At present it is difficult to be anything but pessimistic about the future. Environmental calamities are now facts of life. The drive for profit leading to the neglect of everything that stands in the way of this has created ecological havoc in every part of the world. The history of environmental degradation is a history of greed, poverty and ignorance. By greed we do not mean the individual idiosyncratic greed that might yearn for three yachts where two would do. Rather it refers to the institutionalised greed of business that has to expand to survive, that is always looking for new products, ways to create new needs, ways to cut costs by reducing environmental safeguards or evading the enforcement of existing ones.
While ecological necessity seeks sustainability, the commodified economy needs growth. This growth can be achieved by producing more of the same things, or by making familiar commodities bigger, more complicated or with more elaborate packaging. Growth can also be achieved by inventing new ways of turning natural conditions into resources for exploitation, by finding technical means for making more and more of our lives marketable, and by investing great effort into creating new needs for consumption.
Ecology values the uniqueness of materials, places and living things, but the economy sees them all as interchangeable commodities measured on the single scale of economic values. Therefore there is no special virtue in preserving a resource, only in making profit. It may be economically rational to use up a resource totally and then move to the next investment. While ecology values diversity, economic rationality favours going for the single most profitable crop, and great quantities of a single commodity, to benefit from economies of scale.
Poverty allows environmental degradation as a lesser evil when there is the urgent need to have food or money for food. It shortens the time horizon to the immediate urgencies. It forces people to use up their capacity to produce – forests, water reserves, soil quality, rare species – even when they know the new problems they are creating. It encourages governments, and local authorities of poor communities in rich countries, to tolerate violations of ecological standards and even to invite the dumping of toxic materials on their land in order to gain income. Poverty is usually accompanied by a lack of control by the poor over what will happen to them.
Greed creates and maintains poverty and promotes ignorance. Ignorance justifies greed as natural and inevitable while rejecting all criticism of greed, thus guaranteeing poverty.
Over the last few centuries average agricultural yields increased as a result of mechanisation, the use of chemicalisation (including fertilisers and pesticides), plant and animal breeding, and scientific management. Although problems arose, it was widely believed that such problems were the price of progress and would be solved by the same means that created them.
The ‘Green Revolution’
1. Modern high-tech agriculture has not eliminated hunger.
2. It undermines its own productive base through erosion, soil compaction and salinisation, depletion of water resources and depletion of genotypic diversity.
3. It changes land use patterns, encouraging deforestation, draining of wetlands and planting crops according to market criteria even in unsuitable climates. It promotes a loss of crop diversity by specialisation and commercial seed production and reduces overall biodiversity through its chemical inputs and extensive monocultures.
4. It increases vulnerability to nature, especially to climate and microclimate change, pest outbreaks and atmospheric and water pollutants. This is because of large scale monoculture, the selection of varieties for maximum yield under optimal conditions and the loss of beneficial fauna and flora.
5. It makes farming increasingly dependent on inputs from off the farm. This means that cash flow becomes increasingly important as fertilisers replace natural nitrogen fixers, irrigation replaces the broken hydrological flows and storages of water, and also because pesticides replace natural enemies of pests and hybrid seeds must be bought. Dependence on external inputs increases the vulnerability to price instability and politically motivated trade policies.
6. It debases food quality as regional specialisation increases storage and transport time and crops and techniques are chosen for quantitative yield. Specialisation makes even farmers dependent on buying food.
7. It increases the gap between rich and poor. The rich are able to buy, or get credit to buy, the new inputs, establish the marketing connections and average their returns across years. The poor, however, need to be successful every year. Modern agriculture especially undermines the economic independence of women. The new technologies are usually given to men, even in places where women traditionally did most of the farming. The new technologies make the domestic chores of women, such as gathering firewood and fetching water, more time consuming. Women’s diverse activities in the home conflict with the extreme seasonality of commercial monoculture.
8. It poisons people, first the farm workers who handle pesticides, then their family members who handle the pesticide soaked clothing and drink water where pesticides and fertilisers have run into ground water. Finally it reaches those who eat the crops produced with pesticides and animals raised with antibiotics and growth hormones.
9. It also poisons other species, and the environment as a whole, with eutrophication of our waterways from fertiliser runoff, accumulation of pesticides in the body tissues of fish and birds, and nitrification of the air.
The final conclusion, therefore, is that the commercialised, export oriented, high-tech agriculture is a non-sustainable successional stage in the ecology of production, like the shrubs that squeeze out the grasses and herbs of an abandoned field only to create the conditions for their own replacement by trees.
‘...all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.’ These are the words of Thomas Münzer, the leader of the German Peasants’ Revolt in the early sixteenth century quoted approvingly by Marx in ‘On the Jewish Question’ What attracted Marx was Münzer’s view that under the dominion of private property and money, nature is treated in such a contemptuous way that it is debased. For Marx, humanity is always ‘part of nature’ In the third volume of Capital he speaks of humanity achieving freedom within the realm of natural necessity, whereby the associated producers govern the interchange with nature in a rational way under conditions ‘most worthy and appropriate for their human nature’. Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclinations in formulating a social order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species.