Development Critique
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Bargaining for the Rest of Nature

Since that famous picture of the earth came back from space, humanity's perceptions have been radically changed. Now that Planet Earth is teetering on the brink of environmental disaster, scientists and environmentalists are arrogantly planning "management" solutions to the crisis. Sachs analyses the mindsets that would "save" the world.

Wolfgang Sachs  
To normalize, not eliminate global overuse and pollution of nature will be (environmental diplomacy's) unintended effect.

Until some decades ago, quite a few tracts of the biosphere still remained untouched by the effects of economic growth. It is basically over the last 30 years that the tentacles of productivism have closed on the last virgin areas, leaving now no part of the biosphere untouched. More often than not, the human impact grows into a full-scale attack, tearing up the intricate webs of life. Since time immemorial humanity defended itself against nature, now nature must be defended against humanity. In particular danger are the "global commons" the Antarctic, ocean beds, tropical forests, with many species threatened by the voracious growth of demand for new inputs, while earth's atmosphere is overburdened with the residues growth leaves behind. For that reason, the 1980s saw the rise of a global environmental consciousness, expressed by many voices, all deploring the threats to the earth's biosphere and the offence to the generations to come. The collective duty to preserve the "common heritage of mankind" was invoked, and "Caring for the Earth"1 became an imperative which agitated spirits worldwide. Respect for the integrity of nature, independently of its value for humans, as well as a proper regard for the rights of humanity demanded that the global commons be protected.

International environmental diplomacy, however, is about something else. The rhetoric, which ornaments conferences and conventions, ritually calls for a new global ethic but the reality at the negotiating tables suggests a different logic. There, for the most part, one sees diplomats engaged in the familiar game of accumulating advantages for their countries, eager to outmanoeuvre their opponents, shrewdly tailoring environmental concerns to the interests dictated by their nation's economic position. Their parameters of action are bounded by the need to extend their nation's space for "development"; therefore in their hands environmental concerns turn into bargaining chips in the struggle of interests. In that respect, the thrust of UNCED's negotiations was no different from the thrust of previous negotiations about the Law of the Sea, the Antarctic, or the Montreal protocol on the reduction of CFCs; and upcoming negotiations on climate, animal protection or biodiversity are also hardly likely to be different.

The novelty of Rio, if there was one, lay not in commitments on the way to a collective stewardship of nature, but rather in international recognition of the scarcity of natural resources for development. The fragility of nature came into focus, because the services she offers as a "source" and a "sink" for economic growth have become inadequate; after centuries of availability, nature can no longer be counted upon as a silent collaborator in the process of "technical civilization". In other words, environmental diplomacy has recognized that nature is finite as a mine for resources and as a container for waste. Given that "development" is intrinsically open-ended, the logic underlying international negotiations is pretty straightforward. First, limits are to be identified, right up to the critical threshold beyond which ecological decline would rapidly accelerate. This is where scientists gain supremacy, since such limits can only be identified on the basis of "scientific evidence"; endless quarrels about the state of knowledge are therefore part of the game. Once that hurdle has been overcome, the second step in the bargaining process is to define each country's proper share in the utilization of the "source" or the "sink" in question. Here diplomacy finds a new arena, and the old means of power, persuasion and bribery come in handy in order to maximize one's own country's share. And finally, mechanisms have to be designed to secure all parties' compliance with the norms stated by the treaty, an effort which calls for international monitoring and enforcement institutions. Far from "protecting the earth", environmental diplomacy which works within a developmentalist frame cannot but concentrate its efforts on rationing what is left of nature. To normalize, not eliminate, global overuse and pollution of nature will be its unintended effect.

