Unit 5:
Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development
Panel/seminar 2002

Is there room for environmental sustainability and human development in a capitalist economy?

(by Róbinson Rojas Sandford)

The former US Secretary for Labour, professor Robert Reich, once wrote "what may be rational for each individual corporation is irrational for society" (see R. Reich, "A hand across the great divide", Financial Times, March 6, 1996). This describes how damaging for the environment and human development the individual corporation perspective could be. And then, individual corporations dominate the world economy and the domestic and foreign policies in industrialised countries. The most powerful group of individual corporations are based in the US. We can assume then that they will react economically, politically, and militarily when their main interests are in danger by either public action or terrorist attacks. The World Summit 2002 is an example related to public action; the killing of 3,000 civilians in New York in 2001, is an example related to terrorism. International capital keeps therefore blocking any meaningful international agreement for protecting planet earth from being assassinated by a brutal style of industrialisation, and is taking 11/09/02 as an excuse to unleash the military might of the US to impose one ideology, one economy, one way of life on the totality of the world population.


There is a clear narrative behind what appears as a "stubborn" attitude by some political leaders in the industrialised sector of the world economy. It is a chilling narrative. Let us look at it.

A general trend in world production, which is the source of environmental pollution, was researched by Lucas, Wheeler and Hettige ("Economic Development, Environmental Regulations, and the International Migration of Toxic Industrial Pollution 1960-1988", The World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series #1062, December 1992). They concluded that

As a result of shifts in industrial composition, total manufacturing emissions relative to GDP grow faster than GDP at lower levels of per capita income and slower than GDP at higher levels of income.

  • This happens because manufacturing has a declining share of GDP at higher income levels, not because of any shift toward a cleaner mix of manufacturing activities.
  • The more rapidly growing high-income countries have actually enjoyed negative growth in toxic intensity of their manufacturing mix.
  • Stricter regulation of pollution-intensive production in the OECD countries appears to have led to significant locational displacement, with consequent acceleration of industrial pollution intensity in developing countries. The poorest economies seem to have the highest growth in toxic intensity. One cannot, of course, be certain of the causal connection.
  • Pollution intensity has grown most rapidly in developing economies that are relatively closed to world market forces. Relatively closed, fast-growing economies experienced rapid structural transitions toward greater toxic intensity. The opposite seems to have been true for more open economies.


The above means that there is a zero sum in the efforts to decrease emissions of atmospheric pollutants, the poisoning of rivers and seas, and soil degradation followed by a diversity of biodegrading effects.

But still, in industrialized economies the pressures for keep polluting their own environment in order to avoid raising costs of production have been strong enough to decide not to reduce the emission of some extremely dangerous pollutants. George Bush was extremely clear on that as reported by the media:

"America faced the world’s wrath yesterday for turning back on a deal to cut greenhouse gases.

"Under the Kyoto deal, industrialised countries agreed legally binding targets for curbing the emission, which scientists believe are responsible for global warming.

"The temperature rise is said to be behind growing numbers of floods, droughts and typhoons around the world.

"But President George W. Bush’s spokesman said: ‘He has been unequivocal. He does not support the Kyoto protocol. It is not in the United States’ economic best interest.’

"Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said the decision was a disaster. ‘Bush’s two fingers to the rest of the world will precipitate a global crisis,’ he added. ‘ Millions of people, in the US as well as in other countries, face the loss of their homes, their jobs and ever their lives because of climate change. But this ignorant, short-sighted and selfish politician, long since firmly jammed into the pockets of the oil lobby, clearly couldn’t care less". (David Flicking, METRO, London, 30/03/01)



Ian Black (The Guardian, 30/03/01) informed that "EU member states regard Mr Bush’s position on global warming as part of a pattern of US withdrawal from multilateral action, citing Washington’s stance on landmines, the nuclear test ban treaty, UN dues, the international criminal court and other issues"…"European officials had been encouraged by Mr. Bush’s campaign promise to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions. But he withdrew the promise earlier this month."…"Yesterday, before the meeting with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder,"…"Mr. Bush said: ‘I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers".



Of course, it is not a surprise that the US put trade before global climate. The US economy is dominated by US transnational corporations, and as we know big capital always have been consistent in putting economic efficiency before social efficiency.

International capital’s notion of economic efficiency can be illustrated by the "expert" opinion of the US Government Chief Economist, Lawrence Summer, who, when was the chief economist of the World Bank wrote a memorandum to his subordinates stating the following:

"…The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that"…"I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted"…"The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200 per thousand"… (see The Economist, February 8, 1992, and also R. Rojas, "Sustainable development in a globalized economy", 1997, in RRojas Databank –http://www.rrojasdatabank.org/sust1.htm)

The above message is clear and brutal. That brutality gathered strength after the 11th September 2001 destruction of the twin towers in New York when as a result the military might of United States was transformed in the protector of the "American way of life" worldwide, and, of course, the most pollutant industrial sector, the arms industry, became crucial for the political purpose of maintaining the "Pax Americana". ( See P. S. Golub, "Westward the course Empire", Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2002, and W. K. Tabb, "Globalization is AN issue. The power of capital is THE issue", 1997, Monthly Review, June 1997)

Therefore sustainability became more precarious than ever, as it was reflected in the timid agreements or semi-agreements reached in the World Summit 2002.

But, also, one must be clear on that this brutality, both ideological and practical, is nothing new. The internal dynamics of the market system have been the driving force in a process of "globalisation" of capital by military means which began several centuries ago, and we know it as periods of colonisation and imperialism.

Therefore, coming back to the theme chosen for this panel/seminary, one can easily conclude that the old perspectives on environment and development didn’t change with the two events we have in mind. For the international capitalist elite, there is yet another excuse to impose the ideology of economic efficiency as a priority, whatever the human and environmental costs. For the world civil society, there is a new indicator pointing at the necessity to oppose the ugly face of capitalism with even more strength, with more public action.

For our unit 5 students, there is a lot of food for thought here. Topic 1 asks for an analysis of structural adjustment programmes as the economic policy tools to impose capitalist relations of production on rural societies. Those programmes are imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. Both organisations are managed by international capital. Topic 2 posses the question "is it possible to reconcile social and economic equity, ecological sustainability and human development?" Topic 3 is about describing how to presents topics as tourism, deforestation, and fair trade to students or a specific target audience. What I described here is the internal dynamics of the capitalist system and its ideological basis, and how both affect decisions taken by the world power elites, which in turn, make the contradiction between economic efficiency and social efficiency even more acute. The coursework in all our units, especially unit 5, are precisely about the above. So, enjoy this virtual panel/seminary participating in it as much as possible. Remember that a rather intelligent person (his name was Albert Einstein) used to tell his students "the important thing is not to stop questioning".


(Róbinson Rojas Sandford, 31st October 2002)

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