Ecological Imperialism Threatens Life

PROF. M.A. HAQUE gives hard facts to prove that irresponsible over exploitation of earth resources has brought humanity closer to extinction. Therefore the world must put an end to ecological imperialism and humane use of limited resources must be ..

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PROF. M.A. HAQUE gives hard facts to prove that irresponsible over exploitation of earth resources has brought humanity closer to extinction. Therefore the world must put an end to ecological imperialism and humane use of limited resources must be ..

Generally people associate imperialism with expansionist designs of a powerful Empire annexing adjacent or far-off territories, subjugating their inhabitants and creating political hegemony. This is for securing for itself an increasingly dominant position to control various resources as part of its long-term strategy to further its economic and geo-political interests. During the recent past, destruction brought about to the local environment has caused immense loss in the form of global warming due to emissions of carbon dioxide and such other toxic gases which lead to harmful side effects. The green house gases are playing havoc with the life of human beings and other species. Thus the ecological imperialism must be seen as red clothe to the bull. The extreme weather patterns such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc. in recent decades may partly be the result of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. On the other hand, changed lifestyles and the use of harmful gases are causing depletion of ozone layer. Global warming leading to rise in sea levels threatens the existence of many islands as well as some densely populated low-lying countries such as Bangladesh where floods are a recurring phenomenon every year. The over exploitation of natural resources, degradation of land and soil because of export crops, other unrecognised environmental damage and pollution caused by extraction and production processes, loss of biodiversity, contamination of the atmosphere and oceans, introduction of toxic chemicals and the dumping of hazardous waste in the seas, rivers and lakes are the cause for highest concern which calls for swift action.
biological expansion by imperial powers:
European colonisation brought old world flora and fauna to the new world environment which experienced adverse effects on native species. This can be termed as ‘Biological Expansion’ and apparently was not intended to be political and economic phenomenon. However this expansion took a heavy toll of human life and plant kingdom. Infectious diseases that reached America with the landing of Columbus there killed tens of millions of local people. The plunder of the resources of some countries by others and the resultant transformation of the whole ecosystems upon which nations depend, massive movement of labour which is connected with the extraction and transfer of resources, exploitation of ecological frailties of the regions where imperialist powers tighten their control, the dumping of the ecological wastes in the subjugated countries are how Ecological Imperialism manifests itself. Many people around the world feel that it has become as significant as the political, economic and cultural imperialism with which we are much familiar and remain watchful about.
Indian experience of imperialism
India has had a relationship with Britain for over two hundred years. We can better understand the working of the capitalist countries because it touched our lives very strongly. The population explosion in Europe resulted in shortage of cultivable land and fodder for their animals. Consequently Europeans migrated to Neo-European lands overseas. It is on record that between 1920 and 1930 about one fifth of the then 250 million population of Europe migrated from their native countries in search of greener pastures. National rivalries, persecution of minorities together with the invention of steam power, facilitating sea and land travel were other factors which hastened the pace of this migration. Before the arrival of the British East India Company in the late 18th century, the Indian subcontinent’s share in world manufacturing was 24.5 per cent in 1750. But its share fell to 1.7 per cent in 1900. During this period of about 150 years the British share in world manufacturing rose from 1.9 per cent in 1750 to 22.9 per cent in 1880. These figures speak for themselves how colonial rule of the British divested India of its manufacturing capacity. However these figures give no idea of the tens of millions of deaths in frequent famines, some of which were triggered by the British policies leading to weakening of the Indian people.
Migration of disease-causing organisms:
Human beings and organisms connected with them crossed into the new world from Eurasia. The advantage of moving into virgin territory was that they left a lot of enemies behind. Back in the old world, most particularly in the densely populated areas of Europe, many organisms had taken advantage of the nearness of men and their animals and plants. They had become their parasites and pathogens. These free-loaders often were slower to emigrate to the New World than were humans and the organisms which human beings carried with them. An example can be given of Europeans who brought wheat to North America. They developed the first of their several wheat belts in the Delaware River valley in the 18th century. There the plants thrived in the absence of their enemies. Then the old enemy, the Hessian fly arrived and led to a new trouble for the farmers.
