute to the process of desertification.
drylands cover about a third of the earth's surface. They have been
surprisingly productive under the careful management of their
traditional populations. But they can easily become desert, not because
of arbitrary climatic change, but through over-cultivation, over-grazing
and improper irrigation.
desertification threatens some 628 million people, of whom 78 million
are already affected.
60,000 square kilometers of land are lost yearly.
in the Southern Sahara 650,000 square kilometers of productive land have
been lost in the last fifty years.
HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?
in the Sahel the ecology was preserved by the relationship between the
nomadic herdsmen and the millet-growing farmers. During the annual dry-
season exchange of milk and meat for cereals, the herds would both graze
and fertilize the millet stalks which also serve as cooking fuel. This
relationship has been progressively disrupted by French introduction of
peanuts as cash-crop, which boomed in the 1950s, degrading the soil as,
unlike the millet, the haulms were not returned to the soil for humus
and neither were they a fodder crop attracting the manure of grazing
animals. The soil suffered massive erosion in dry-season winds, while
the herdsmen were driven for their survival to the still more marginal
lands on the edge of the desert which were overgrazed. The hunt for
alternative cooking fuel has contributed to the disappearance of trees
THE DISAPPEARING FORESTS
tropical rain forests are being felled an burned at the rate of
110,000 square kilometers a year.
at this rate within eighty-five years all of this forest type will have
WHO FELLS THE FORESTS IN BRAZIL?
commercial timber companies, often for export. Much of the felled
Brazilian hardwoods go to Germany.
as Southern Brazil, once richly forested by Parana pine, is absorbed
into enormous estates, the landless poor are encouraged by the
government to colonize the northern rain forest, by clearing and
burning. This does not benefit the poor because without the trees the
fragile tropical soil washes away in the seasonal rains. The cleared
land becomes a wasteland of scrub which cannot even be cropped by
WHY DOES IT MATTER SO MUCH?
the settlers bring to the forest arable land techniques which are bound
to fail and they reject the rich harvest offered by the forest itself.
the destruction of the forest in the short term is causing erosion of
the soil, and, in the long term is likely to cause climatic change.
CLIMATE is brought about by the interaction between the forest and the
atmosphere. Of the rainfall, 25% drains into the Amazon rivers, 25%
evaporates off the leaves, and 50% returns to the atmosphere through
transpiration and makes clouds. No trees, no clouds; no clouds and the
country becomes dessicated by the equatorial sun. A desert feeds no one.
When the full force of the rainfall reaches the ground the nutrients and
topsoil are washed into the rivers and estuaries where the great islands
of silt unbalance the marine ecology and free passage for ships. It
costs Argentina ten million dollars A YEAR to dredge silt from the
stuary of the River Plate.
FOREST BURNING causes the release of carbon dioxide and contributes to
the 'greenhouse effect'.
THE GLOBAL GREENHOUSE
carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil
fuels such as coal and oil, and wood.
industrial processes and petrol fumes dump 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon
into the atmosphere every year. The US, USSR, and EUROPE are responsible
for about 75% of all CO2 released.
massive burning of forests such as the Amazon also contributes CO2.
Eight hundred tonnes of carbon is released from every hectare burned.
CO2 and fine dust pollutants create a shield around the earth, rather
like a greenhouse which allows entry to the sun's heat but which
inhibits the cooling mechanism of the atmosphere. This is likely to
raise the earth's temperature. Even a small rise would effect
significant changes in the distribution of snow and rainfall, the
partial melting of the polar ice-caps and consequent raising of the sea-
level, with devastating consequences.
AIR POLLUTION AND ACID RAIN
in the temperate zones we think of rainfall as our major asset. Our
industrial processes are turning our gentle rain into a noxios, toxic
fluid. In a recent storm over Scotland, an analysis of the rain revealed
an acidic content of vinegar.
normal rain becomes acid when ore-smelters, coal-fired generating
stations, cars, oil refineries, fossil-fuelled factories discharge into
the atmosphere sulphur and nitrogen oxides which fall back to the earth
as rain. But because of prevailing winds, the acid rain can fall many
miles away and have a devastating effect on crops, trees, the life in
rivers, lakes and streams.
North America receives over thirty-three million tonnes of sulphur
dioxide, and twenty-four million tons of nitrogen a year of which 85%
originates in the USA. It is the major US export to Canada.
Norway receives most of the acid rain from Britain and Germany.
THIS IS A CURABLE DISEASE.
desulphurization technology exists and can screen out 90% of the
discharges before they reach the atmosphere. While companies argue
costs of anti-pollution measures as prohibitive, WHO PAYS for dying
forests, lost crops, and corroding structures?
occurs when the proliferation of disease-carrying microbes make water
unfit for human consumption or the presence of toxic chemicals makes it
dangerous not only to drink but to touch, or makes lakes and rivers an
unfit habitat for the range of creatures and plants they would normally
over 20% of the third world's urban population lack access to clean
47% of urban and 87% of rural population of the third world are without
clean water coul reduce and sometimes eliminate the incidence of water-
borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera.
CHEMICAL POLLUTION of water occurs when industrial processes are allowed
to disgorge effluent into the water system. This is especially hazardous
in such developing countries as Brazil where the government has invited
investment by dropping controls.
LARGE-SCALE HYDRO-PROJECTS, although an important energy source for
several developing countries, tend to benefit the new industrial plants
and urban centres, but leave the poor worse off than before.
