North and South, Ecology and Justice

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The movements for ecology and justice face a particular set of opportunities and perils at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. Those who seek to transform North-South relations to advance sustainability and the eradication of poverty and hunger would do good to re-examine and take a fresh new look at the ideas and concepts espoused by what we could call Third World militancy during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The goal of this “third world movement”, so to speak, was to engage rich and poor countries in a North-South dialogue that would lead to a new order based on multilateralism and genuine international cooperation. This endeavor must be not only resumed but also modernized and updated to take account of new global realities, like climate change, peak oil, the food crisis, the global economic debacle, and human disasters of untold proportions like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency.

It is difficult to come up with one single name for this project, since it originated from a constellation of ideas and concepts formulated not by one single person or organization, but by a number of progressive intellectuals from all over the Third World during the post-war years.

In the years following the end of World War Two and the founding of the United Nations, new independent states were carved out of the remains of the European colonial empires in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the non-Hispanic Caribbean. These were joined by already independent former colonies to form what is known as the Third World, the global South, or underdeveloped or developing countries. These terms require clarification.

Leaders like Indonesia’s president Sukarno popularized the idea that their countries were part of neither the capitalist Western world, led by the United States, nor the socialist Eastern block, under the leadership of the USSR, but rather constituted a Third World, with concerns, aspirations and an identity all of its own. The term Third World was therefore used with pride. In the geopolitical vision of this Third World-ism, or “tercermundismo”, the main political and economic divide in the world was not East-West but North-South, thus distinguishing the poor South from the rich, industrialized North- the former colonial subject from the former colonizer.

On the other hand, the terms underdeveloped and developing country originated in the United States foreign policy elite, and can be traced as far back as US president Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech. He called attention to conditions in poor countries, referring to them as “underdeveloped”. Truman thus presented a new world view, in which all the nations of the world were moving along the same track, in the same direction. The Northern countries, in particular the United States, were way ahead, while he saw the rest of the world lagging behind. According to German eco-philosopher Wolfgang Sachs, “Development meant nothing less than projecting the American model of society unto the rest of the world… The leaders of the newly founded nations- from Nehru to Nkrumah, Nasser to Sukarno- accepted the image that the North had of the South, and internalized it as their self-image.”

In spite of having obtained political independence, the countries of the South remained mired in poverty and economic backwardness. In response to this challenge, progressive intellectuals from the South, mostly economists, like Argentina’s Raúl Prebisch and Brazil’s Celso Furtado, began to develop a number of theories to explain this situation and to devise strategies to change it. According to their findings, the North employed a variety of economic and trade mechanisms to keep the South in a permanent state of political and economic subordination, among these: external debt, protectionism and deterioration in the terms of trade. These thinkers formulated novel concepts like structuralist economics, developmentalist thinking and dependence theory; they rejected free market doctrines like comparative advantage and the international division of labor, and in their stead presented proposals such as import substitution and an increase in South-South trade and cooperation.

But most importantly, they proposed compelling the countries of the North to engage in a North-South dialogue that would lead to debt reduction, an end to protectionist measures, stabilization of commodity prices, improved terms of trade, and an increase in economic assistance for development, among other goals. Such a dialogue would beget a mutually beneficial New International Economic Order.

These ideas were welcomed and taken up by leading Third World heads of state such as Sukarno, India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser, Tanzania’s Nyerere, Cuba’s Castro and Chile’s Allende, and would form part of the work program of new international institutions like the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. This vision of solidarity and cooperation reached its highest point in 1974 when the UN General Assembly endorsed the call for a New International Economic Order.

But this vision had its adversaries, and they would eventually gain the upper hand. In her book “The Shock Doctrine”, author Naomi Klein traces a global economic counterrevolution of sorts to the bloody coups that took place in South America’s southern cone in the first half of the 1970’s. The government of Salvador Allende in Chile was very progressive not just in its domestic policies but also internationally, for example spearheading the creation of a UN Center on Transnational Corporations, which investigated the activities of major corporations, especially with regard to corruption. The bloody 1973 coup that overthrew Allende and led to the Pinochet military dictatorship was followed by similar coups in nearby Argentina and Uruguay.

