Global Illusions

By Buell, John | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Global Illusions


Buell, John, The Humanist


Global warming has become the most sweeping, tangled, and contentious environmental issue of modern times. To many business leaders, it suggests the willingness of environmentalists to employ dubious science in the interest of draconian initiatives. To many environmentalists, projections of global warming are indicative of the limits of economic development.

Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that any treaty signed at the December 1997 international climate meeting in Kyoto, Japan, will reconcile the two perspectives. This is being written as the ten-day meeting opens, but it is likely that President Clinton will continue to walk that middle road--as he does on so many other issues--and, in the end, not make a significant impact one way or the other. Kyoto will be a missed opportunity to expand the global warming debate to include the implementation of significant, enforceable measures that would curb the emission of greenhouse gases and benefit both human health and prosperity.

The necessity for such a goal became clearer this past fall when, at first glance, two apparently unrelated news items caught my attention. An Associated Press dispatch suggested that negotiation of greenhouse gas treaties may stumble over the vast economic differences between so-called First and Third World economies. The latter were portrayed as unwilling to make the sacrifices to limit greenhouse gases--especially in light of Western societies that appear to prosper through these emissions. The New York Times also ran a front-page story on Indonesian forest fires choking much of Southeast Asia. That story included a photo of a couple wearing face masks to ease their breathing while sitting on their motorcycle.

Indonesian forest fires are usually cited as one symptom of "economics" versus ecology. Forest fires both contribute to greenhouse gases and deprive the planet of a sponge to absorb ongoing emissions. But it might be wise to ask just whose economic interests are being secured by the forces producing these forest fires. The war against indigenous agriculture and the growing inequalities in Indonesian society have sparked desperate efforts by small farmers to migrate into the rainforests. In order to develop arable land rapidly, they then burn these forests. In addition, an economic climate increasingly driven by speculative excesses encourages land companies to illegally burn the forest to clear land for future development. The economic and ecological damage is compounded when, as some urban merchants and speculators become more wealthy, their autos displace traditional modes of transit.

Throughout the world, peasant agriculture has been economically and environmentally sustainable when peasants enjoy equitable access to land and credit. Nonetheless, too many governments an their international leaders--more responsive to wealthy farmers--have been convinced against much recent evidence that large-scale, export-oriented agriculture is always better. Their loans go disproportionately to the wealthy and encourage the emergence of agribusiness. Peasants are displaced from fertile lands, while growing economic inequalities destroy domestic markets. Some displaced peasants go to overcrowded cities, and others are forced to exploit more marginal agricultural resources just to stay alive. Citizens of these states are suffering from the resulting smog, traffic, and public health crises. From Chiapas to Malaysia, many peasant movements are organizing to resist current development models.

Even here in the West, we too are not only choking from smog, we are spending increasing hours in traffic jams and ever larger portions of our personal incomes and tax dollars on irrational patterns of transit and development. …

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