Interference with the water flow brings aridity to previously fertile
small farming areas causing new poverty and suffering, but also often
increases the incidence of water-borne disease even among those rural
farmers whose crops benefit from new irrigation systems. This is
especially true of irrigation schemes with dams.
in the Gezire Irrigation scheme in the Sudan, flooded areas of standing
water provided important breeding sites for the malaria mosquito.
the water flowing over nearby rocks made an excellent site for Similium,
resulting in increased prevalence of onchocerciasis or River Blindness.
continuously irrigated land provides an opportunity for the
proliferation of the weed round shorelines of lakes and ponds. This weed
is the ideal habitat for the snail vector of the blood fluke
schistosome, resulting in the spread of schistosomiasis into previously
DISPOSAL OF WASTES are becoming ever more hazardous for the world's
water systems and the human populations who use them for drinking,
washing, swimming and fishing. Even the oceans are endangered by
the dumping of radioactive wastes into the seas has been the practice
since the beginning of the nuclear industry.
the sea transport of toxic wastes and other harmful chemicals are an
increasing threat to the environment and our survival. The recent loss
of twenty tons of lethal herbicide off a Danish ship into the North Sea
fishing grounds is a worrying example.
TECHNOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL EDUCATION
in Northern countries of those in policy-making and administrative posts
in developing countries is a form of 'aid' which is more to the
advantage of the donor than of the recipient country. It can reinfoce a
kind of cultural imperialism, which makes it much more likely that a
government of a country with problems of underdevelopment will adopt
solutions involving northern and expensive technologies, contracts and
expertise, to the economic advantage of the donor nation. These
ultimately increase economic dependency and foreign debt, without
necessarily benefiting at all those most in need. Unfortunately, the
small-scale solutions and appropriate technologies allowing the maximum
participation of local people without environmental damage, rarely
compare in prestige with the 'big bang' solutions that tend to create as
many problems as they solve.
THE DILEMMA is that, while we should be advocating a fairer share of
energy resources for the third world, no sane person could recommend the
developing world to embark upon the path of indiscriminate
industrialization and environmental destruction adopted by the northern
nations. In fact, as the case of Brazil clearly demonstrates,
industrialization at the expense of the environment cannot be
90% of Northern energy 'aid' is for large-scale, electricty-generating
schemes, giving contracts to northern firms and relying on northern
technology and personnel. They are often foreign-owned and not only
do not usually serve the needs of the locals, but divert energy away
from development. Local villagers seek woodfuel for their needs and put
further pressure on the often scanty or diminishing woodland resources.
50% of India's energy needs is for cooking-fuel. Culturally acceptable
designs for labour and fuel-saving stoves and pots are perhaps a more
efficient direction for aid to take, as indeed small-scale non-
governmental 'real aid' projects are already doing.
NUCLEAR ENERGY is the most costly source of energy of all, both in
financial and environmental terms. The public in Britain have only
recently begun to be aware of the implications of the nuclear industry,
with the publicity about the radioactive discharges by British Nuclear
Fuels (BNF) into the Irish sea ar Sellafield/Windscale, the associate
'clusters' of child leukemia, and the evidence of radiation danger given
at the Sizewell enquiry.
the continuation of the nuclear energy industry seems irrational until
we realize the connection with nuclear arms. The enrichment process of
nuclear power is a crucial stage in the process of making a nuclear
weapon. They both make manifest the increasingly and insane
militarization of our culture and our economy.
it seems unlikely that more fast-breeder reactors will be built in the
US. As with banned drugs and banned pesticides, the transnational
corporations who deal in energy are capitalizing on their investment by
exporting the technology to us in Britain and to the third world.
third world countries with a nuclear power programme are well on the way
to having the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.
the promoters of this energy source are stockpiling and dumping enormous
quantities of highly radioactive material which will not lose its
toxicity for thousands upon thousands of years. Our technology for
disposing of these substances is medieval compared with the technology
for making them. Neither scientist nor the administrators who pay their
salaries, have any idea how to contain these wastes until they are safe.
They are running the risk of poisoning the planet, unless a nuclear war
does it first, in the vague hope that our children's children will be
able to sort out this mess not of their own making.
energy is the major environmental problem. The problem is not scarcity
of energy. In the 1980s there is over-capacity in energy sources. The
problems are to do with a more equitable distribution of world
resources, the degradation of the environment from our use and abuse of
energy, and the finite nature of our main energy resource, FOSSIL fuels.
The fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas are the mainstay of the
71% of the proven reserves of recoverable coal are shared between the
three superpowers, the US, the USSR, and China; 73% is shared by the
developed nations; the remaining 27% is in the third world, India with
2% having the most.
the high sulphur content of coal provides, when burned, the chief
disadvantage in air pollution and acid rain, but there are also problems
of waste disposal and thermal pollution of rivers.
the situation is reversed in oil, of which 77% is in the developing
world. However the international oil system is in effect a northern-
controlled mechanism for the massive transfer of the world's most
important physical resource from the South to the North.
oils vary in their sulphur content and therefore in their capacity for
pollution -Middle-East crudes are high in suphur, Venezuelan is medium,
Nigerian, Libyan and Algerian oils are low.
the problems of transporting natural gas have restricted its use until
recently to local markets, although ironically there are fewer
environmental objections to its use. However, in the absence of a local
market, in the Middle East for example, the massive burn-offs of gas on
site is both air-polluting and extraordinarily wasteful. It has been
estimated that the potential energy resource of the gas so burned would
more than meet the energy needs of the whole of Africa.
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