Their repression helped eliminate any potential opposition to the harsh economic measures championed by professor Milton Friedman and his University of Chicago pupils (a feat which earned Mr. Friedman his economics Nobel Prize). The following decade saw the belligerent domestic and foreign policies of Reagan and Thatcher, both leaders being decidedly unfriendly toward concepts of economic justice and international cooperation. The Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) used their power to put Third World economies in receivership through debt and what was euphemistically called structural adjustment. The 1990’s were the heyday of the ideology of neoliberalism, which espoused values diametrically opposed to those of sustainability and solidarity. Free trade agreements and new global institutions like the World Trade Organization made the tenets of neoliberalism into law, both domestically and internationally.

But at the turn of the century the pendulum began swinging in the opposite direction. Latin Americans rid themselves of neoliberal governments either by elections (Venezuela, Brasil and Uruguay) or revolutions (Bolivia and Ecuador). The clearest indication that neoliberalism was no longer supreme was when activists and social movements from all over the Western hemisphere, together with the governments of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, defeated US president George W. Bush’s plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Since then, the new Latin American “progresismo” has made electoral gains in almost all Latin American countries (For example in Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador), and the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) beckons as an alternative to trade blocks dominated by the US or the European Union. At the global level, the BRIC- Brazil-Russia-India-China-, recently expanded to include South Africa- can potentially tip the balance of power away from its traditional centers in the US and Europe.

With neoliberalism on a down slope and a new era of South-South cooperation dawning, this is the most favorable historical moment in decades to retake the endeavor of Third World militance and solidarity. As said at the beginning of this article, it needs to be upgraded in light of current global realities, especially environmental ones. The world view espoused by the original developmentalist thinkers and Third World leaders was totally devoid of any ecological sensibility.

In fact, their vision of development and prosperity was a total disaster from the environmental standpoint. They wanted- and for the most part got- for their countries mega-hydro dams, nuclear power stations, super highways, petrochemical complexes, oil refineries, pesticide-intensive monoculture-based industrialized “Green Revolution” agriculture, and resource extraction on an unprecedented scale. There was no questioning as to whether this type of development, which held the United States as the unquestionable model to follow, was the right path.

But throughout the closing decades of the twentieth century, a series of unnatural disasters made it clear that environmental destruction was a serious matter that should be taken into account by all those concerned with issues of development and economic justice, to name only a few: Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, and the increasingly evident harms from “Green Revolution” agriculture.

A key event in the gradually growing awareness of the concept of sustainability was the publication in 1987 of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Also known as the Brundtland Commission, this group was created by the United Nations to assess global environmental problems and formulate a working definition of sustainable development. The Commission’s report, titled “Our Common Future”, called for a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) which would bring heads of state together to develop an action plan to implement sustainable development worldwide.

UNCED, known also as the Earth Summit or Rio 92, took place in Brazil in 1992. It was the largest meeting of heads of state in history, and quite possibly the most important event in the history of the UN. In spite of the important international treaties that were signed there to address issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, a number of observers question whether anything at all was achieved at the conference. According to Pratap Chatterjee and Matthias Finger: “Neither Northern consumption, nor global economic reform, nor the role of transnational corporations, nor nuclear energy, nor the dangers of biotechnology were addressed in Rio, not to mention the fact that the military was totally left off the agenda. Instead, free trade and its promoters came to be seen as the solution to the global ecological crisis.”

If the Earth Summit achieved only one thing it was the ending of innocence. After the conference, no head of state, political figure or public personality in the world would ever be able to allege ignorance about the environment or sustainable development.

Beyond sustainable development

Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission and the documents that came out of the Earth Summit did not question the basic assumptions of Western-style development, it merely offered some policy safeguards and technological fixes. According to Chatterjee and Finger, “none of the (Earth Summit) documents displays any new or original way of looking at environmental and developmental issues”. One of the strongest critiques in this respect was “Whose Common Future?”, a 1993 document written by the staff of the UK-based The Ecologist magazine.