Four major lines of conflict cut through the landscape of international environmental diplomacy, involving: rights to further exploitation of nature; rights to pollution; and rights to compensation; and overall, conflict over responsibility. In the UNCED discussions on the biodiversity convention, for example, the rights to further exploitation of nature held centre stage. Who is entitled to have access to the world's dwindling genetic resources? Can nation states exert their sovereignty over them or are they to be regarded as "global commons"? Who is allowed to profit from the use of genetic diversity? Countries rich in biomass, but poor in industrial power were thus counterposed against countries rich in industrial power, but poor in biomass. Similar issues arise with respect to tropical timber, the mining of ocean beds, or to wild animals. Regarding the climate convention, on the other hand, diplomatic efforts were aimed at optimizing pollution rights over various periods of time. Oil-producing countries were not happy about any ceilings for CO2 emissions, while small island states, understandably, hoped for the toughest limits possible. Moreover, the more economies are dependent on a cheap fuel base, the less the respective representatives were inclined to be strong on CO2: the USA in the forefront, followed by the large newly industrialized countries, while Europe along with Japan could afford to urge stricter limits. In both cases, claims to compensation were voiced by an insistent chorus. How much compensation for retrospective development can the South demand? Who carries the losses incurred by a restrained exploitation of nature? Who should foot the bill for transferring clean technologies? Obviously, here, the South was on the offensive, led by countries with potentially large middle classes, while the North found itself on the defensive. In all these matters, however, the conflict over responsibilities loomed large; and again, the North was under pressure. After all, didn't the industrialized countries fell their own forests to feed development? Haven't they in the past used the entire world as the hinterland for their industrialization? With regard to greenhouse gases, is it appropriate or even justifiable to lump together methane emissions from India's rice fields with the CO2 emissions from US car exhausts?

In sum, a new class of conflicts has thrown into disarray the diplomatic routines: while in the 1970s, particularly, multilateral conferences focused on how to achieve a broader participation from the South in the growth of world economy, in the 1990s these conferences are dealing with how to control the pollution produced by this growth. As the bio-physical limits to development become visible, the tide of the post-war era turns: multilateral negotiations no longer centre on the redistribution of riches but on the redistribution of risks.2


Efficiency and sufficiency

Twenty years ago, "limits to growth" was the watchword of the environmental movement worldwide; today the buzzword of international ecology experts is "global change". The messages implied are clearly different.3 "Limits to growth" calls on homo industrialis to reconsider his project and to abide by nature's laws. "Global change", however, puts mankind in the driver's seat and urges it to master nature's complexities with greater self-control. While the first formula sounds threatening, the second has an optimistic ring: it believes in a rebirth of homoSaber and, on a more prosaic level, lends itself to the belief that the proven means of modern economyproduct innovation, technological progress, market regulation, science-based planning will show the way out of the ecological predicament.

The cure for all environmental ills is called "efficiency revolution". It focuses on reducing the throughput of energy and materials in the economic system by means of new technology and planning. Be it for the light-bulb or the car, for the design of power plants or transport systems, the aim is to come up with innovations that minimize the use of nature for each unit of output. Under this prescription, the economy will supposedly gain in fitness by keeping a diet which eliminates the overweight in slag and dross. The efficiency scenario, however, seeks to make the circle square; it proposes a radical change through redirecting conventional means. It confronts modern society with the need to drastically reduce the utilization of nature as a mine for inputs and a deposit for waste, promising to eventually reduce the physical scale of the economy. Conversely, it holds out the prospect of achieving this transformation through the application of economic intelligence, including new products, technologies and management techniques; in fact, this scenario proposes the extension of the modern economic imperative, that is, to optimize the means-ends relationship,4 from the calculation of money flows to the calculation of physical flows. "More with less" is the motto for this new round in the old game. Optimizing input, not maximizing output, as in the post-war era, is the order of the day, and one already sees economists and engineers taking a renewed pleasure in their trade by puzzling out the minimum input for each unit of output. The hope which goes along with this strategic turnabout is again concisely stated by the World Bank: "Efficiency reforms help reduce pollution while raising a country's economic output."5

No doubt an efficiency revolution would have far-reaching effects. Since natural inputs were cheap and the deposition of waste mostly free of charge, economic development has for long been skewed towards squandering nature. Subsidies encouraged waste, technical progress was generally not designed to save on nature, and prices did not reflect environmental damage. There is a lot of space for correcting the course, and Agenda 21, for example, provides a number of signposts which indicate a new route. But the past course of economic history in the East, West, and Souththough with considerable variationssuggests that there is little room for efficiency strategies in earlier phases of growth, whereas they seem to work bestand are affordablewhen applied after a certain level of growth has been attained. Since in the South the politics of selective growth would be a much more powerful way to limit the demand for resources, to transfer the ''efficiency revolution" there wholesale makes sense only if the South is expected to follow the North's path of development.