Lands Bereft of Natural Fertilisers
With the rising population ever-increasing quantity of food-grains and other agricultural produce was necessitated. Continuous cultivation affording no rest to the soil during which it would regain some of nutritive elements which it had become deficient of, through natural processes of fall of sunlight, nitrogen fixing etc., leads to deficiency of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the soil which was made good by supplying it from outside. This fact is well-known in agricultural practice since long. Even an illiterate farmer understands quite well the role of N, P and K compounds. The concept of ‘metabolic rift’ was developed in the context of the alarm raised by agronomists and agricultural chemists in France, Germany and Britain who opined that the export of food and fibre to the cities resulted in the loss of soil nutrients. Rather than being returned to the soil, as in traditional agricultural production, these essential nutrients were being shipped to far-off places and ended up as waste polluting the cities. The most advanced form of capitalist agricultural production at the time, the British ‘high farming,’ was, according to the German chemist Justus Von Liebig, nothing but a ‘robbery system’ due to its most adverse effect on the soil.
Disharmony Between Nature and Men’s Actions
This antagonism between human beings and the earth became an important problem. Capital created an ‘irreparable rift’ in the ‘metabolic interaction’ between human beings and the earth. For a ‘systematic restoration’ of that necessary ‘metabolic interaction’, a regulative law of ‘social production’ was needed but the growth of large scale industrial and agricultural and long distance trade intensified and extended the ‘metabolic rift’ (and still does). Moreover, the wastage of soil nutrients had its counterpart in pollution and waste in the towns. Great fortunes were built by robbing the periphery of its natural wealth and exploiting ecological resources.
The main ecological contradictions of capitalism associated with ecological imperialism worked in stages. The first stage was the removal of the peasants from their lands by abrogation of common, customary rights, so they no longer had direct access to or control over the material means of production. In the second stage these farmers, deprived of their land, became landless labourers became wage labourers and flocked to cities in search of jobs. In the third stage an enormous concentration and centralisation of wealth became the propeller of production. This came to be monopolised by fewer and fewer individuals. The reason for this to happen was that the surplus thus made available flowed to the industrial centres. Thus a large work force was available to be exploited while the large number of the unemployed caused the wages to remain low, making production more profitable. Thus the chain of events leading to exploitation of vast multitudes of people started with the sale of their land. Thus the forcible expropriation of the people from the land and their shifting to towns had deep ecological implications. Land under feudal property had been converted into the inorganic body of its owner. With the further alienation of the land and nature, the domination of man over man was extended under capitalistic pattern of society. Like land, man had also been reduced ‘to the level of material object’.
The dangers of free trade had started becoming visible around mid-nineteenth century. Karl Marx had observed in 1848 that production of coffee and sugar was not the natural destiny of West Indies. It was the requirement of this monoculture for the export of cash crops to Europe. The enslaved or semi-enslaved labouring populations engaged in this work were products of the capitalist world economy. It was open plunder of the periphery for the benefit of the centre. Monoculture plantations constituted a sieve for draining off natural wealth. Each region when integrated with the world market experienced a dynamic cycle. Later decay set in with the competition of substitute products, the exhaustion of soil and the development of other areas with better conditions. The initial productive drive was seen to fade into a culture of poverty, subsistence economy and lethargy. However, tropical monoculture was not the only mode of ecological imperialism in the nineteenth century when ‘British high farming’ was resorted to. It robbed the soil of England of the nutrients present therein naturally. It robbed other countries of the means to replace them. Thus British agriculture imported the soil of some other countries by shipping soil nutrients and natural fertilisers from these countries to Britain. British agriculture had become dependent on imported guano and later on on nitrates from Peru. Also a new division of labour between town and country took shape. Consequently products of the countryside flowed into the cities which were under no obligations to return the waste-products to the point of production. Nutrients were pumped out of one eco-system in the periphery and transferred to another.
Disasterous Effects OF FERTILISERS
The curse of nitrogen (and nitrates) was transferred to the world at large, including the rich and exploiting countries. The biter had been bit. Nitrogen fertilisers, used on an ever-increasing scale (the present consumption being around 100 million tons annually) to maintain the agricultural productivity of the soil, now pollute world’s groundwater. The run-off from the agricultural fields contains substantial quantity of fertilisers which finds its way to lakes, ponds and rivers and other water bodies which creates a major problem in the contemporary world. Pollution of the groundwater is a big source of several diseases for all living beings including humans.
