In Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, Paul Farmer combines his experiences as a physician and anthropologist in the Third World to bring forth evidence and analysis of poverty. While primarily focused on health, and profiling the effects of Tuberculosis, AIDS and other diseases on particular locales, his experience in treating patients beaten by members of military dictatorships and those who experience malnourishment point to deeply social health problems. As he quickly demonstrates, military attacks on civilians and AIDS are equally socially determined problems. Continue reading
Below is the introduction to a 15,000 essay I just completed, summing up the theoretical and historical basis for my critique of UN environmental discourse, particularly the UNCED documents. This was completed for a graduate social theory course, and will be used in different sections of my thesis. I have only provided the first 3 of 61 pages here. People who wish to discuss these points more specifically may email me, and will send the entire document for further discussion.
When I was researching for my work on Agenda 21 and the UNCED, I found very little wholesale criticism in the academic press until I stumbled on this article, “Sustainable development and Agenda 21: the secular bible of global free markets and pluralist democracy” by Timothy Doyle, published in Third World Quarterly, Vol 19, No 4, pp 771-786, 1998.
This is the concluding and final text from this article:
With the emergence of global ecology, many environmental issues are seen as beyond the traditional scope of national governments. Governments are, more often than not, severely lagging behind in their responses, ‘and this transnational political space has been occupied by corporations and NGOS, which can cross nation-state boundaries more readily. This globalisation of ecological and market systems has led to “the politics of no-fixed address.” ‘* Jacques Attali, who served as the foundational head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development looks into the near future, and sees the following:
Severed from any national allegiance or family ties by microchip-based gadgets that will enable individuals to carry out for themselves many of the functions of health, education, and security, the consumer-citizens of the world’s privileged regions will become “rich nomads.” Able to participate in the liberal market culture of political and economic choice, they will roam the planet seeking ways to use their free time, shopping for information, sensations, and goods only they can afford, while yearning for human fellowship, and the certitudes of home and community that no longer exist because their functions have become obsolete. Like New Yorkers who every day face homeless beggars who loiter around automated teller machines pleading for spare change, these wealthy wanderers will everywhere be confronted by roving masses of “poor nomads”-boat people on a planetary scale-seeking to escape from the destitute periphery, where most of the earth’s population will continue to live. These impoverished migrants will ply the planet, searching for sustenance and shelter, their desires inflamed by the ubiquitous and seductive images of consumerism they will see on satellite TV broadcasts from Paris, Los Angeles, or Tokyo. Desperately hoping to shift from what Alvin Toffler has called the slow world to the fast world, they will live the life of the living dead.**
This is the world of Agenda 21.
The only force which currently seems capable of moving beyond the boundaries of nation-states in hot pursuit of transnational corporations are social movements and NGOS, also acting through transnational conduits. At first glance, the age-old story depicting the battle between David and Goliath seems an appropriate metaphor to describe this situation. Only this time, David has no sling-shot.
*Doyle & McEachern, Environmental Politics, p. 105
** Attali, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order, 1991, pp 5-6
I’d like to invite you to follow along with me on a short exercise in logic.
- We are in the midst of or are nearing an ecological crisis, on a world-wide scale…. Or,
- We are not.
This is hotly contested, but only by a few these days. Many of us have seen the documentaries or read books about what the world would look like without humans. Sure, the planet will survive, and so will some of its species. But humans are a threat to thousands of species on land, in the sea, and in the air; to soils, water and air; to geological formations; and, it seems to be a growing part of the popular consensus that we’re often a threat to ourselves. Volcanic activity and sunspots may have more to do with climate change than anything humans have done or are doing. That doesn’t preclude what we already know: minor changes in an ecosystem can create a chain reaction of further, potentially larger effects. If we all drive less, will that have a measurable effect in climate, even down to hundredths of a percentage? That’s a legitimate question. But the bottom line is that some of us are having a massive impact on ecosystems by dumping oil into oceans, clear-cutting thousands of acres of forest in which some species claim as their only habitat in the world, destroying the soil through monocropping of annual crops, etc. Species go extinct without our help, the climate changes without human impact, and habitats are destroyed by natural disasters. Okay, so what? Does all the death in the world that all of nature works together to mete out justify the attempt of a certain group of humans to follow suit to make a profit, to make their lives more convenient, or even to extend their lives many decades beyond that which our bodies were evolved for?
But I digress… Back to our logic exercise.
- The ruling class is aware of the ecological crisis…. Or,
- They are not.
This is a fun one. This is the part of our exercise that points out something many environmentalists like to do: pat themselves on there own backs. They feel that somehow they (many of them with no schooling in environmental sciences and little formal knowledge of ecology) know more than those people who have established a global economic empire!