Even for the North scepticism is in order. Those who hail the rising information and service society as environment-friendly, often overlook the fact that these sectors can only grow on top of the industrial sector and in close symbiosis with it. The size of the service sector in relation to production has its limits, just as its dependence on resources can be considerable for such sectors as tourism, hospitals, or data-processing.6 Even commodities without any nature content, for example patents, blueprints, or money, derive their value from the command over a resource base which they provide. More specifically, gains in environmental efficiency often consist in substituting high-tech for energy/materials, a process which presupposes the presence of a resource-intensive economy. In short, the efficiency potential which lies in well-tuned engines, biotechnological processes, recycling technologies or systems thinking, is indigenous to the Northern economies. But the efficiency strategy obviously plays into the North's hands: this way, they can again offer the South a new selection of tools for economic progress, at a price which will be scarcely different from that paid in the decades of technology transfer.

Environmentalists who refer exclusively to efficient resource management concentrate social imagination on the revision of means, rather than on the revision of goals. Their ingenuity lies in advocating a strategy that emphasizes what business has always been best at, and their strength is to propose a perspective which is far from putting the growth imperative into question. But the magic words "resource efficiency" have a shady side; staring at them for too long leads to blindness in one eye. Many environmentalists have already succumbed to this malady. In praising "resource efficiency" alone, they obscure the fact that ecological reform must walk on two legs: scrutinizing means as well as moderating goals. This omission, however, backfires; it threatens the ecological project. An increase in resource efficiency alone leads to nothing, unless it goes hand-in-hand with an intelligent restraint of growth. Instead of asking how many supermarkets or how many bathrooms are enough, one focuses on how all theseand morecan be obtained with a lower input of resources. If, however, the dynamics of growth are not slowed down, the achievements of rationalization will soon be eaten up by the next round of growth. Consider the example of the fuel-efficient car. Today's vehicle engines are definitely more efficient than in the past; yet the relentless growth in the number of cars and miles driven has cancelled out that gain. And the same logic holds across the board, from energy saving to pollution abatement and recycling; not to mention the fact that continuously staving off the destructive effects of growth in turn requires new growth. In fact, what really matters is the overall physical scale of the economy with respect to nature, not only the efficient allocation of resources. Herman Daly has offered a telling comparison;7 even if the cargo on a boat is distributed efficiently, the boat will inevitably sink under too much weighteven though it may sink optimally! Efficiency without sufficiency is counterproductive; the latter must define the boundaries of the former.

However, the rambling development creed impedes any serious public debate on the moderation of growth. Under its shadow, any society which decides, at least in some areas, not to go beyond certain levels of commodity-intensity, technical performance, or speed, appears to be backward. As a result, the consideration of zero-options, that is, choosing not to do something which is technically possible, is treated as a taboo in the official discussion on global ecology, even to the point of exposing some agreements to ridicule. Take, for example, Agenda 21's (chapter 9) section on transport: although the "population" of cars grows at the present rate four times faster than the population of humans, Agenda 21's authors were incapable of suggesting any strategies for avoiding and reducing traffic or, of course, any option for low-speed transport systems. There are many reasons for this failure, but on a deeper level, it shows that the development syndrome has dangerously narrowed the social imagination in the North as well as in the South. As the North continues to set its sight on an infinite economic future, and the South cannot free itself from its compulsive mimicry of the North, the capacity for self-mobilized and indigenous change has been undermined worldwide. Politics which choose intermediate levels of material demand remain outside the official consensus; the search for indigenous models of prosperity, which de-emphasize the drive for overdevelopment, has become an apostasy. Clearly, such a perspective would in the first place be at the expense of the wealthy, but without a politics of sufficiency there can be neither justice nor peace with nature.

The search for indigenous models of prosperity, which deemphasize the drive for overdevelopment, has become an apostasy.

