Can 'the market' save the environment?


Beyond Interdependence. The meshing of the world's economy and the earth's ecology
By Jim MacNeill, Pieter Winsemius and Taizo Yakushiji
Oxford University Press 159pp. $13.95
Reviewed by Steve Painter

With such a title it's obvious the publishers see this as a book by and for environmental specialists. That's also clear in other ways such as the repeated references to the Trilateral Commission with no explanation of what it is. This is unfortunate, as most of the book is quite accessible to the non-specialist, and it develops one of the main strands of environmental thought: the view that adjustments to the existing system can solve the world's environmental problems. Thus the authors make two main proposals:

  • A new view of national defence which includes environmental threats.

  • Assignment of a market value to all aspects of the environment.

Beyond Interdependence is a sequel to Our Common Future, (also known as the Brundtland Report), which was discussed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, has sold more than half a million copies in 19 languages and is said by the publishers to be hailed as "the most important document of the decade on the future of the world". It would probably be more accurate to describe it as the best indicator of the state of discussion among governments and other groups and individuals seeking environmental solutions that cause minimum disturbance to the international political and social status quo.

The book starts with an outline of the problems facing humanity, a useful if not entirely new marshalling of facts about population and economic growth, and asking the big question: "whether economic growth of the magnitude required over the next half century is possible at all".

The answer is that the situation is in the balance: "the economies of most Third World countries, and parts of the industrialised countries, are based on their natural resources ... The overexploitation and depletion of these stocks can provide them with financial gains in the very short term, but will result in a steady reduction of their economic potential over the medium and longer term ... Human activities have become so huge that in many instances they are of the same scale as fundamental natural processes."

The second chapter briefly traces the evolution of environmental discussion from early "environment vs growth" attitudes to the gradual acceptance of the sustainable development concept after its first airing at a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972. This approach has been important in winning Third World support for action on the environment, making inroads into the dominant "development now, environment later" attitude.

The book goes on to make a coherent case for sustainable development, focussing rather optimistically on the United Nations-sponsored Earth azil in June. The primary purpose of the summit, the authors say, "is to launch a global transition to sustainable development", though they admit "it will take a Herculean effort to marshal the political resources needed for real change".

Already, all sides of the discussion are predicting the shortcomings of the Earth Summit, governments and big corporations writing it off as a talkfest because they want avoid concrete commitments, and environmentalists foreseeing huge problems in moving from discussion to effective action.

That being said, there's no doubt the summit is already a major focus of environmental discussion. Concrete proposals for emission control targets and other measure have helped to sharpen discussion and put industrial lobbies on the defensive. Naturally, there's no question of easy victories for the environmental movement, as these lobbies command huge resources.

Beyond Interdependence makes proposals for the Earth Charter expected to come out of the Earth Summit. This would set out "broad directions for development and ... new principles to govern relationships between governments, peoples and the planet in the 21st century". Other proposals deal with the related action program: Agenda 21. This is to be an "international work program", including estimated costs and suggestions for bearing these, and would assign responsibility for the program to various international agencies.

The action program pins a lot of hope on "the market ... the most powerful instrument available for driving development". The authors add that left alone the market can "drive development in two ways — sustainable and unsustainable", and they argue for the elimination of "perverse market interventions" to promote the former. Examples of such interventions include tax concessions for otherwise uneconomic forestry and ranching activities in the Amazon, and energy policies that ignore the cost of polluting air, land and water.

Unfortunately, the authors fall for the current fashion of using the term "the market" to mean the capitalist system. Various forms of market have existed historically as a result of different forms of economic activity. "The market" as an abstraction does not exist. For the moment the capitalist market dominates most of the world, and is responsible for most of the problems confronting humanity. The authors think this monster can be domesticated.

So, if "the market", as the authors understand it, is to be the controlling mechanism in protecting the environment, capitalist market relations must be extended into all areas, and resources such as the ozone layer and the oceans, which are presently given no economic value, must be given values.

This can be done either through assigning proprietary rights or imposing environmental taxes, such as the carbon tax first introduced in Finland in 1990. The authors point out that the European Community and the OECD are presently developing guidelines for such environmental taxes. While such taxes are undoubtedly part of the solution, they're unlikely to produce the rational economic planning the many complicated problems, including those of social justice, entangled in the environmental crisis.

But if the market approach to economics has shortcomings, the authors wander into very strange territory with their argument for a new concept of national security, which should be "defined more broadly as the ability to counter threats to the livelihood of people and the territorial integrity and survival of nation-states". This concept would include "non-military threats such as environmental pollution, the collapse of life- and food-support systems, or the 'invasion' of deserts and oceans." Perhaps, the authors suggest, there should be an Earth Council, which might be the UN Security Council "with a broader mandate".

While the authors provide a lot of useful background on international environmental discussion, their big picture is very fuzzy. The capitalist market system and its military balance of power are responsible for the present state of the world, and there is little reason to believe the system can reform itself.

As for the UN Security Council, its present role in standing over small nations at the whim of the United States provides very little basis for optimism that it can contribute to a more just, ecologically sustainable world order. At present it appears to be shaping up as the main weapon of the powerful against the weak in an era of resource wars.