Environmental Justice

03 June 2007
Can we talk about environmental justice in a world characterised by tremendous inequalities and by capitalism, asks Susan George.

On 3 June 2007, the same week that Germany hosted the G-8, the German Green Party held a national conference in Berlin for which they asked me to deliver the keynote speech. For various legitimate reasons I was told rather late what was expected of me and the following is more a draft of substantial notes rather than a full-fledged and stylistically polished piece. But since many of the hundreds present seemed to appreciate my contribution, I feel it is worth posting on my site despite its imperfections. Here and there I have added a sentence or two which subsequent comments caused me to reflect on. Susan George
The German Green National Conference on Environmental Justice Susan George keynote speech notes Please first let me say Thank you to the Greens, to Renate Kunast for that excellent introduction, to Baerbel Hoehn for thinking of me for this conference and to her parliamentary assistant Jens Kendzia for his kindness and efficiency in organising my presence here. I am honoured and pleased to be with you today. Many of you will be disappointed not to see Dr Klaus Toepfer on this podium at this time but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, we have ended up exchanging slots and you will hear from him later today. I will take the liberty of not sticking to his announced topic of “Climate protection as an obligation of international justice” because the subject of environmental justice seems to me so vast that I feel compelled to mention at least a few issues other than climate. I compliment the German Greens for choosing this topic--you have always been precursors, you have always been in the front ranks of environmental thought and action and you have once again chosen to confront the most burning issue we face today. Philosophers have argued for centuries about the nature of Justice, but for a good, practical working definition we can use one from Saint Augustine who said “justice is what distinguishes society from a gang of thieves”. Let’s look at this notion at different levels of society. In civilised nations at least, we do not tolerate gangs of thieves and we have the physical and the legal means--which of course may work more or less well--to stop their activities and to bring them to justice; we can sentence them to prison, for example and deprive them of their freedom to rob society. In the area of the environment, national policies are often harmful and benefit narrow interests, but at least we can hope to change them because we--the lucky Europeans anyway--have access to democratic processes. But what happens when we go beyond the limits of the nation-State? When we go to the levels where little or no democracy exists; where it is much harder to impose either physical or legal limits on gangs of thieves? And who exactly are the gangs of thieves in the 21st century and at those levels, specifically, in our case who makes up the gangs of thieves in Europe and on the international scene and even at the level of the planet itself? These are tough questions and they require the immediate attention of anyone who hopes for environmental justice. I assume this means all of us present here today, because environmental justice is the key to saving the future both of society and of the planet. Let me start at the most general level of all--the planet and the biosphere. I think that part of the modern concept of Justice has to include justice toward our habitat and towards other creatures. This notion of equity should be part of our planetary consciousness and our sense of planetary responsibility. I will not waste your time trying to convince you that for a long time we humans have been going beyond permissible limits. From Nature’s point of view, we are a predator species. This is just another way of saying that we are collectively a gang of thieves. We take far more than our fair share of the earth’s resources. More than twenty years ago, the scientist Peter Vitousek and others published a landmark paper titled Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis showing that we as a species are crowding out other species and our activities could cause what he called a “greater reduction in organic diversity than occurred at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary 65 million years ago”. In other words, humans are more dangerous than the huge meteorite that struck the earth in the Yucatan Gulf and wiped out the dinosaurs. This has to be a robbery on the grandest scale ever imagined--the “Appropriation” in Vitousek’s title in plain language means “grabbing”, and at the expense of others. Nature has a much greater power to retaliate against such transgressions than any human system of justice and punishment against gangs of thieves. Twenty years ago, humans were appropriating about 40 percent of the products of photosynthesis but since our economy and its demands double about every 25 years, we are probably somewhere near taking 80 percent. Clearly this cannot continue forever: as the ecological economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes that growth can continue forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”. Some will also say that humans must appropriate what they need or think they need because they are, thanks to their consciousness and intellect, the most important species on the planet. This may be so, but from pure self-interest, if it comes to that, if necessary, we should