It seems mankind has forgotten about their place on Earth. Why else would they destroy Earth for the sake of making money? Wealth seems only be valued from the perspective of a single human’s life span. But what about next generations? What about species becoming extinct at such rapid speed? What about ecosystems being torn down without consideration of all that they offer us? Is it that difficult to see that we, humans, have to use the Earth’s resources be able to live? And that once these resources have become depleted, nothing may remain?
On June 10th 2010 it was election day in The Netherlands. My first task of that day was to vote for a political party that warrants a green, sustainable development of our society. My second task of that day was to take an exam in ecology. After one week, the Dutch political parties seemed to encounter some problems forming a government. In the end it took them four months to agree on several heavily debated issues: retirement age, health care, migration policy, education, and most of all, cutting down the expenses. I wondered how none of the issues that were part of my exam in ecology received attention in the political debate. I wondered about the acidification of our natural and agricultural areas, the halt to the expansion of the Ecological Main Structure, and the continuing decrease in biodiversity, which were said to be caused mainly by agricultural activities. I learnt that the Dutch agricultural yields increase every year because of new technologies, more efficient cropping, and larger agricultural areas. Then I learnt that most of the surplus yields are exported to other countries, while the majority of the Dutch food is imported from other countries.
The international trading system
My apparent confusion during that time of elections lead me to behold the incredible interconnectedness of our trading system, especially with regard to food, clothes, and luxury products such as electronic devices and jewelry. I came across several examples that increased my doubts about whether mankind really knows what it is doing.
Jeans. I could not tell where my jeans come from, but I do know thousands of liters of water are required to cultivate the amount of cotton needed to manufacture my jeans. I fear that child labor or sweat shops practices are included in my jean’s production chain, but I am not sure.
Gold. Once I watched a documentary about the gold mines in Guatemala. Canadian companies had closed deals with the government of Guatemala to extract gold ores from the land of Guatemala. To extract gold ores, often cyanide is used, a substance which can cause sickness in and death by all living organisms, including humans. The Canadian companies first stated they do not use cyanide. Then their statement was corrected, saying the cyanide is disposed off in an environmentally friendly way. In the end the statement went like this: We use cyanide considering the health of humans and environment. Either way, locals reported unsafe burial of cyanide. The cyanide might leak into the environment, enter the food chain, and eventually kill. I should not forget to mention that all yields of the gold ore extraction would end up at the Canadian companies.
Soy. Soy bean production and application is another example that worries me. Although soy consumption as a source of protein is a good replacement for meat, I wonder why so many products contain soy as an additive. It has indeed wonderful properties as a food additive, but do people know that a lot of soy beans are cultivated on former tropical rain forest soil? The demand for soy is increasing rapidly, which leads to slash-and-burn practices all across the Brazilian rain forest. What’s more, the tropical soil is not suited for plantations, because of its low nutrient content. Fertilizers wash out easily because of the loose soil structure. As a result, the soy cultivation sites are abandoned after a few years, leaving behind bare lands. Did I already mention that Dutch cattle is fed by soy, too?
Organic food. Most people have noticed by now that the organically produced food is more expensive than the industrially produced food. We all know why. Consumers pay the ‘real’ price for organically produced food. The costs of industrially produced food are suppressed by artificial means such as mineral fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, all substances that are potentially harmful to nature and mankind. I do not believe that the few euros that organically produced food cost us more every month, are a more valuable possession than the value of a healthy agricultural system.
Food availability. Some people have started to change their behavior: they became flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan. I never understood why an increase of food production would be any kind of solution since food shortage is an issue of food distribution rather than of food shortage; let us all decrease the demand for food commodities that put a heavy burden on our production system, such as meat and dairy. Alternative sources of protein such as bean species are widely available. It would however require a change of diet. That way we can avoid the need for an industrial food production system.
The examples above illustrate how little people know about where commodities come from and what resources, both ecologically and socially, are required to produce these commodities. A word was invented to define this development: consumerism. People do not know where products come from. We are blind to the origin of products we consume. The global character of current production chains mask the scattering of environmental destruction at one site, and the consumption of products at another site. The global market masks hypocrisy among the ‘civilized’ western organizations. Few companies communicate in a transparent way about transportation costs, location of origin, labor conditions, etc.
