Under the Green Thumb: Imperialist Uses of Ecology

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Under the Green Thumb: Imperialist Uses of Ecology

by Richard England

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1974, p. 12 – 15

A number of influential commentators in the United States have recently begun to argue that economic development in the Third World would be incompatible with natural resource conservation and pollution control on a global scale. Robert Heilbroner1, for example, has flatly asserted that “the underdeveloped countries can never hope to achieve parity with the developed countries. Given our present and prospective technology, there are simply not enough resources to permit a “Western” rate of industrial exploitation to be expanded to a population of four billion … persons.”2 He adds that “it is only in our time that we are reaching the ceiling of earthly carrying capacity, not on a local but on a global basis. Indeed … we are well past that capacity, provided that the level of resource intake and waste output represented by the average American or European is taken as a standard to be achieved by all humanity.”3 

George Kennan4, a man known to have had some impact on international politics, has argued along similar lines. According to Kennan, “a number of the existing (international) organizations, including particularly ones connected with the United Nations, have primarily a developmental focus; yet developmental considerations are frequently in conflict with the needs of environmental conservation… There is a considerable body of opinion, particularly in U.N. circles, to the effect that it is a mistake to separate the function of conservation and protection of natural resources from that of the development and exploitation of these resources for productive purposes. . . This writer must respectfully disagree . . . It may be boldly asserted that of the two purposes in question, conservation should come first.”5 

This sort of formulation of the global environmental problem is dangerous for it can easily lead to two false conclusions: (1) that economic development in the Third World is the primary threat to world ecological stability and (2) that Western opposition to Third World development is motivated by ecological considerations. Nevertheless, reasoning of this type has already begun to take hold in some quarters. U.S. law, for example, now requires that potential environmental side-effects be considered in the granting of American development loans.6 In addition, English opponents of the Murchison Falls hydroelectric scheme in Uganda have pressured the British government to withdraw financial Support from the project because of its effects on stream flow through the Murchison gorge.7 Finally, the World Bank is drafting standards “to evaluate the ecological consequences of Bank-financed projects.”8

The Major Threat to the Environment

Despite these fears about Third World economic development, it is in fact the developed countries of North America, Europe, and Japan which pose the major threat to the global environment. The developed countries, which account for only 30 percent of the world’s population, discharge at least 80 percent of the global flow of many pollutants.9 The United States alone, with only 6 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 32 percent of the man-made carbon dioxide flow into the atmosphere.10 This reflects the twin facts that U.S. energy consumption is 35 percent of the world total and that 96 percent of U.S. energy is generated by the combustion of (exhaustible) carbon fuels.11 It is clear, therefore, that it is the developed countries, and not the poor countries, which are responsible for the preponderant share of resource depletion and environmental pollution in the world. 

This relatively heavy strain which the wealthy countries impose on the global environment stems from a variety of social and economic causes. As Barry Commoner has pointed out, the rapid growth of pollution in the U.S. economy since World War II cannot be totally explained by the growth of U.S. population and per capita gross national product (GNP): the amount of pollution per dollar of real GNP has been increasing as well.12 What Commoner failed to discuss is why capitalist economies, like that of the United States, tend to produce relatively high and even growing quantities of pollutants per unit of GNP.13

The fundamental reason is that where private firms organize production and seek private profits, there is a strong incentive built into the economy to freely discharge untreated wastes in order to avoid pollution abatement costs and thereby realize higher profits. The economic consequences of this profit incentive are that (1) firms tend to skimp on waste purification and recycling investments in favor of outlays on productive capacity, and that (2) products which are waste-prone in their production and use comprise too large a proportion of GNP. For example, because steel mills, tire factories, cement plants, and petroleum factories have been permitted to discharge their effluents relatively indiscriminately, automobile transportation has been relatively underpriced and overconsumed in the U.S. compared to public transportation. 

