With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life. These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time. Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.
2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level. Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross. The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited. This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced. Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but transformational. They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources. The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters. This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.
Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008. As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses. Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?
Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation. However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.
Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field. Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped. Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.
President Barack Obama launched a new plan to create jobs last week. Although Obama’s speech was not about the environment but creating jobs, underlying it was the implicit premise that there is an unequivocal synergy between government spending on clean energy, increases in economic growth, and job growth. But how are jobs and the environment related?
Sometimes there is a stark conflict between jobs and the environment: for example, protecting old-growth forests means that some foresters may have less work, full stop, end of story.
However, more often, the choices are less stark, and more complex. Building wind turbines means using plastics, steel, energy, and other materials that must come from nature in the here and now. Building turbines may create fewer jobs in the short term than (for example) drilling for oil. On the other hand, building turbines now may help reduce the reliance on oil in the future. This would, paradoxically, increase job losses in the fossil fuel industry. On the other hand, employment from wind production is less subject to declines in the supply of the resource, since wind is, in theory, not limited in supply the way that oil is. On so it goes.
What I want to argue is that both unemployment and environmental degradation are functions of the same problem: the way in which capitalist economies produce wealth. Unless the fundamentals are addressed, meaning changes in the way that work and nature are imagined and valued, then governments will be able to do little to solve either problem.
Both work and nature in capitalism are what is termed ‘factors of production’. This means that, essentially, the application of work to nature is what makes production of goods happen. John Locke was among the first thinkers to elaborate this idea, arguing that the mixing of labour with nature produced property rights and ownership. Others, like Karl Marx, also postulated that work and nature combined together to create value (although emphatically not a right to property) and in fact Marx attributed the value of all goods to the amount of labour included in its production. The relative neglect of nature, and the resulting environmental and resource degradation, is to a large degree what has driven the environmental movement in the West since the beginning of industrial capitalism in the 17th century.
Industry and factories in the Industrial Revolution required, and voraciously consumed, both work and nature. In the process, through the adept use of technology, politics, and the forces of supply and demand, industrialists were able to ensure that their costs were kept low and the prices of goods high. The effect of the productive forces of capitalism was to progressively and systematically devalue both nature and work as factors in the value of goods. The disconnect between work and nature therefore became one of the key features of industrial capitalism.
The devaluation of work and the devaluation of nature in production have now reached a crisis point. Since there is not a US economy or a German economy or a Chinese economy but a global economy, the same factors that devalue work in China also devalue the work of thousands of middle-class Americans and Canadians who production has become, not less efficient, but more efficient, in the process of adding work to nature. Efficiency has, perversely, increased waste by making workers redundant and nature incidental to the calculation of wealth.
The disconnect between nature and work, and the devaluation of both, has been accompanied by distorting imbalances in economic activity: the havoc wreaked upon the value of thousands of people’s work (in the form of homes, infrastructure, and businesses) by a hurricane is counted as a plus in the national accounts, because it makes possible more production rather than less. The manufacture and monitoring of weapons of mass destruction becomes a productive activity, since the damage it potentially causes is discounted, omitted from the national accounts that focus solely on the present value of the application of work to nature. Drilling for oil and even cleaning up an oil spill becomes productive work, while taking measures to prevent the spill and protect oil workers is counted as a cost, and so is devalued. Oil companies roll in profits, while governments compensate them for their costs, feeding the devaluation cycle.
So, the problems of unemployment and the problems of environmental degradation are related. However, increasing economic growth with little attention to the devaluation of nature will not solve unemployment in the long term, since it activates the very forces that devalue both work and nature. Unemployed workers, like ecosystems, represent overutilized and undervalued factors of production. As long as growth is calculated in a way that devalues work and nature, then governments will continually play catch-up to try and make up the difference. Ultimately, as we are seeing, government’s efforts to bridge the gap, in the form of payroll tax cuts and spending for stimulus, become devalued themselves. Subsidizing the costs of these inputs in the production process makes them less, not more, valuable for industry. Valuing nature for the ecosystem services it provides, and valuing work for the usefulness of the goods it produces, ultimately improves efficiency and reduces the waste, both human and natural, that capitalism creates.
For more: Worldwatch Institute “Valuing Nature’s Services Today is an Investment in the Future” September 14th, 2011
Looking back at the historical development of human rights, one could easily point out the depressing record of genocide, oppression, discrimination, violence and hatred that has characterized the world. One can paint a similar picture with respect to the environmental record: every graph and equation seems to show a decline in biodiversity, environmental quality, and in prospects for a sustainable future.
However, recent events suggest that pessimism on human rights may be misplaced. If we look at the big picture, we might start to see that there are some lessons for environmental activists in the history of human rights. For example, it was once accepted as natural or inevitable that military campaigns necessitate mass bombing of civilian targets, that violent regimes would persist beyond the ability of the international community to act or even to comment on them, and that individual despots were beyond the reach of justice, likely to spend their retirement years in obscure luxury.
All of these assumptions are now, if not gone, severely strained. The fight for human rights continues throughout the world, individual people have shown over and over that there are limits to their toleration of oppression. Similarly, environmentalists might consider harnessing frustrations that are emerging around the world, in order to change international environmental norms in fundamental ways. Here are my suggestions:
1. Work from the inside out
With global environmental initiatives stalled, local action will become more important than ever. The fundamental barrier to progress on climate change has always arisen from the tensions between countries at differing levels of economic development. As with human rights, differences between countries historically stood in the way of new legal instruments to structure international norms. In the case of the UN Universal Declaration, Cold War differences stalled the development of the two major Protocols for decades after the 1948 effort. Given these differences, beginning work on the ground, and working within the norms, rules and procedures that operate locally will have greater effect on the international process than starting at the top.
