Friday, May 12, 2006

Book Review: Ecological Debt, by Andrew Simms

Ecological Debt:
The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations
by Andrew Simms
review by Tim Barton


Ecological Debt is a simple enough concept - the growth of Western capitalist consumerism has been built on resource use that is beyond the means of the land upon which Western states are built. Resources have had to be used from elsewhere to perpetuate growth. And many of these resources are not renewable.

Thus three forms of debt have been created. A debt to those in the Third World from whom we in the West have wrenched resources for at best a fraction of their value to us, and at worst at the expense of the communities we have found there and enslaved to our resource depleting machine. A debt to future generations due to the waste of one-use-only resources for our frivolous acquisitiveness. And a debt to the biosphere as a whole and thus to all non-human denizens of our planet.


Simms is plainly aware of the depredations we have made on the latter, and that we are harming the prospects for our children, but his primary focus is the former - he highlights, and wishes to make amends for, our debt to the residents of those lands from which we have in effect, and often actually, stolen resources. He makes a clear point that "those with the least role in creating the problems bear the greatest burdens. And those most responsible for the crises appear to escape responsibility."

It is not solid material resources alone that we owe them for. He clearly acknowledges the interconnectedness of resource use and movement with complex ecological systems, especially in regard to global climate. In fact, obsessively in regard to global climate - he remakes the same point over and over and returns to weather change and it's disproportionate effect on the world's poor almost as if it were the only way in which larger systems are impacted on by capitalist-individualist and state-capitalist resource use. The sub-title includes the words "the Health of the Planet", and climate is a major element whose workings impact on the wider viability of ecosystems and thus upon the health of the planet as a whole. So, as far as that goes, it is fair to put some emphasis on global warming and the consequent rise of sea level, increase in drought, erosion of soils through flash floods, and movement of traditional storm zones towards high population areas and perhaps also growth of those zones in area, etc. It is nonetheless a narrow focus.

His inclination to emphasise the aspect of ecological debt that seeks redress for the current population of the Third World leads to an instrumentalist approach to how we should deal with this debt. He suggests we make economic amends, such that the cash value of our debt to Third Worlders be given to them to help them bolster their shores against the damage caused by floods, or to buy in food from other nations when drought occurs and harms their crops. This approach has obvious problems - it has a 'sins of the father' aspect, which is uncomfortable, as it thus has an underlying assumption that, should our reparations be deemed insufficient, those to whom we have the debt might be within their rights to make war with us, though we, as a generation, or as individuals, may have had little to do with the iniquities and inequalities that our colonialist past has caused (however, there is a clear sense in which those of us in the First World are still benefiting from these past events, which is the point of the book).

It has also an implication (one that Simms would seek to avoid, as not his intention), that perhaps those who live in the Third World, as nominally our equals, may be justified in seeking to attain our standard of living at our expense since it is us that have kept such riches from them - the problem here is not that we are arguably culpable, which we are, but that such aspiration is itself a disastrous eco-catastrophe waiting to happen, as evidenced by the third form of ecological debt; nor is the problem that Third Worlders might wish to have more per capita income, which, if achieved via the convergence Simms hopes for, may not be the same as their rising as far as have (we must reduce our wealth to a sustainable point, and there is no mileage for the future in todays poor simply overshooting us).

Quite simply, the environment requires we, as a species, pay our debt to it sooner rather than later, as that debt will cost us far more than a bit of cash if we continue to ignore it. Tacitly, if unintentionally, putting the argument that our wealth is really the wealth of people over there may well lead the people over there to not merely take our wealth but also the control of the sources of our wealth (fair enough so far) so that they may ramp up their life-styles towards western standards of living. Here it heads towards more problematic terrain - it may be fair to say that poorer nations, or at least the poorest nations, should be enabled to increase their relative wealth and that that should be at our expense (to some difficult to agree upon extent), but many inhabitants of such countries will likely want as much as we currently have, and will merely resent the environmentalist argument that they cannot, as it is not Green. In order to industrialise, many nations already have an attitude that the pollution we experienced in developing a capitalist-consumerist society is a cost they are willing to pay, just as we did, and that we have no right to tell them otherwise.

Simm's instrumentalist approach to managing the West's debt to Third World peoples can, of course, respond to such problems by, for example, transferring clean technologies to industrialising nations so that the expense of being 'green' is not absorbed by their own economy, and thus by our global environment; or the third world governments and their western advocates can seek economic retribution through the courts; or Third World and industrial economies could exchange carbon credits; or first world governments can instigate historically successful 'war economy' measures, such as that expressed in the WWII rail advert he quotes - "At this most important time, Needless travel is a 'crime'" (p159).

But this can only go so far, especially if we are to address the debt we have to the biosphere as a whole. For to do this, populations in the West must recalibrate their 'needs' to a sustainable level, far below our current 'standard of living'.

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

"It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living
which set out being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming a necessity
of life."

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899
quoted by Simms, p124


This 'standard of living' includes flights to the Caribbean; a TV in every room; air conditioning; an SUV per household, if not two; second homes out of town; copious packaging; etc, and all at a cost that fits the purse, even if that means hiving off environmental costs to another day, and undervaluing the workers who extract the raw materials on some other continent. That is to say, the 'standard of living' that we are so concerned to maintain, else we all starve and are poor, has nothing to do with actual levels of consumption that might require starvation and poverty as the only alternative. In other words, the Western lifestyle has a great deal of give.

