posted by Ronald Bleier

NOTE: The following selections are from an article by Sandy Irvine entitled "The Cornucopia Scam: Contradictions of Sustainable Development, Part 2: Misconceptions About Fundamental Causes." (Wild Earth, Winter 1994/95, pp. 72-82. All emphasis in original.)

The Cornucopia Scam

by Sandy Irvine


"Every year, human numbers increase globally by some 95 million. Even in India's frequently praised state of Kerala where there has been genuine social progress and the growth rate of the state's population has been cut to 1.7%, the population will still double on that basis in just 47 years. Contrary to popular perception about the leveling off of population growth in rich countries, on present trends America's population will double to around 520 million in only 63 years.

"Yet there is generally a deafening silence on the issue of population growth and bitter criticism of those few who do raise the issue. None of the major environmental lobbies, for example, has produced any substantial literature or policy on the matter.

"Population growth exacerbates every environment and most social problems. Kenya's population increases by over 1600 people every day, thereby intensifying pressure on the land, eating up space for surviving wildlife, overwhelming employment and other social opportunities. Population growth also makes solutions more difficult to achieve. Take, for example, the transition to sustainable energy systems. It has been estimated that the Swiss population would have to drop to one-sixth of its present level for the country to base itself on its own renewable energy resources and maintain its present living standards."


"In terms of food production, ALL forms of farming have adverse impacts. For example, the extension of arable production must be at the expense of woodland and wetlands, while its intensification must lead to a deteriorating quantity and quality of soil systems, even if we can avoid the problems associated with synthesized fertilizers and biocides. According to Mike Jacobs, author of The Green Economy, organic farming actually improves the environment; but the noted Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka has shown that it still depends upon external inputs and does not close the cycle of nutrients. More paddy cultivation will increase methane build-up in the atmosphere. Increased food production via irrigation will worsen the already serious problems of salinization and water logging."


"The potential of pollution control technology is also exaggerated. It only shifts pollutants from one form, place, or time to another. The only way to reduce the more serious pollutants is to generate less of them in the first place. Many pollutants are too dissipated to catch and contain -- for example, carbon dioxide, fertilizer run-off, and methane from cattle and paddy cultivation. In the case of pollutants amenable to capture and treatment, there is still the cost of making and using the necessary gadgetry. The cost of installing full-scale tertiary treatment of the existing `throughput' of sewage is likely to be astronomical.

"Already, great damage is being done producing the raw material for pollution abatement techniques, not least limestone mining and the production of lime for desulfurization. Similarly, the manufacture of equipment like catalytic converters causes resource depletion and more pollution. At the end of the pipe, there are still waste residues, often highly toxic.

"Perhaps recycling is the most popular technological fix. People get enthusiastic about recycled paper, as if paper fibre no longer wore out and trees no longer will have to be cut down. Technological euphoria is driving out more sober thought based on physical actualities. Entropy dictates that material usage must lead to some material dissipation. The phosphate put into washing powders and the zinc used in manufactured items end up in a myriad of locations, for example.

"Of course, much can be recycled. It is scandalous that globally some 66% of all aluminum and 75% of iron and paper is simply dumped on the environment after use. Yet, we must not ignore the serious pollution around some recycling plants. Recycling does not challenge the processes by which human society creates rising piles of waste. Indeed, to some extent, it legitimizes profligacy."


"Today's problems, in short, are symptoms of not only MALdevelopment in specific areas but also of general OVERdevelopment. The problem is growth per se, not just misdirected growth. Humanity has reached the point where further attempts to extend and intensify human production systems, no matter how well regulated or technologically sophisticated, must undermine the long-term capacity of environment systems to sustain life.

"At present, it takes about two hectares to cater for the typical diet in a rich country. To furnish this pattern of consumption for the six billion who soon will be alive would require 12 billion hectares -- roughly eight times the amount of available cropland, most of which is showing signs of serious stress. Popular criticism of European Union `food mountains' and `wine lakes' misses the key point: they are only temporary surpluses since the production system is eroding its own resource base.