A number of establishment economists have suggested that national governments levy pollution taxes on untreated waste discharges in order to induce business firms and households to undertake more waste purification and recycling efforts.14 This suggestion overlooks the restraints which international trade competition imposes on the domestic policies of capitalist governments. Each capitalist state will be reluctant to adopt stringent national pollution controls if it believes that its own export prices will be driven up relative to those of its trading rivals.15 

However, even if reasonably stiff pollution taxes or emission standards were imposed on their private sectors, thereby inducing a decline in the quantities of effluents discharged per unit of GNP, capitalist economies would still be environmentally destructive in several respects. In the first place, the affluent economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan not only discharge a great deal of pollutants per unit of production but also produce unnecessarily large per capita GNP’s compared to their standards of living .. This is because the measurement of GNP includes a great deal of wasteful production, such as military hardware and product duplication, which doesn’t satisfy the essential needs of the population. A prime illustration of this is the fact that a substantial portion of health care expenditures included in GNP go to remedy the detrimental effects of the pollutants discharged during the production of the rest of the GNP. 

The control which a few large firms exercise in many industries leads to non-price competition in the form of large advertising outlays, frequent model and styling changes, and brand proliferation.16 An immediate correspondence of this product obsolescence is that high rates of production (and environmental costs) are required in order to replace and expand rapidly depreciating stocks of consumer goods. For example, suppose it were desirable to maintain an operating stock of ten million motor vehicles in the U.S. If cars, busses, and trucks had an average economic life of five years, it would be necessary to produce two million junked vehicles per year. If, on the other hand, the economic life of motor vehicles were ten years, current production and disposal requirements would fall to one million units per year.17

Rapid product obsolescence is not, however, the only ecological irrationality of capitalist economies. The emphasis on individual, rather than social, consumption in the affluent West means that relatively large stocks of consumer goods are necessary in order to maintain any particular standard of living. Individual consumption results in high environmental costs for several reasons. First, most types of consumer durables in advanced capitalist countries are substantially underutilized. Most private autos, for instance, are not in use at any particular time and consequently are not creating transportation services. In addition, these unutilized autos create severe storage problems in urban areas. Every single-family suburban dwelling has its own complement of household appliances, which are also used only periodically. 

Second, the emphasis on individual consumption prevents the realization of economies of scale in the provision of various consumer services. The continuing suburbanization of U.S. cities, for example, makes the provision of water and sewage treatment systems increasingly costly. It also dictates that increasing numbers of American school children be driven long distances to their schools, a practice which is both financially expensive and ecologically destructive. 

However, the most serious environmental defect of private enterprise economies is their dependence on future economic growth in order to avoid present mass unemployment and depression. In advanced Western economies, total consumer spending is wholly inadequate to fully utilize all available productive capacity and employ all workers, even with the expansion of consumer credit and corporate advertising.18

As a result, capitalist economies require high levels of private investment spending, export sales, and government purchases as a means of averting depression. But private firms are willing to invest now only if they anticipate that their new capital equipment will be profitably utilized in the future as production and sales expand. The ecological dilemma is that these future increases in GNP certainly result in more rapid depletion of exhaustible raw materials and may result in growing pollution even if pollution taxes and emission standards succeed in lowering the quantity of pollution per unit of GNP. 

The New Economic Policy (NEP) of the Nixon administration relied heavily on corporate tax credits to spur private investment spending and thereby increase the rate of employment.19 To a lesser extent, the NEP also depended on the repeal of federal excise taxes on motor vehicles to stimulate production and employment in the automotive sector. From the standpoint of environmental protection, these particular types of fiscal policy perpetuate the dependence of the U.S. economy on future economic growth and imply larger waste loads and natural resource demands in the future. Increased government spending on social consumption would be a fiscal stimulus with far sounder environmental implications. 

Since it is unlikely that the developed countries will reduce their own rates of economic growth or reduce their own waste discharges it is not surprising that they are attempting to inhibit the industrialization of the Third World by an undue concern for environmental effects. 

Third World Development 

When one looks at the economic dealings which the advanced, capitalist countries have with the Third World, there is also good reason to be critical. The recently announced plans of the Ford Motor Company to invest nearly $1 billion in the Asian auto market by 1980 are a prime example.20 The primitive “Asian Model T” which Ford expects to produce and market in Southeast Asia will certainly not incorporate adequate exhaust emission devices. More importantly, this type of foreign investment, in addition to being highly profitable for Ford, tends to structure the technology and economy of the developing country so that the same social class patterns found in Western society are developed in that country. This type of economic development would reproduce in the Third World those styles and patterns of private production and individual consumption already so environmentally destructive in the West. The power of these newly created technical professional and business interests to sabotage attempts at social change has been adequately documented in the case of India21 and Chile.22