By the 1990’s it was becoming increasingly evident that the economic systems of so-called developed nations are inherently unsustainable, given that they are based on never-ending cycles of growth in supply and demand, which in turn require a correspondingly ever-increasing use of natural resources. Inevitably this leads to a quest to secure unlimited and unrestricted access to such resources abroad, not only causing environmental destruction but also infringing on those other countries’ right to development. In other words, sustainable development is not enough, the whole development endeavor must be put into question if a global catastrophe is to be averted.

Wolfgang Sachs sums it up thus: “The Western development model is fundamentally at odds with both the quest for justice among the world’s people and the aspiration to reconcile humanity and nature”, and sustainable development is no more than “the assimilation of environmental concerns into the rhetoric, dynamics and power structures of developmentalism”.

These insights are especially relevant and timely in light of the rise of the emerging economies. Leading these are the BRICS countries, which have 40% of the world’s population, and according to Goldman Sachs reports they will surpass the G-7 to become the global economy’s leading powers by 2050. Goldman Sachs has similar forecasts for the so-called Next Eleven emerging markets, which include South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt.

The ecological implications of the emerging countries’ growth ambitions should be cause of great concern. The industrialization of Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries was achieved in a planet whose natural resources and ecosystems were practically virgin and unexploited. But we are in a very different world now. To demostrate this point, three references will do. First of all, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the collective work of over 1,300 experts who appraised the state of the world’s ecosystems. Second, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. It is the largest report on climate change ever undertaken, written by thousands of experts from dozens of countries. And third, the State of the World reports of the non-governmental Worldwatch Institute, one of the world’s leading environmental think tanks. These documents show that the natural systems and resource stocks which make human life as we know it possible are under threat of collapse. If nature were a bank account, it can be said that we are not living off dividends but rather eating into the principal.

The reality is inescapable: this planet cannot endure a second industrial take-off. The natural resources and ecological spaces are now too scarce. This warning is not new. A number of outstanding thinkers and visionaries in both the North and the South had already seen this coming:

“It is obvious that the world cannot afford the USA. Nor can it afford Western Europe or Japan. In fact, we might come to the conclusion that the Earth cannot afford the ‘modern world’… The Earth cannot afford, say, 15 per cent of its inhabitants- the rich who are using all the marvellous achievements of science and technology- to indulge in a crude, materialistic way of life that ravages the Earth. The poor don’t do much damage… Virtually all the damage is done by, say 15 per cent… The problem passengers on spaceship Earth are the first class passengers and no one else.”

These words were uttered by environmentalist E.F. Schumacher in 1973. There is also the famous Indian eco-feminist, author, environmental educator and activist Vandana Shiva, who has dedicated the last couple of decades to warning that if the South insists on imitating the industrialized North’s development model the result would be catastrophic. And before her, her compatriot Mahatma Gandhi had made warnings to the same effect. He once stated that “Should India ever resolve to imitate England, it will be the ruin of the nation”. Gandhi was not only a champion of non-violence, his observations on economic development and proposals for local self-reliance made of him an important pre-ecologist thinker ahead of his time.

He had differences with his modernist counterpart, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, precisely around this issue. According to Wolfgang Sachs:

“Gandhi wanted to drive the British out of the country in order to allow India to become more Indian; Nehru, on the other hand, saw independence as the opportunity to make India more Western. An assassin’s bullet prevented the controversy between two heroes of the nation from coming into the open, but the decade-long correspondence between them clearly demonstrates the issues.”

Years after Gandhi’s death, his thinking exterted a decisive influence on Schumacher, one of the most important predecessors of modern environmental thought and the politics of Green parties. His book “Small is Beautiful”, a frontal attack against the premises of modernity and the rule of productivist economism, is a classic of environmental literature.