"Of course, food is only one human need and many other environmental conditions and resources are required for sustainable living. The state of the Earth's tree cover is probably the most critical indicator. Before the birth of agriculture, forests clothed over six billion hectares. Since then, the Earth has been scalped of two-thirds of its original forest, half the loss occurring between 1950 and 1990. China was once 75% forested; now most has been destroyed, with 20 million hectares deforested in the 30 years after the Communist revolution in 1949. In just 100 years, Ethiopia's forest have declined from 40% to only 3% of the land."


"Air pollution is killing forests and lakes around the world. Across 15 European countries, 27,000 square miles are showing signs of `forest death.' In southern Norway, all lakes in a 13,000 square kilometer area are devoid of fish. Chongging in China is perhaps the acid rain capital of the world, the rain there sometimes being so acidic it can dissolve steel.

"Human activity is adding chemicals to the environment whose systems have not been `equipped' by evolution to absorb their impact. Some 2.5 million tons of synthetic pesticides, for example, are sprayed annually, mainly in the rich countries, though `Third World' use is rising dramatically. In the USA, such chemicals area partly responsible for some 20% of the list of endangered species.

"Another symptom of overdevelopment is the covering over of land with roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. It sterilizes the environment buried beneath whilst creating problems like excessive water run-off. In the USA, some 526,000 hectares of countryside, mainly good farmland, is paved over every year."


"...It is indeed true that a small percentage of the world's population consumes a grossly disproportionate share of the world's resources; but this fact is being used in ways that distort the whole picture. Politicians from the `Third World', for example, angrily attack plans to conserve `their' forests on the grounds that they should not sacrifice the sovereign right to exploit such resources simply to supply carbon sinks so that western consumers can continue to drive their carbon-emitting cars. Yet the political and business elites in the Third World live life- styles little different from those they denounce. They surround themselves with massive military forces, while irresponsibly promising affluence to every household in their countries.

"Many of these leaders have followed the path of the already industrialized countries, with the construction of brand new capital cities, big airports, nuclear power plants and the other symbols of `modernization.' From the introduction of Canadian-style wheat farming in Tanzania to Indonesia's transmigration programme, there are plenty of examples of ecologically disastrous projects backed by Third World governments, often with considerable popular support. The destruction of local wildlife is perhaps even more enthusiastically supported. In Thailand, for example, tigers are threatened with extinction simply so that East Asian consumers can enjoy the delights of tiger penis soup.

"More generally, the environmental impact of the world's poor, compared to that of the rich, tends to be underestimated in the sustainable development literature. A lot of the destruction in the `Third World' takes place outside the formal economy as with tree felling for fuel and new farm land. Such activities tend not to be as accurately recorded as, say, petrol and electricity consumption in the industrialized parts of the world. More important, however, is that even a small increase in per capita consumption -- especially with fossil fuels -- in a populous country like China will have a disproportionately large impact, given the size of its population. The sustainable development lobby seldom faces the brutal truth that the `developing' countries will never be developed in any conventional meaning of the word if global sustainability is to be attained. ...

"This `think shrink' orientation is not an attempt to `pull up the ladder' so that the poor cannot join the rich. In fact, abandonment of the goal of global affluence offers the best hope for those being crushed under the wheels of industrial expansion. Across the `Third World,' outside the citadels of western-style luxury, the people with secure food supplies, clean water, and social stability tend to be those living in regions not yet harnessed to the treadmill of development. Indeed, many `backward' societies offer sophisticated and practicable models of sustainable living."


"Supporters of sustainable development show a collective reluctance to explore the deep implications of what might be called a Sustainable Earth Society whose members include more than the human race. Many reject, for example, concepts like carrying capacity (it implies limits on human numbers), or values like the inalienable right of other species to flourish (it implies limits on human activities). Ecological systems are still treated as just one issue amongst many, not the preconditions for the lasting satisfaction of all other goals."


"So far, most supporters of sustainable development have not made the transition to an Earth-centered value system. There is no deep sense of caution and modesty about the power of human intellect and technological prowess. There is no recognition of the intrinsic rights of other species nor of the wisdom contained in the millennia of evolution."
Sandy Irvine is the Environmental Curriculum Development Officer at the University of Northumbria. He is the co-author of A Green Manifesto (London: Optima, 1988) and subsequently wrote Beyond Green Consumerism (London: Friends of the Earth, 1989) He co-edits a quarterly ecological and political magazine, Real World, and is an associate editor of The Ecologist.
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