Monday, December 12, 2011

It's still a veil of morality

I wanted to have a specific post to respond to Matthew's thoughtful comments on my post A veil of morality. (I do not mean for this post to be attacking of him in any way, although while re-reading it, it does seem a little intense. Matthew, I hope you understand :))

The dominant form of culture of today is that of materialism guided by industrial capitalism. This approach began in Europe and eventually migrated to North America, and slowly but surely has been implemented in other countries, either out of military coercion, "nation building" (the processes through which the politics of a country or group of people are controlled by controlling their economies, modifying their environments, or making them dependent on a system not traditionally theirs. This happened significantly during the Cold War, with the US building dams in countries in Asia to control the flow of water. For more, see "Containing Communism by Impounding Rivers: American Strategic Interests and the Global Spread of High Dams in the Early Cold War," by Professor Richard Tucker, in Environmental Histories of the Cold War (2010).), or through sanctioning, soft law, or customary international law tactics. At the same time, many of the large "aid" and "development" banks, while giving people access to things they otherwise would not have had, can also be construed as mechanisms to make groups of people reliant on powerful. As Richard Nixon said in the 1968, "Let us remember that the main purpose of aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves." 

While it may seem that I am myself patronising by saying that a pristine environment is what capitalistically, Western-defined "poor" countries should have, I believe international economic and social pressures impose primarily Western culture on people and places that have not dealt with issues of pollution or contamination before. Many of the benefits of such impositions go to those that want to continue their lifestyles and ways of being, and not to those whose land, air, and water are being degraded. (See Curse of the Black Gold here and here) Of course, any "benefits" are measured in terms of how the dominating country or economy measures them. And so, we are to industrialise this countries for what? So that those countries too can jump on the bandwagon of ecological decline and capitalistic bureaucracy that will be difficult to dismantle, only to then be able to buy back what they lost, if at all?

Wealth, as defined by the West, is absolutely not needed to establish environmental standards, particularly if a group of people or a country chooses not to participate in ecologically-degrading economies such as industrial capitalism. If one is to think of industrial capitalism, then yes, monetary wealth is likely needed to establish standards, or to at least move away from places that have been contaminated by industry. (See, for example, this post on Delray.) The issue, as it seems to me, comes down to definitions. Who defines that is "ecologically sound"? Furthermore, why does every single place on the Earth have to be marred by industrialism?

If money is used as an indicator of wealth, then yes, many colonised countries and regions are likely more monetarily rich, especially because they now participate in a globalised, capitalist economy, most likely as a peripheral economy. There are issues of power that are at play here, and I think it can be dangerous to think that countries that practice violence against their own people and their own land can be any more altruistic to the people and land of other parts of the world. I also disagree with the statement that technology is what we need to adapt to a changing environment. This can easily turn into an argument for the continued investment in a way of thinking that has put us in the current ecological crisis in the first place. Technological development, and its drivers, have fundamentally not changed at all since the so-called "Enlightenment." (part of my dissertation)

I think we absolutely must envision a fundamentally different world. If we are so used to living longer and longer, with more and more perks, more and more decadence, then we will surely accelerate toward the cliff of ecological collapse. The standards of living that we have are decidedly not sustainable. The only ways of living that have proven to be sustainable over long enough periods of time are/were those of pre-agriculturalists and semi-nomads. Industrial capitalism, tradeoffs, neoliberalism, trade in waste and trash is just one way of being in the world. There are others. 

"A long life isn't necessarily a good life, but a good life might be long enough."
~Tony, the homeless man that stands at the intersection of Main and Liberty, featured here.


  1. Not to mention the fact that the World Bank and IMF put constraints on the money they lend requiring the country to strictly limit the amounts it spends on things like education and health care, keeping the people uneducated, unhealthy, and dependent on the poor-quality jobs they can get in factories or mines. Great post, Darshan.

  2. Good stuff--you've got me returning to some writings that I had abandoned but are probably worth developing. I think you are right to root the crisis in the social/natural dichotomy, though those familiar with the debate are probably all too familiar with that claim. I'd maintain that the challenge is to develop a better metaphor for dissolving that dualism, since it is not enough to point out that the division does not exist. The existing dualistic model fosters all sorts of concepts (such as "trade offs") that you suggest don't capture the existential going-ons of ecologically embedded communities.

    I'm convinced that any new metaphor must convey that the services provided by ecosystems are no less real than the services provided by technological advances (I don't object to referring to these changes as technological advances insofar as we realize that nature has it's own techne, or know-how, and that there is no fundamental reason to prefer human-constructed technology over ecological know-how). A common example is the pollination services provided by insects and other animals that we could not ourselves replicate. There's a pretty famous article by Robert Constanza about the total value of these ecosystem services, which he measured at something like $33 billion, or three times the then GDP of the entire world. Even within the capitalistic frameworks toward which you direct skepticism, it is exceedingly difficult to justify the economic logic that is championed in the memo. Furthermore, the price signaling from which that logic is derived relies on markets that marginalize the oppressed communities you mention, as well as future human generations and non-human organisms. The emergence of any sort of optimum out of participatory systems of exchange relies on the widespread inclusion of all interdependent stakeholders within that community. Capitalism as we understand it today does not (and could not) achieve that degree of inclusion.