New beacons

Fortunately, there’s a fair number of beacons in the quest to form and inform a reconcilliation of “progresismo” with ecology and thus carry out the unfulfilled mandates of 20th century “tercermundismo”- these include eco-socialism, social ecology, the global climate justice movement, and “décroissance”, which translates roughly to English as post-growth economics. Of particular importance is the concept of food sovereignty, whose standard bearer, the global Via Campesina movement which unites small farmers from both North and South, is quite possibly the most important and influential civil society organization in the world. Organizations and movements that advance sustainability and justice while transcending the narrow confines of sustainable development and Third World developmentalism regularly converge in the Social Fora, which have been taking place in diverse locations around the world since the first World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001.

Latin America is the place of origin of a particularly promising proposal known as post-extractivism, which calls on Southern contries to abandon the dependent capitalist model of resource extraction and export, and give first priority to the local use of these resources in order to add value and bring about locally-based “endogenous” development. This concept is not confined to small groups of intellectuals- it is gaining strength and popularity among progressive and alternative movements, and non-governmental organizations all over Latin America, and is even gaining mainstream acceptance. The new progressive constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia are explicitly post-extractivist.

It is not possible to talk about Third World militancy with an ecologically conscious and post-extractivist bent without referring to the influential figure of Bolivian president Evo Morales. He has put ecology in the center of his political discourse, and is a pioneer among heads of state in combining an explicitly anti-capitalist posture with advanced concepts of ecology.

At the failed 2009 UN Climate Change Summit in Denmark, Morales led the charge in defense of the interests of poor countries, which are simultaneously the least guilty of climate change and the ones that will be most directly harmed by it, against what environmentalists and progressives of both North and South saw as the hipocrisy and inaction of major polluting countries, in particular the United States. In response to the summit’s failure, he convened a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to face the climate crisis and formulate an action plan. The conference, which took place in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on April 2010 and had the attendance of thousands of civil society activists from all over the world, established Morales as an undisputed world leader in environmental policymaking and in the construction of a progressive environmentalism. On April 2011 the Group of 77 Countries and China announced they will support Bolivia’s negotiating positions in future international climate negotiations.

Bolivia is currently set to pass the world’s first laws granting to nature rights equal to humans’. “The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups, redefines the country’s rich mineral deposits as ‘blessings’ and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry”, according to the UK Guardian. Eleven new rights for nature will be established, among these: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. It will also recognize as well the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

Ecuador is not to be outdone. The country’s 2008 constitution is one of the world’s most progressive. It establishes water as a human right, a public good and a national patrimony; it acknowledges nature has rights; and elevates food sovereignty to the level of official government policy. In August 2010 Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa signed on to the Yasuni Initiative, an innovative undertaking- the first of its kind- in which the government will leave 850 million barrels of oil under the biodiverse Yasuni National Park untouched and unexploited for perpetuity in exchange for donations from the international community, which will be administered by a trust fund set up by the UN Development Program. This deal will prevent over 400 million tons of carbon from being emitted to the atmosphere. It is hoped that this initiative will inspire similar deals in other countries.

We should not be naive, however. The progressive governments of South America have a long way to go before putting post-extractivism into practice. Under Evo Morales Bolivia’s economy is more dependent on exports of oil and natural gas than under his neoliberal predecessor, and Morales is bent on going ahead with large scale development projects that contradict his environmental rhetoric, including highways and mega-hydro dams. And in Ecuador, president Correa’s support for the Yasuni initiative has been erratic at best, and he supports strip mining and further oil exploration outside Yasuni.

In spite of the shortcomings and contradictions of Latin American progressive governments, novel proposals such as post-extractivism represent the best hope for the advancement of ecology and justice and for upgrading advocacy for the global South in light of new global realities.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an author, journalist and environmental educator based in Puerto Rico. His articles have been published by, among others, Corporate Watch, Grist, Counterpunch, Alternet, Earth Island Journal, CIP Americas Policy Program, and the Organic Consumers Association. He directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety ( and runs a bilingual blog devoted to global environment and development issues (

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