recognise that we have no guarantee of staying alive ourselves in the longer term if we persist in destroying the habitat and life possibilities of so many other species. You probably know that the root of the English words Economy and Ecology is the same--it is the Greek OIKOS which is the domain, the household and, in the broader sense, our whole habitat. For religious people it is the Creation. Nomos means the rules for management of the household; Logos is the Word or the Reason, as in Saint John’s Gospel, “In the Beginning was the LOGOS. So normally, you would think that the LOGOS would be greater than and superior to the NOMOS, as the principle is superior to the housekeeping rules. But in our system, this is not the case. The way we measure wealth is indeed completely mad and the so-called “science” of economics cannot give us the information we need, or only when it is too late. Most people no longer even notice that the description of capitalist economics, as seen by economists, is completely irrational. So that I can illustrate this notion without a board and a piece of chalk, please imagine a big box--this is the economy. Inside the box is a sphere--this is the biosphere--which the economy dips into to take raw materials, including food, oil, minerals, fish and so on. These raw materials are put through the production process and turned into goods and we get rid of the resulting heat and CO2; we get rid of the pollution and other waste products that are created during this production process. We dump them inside the box. That is, we think we are getting rid of this heat, these gasses, these wastes but that is impossible. They are still there. In English, we say that we “Throw away”--but there isn’t any “away”. The real, rational way to look at the world is not as a big box containing nature but as a sphere, the biosphere and which we cannot increase by a single square centimetre. The sphere contains the box, not the other way around, and the sphere has its own limited capacity to supply our raw materials and to absorb our wastes. The conventional economist, however, believes you can keep on increasing the size of the box--this is called “growth” because for him, the box is not contained inside any delicate limiting membrane. All his professional tools are crooked. I recognise that many economists share this view, but it is not yet alas mainstream and the conventional economists; the kind one finds in major international institutions like the International Monetary Fund is simply incapable of telling us what we need to know when we need to know it. As you can well imagine, this leads to other kinds of craziness, like not recognising feedback mechanisms. The economist makes nice clean graphs, adding 1 + 1 + 1--for example a unit plus a unit plus a unit of CO2--and gets a nice straight line that can go up forever. But since feedbacks and retroaction do exist in the real world of the biosphere, that straight line can suddenly go off the chart at any moment and our so-called economic science will never give us a warning. The question to me, therefore, is not whether human activities cause global warming, because that much seems blindingly obvious except to people like George Bush, but whether we have already committed the irreparable and our climate graph has already gone off the chart. The craziness also extends to such basic concepts as time and space. Economic time is not the same as natural time; capitalism requires a profit right now and managers and company directors who are following the NOMOS will do whatever is necessary to achieve that profit. This includes mass layoffs, outsourcing to cheaper suppliers and any other cost-cutting measures which can supply greater liquidity and increased shareholder value. Shareholders now demand more than 15 percent increases every year and it is quite impossible to care for, much less repair the environment under pressures like that. So cut down the forest, mine the minerals, use up the oil, exhaust the soils, deplete the fish-stocks of the oceans, keep the machine turning over, keep the money flowing whether or not nature can replenish what the gang of thieves demands, right now, figuratively speaking, at gunpoint. Capitalist space is not the same as real space either--capitalism has no room for useless, worthless, unproductive, empty space. It too has to be “developed” in order to create a profit. Cut down the forest even though it will take 400 years to regenerate, assuming it ever does. You get my point. Economists do not and cannot tell us what we need to know and people are so used to this that they are like fish who don’t know that they are swimming in water. Most people are not conscious of the medium in which we are swimming either, the economic medium. Please note that I have been referring to “capitalism”, not to “the market”. Markets have existed for thousands of years, for as long as people have been able to travel and exchange. We have scientific archaeological evidence that merchants around the Mediterranean routinely used at least ten different systems of weights, measures and currencies to conduct their business. This is not the same as demanding a return on capital--a higher and higher return in our time, for companies listed on stock markets. Unfortunately, it also applies more and more to small and medium enterprises as well which are often suppliers to the larger corporations and put under the same if not greater pressures. Perhaps you think I am straying too far from the subject of environmental justice, but I will try to show you that