But our consumerist populations (created by a combination of native greed and ad-exec brainwashing, the latter more powerful than many realise - Simms attributes these messages to car adverts alone: 'You Can Have Power'; 'You Can Have Sex'; "You Can Protect What Matters To You'; 'You Can Make People Jealous of You'; 'You Can Be Different') are in no hurry to accept restrictions on their consumption - such will only happen once resources are depleted to the point that they have no choice, at which time a considered and well calibrated transfer to sustainability will simply no longer be possible. Thus, our fear of starvation and poverty as the only alternative to our current way of living is exactly what guarantees that starvation and poverty is what we will get.

Third World populations cannot meet us even halfway to our current standard of living if the ecological debt we have created for ourselves in the west is not merely to be horrifically increased by our counterparts in other countries who have not, through accident of birth, been so lucky as us.

The instrumentalism of Simms solutions to ecological debt, and the emphasis on debt to other humans, leaves the book lacking in punch, and leaves his ideas as mere short-term panaceas to perhaps keep us from warring with our neighbours, who currently have copious reason to hate us.

Simms does acknowledge wider debt, in fact is motive by this wider debt, but has little, really, to say about it. Early chapters do make it clear that he is very aware that technical fixes cannot be enough, and that, once used up, many of the resources our economy requires to continue 'growth' cannot be replaced. So clearly he understands the obvious fact that we cannot have a globe of rich consumers. But little he says addresses the realities of actually convincing the majority that a recalibration of 'need' is not only required (we all guiltily sense that, even tabloid readers and the residents of the Big Brother house), but that it can offer a more mature conception of how to define a positive standard of living and thus can offer satisfaction, and not just hardship.

No More Waste

"There will be no more waste of imperial resources. The people
are suffering. Relieving people's poverty ought to be handled
as though one were rescuing them from fire, or saving them from
drowning. One cannot hesitate"

- The Years of Rice & Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson


This radical strand of thought is not completely missing from Simms work.

On page 160, for example, he writes "Experience shows that a shift to a low energy economy could create more convivial lifestyles".

This is a short but sweet sentence that nicely sums up one aspect, at least, of Simms guiding philosophy of Contraction and Convergence. This concept clearly recognises that we can't all live like the present day West, but that to thrive we must, on the one hand lower our expectations of luxury in the West, and, on the other, raise the standard of living in the poorest countries, seeking to 'meet in the middle' (though I believe, rather below the mid-point if true sustainability is our goal).

The consequences of such a method, ultimately, would perhaps be communistic anarchism or some other variety of community based egalitarianism. Simms in no way argues for such, though, seeking - so far as this book goes at any rate - to engender the required change from within the current system.

Despite the obvious requirement for more radicalism, should we truly seek to address our ecological debt to both other humans and the biosphere as a whole, it is not expressed sufficiently in this book. There is an implicit acceptance that the nation states as currently set up, with their economic elites, and their controlled medias, and their managed elections can achieve the required change. I do not believe that any approach that merely seeks to work with what we have got can succeed in the long run. Ultimately Simms doesn't either - right near the end, he says "But global warming probably means the death of capitalism as the dominant framework for the global economy" - but the overall tenor of the book is instrumental reformism within the system.

The Road To Hell

However, should we actually expect more from Simms than he does deliver? A radical tract of eco-philosophy would probably not gain the readership and influence that a lighter weight instrumentalist book may.

Simms takes an approach that has similarities with Bob Geldof's Live8 idea - it is spreading the blame, seeking consensus for viable short-term change, and liberal enough in tone to not alienate those in government, NGO's and possibly some in industry. Seen as a tool to aid an instrumentalist short-term solution, Simm's book, alongside other work instigated by the NEF (new economics foundation), for whom he is policy director, is positive, timely, and useful. On this playing field, the only real negatives are that he is repetitive and uses too many examples from climate change (i.e.; too few from other areas of ecological damage, such as resource depletion and biodiversity); that the whole is an over-extended essay that may have had greater impact in a national newspaper as a short serial than as a book from a publisher who are well known but nonetheless not mainstream; and that the section on 'what you can do', oddly buried between the Notes and the Index at the end, is pretty much laughable.

The fact remains, though, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Those that pursue piecemeal social change may succeed in changing the paving used on the road, but not necessarily it's direction; whereas those who choose deeper revolution may succeed in ripping up the road, but rarely have a firm alternative track onto which they can steer the society they have de-railed. Luckily, society and culture are not fixed roads - whilst there is great inertia resisting change, those that seek piecemeal reform can reasonably hope that, given time, they may redirect the road itself from the planned (whether by internal logic or by deliberate intent) route. This has three obvious flaws - they believe that a quantitative change may become a qualitative one (in philosophy the possibility of this is often denied, but the sciences allow such, as for example in the change of state exhibited by water heated or cooled beyond a certain parameter); they believe that those who favour the status quo cannot ultimately co-opt or circumvent them; and they believe that they have the time needed to slowly steer the ship of state. If the best way to avoid eco-collapse and mass population die-off is either piecemeal reform, or a revolt that causes short-term social collapse and a partial die-off, then I guess we must give what support we can to the reformists.

– Review: Tim Barton - first published 01.06.05 on bluegreenearth.com

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