Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Beyond protecting the environment: Ensuring life support

Several recent reports on a variety of things have made me return to an important book by Thomas Princen, Treading Softly – on which I have written here before. The news items that caught my eye covered different, but related topics. Two of them focused on court cases involving big oil companies – Chevron and Shell – which had allegedly, through their operations in developing countries (Equador and Nigeria), damaged the environment so drastically that indigenous peoples could no longer depend on it for their livelihood. Another examined the phenomenon of emotion, feeling or sentiment in investment decisions, debunking the idea that involvement in such financial matters is a thoroughly rational affair. Several others were related to the growing concern, locally and internationally, about prospects of declining water resources worldwide.

It was the connection between these topics of discussion that made me pick up Princen’s book again. The renewed realisation that emotion plays a crucial role in finance and economics, the frequent indications that the oil industry’s multi-billion dollar operations usually proceed without too much attention to the prevention of environmental damage, and the warning signs about future water scarcity, all point at the world economic system. It depends crucially on “confidence” and on oil (which is probably why Big Oil seems to get away with murder every time), and without adequate clean water supplies an economy cannot operate either (people, animals and plants unavoidably need water, as do industries for production purposes).

In this beautifully written, but nevertheless alarming book, Princen talks about what he calls the “old normal”, which includes (mostly implicit, and unquestioned) claims such as the following: that endless economic growth and expansion on a finite planet is not merely possible, but desirable; that as long as there is access, cheap energy will be constantly available; that whatever risks may arise (even unforeseen ones), they can be managed; and that technological, demographic and economic growth will provide the solution to all problems (including problems of a technological, demographic or economic nature). He then continues (p. 10-11):

“These claims, built into a belief system and welded into place by theories of economic growth and technological innovation, lead people to believe, to have faith, to participate as consumers and investors, but not to question. Above all, once absorbed as normal, these claims allow no one to let on that the ‘old confidence’ is eroding – that the game, by all physical, biological, ecological, social, and economic measures, is really a confidence game … this is all taken as normal, because to do otherwise is to expose the con … The time for a new normal is, indeed, now. On the environmental front, it begins with the observation, indeed the acceptance, that contemporary trends – environmental, economic, political – lead inescapably to one profound and disturbing conclusion: the era of ‘protecting the environment’ is over, and the era of ensuring life support has begun … The point is that present patterns of consumption are consuming life-support systems, locally and globally. The point is that what we take for normal is actually excess.”

Throughout the book Princen elaborates on the issue of “life-support”. One of the anomalies he dwells on concerns his suggestion, that we should conceive of – in fact, can hardly avoid taking – the environment as “our life-support system”, for the simple reason that we cannot live without its most basic components, namely clean water and air, as well as arable soil (all of which are under threat today). And if we do get to the point where we face that sobering truth head-on, we might ask ourselves: how can we save ourselves by saving the environment (p. 106)?

This, he points out, is both the right and the wrong question, and proceeds to remind his readers that few people would want to make the economic sacrifices that saving the environment would entail – which shows it is the right question, because it forces one to conclude, after considering all the ineffectual reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic, including “greening the economy”, that, unavoidably, the economy must change if the environment, and us humans, are to be saved.

But it is also the wrong question precisely because, in a consumer-driven society such as ours, to suggest that changing the economy by reducing consumption is an imperative if we want to save the environment, is to come across as a madman, because the prevailing economy depends on ever-increasing consumption and “growth”, and one cannot (supposedly) be expected to sacrifice that.

Here Princen shows great insight into two different kinds of “sacrifice” – the kind that would have the chance of saving the environment (fundamentally changing the economy), and the kind that is being made all the time, but which no one notices (because it comes with the territory of the “normal” economy), such as the number of people sacrificed to the economy on roads every day, week and month, the approximately eighteen-thousand lives sacrificed every year (in America alone) for lack of market-based health insurance, and those in the military who pay with their lives for securing oil supplies. This kind of sacrifice does not seem to be thought of as such, and yet the information is there for everyone to see. But it goes further, and not without far-reaching consequences for future generations (p. 107):

“And now, as one report after another confirm the disruptive effects of global warming, we appear to be in the middle of a long-term project to sacrifice vast coastal areas, mangroves, coral reefs, and cropland, even entire nations, all to maintain a carbon-based economy. The list goes on. These are signs of a sacrificial consumer economy. Modern industrial societies are making huge sacrifices to pursue a particular vision of the good life.”

In an imaginary conversation (p. 135) between two people on different sides regarding the environmental question – one arguing that humans will never run out of resources, and one arguing that they will, unless something drastic is done – Princen compares nature as a life-support system to a spaceship (a metaphor used before by others to represent the earth). Conceived in this way, as something vulnerable “out there in space” (which our planet is), nobody would doubt that its resources have to be carefully managed, and not abused, if it is to survive.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that the vast majority of people on earth don’t seem at all concerned that the planet’s resources are NOT being carefully managed at present, even if the economy is receiving abundant attention in an effort to manage it in the interest of “economic security”. What is of more fundamental importance? A well-managed economy, or careful management of ecological resources, without which there would not be an economy anyway?

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