Friday, December 9, 2011

A veil of morality

In the last two posts, I did no writing whatsoever. Instead, I typed up a memo that Larry Summers had passed around to other World Bank colleagues about how polluting "poor" countries is in the interest of these countries, as pollution can be welfare maximising. In response, The Economist, calls Summers's arguments "morally callous," yet, in the end, agree with Summers's suggestion.

I find this very sad for several reasons. It is unfortunate that this is what we have been taught--that the environment, the biophysical world that supports our very breaths and lives, can and ought to be polluted, at least to a certain extent, for human "welfare." (This of course comes from the human-environment dichotomy.) But, as we've seen in the US and Western Europe, it takes massive amounts of pollution and burning rivers and acid rain for even slightly effective laws to be put in place that reduce pollution, at least in the areas where the laws are enacted.

As we know, however, if our demands for the things that cause pollution don't die down, the pollution just migrates elsewhere under neoliberalism. Under this economic framework (the economy that the United States and powerful organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank and most of the world subscribes to), the economic calculations that are the taken into account in these "environmental" laws result in the migration of polluting industry; such results are "logical," as Matthew and Andrew and Ethan have discussed with me. Summers wishes that pollution such as air pollution was indeed fully tradeable, just like "commodities" and material "resources." In neoliberal thinking, in a thinking that tends to maximise profit of money under a monetary economic framework, it is to the advantage of people to be able to trade as much as they can in the name of economic efficiency. Consequently, pristine environment and the value of human lives do not go hand in hand. Rather, the environment must be degraded to bring any value into the world, and, once we are rich enough, we will magically buy back what we've lost.

But what bothers me more, though, is The Economist's response. Indeed, it is patronising and debasing to anyone who truly cares about the Earth we live on. They go so far as to justify pollution, because the control of it is expensive. The response is industry's dream, and endorses wholeheartedly the legal and cultural framework we've created for ourselves. And if given all of laws in the US have only stopped three chemicals from being used, ever, of the many thousands, what chance would there be for the countries we dump these chemicals on to understand what they are trading away for their supposed "welfare"? In the end, from a neoliberal standpoint, it is the rich who stand to benefit, and the poor that stand much to lose--their clean air and water, their environment. Pollution is dangerous, especially because it is demonstrably unregulated, even in the so-called "rich countries," as The Economist calls them. (Think of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the toxins present in our bodies, which I wrote about here.)

The Economist's arguments are elitist, condescending, and patronising. When the magazine states that "Those who insist on 'clean growth everywhere' must either deny that there is ever a trade-off between growth and pollution control--or else argue that imposing rich-country standards for clean air worldwide matters more than helping millions of people in the third world to escape their poverty," they fail to recognise that it is the policies of imperialism and colonialism of the very nations that The Economist calls "rich" that have led to poverty and conflict in the global south.

What The Economist is arguing for is effectively a continuation of policies that have led to climate change and pollution and unsustainability, under a veil of moral superiority. The magazine says that we ought to be more humane and ethical, while at the same time promoting a way of thinking that systematically throws out ethical considerations. To Larry Summers's credit, at least he is unabashed and open about what he thinks: "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."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ideas but there are a few things I am not totally convinced of: (1) you claim the economist's are being patronizing but aren't you being equally patronizing by suggesting that you know what is best for poor countries (i.e. leave their environment pristine)? As you point out, the monetarily wealthy countries of the world did a whole lot of polluting to develop the wealth needed to establish environmental standards. Have you considered that in order to create the wealth and infrastructure needed to have a sustainably high standard of living and strong environmental policies, that some nations that don't have much of an alternative may have to pollute their environment to develop the initial wealth they need? (2) "they fail to recognise that it is the policies of imperialism and colonialism of the very nations that The Economist calls "rich" that have led to poverty and conflict in the global south." I do believe that their are aspects of truth to what you are saying but I think you may want to take a longer look at this idea. Many countries that were colonized have been significantly more monetarily successful than similar countries that weren't. Many economists have argued that there were potentially very significant benefits to a nations monetary wealth/development to be colonized by a wealthier nation (e.g. USA, British built infrastructure). I suppose it depends on your goal. If you don't care about having many of the perks of a highly industrialized nation (high standards for health care, advanced automation/mechanization, communications, transportation, education, entertainment, luxury) than it is much easier to understand your argument. Because if we don't care about the aforementioned things all we have to protect is the environment in its current form. If we don't have a technologically advanced society than we will not stand a chance at adapting to a changing environment. I certainly agree that our society has in many ways descended into a terrible sort of decadence. At the same time, some of the "advancements" I wouldn't change (e.g. modern medicine, mechanization) because I think it is worth the environmental sacrifices.