this is not the case. The economic thinking I have briefly described is at the very root not only of our injustice as a species to our habitat and to other species, but also at the root of our manifold injustices to each other. I imagine Dr Toepfer would have concentrated in his talk on the need for those who now create most climate damage also to do the most to alleviate it. I agree with that premise and will speak briefly about it in a moment. But first let me ask what is or should be the objective of justice. I think we can agree that a just world would be a world in which all human beings can live a decent and dignified life. This does not imply absolute equality, there will always be differences in standards of living and in material endowments as well as intellectual and social endowments, but a decent and dignified life is the principle indicator of justice. What does environmental justice have to do with such a life? People need adequate food, clothing, shelter, energy and so on. Millions, billions of people do not have even these basics of a decent, dignified life. I am sure you all know the concept of the environmental footprint. It’s a good measure of environmental justice because it includes not just per-capita use of the earth but wealth. Richer people are heavier people, they leave larger, deeper footprints on the earth and some of these people are, in environmental terms, positively obese. Not only do humans as a species take more than their share, but some of these humans are thousands of times richer, and heavier, than others. Globalisation is increasing inequalities everywhere. Huge debates are going on among development economists concerning inequalities, but an honest look at the data shows that if you leave out China from world statistics, the picture for poor people everywhere is bleak. World Bank statistics also tend to underestimate seriously the number or people living on less than one or two dollars a day. Can we talk about environmental justice in this sense in a world characterised by tremendous inequalities and by capitalism? Let me quote to you someone who knew a lot about capitalism: He said, “ ‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people’ seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” That is not Karl Marx or some left-wing extremist speaking but Adam Smith, revered by classical and neo-liberal economists as the founding father of capitalist theory. He knew very well what he was talking about. In the same passage of The Wealth of Nations he goes on to say that as soon as landholders could exchange their agricultural produce for money, they would rather buy a pair of diamond shoe-buckles, or something equally useless and frivolous, rather than provide the essentials of life for a thousand men for a year. The masters of mankind are still living by the vile maxim and justice is not their concern. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are in the minority of billionaires giving away a part of their wealth and they are to be commended for that, whatever else we may say about them. Most very rich people do not give to the poorer members of the human race even though they say they do not want to transmit their fortunes entirely to their children. Do the calculation: if you have a billion dollars and you invest it at the modest rate of a 5 percent return per annum, you would need to spend $137.000 per day or necessarily grow richer. [I am leaving out tax concerns on purpose because most billionaires are perfectly schooled in the means of avoiding them]. Justice as a concept seems definitely to be losing ground. Nothing is owed to the poor, the weak, the young, the old….. To return to the physical, material world, today, our so-called modern methods of agricultural production and distribution are far more destructive to the environment than those of the 18th century landlords that Adam Smith condemned. A recent report by the International Forum on Globalisation called “The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalised Industrial Agriculture” shows that our dominant farming and food systems are huge contributors to climate change. Our food systems are dependent on fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers and pesticides and this unsustainable system is still expanding all over the globe. Not only does it mine the soils and produce less healthy food--it doesn’t even feed everyone. As you surely know as well, there are at least a billion under-nourished, hungry people in the world, and that is because food is a commodity, it’s just another product and is not seen as a basic human need. In Europe, at least in France, we tolerate huge factory animal raising systems that also create huge run-offs of animal wastes into the water supply. In many parts of Brittany people are obliged to drink bottled water. Perhaps sometimes on holiday you have driven on the autoroute that goes North from the Pyrenees with its enormous truck traffic, huge fleets of huge trucks taking Spanish glass-house raised vegetables to Northern Europe. Our food system is responsible, according to the IFG, for at least a third of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of nitrous oxide, 60 percent of methane [two of the most potent greenhouse gasses] and a quarter of all CO2. Is this a just system, or simply one that benefits the largest and wealthiest farmers and agribusiness corporations? What happens to the food products themselves--is their distribution just? No. Not only do we not feed the world but we dump subsidised agricultural products on