Curse of Oil
The curse of oil is very much on-going. Studies carried out for more than a decade have consistently warned of what is known as the ‘resource curse’. It is a fact that presently export of this resource from the place of its occurrence to the place of its use is a source of strengthening the economies of the oil-producing countries. The developing countries earn money from exporting oil, gas or extracted material but ultimately they are quite likely to be poor, authoritarian, and corrupt and rocked by internal conflicts giving way to civil wars. It has been seen in Peru in the 19th century that excessive export of guano and mining of nitrates to U.S, England, France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Russia gave a lot of money with which the ruling class grew enormously wealthy. This wealth, however, did not significantly flow for the economic development of the rest of population. It proved to be a curse. The mainstream argument for such an assessment attributes this persistent ‘curse’ to bad governments in poor countries which supposedly lack the capacity to utilise enormous economic benefits provided by such resources in a productive manner. The root explanation of the ‘curse of oil’ is to be found in ecological imperialism. The origin of the curse of oil does not lie in the physical properties of petroleum but rather in the social structure of the world. Rich natural resources in a poor country, particularly a relatively powerless one, attract the greedy eyes of the powerful nations needing this resource. Such a country becomes the target of politically and militarily dominant nations. In the case of oil powerful countries will not risk letting such a valuable resource go under complete and effective control of independent governments which may pursue policies not in the interest of these powerful countries.
Dangers of ecological imbalance
The exploitative policies of the manipulating countries of the West now seem to be recoiling and haunting the rich countries too in the form of global warming, or what might be called planetary ecological rift, arising from the working of the capitalist system and its inevitable companion imperialism. While it is varied in its results in specific regions, it has resulted in ecological degradation on an unprecedented scale and area. It threatens to undermine all existing ecosystems and species. In fact the very existence of life on this planet is threatened. The atmosphere and oceans have been made the places to release undesirable, poisonous gases and the dumping place for toxic wastes. Use of fossil fuel above a set rate accumulates a carbon debt, making a disproportionate use of environmental space on the globe. It is assessed that way back in 1996, approximately 7 billion metric tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere, more than 50% of it by United States and Europe, a massively disproportionate share. The most stunning fact is that current carbon emissions exceed the amount that environment can absorb. The Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that at least 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels (i.e. down to 2,800 million metric tons) is necessary to stabilise or reduce the risk of further climate change.
Ecological Debt
The mobilisation of opposition to ecological imperialism (because of its dangerous consequences being growingly felt on ever-increasing scale) is taking the concept of ‘ecological debt; ACCION ECOLOGICA, an Ecuador-based organisation defines ecological debt broadly as “the debt accumulated by the Northern Industrial countries toward Third world countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damages and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes such as greenhouse gases, from the industrial counties. Such a conclusion has been arrived on the basis of analysis of the social interactions between nature and society as organised by ecological imperialism. The history of plunder and super-exploitation of the peoples is seen as a part of a larger ecological debt. Capital remains a central focus, since it is the production and consumption patterns of the main capitalist countries which are held responsible for the deteriorating ecological conditions of the planet. Within the discussion of ecological debt are two major dimensions: (a) the social ecological destruction and exploitation that takes place within nations under the influence of ecological imperialism; and (b) the imperialist appropriation of global commons and their unequal use of the absorption capacity of these commons. For example, Britain has depended on food and raw materials from colonial countries to sustain the productive, consumptive, and trade operations. Along with the growth of capital, the demands for such raw materials have increased all the more. Debt cycles and military interventions maintain global inequalities, as the South continues to subsidise the North in terms of labour, commodities and natural resources.
Ecological debt in terms of money
For centuries the advanced countries of the North have depended on cheap primary inputs as pointed out above. The volume of material and economic value that flows out of South increases, yet the financial debt of these nations continues to grow, aided by arbitrary increase in interest rates.  Not only this, the monopoly capital which dominates the world market, overvalues the North’s industrial, high value commodity exports, further unbalancing international trade to the detriment of the South. The ecological debt owed by the North to the South in terms of carbon emissions alone amounts to $13 trillion per year. The annual ecological debt of the North owed to the South, without considering cumulative effect is thus calculated to be at least 3 times the financial debt the South currently owes to North. If the North were to pay its debt, it would cancel out the loans that have shackled the Third World nations, and would also allow them to adopt more fuel efficient technologies.
Will the countries of North comprising industrially and financially advanced economies rise to the occasion and do their bit to save this planet from extinction?