Environmentalists have sometimes shied away from appealing to ethical arguments, preferring to couch the case for environmental sustainability in the stale language of self-interest and economics. This strategy should now be abandoned, as it guts the vision and content that is needed to inspire change. Systems change in response to fundamental cultural and normative shifts, not to instrumental rationalist appeals to individual gain. Human rights have made strides because of the universal power of the ethical arguments for human dignity. Everyone can relate to the struggles of others, and this is why the suppression of rights and freedoms (including rights to economic opportunities) has inspired resistance all across the world, from Tunisia to Britain to Libya.
3. Appeal to states & peoples, not to governments
Governments, whether democratic or not, are ill-equipped to deal with ecosystem breakdowns. Governments in democratic countries are focused on electoral cycles and polls. Governments of non-democratic countries are focused on keeping power. Although it may sound like heresy in some circles, states (in the sense of political institutions and communities that sustain a common identity and legal personality over the long term) are better equipped to deal with these problems than individual governments. Human rights language has always transcended governments, and human rights activists have always used government statements and commitments against them, entangling them in commitments that end up constraining them in ways that never could have been predicted.
4. Think long term
Human rights struggles continue, but progress should be acknowledged and recognized. The institution of slavery, which had existed in various forms for millennia, has now virtually been abolished, and any group who practices it now does so in the shadows, surreptitiously and shamefully. It could be argued that the planet can’t wait, and I agree with this sentiment, however, it is short-termism that has gotten us into this situation of ecological crisis, and changing the view to a planetary one should also involve a shift in thinking beyond the 20-year window that presently hampers societies.
5. Quiet efforts pay off
After Live Earth (Al Gore’s massive public relations global conference event) in 2007, interest in addressing climate change seemed to fade away. Big, splashy events are temporary, they ignite but lack the ‘long tail’ needed to create sustained change. The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia with the actions of one individual, seemed to come out of nowhere. Closer examination, however, reveals that the work of thousands of activists, journalists, and ordinary people created the conditions for change that enabled the revolutionary movements to transnationalize quickly. Contrasting these two examples also reveals the key role of information technology. Live Earth was primarily a visual and broadcast-style ‘industrial’ event, while change now happens through microblogs and ‘post-industrial’ social media. These efforts are necessarily more dispersed, less hierarchical, and less predictable, but clearly they are potent.
None of this is to say that torture, oppression, and genocide are (or perhaps ever will be) eliminated. The reports out of Syria and other places like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Congo, and Colombia suggest that there is a long way to go to achieve respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and dignity. Nevertheless, environmentalists should take heed.
For a great listing of Student Opportunities in the field of International Development, check out the Okanagan College International Development Careers page here.
- Find advice and opportunities in International Development on Guide to Finding Jobs in International Development provided by Linda Elmose, Instructor, Political Science Department at Okanagan College.
- The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training offers training in disaster and humanitarian response training. Interested applicants can apply directly on our webpage or send their inquiries to the Program Manager, Melanie Coutu at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Okanagan College Student Awards and Financial Aid http://www.okanagan.bc.ca/financialaid
- Foreign Affairs Graduate School Forum Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA)
- The International Association for Political Science Students has a great internships page linking to international institutions. Visit it here for the latest: http://www.iapss.org/index.php/iapss-news-and-opportunities/iapss-news-and-opportunities/electronic-databases
- David Suzuki Foundation Jobs and Careers site https://www.smartrecruiters.com/DavidSuzukiFoundation
- World Student Environmental Network hosts an annual conference. More information: http://www.wsen.org/
- Interested in working for the United Nations? Check out their Peacekeeping Recruitment page at: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/about/work.shtml
- Looking for a job in the environmental field? Check out ECO Canada (Environmental Careers Organization): http://www.eco.ca/
Whatever happens on August 3rd, whether a full default or a spluttering decline, we are now at an historic turning point in the history of US hegemony. For the first time since the US ascended to the role of world leader in 1945, the leadership (and the people) of the US must deal with the implications of world leadership—and realize its accompanying costs just as they have enjoyed its benefits.
Despite the rhetoric on the right, the US government is not spendthrift, wasteful, or bloated. Rather, it has attempted through the decades to chart a course that balances domestic with international requirements in such a way that Americans avoid paying the costs of maintaining US leadership in the world. Initially, maintaing Pax Americana meant spreading a US military presence virtually everywhere around the globe that it would be tolerated, and even some places where it was not.
In exchange for fighting communism, American taxpayers would become the customers of the world, and to do so, their currency would be as good as gold. Unlike other countries, the hegemon is able to avoid the full costs of its expenditures by manipulating the value of its currency, something the US resorted to in 1971 at least in part to avoid paying for the Vietnam War. However, domestic and international roles still essentially coincided, since what was good for the US as a world leader was also generally good for US consumers.
As long as there was little real conflict between the domestic and international roles of the hegemon, the US could continue to spend with impunity. Relatively sheltered from global crises of inflation that damaged their trade partners, Americans could afford to keep buying, borrowing, and spending without having to worry about maintaining their export markets or competitiveness, as other countries had to. Consumers responded to this exceptional situation essentially rationally, by using their dollars to purchase cheap imports. The government responded by lowering taxes and interest rates to reflect the strength of consumer purchasing power relative to other countries, and hoped for continued growth and the goodwill of trade partners to make up the difference.
Eventually, the costs of hegemony must be borne—if not by Americans, then by someone else. As long as Americans kept buying, the emperor’s lack of clothes could be conveniently ignored. However, the conflict between the interests of Americans and the interests of the world is now apparent. If history is any judge, do not expect Americans to sacrifice to maintain US leadership. The US has little experience in being a normal country, and it seems unlikely that it will now take its place among the rest without a fight.