markets in the South, ruining small subsistence farmers with no alternative employment. After the NAFTA trade agreement was passed, local Mexican production of corn and other basic grains fell by 50 percent and millions of people lost significant income. Hundreds of thousands lost their farms. Europeans do the same in Africa. European trawlers rake all the fish out of the African coastal waters as well, depriving local fishermen of their catch. And then we are surprised when desperate people want to migrate to Europe. What choice do they have? There is also a gang of thieves active in Brussels, and the European Commission, rather than stopping them and bringing them to justice, listens to them attentively. They are called lobbyists, they are not obliged to register nor to make public who pays them and over 80 percent of them work for large corporations. This particular group of thieves is not especially mindful of the environment, to say the least! Europe had an action plan for biodiversity conservation which MEPs have denounced as completely insufficient--it has neither enough political will nor enough funding to be successful. The Commission watered down the REACH chemical directive to satisfy corporate interests and it supports even greater investments in road rather than integrated European rail transport. Like George Bush, the Commission is pushing bio-fuels which more and more critics are denouncing as using more energy in their production than they can possibly save in use. Biofuels also pose a further threat to hungry people by using cropland that should go to food production. And of course the Commission is also back-tracking on GMOs which at least 70 percent of Europeans oppose. At the international level, the slogan “All for ourselves and nothing for other people” is also guiding business activity. The World Trade Organisation agreements make up 800 pages and thousands of pages of annexes, but there is not one word in all of these pages, either about labour rights or about the environment. All the WTO’s dispute resolution decisions that contained an environmental aspect have been decided against the environment. For the GATS agreement on trade in services, overseen by the WTO, the environment is simply one of the many sectors in which corporations can invest and indeed the Europeans have demanded that over 70 countries open their water sectors to foreign investment. Since the Doha Round has been stalled, Peter Mandelson, the Trade Commissioner, is concentrating now also on bilateral and plurilateral free trade agreements, including one with the 76 ACP--African, Caribbean and Pacific--countries, most of them desperately poor. He is trying to obtain total freedom for European corporations to invest, to strike down rules and restrictions on foreign corporate activity and he wants access to government procurement contracts, which can often represent more than 20 percent of a poor country’s GDP. He also wants greater access to raw materials. To get all this, he is threatening to cut back on development aid, and to block access to European markets for ACP goods--thereby further threatening poor people’s livelihoods and lives. I’m afraid I could go on and on, about the ecologically destructive, greenhouse gas producing projects of the World Bank and the depradations caused by the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies. Debt has forced these countries to sell off their environmental riches on the cheap. A recent report in the New Scientist called “The World Stripped Bare” is alarming: it is an audit of their earth’s minerals and shows that some will not even last ten years at present rates of consumption. I could also denounce the United States, China and now Russia for refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol, which is itself insufficient to stop global warming, but I have only a half an hour and Dr Toepfer will surely have much to say about such matters later on today. Please let me conclude then by saying that despite all these gangs of thieves about, there is also good news. Global warming, no matter what the efforts of the United States and of the transnational corporate lobbies, is now an accepted fact and citizens are worried about it and want to do something. More and more of them are making alliances with farmers in order to buy locally produced food and they are buying fair trade products giving producers a decent and dignified life. They are showing up in huge numbers to tell the G-8 that they are illegitimate and inadequate. The citizens movement and the environmental movement have grown enormously in the past decade and their message is getting through to more and more people. I hope this alliance will continue to forge ever-stronger links. If we want to win and to make environmental justice a reality, we must forge bonds cross-border, cross-sector and cross-movement; we must understand that we are all brothers and sisters on the same side of the same just combat. . As I said at the beginning, the German Greens have always been pioneers and precursors in environmental thought and action. The rest of Europe, in my own country France in particular, we are still trying to catch up with you. You show the way and your influence has been for decades far greater than perhaps you yourselves realise. I want to conclude by saying that we need you! We need you more than ever to help us to help Europe and to help the world. We need you to keep the banner of environmental justice flying. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share this important day with you.