The hegemony of globalism

"Sustainable development", though it can mean many things to many people, nevertheless contains a core message: keep the volume of human extraction/emission in balance with the regenerative capacities of nature. That sounds reasonable enough, but it conceals a conflict that has yet to win public attention, even though such fundamental issues as power, democracy and cultural autonomy are at stake. Sustainability, yes, but at what level? Where is the circle of use and regeneration to be closed? At the level of a village community, a country, or the entire planet? Until the 1980s, environmentalists were usually concerned with the local or the national space; ideas like "eco-development" and "self-reliance" had aimed to increase the economic and political independence of a place by reconnecting ecological resource flows.8 But in subsequent years, they began to look at things from a much more elevated vantage point: they adopted the astronaut's view, taking in the entire globe at one glance. Today's ecology is in the business of saving nothing less than the planet. That suggestive globe, suspended in the dark universe, delicately furnished with clouds, oceans and continents, has become the object of science, planning and politics.

Modesty hardly seems to be the hallmark of such thinking. The 1989 special issue of the Scientific American, with the programmatic title "Managing Planet Earth", sets the tone: It is as a global species that we are transforming the planet. It is only as a global speciespooling our knowledge, coordinating our actions and sharing what the planet has to offerthat we may have any prospect for managing the planet's transformation along the pathways of sustainable development. Self-conscious, intelligent management of the earth is one of the great challenges facing humanity as it approaches the 21st century.9

Perceiving the earth as an object of environmental management is, on the cognitive level, certainly an outcome of space travel, which has turned the planet into a visible object, a revolution in the history of human perception.10 But there is a political, a scientific and a technological reason as well. Politically, it was only in the 1980s that acid rain, the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect drove home the message that industrial pollution affects the entire globe across all borders. The planet revealed itself as the ultimate dumping ground. Scientifically, ecological research, after having for years focused on single and isolated ecosystems like deserts, marshes and rain forests, recently shifted its attention to the study of the biosphere, that envelope of air, vegetation, water and rocks which sustains life globally. Technologically, as often in the history of science, it was a new generation of instruments and equipment which created the possibility of collecting and processing data on a global scale. With satellites, sensors and computers, the technology available in the 1990s permits the biosphere to be surveyed and modelled. As these factors have emerged simultaneously, human arrogance has discovered the ultimate dominion: planet Earth.

While (environmentalists) appealed to the reality of the planet, inviting people to embrace humility, a new tribe of global ecocrats is ready to act upon the newly-emerged reality of the planet, imagining that they can preside over the world.

Only a few years ago, invoking the wholeness of the globe meant something else. Environmentalists waved around the picture of the earth taken from outer space, in order to remind the public of the majestic finiteness of the earth and to spread the insight that there is in the end no escape from the consequences of human action. While they appealed to the reality of the planet, inviting people to embrace humility, a new tribe of global ecocrats is ready to act upon the newly-emerged reality of the planet, imagining that they can preside over the world. Research on the biosphere is rapidly becoming big science; spurred by a number of international programmes,11 "planetary sciences", including satellite observation, deep-sea expeditions, worldwide data processing, are being institutionalized in many countries.

With this trend, sustainability is increasingly conceived as a challenge for global management. The new experts set out to identify the balance between human extractions/emissions on the one side, and the regenerative capacities of nature on the other, on a planetary scale, mapping and monitoring, measuring and calculating resource flows and biogeochemical cycles around the globe. According to Agenda 21:

This is essential, if a more accurate estimate is to be provided of the carrying capacity of the planet Earth and of its resilience under the many stresses placed upon it by human activities.

It is the implicit agenda of this endeavour to be eventually able to moderate the planetary system, supervising species diversity, fishing grounds, felling rates, energy flows, and material cycles. It remains a matter of speculation which of these expectations will ever be realized, but there is no doubt that the linkage of space travel, sensor technology and computer simulation has vastly increased the power to monitor nature, to recognize human impact, and to make predictions. The management of resource budgets thus becomes a matter of world politics.

Satellite pictures scanning the globe's vegetative cover, computer graphs running interacting curves through time, threshold levels held up as worldwide norms are the language of global ecology. It constructs a reality that contains mountains of data, but no people. The data do not explain why Tuaregs are driven to exhaust their water-holes, or what makes Germans so obsessed with high speed on freeways; they do not point out who owns the timber shipped from the Amazon or which industry flourishes because of a polluted Mediterranean sea; and they are mute about the significance of forest trees for Indian tribals or what water means in an Arab country.

