The environment and the North-South divide

December 11, 1991

By Edna Ross

Recently in the British Guardian political journalist Hugo Young wrote: "Argument about the substance of politics is almost at an end. The essential contest now lies between different claimants to superior management of the status quo."

One of the unfortunate side effects of the demise of Communism and the seemingly overwhelming victory of capitalism has been an alarming increase in the number of journalists and political commentators who subscribe to the "history is dead" school of thought.

In mainstream international economic fora, such as the World Bank and the IMF, there is also little questioning of the orthodox economic prescriptions: growth in GNP, increasing exports, privatisation, reinforcing the market and freeing trade are seen as the path to a better world. Overwhelming evidence on the finite nature of the planet is brushed aside.

It is difficult to understand why the perception that there is no real political debate to be had, is so glibly accepted in the face of overwhelming evidence that we absolutely must address the question: how do we learn to live within the planet's finite resources and to manage the natural wealth so as to meet the needs of all people alive today without destroying the rights of future generations to meet their own needs? (This, more or less, is how the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, prepared for the World Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development.)

So, while sustainable development is probably one of the must frequently used phrases in the world today, the mainstream political parties and institutions appear to be united in their inability to address, let alone come up with answers to, the question of what it would really mean, in political and economic terms, to change what we mean by development, so that it can be sustainable.

To date, mainstream contributions to the debate on how to achieve sustainable development have hovered round the edges: the thinking does not go beyond calling for still more economic growth, albeit cleaner, greener growth.

While there has been a huge increase in the awareness of environmental degradation and its possible implications, including economic implications, the solutions being considered address only the symptoms of CFCs, energy conservation, reduction in use of fossil fuels. These are all necessary actions. But they are not sufficient. They do not address the underlying causes of our destruction of our environment.


One of the strengths of Our Common Future, is its emphasis on the link between economic development and ecology. The report's analysis of the state of the world environment talks of the interlocking crises, which must all be addressed together to make sustainable development possible. It concludes that it is not possible s of the environment from economic development, inequity in the global economy, military expenditure and human rights abuses.

Just as the ideals of equity and justice are in danger of being thrown out with the bath water of Communism, analyses of the underlying causes of environmental destruction lead to the conclusion that, if sustainable development is to be realised, the structural and economic inequities between the North and South must be bridged.

Unfortunately, however, while there is recognition of these underlying causes in various international reports, there has been no serious attempt, or even discussion of how, to change the international economic order in a way which will reduce the huge and growing chasm between rich and poor nations.

How do the structural inequalities in the global economic system and the gap between rich and poor drive environmental destruction?

In the North, i.e. the industrialised/developed/rich countries, there is growing recognition that the rate at which we are using up non-renewable resources and rendering renewable ones non-renewable must be drastically reduced. The developed world has just over 20% of the world's population, but consumes over 80% of the world's energy; it is responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gases and ozone depletion gases.


The relationship between consumption in the industrialised countries and environmental degradation is easily understood and is receiving some attention. What receives much less attention in the North is the way in which poverty in the underdeveloped world and the structural inequality in the global economic system contribute to environmental destruction. As the Brundtland Report noted, "poverty is both a major cause and effect of global environmental problems".

  • The poor will often destroy their immediate environment in order to survive. They will cut down forests for fuel and subsistence farming. 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on fuel wood. In many African countries, fuel wood meets 75% of total energy needs. More than 100 million people live in areas of acute fuel wood shortages.

  • Landless peasants are often pushed onto marginal land by landowners or governments wanting to increase cash crop production or for some other development (e.g. dams) or by population pressures, resulting in overuse of marginal land.

  • Many peasants displaced from their land or unable to grow enough food to survive crowd into congested cities.

  • Poor people have large families for many reasons: some are likely to die; children provide hands to work; they are a social security system; there is no access to or information about family planning.
In addition to the contribution made by poor individuals, the inequality between rich and poor countries exacerbates environmental damage in the developing nations. For example:

  • The Third World owes the industrialised world $1 trillion. The debt crisis, which began in the early '80s, has led to the absurd situation where the Third World is paying the industrialised world $50 billion more each year than it receives in loans and aid. The Philippines pays 40% of its export earnings on debt servicing alone. As commodity prices fall, the pressure to increase exports to keep up debt repayments, leads to over-exploitation of natural resources.

  • Unfair trade practices further contribute to Third World countries' dependence on the export of cash crops and their natural resources. Trade barriers and subsides deny markets to Third World countries for manufactured goods.