Where are they getting their info from? Clandestine, underground research conducted by the world’s greatest scientists?
Much of our purported knowledge about the ecological crisis is coming from research funded and approved by governments and multinational corporations. Think about this very clearly for a moment: from where did the current wave of concern regarding climate change originate? Isn’t much of our knowledge about this crisis coming from the mass media, and research funded by the same government that protects corporate interests above all else? Passing this off as nothing but fear-mongering is simple-minded.
Some people believe that this particular information is fraudulent. I think there are certainly particular angles in the presentation of the data, and the suggestions for response when we view these sources. However, the crisis is real. The ruling class is part of the population – along with you and I – currently being effected by a paradigm shift in the West. We know that past practices have put us in current peril.
- The ruling class has an agenda to deal with the ecological crisis…. Or,
- They do not.
Capitalists know that waste is costly and inefficient. Profitability means eliminating waste. Further, they have a long-range plan to deal with decreasing resources. We tend to look at this issue from the standpoint of hungry consumers – non-renewable resources are depleting, and that means we can’t have all the nice things and the convenience we’re used to having. Surely the elites are as concerned as we are with this dilemma – they would not have been able to build a global, all-consuming empire if they were bumbling idiots! This involves long-range plans for reduced use of certain resources and developing the use of others. Who is spending the most on alternatives to oil? Just like the bourgeois Europeans, reading Uncle Marx and batting workers’ movements, today the global capitalists are adopting new practices to ensure their long-term position in their Empire.
It seems reasonable to believe that the ruling class has a sustainability agenda, just from this logical exercise, but, moreover, because we can see evidence of them developing and implementing it. So what, exactly is this agenda? Based on this exercise, and on my research in sustainable development policy and practice, I conclude that there is an ecological crisis, that we’re in the midst of a world-wide paradigm shift as a result, and the ruling class has an agenda to deal with the crisis.
This launched my interest in researching the ruling class worldview and agenda for sustainability. This might sound problematic for two reasons:
- History. Since the beginning of the environmental movement, the usual characterization of the common means of production and consumption was that they are against the interests of sustainable environmental practices. The movement rightly characterized the majority of global production and the consumption patterns in the West as being destructive to the environment on a massive scale, a market shaped and exploited by the ruling class for their immediate monetary gain. The framing of profitability versus (ecological) sustainability was the standard. In looking at the environmental destruction and resource depletion, we are used to thinking of capitalists as being very short-sighted, aimed only at immediate profit. That characterization, I argue, is beginning to fade into an old paradigm. This is largely because these businesses are not owned by oil barons and business moguls, but are instead wrapped up in a network – a global empire – aimed at long-term (permanent, even!) global domination of resources, markets, land and people.
- “Isn’t this what we all want?!” If the global ruling class is developing a sustainability agenda, what does it look like, and wouldn’t that be just swell if they were abandoning the practices of old, and developing a kinder, gentler stance toward the Earth and its resources?
What does this agenda look like? Will it be successful in building a more environmentally sustainable world? And, most important of all: would we want to live in that world, with all its particulars?
In researching ruling class worldviews, I am paying particular attention the the United Nations’ Agenda 21 and the Earth Summits. Many academics and NGOs are not only excited about the developments in the last 17 years from the Earth Summits, but actively participating in them. Further, many local environmental activists are campaigning for Local Agenda 21 plans, and the movement as a whole are either knowingly or unknowingly adopting many of the positions from these sources. Is this a positive development? What might come along with this project?
Thoughts on Paul Hawken and Blessed Unrest by Ben Brucato, September, 2009:
One Big Movement
In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken discusses the history of ideas and action of “a broad nonideological movement” that “has come into being that does not invoke the masses’ fantasized will but rather engages citizens’ localized needs” (18). This movement offers “thousands of practical and useful [ideas]” and “processes, concerns, and compassion” and is “eminently pragmatic” (ibid.).
The movement that Hawken is dealing with “has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (12). He explores dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of environmental destruction, human rights abuses and the decimation of aboriginal culture, some with passing comments and others with great elaboration. However, we see few mentions of particular organizations or coalitions of organizations mobilizing against a particular offender or groups of offenders with a particular single-issue campaign or as part of a broad reform or revolutionary movement. The avoidance of particulars of the movement while being particular about what they oppose is deliberate. The more he veils the conglomeration of thousands of organizations and corporations comprised by hundreds of thousands of individuals, the easier it is for him to suggest they are part of one great whole. We should, as Hawken suggests, see that “the movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea,” (18) but that this is one big movement.