In short, they provide a knowledge which is faceless and placeless; an abstraction that carries a considerable cost: it consigns the realities of culture, power and virtue to oblivion. It offers data, but no context, it shows diagrams, but no actors; it gives calculations, but no notions of morality, it seeks stability, but disregards beauty. Indeed, the global vantage point requires ironing out all the differences and disregarding all circumstances; rarely has the gulf between observers and the observed been greater than between satellite-based forestry and the seringueiro in the Brazilian jungle. It is inevitable that the claims of global management are in conflict with the aspirations for cultural rights, democracy and self-determination. Indeed, it is easy for an ecocracy which acts in the name of "one earth" to become a threat to local communities and their lifestyles. After all, has there ever, in the history of colonialism, been a more powerful motive for streamlining the world than the call to save the planet?


Yet the North faces a problem. For the bid for global management has been triggered by a new historical constellation. Ever since Columbus arrived in Santo Domingo the North has by and large remained unaffected by the tragic consequences which followed his expansion overseas; others had borne the burden of sickness, exploitation and ecological destruction. Now, this historical tide seems about to turn; for the first time the Northern countries themselves are exposed to the bitter results of westernizing the world. Immigration, population pressure, tribalism with mega-arms, and above all, the environmental consequences of worldwide industrialization threaten to destabilize the Northern way of life. It is as if the cycle which had been opened by Columbus is about to be closed at the end of this century. As a result, the North devises ways and means for protection and risk management worldwide. The rational planning of the planet becomes a matter of Northern security.

The celebrated control of (Western) man over nature leaves much to be desired. Science and technology successfully transform nature on a vast scale, but so far, with unpleasant as well as unpredictable consequences. In fact, only if these consequences were under control would it be possible to speak of having accomplished domination over nature. It is here that technocratic environmentalism comes in. Seen from this angle, the purpose of global environmental management is nothing less than control of a second order; a higher level of observation and intervention has to be installed, in order to control the consequences of the control over nature. Such a step becomes the more imperative as the drive towards turning the world into a closely interrelated and expanding economic society continues unabated. Given that the continuing force of the development syndrome is an impediment to restraining the dynamics of worldwide industrialization, the obvious task is to prepare for regulating the transformation of nature globally in an optimal fashion. It is in that light that the Scientific American can elevate the following questions to key-issues for future decision-making:

Two central questions must be addressed: What kind of planet do we want? What kind of planet can we get?How much species diversity should be maintained in the world? Should the size or the growth rate of the human population be curtailed? How much climate change is acceptable?

If there are no limits to growth, there surely seems to be no limits to hubris.


Wolfgang Sachs edited "The Development Dictionary" and "Global Ecology" published by Zed Books. He is based in Germany. This article was first published by The Ecumenical Association for Church and Society, Brussels, in an Occasional Paper entitled "Critical Reflections on the Culture of the West" (1995). This is the third and final part.


1 Frederick Buttels et al. 1990. "From Limits to Growth to Global Change: constraints and contradictions in the evolution of environmental science and ideology," in Global Environmental Change, Vol.l, No. l, December, pp. 57-66.

2 Karl Polanyi, in "The Two Meanings of Economic," in his The Livelihood of Man, New York, Academic Press, 1977, has identified the optimization imperative as the core of modern economic thinking.

3 World Development Report. 1992. op. cit., p. ll4.

4 Robert Goodland et al., Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development. Building on Brundtland, The World Bank, Environment Working Paper No. 46, July 1991, p. l4.

5 Herman E. Daly, "Elements of Environmental Macroeconomics", in R. Costanza (ed.), op. cit., p. 35.

6 For instance Ignacy Sachs (1980) Strategies de l'ecodeveloppement, Paris, Les Editions Ouvrieres, 1980; or What Now? (1975), the report of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation.

7 William C. Clark, "Managing Planet Earth", Scientifc American, Vol. 261, September 1989, p. 47.

8 For an elaborate analysis of this aspect, see Wolfgang Sachs (1992) Satellitenblick. Die Visualisierung der Erde im Zuge der Weltraumfahrt, Berlin, Science Centre for Social Research.

9 For an overview see Thomas F. Malone (1986) "Mission to Planet Earth: integrating studies of global change", in Environment, Vol. 28, No. 8, pp. 6-11, 39-41.

10 Chapter 35.1 in the section "Science for Sustainable Development".

11 Clark, op.cit., p. 48.

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