  • Inability to purchase new, cleaner technologies make it impossible for governments in the Third World to enact legislation governing emissions.

So poverty and inequity have to be addressed because of their direct contribution to environmental degradation.

Whose burden?

Second, while it is true that the industrialised world is responsible for the bulk of resource consumption and pollution, it is not possible to protect the atmosphere from excess CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases unless we do that in every single country on earth. So, we have to persuade the developing countries to come on board and work toward the same goal of reducing CO2 emissions.

But, as far as the Third World is concerned, the issues are not global warming, ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, toxic waste. They are much closer to home: whether they can gain access to enough food to stay alive, whether they have access to clean water, whether they can provide basic educational and health care for their communities.

The priorities of the Third World are for basic development. In a statement issued from a ministerial conference of 41 developing countries, prepared for the UN-sponsored 1992 Earth Summit, the main message is that the Third World should not be made to bear the economic burden of environmental protection.

There are many in the Third World who see in what the North calls the environmental agenda, a new and pernicious form of colonialism. There is anger that the new agenda largely sets aside the interests of two-thirds of humanity.

The industrialised world will have to pay the developing world to protect its environment — in cash, expertise and technology.

Jonathon Porritt pointed out at a lecture to the Australian Museum earlier this year, that while India and China account today for approximately one-third of the total world population, they probably don't account for more than one-thirtieth of total world pollution and resource consumption. "So, as far as keeping the world in balance, we owe India and China and other developing nations a massive debt of going to have to be paid for in hard cash ... We don't have a choice about it. India can do what it likes as regards the emissions of carbon dioxide and unless we persuade them that there is some natural justice at work in the world today, they will have nothing to do with our cosy, rich industrial agenda."


There is little indication that the industrialised countries are willing to give up their position of advantage. There are many aspects of the current round of GATT negotiations, the moves to promote freer trade, which will further disadvantage developing countries. There are pressures to remove current privileges which enable developing countries to develop infant industries or deal with balance of payments difficulties. Industrial countries are also seeking to have GATT regulate internal investment policies of national governments.

There are also proposals (put forward by industrial countries in the negotiations on "trade-related intellectual property rights") for the establishment of patent systems in the Third World, which would protect the monopoly position of transnational corporations and concentrate the monopolisation of technology (including information and communications technology) in the hands of industrial countries.

Unregulated free trade and some of the measures under negotiations in the current round of GATT also hold grave implications for the environment. For example, under the proposed GATT rules, if a country attempted to set higher standards for pesticide use, or restrict the import of food contaminated with pesticides banned in that country, it could be sued for establishing non-tariff trade barriers. Japan has complained that a ban on exporting logs from the ancient forests of the north-west US reduces the supply of wood to Japan, and is therefore unfair to trade. It has introduced a proposal into the Uruguay round which would prevent protection of this kind.

While Third World countries are also concerned that the Uruguay round will lead to a world economic regime that is likely to result in deterioration of the environment, health and safety, many developing countries worry that environmental regulation of trade is a new form of protectionism, which will set back their efforts to industrialise.

Environmental regulation could generate new obstacles to developing countries' exports, as well as demands for costly, higher standards in their domestic production. They fear that environmental regulation of trade could widen the income, technology and power gap between the world's rich and poor countries.

Yet again, the cooperation of the Third World is essential to any introduction of international regulations on trade and environment.

The complexity of the international economic relations which underlie must environmental degradation account, in part, for the vacuum in debate on how sustainable development is to be achieved.

Most of the environmental agenda has been set by environmentalists and environmental organisations. Very few environmentalists understand the implications of the latest GATT round. Most environmental ing to single issues. Green consumers think the world has been saved because they're using recycled paper, and so the serious debate on what sort of international economic order is required to make sustainable development possible, does not take place, except at the fringes.

While most environmentalists don't feel confident to move into the economic debate, most politicians, mainstream journalists, economists, public servants, business people and so on resist all evidence that the finiteness of the planet's resources and capacity to absorb rubbish has economic implications which require a radical new view of the nature of growth and methods for reducing population growth. They continue to be confident that a technical fix will be found.

It is essential that environmentalists start looking at, and talking publicly about, global economic issues. It is also necessary for socialists, political economists, and other concerned with social and economic justice to emerge from their silence and elucidate the inextricable links between economic inequity and environmental doom.
[Based on a talk to Politics in the Pub in Sydney.]

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