It is, however, not only the commercial businesses that operate in non-transparent ways. Did you know that European food production is sponsored by government allowances? You might wonder why. Well, it has most of all to do with the industrial food production system that continuously increases production, which causes a production surplus and, hence, a price decrease. To compensate for the price decrease, a government allowance is required to prevent farmers to go bankrupt. In this time of a global market, such artificial financial measures create an unfair playing field for farmers that live in countries that are not able to compensate their farmers with an allowance. As a result, countries that are upcoming in the agricultural market, experience large difficulties to sell their commodities for a reasonable price on the international market. Even worse, the European food production surplus is often sold for below-market prices at the developing food markets, causing food prices to drop and negatively affecting the income of local farmers in developing countries.
Ironically, a lot of money has been invested in enhancing economic growth of developing countries to make them participate on the global market. Some time ago the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund kindly forced developing countries to implement the so-called Structural Adjustment Programs. Quite fast it became clear that the developing countries could not beat the prices of industrially manufactured products with their own products, often produced under less efficient, more labor-intensive conditions. Hence these products are of larger monetary value.
The Western discourse
Why would the two largest international financial organizations uphold economic growth as the answer to the alleviation of poverty? I think because they visualize the process of societal progress and development as a linear process, a one-purpose, one-way method to outgrow this vision of the prehistoric wildling, the sewer-lacking Medieval villages, the years without electricity-on-demand or cell phones enabling 24/7 communication. I would never contradict the perks and comforts of our western modern society; but I wonder if the current and past alternatives have not been defined as undesirable, rather than simply alternatives.
If economic growth is the answer to poverty alleviation, or to a modern, ‘civilized’ society, or to, maybe, our future, then why are there so many signals coming from all over the world that seem to warn us that our current discourse might not be so fantastic? Economic growth in our liberal market system does not take into the account the effects of this economic growth on the environmental resources. People do not know where their commodities are coming from and what it takes to produce them. Poverty is a matter of maldistribution. Maldistribution is caused by power inequality and corruption. Economic growth only would not alleviate poverty; a transparent government and fair trade are necessary as well.
By focusing mainly on economic growth, little room is left for sustainable development. Economic growth is a quantitative measure, a variable operationalized to indicate the status of an economy. But what about quality of products? What about the quality of the resources? What about health and happiness? The strong economic growth that characterized the western economies after the last World War had not been possible without several conditions. We had strong operating governments, a relatively quiet political arena, resources, knowledge, a juvenile international economy, and money. Are these conditions met in developing countries nowadays? How are they different? What alternative conditions do they have that could lead to their successful economic development?
A time for change
The world is a system of structures. Nature is a system of structures. The larger picture seems lost in a web of advertisements, shop windows, sales, discounts, and uninformed consumers that have lost connection to what it is all about. So what is it all about? It is about our Earth that provides us resources that all the money in the world cannot buy. I understand that a market systems comes with competition, with a certain ‘race to the bottom’ to sell, to increase efficiency and increase production. But enough is enough.
Creating and maintaining a world without this focus on economic growth but more emphasis on the quality of products, the quality of resources, and the quality of our current and future life, requires a structural approach. People need to know. We can no longer preach concepts such as profit, free market, progress, and economic growth while our resources are being depleted and our environment is being harmed. Today is not the time anymore to rely on a God that will save our souls. Today is not the time anymore to be a blind consumer and forget about what Garrett Hardin once wrote. We cannot ignore the words of Pigou and leave out the costs of effects on our resources while consuming.
All the efforts of the greens and the sustainable seem futile in the shadow of this environmental parody. Do we really want to save our future? Do we believe the numbers that warn us for climate change, droughts, storms, food shortage, resource depletion, infertile lands, toxic waters, smog air, and dying nature? I do not think we do. We participate in this parody. Today is the day to start thinking and make a change. Become an informed consumer and do not turn our environment into a parody.
This essay has been rewritten from this blogpost and was published in the photobook 3P’s by Lizette Schaap.