Saigon is a chilling omen of what could happen to all of Southeast Asia: the thousands of motorcycles and other vehicles which congest the streets of Saigon have already begun to stunt the graceful trees lining its boulevards. According to the New York Times, 

Japanese consumer goods, television sets, radios, water pumps and diesel engines, some of the goods that have flooded the South Vietnamese market . . . are beginning to be produced by Japanese manufacturers here (in Vietnam)—the latest sign of their growing economic interest in Vietnam.23

Of course, the issue is not whether the Vietnamese standard of living should rise. Rather, the issue is that the Vietnamese should decide what particular kinds of products they will produce and import, how equally these commodities will be distributed, and how great their environmental impacts will be. The plans of Japanese and other foreign firms to impose these decisions on the Vietnamese have political and environmental implications for all of Southeast Asia.

While international financial organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund prevent the self-industrialization of the developing countries under the guise of environmental protection, the multi-national corporations with their easy access to capital funds are penetrating these economies and locating ecologically disruptive operations within their boundaries.24 This serves to increase the dependence of the Third World on Western capital and to eliminate the third world as a competitive threat in world markets. 

What has not yet been fully recognized in the West is that there is an alternative approach to economic development which is apparently more compatible with resource conservation and pollution abatement—the Chinese model. According to Professor John Gurley, 

Maoists believe that, while a principal aim of nations should be to raise the level of material welfare of the population, this should be done only within the context of the development of human beings and of encouraging them to realize their manifold creative powers. And it should be done on an egalitarian basis . . . Maoists seem perfectly willing to pursue the goal of transforming man even though it is temporarily at the expense of some economic growth.25

The concrete effects of this social ethic on the Chinese environment have included “action in such areas as afforestation, water conservancy, land reclamation, and sanitation and public health.”26 Even more striking is 

the concept of comprehensive use, introduced as a Maoist injunction to workers and peasants to recover and reuse (recycle) industrial and agricultural wastes. Although the comprehensive-use concept had its foundations in perceived conditions of scarcity and in Maoist frugality as a response to these conditions, it has nevertheless been explicitly linked to environmental quality . . . There are indications that Chinese science and technology is being asked to focus more of its attention on comprehensive utilization . . . to supplement the innovations of workers and peasants.27

It is probable that the particular .type of economic development which U.S. administrations have opposed so vigorously for twenty-five years, namely the Maoist model, is environmentally superior to the style of development which the U.S. government has promoted in the poor countries. 

The inescapable conclusion is that the defeat of imperialism is necessary, not only to eliminate alienation and ensure world peace, but also to protect the global environment which rightfully belongs to the whole of mankind. 


>>  Back to Vol. 6, No. 1  <<



  1. Robert Heilbroner is a left-liberal economist at the New School for Social Research whose earlier book The Great Ascent called for rapid economic development in the Third World. His uncritical conversion to environmental conservatism reveals the shallowness of his commitment to Third World development.
  2. Robert Heilbroner, “Ecological Armageddon,” Between Capitalism and Socialism (Vintage, 1970), p. 280.
  3. Ibid., p. 271.
  4. George Kennan, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and Belgrade, is well known for his influential article in Foreign Affairs after World War II which argued that the U.S. must “contain” the “aggressive” Soviet bloc. Since his impact on the formulation of foreign policy during the Cold War was considerable, it is interesting to note his current interest in the global environment.
  5. George Kennan, “To Prevent a World Wasteland: A Proposal,” Foreign Affairs, April, 1970, pp. 407-8.
  6. Clifford Russell and Hans Landsberg, “International Environmental Problems — A Taxonomy,” Science, June 25, 1971, p. 1311.
  7. Ibid., p. 1309.
  8. Michael Hoffman, “Development Finance and the Environment,” Finance and Development, September, 1970, p. 3.
  9. David Leff, “A Meeting in Prague,” Environment, November, 1971, p. 29.
  10. Walter Spofford, “Decision-Making Under Uncertainty: The Case of Carbon Dioxide Buildup in the Atmosphere,” (Resources for the Future, 1970, mimeo), p. 17.
  11. Chauncey Starr, “Energy and Power,” Scientific American, September, 1971, pp. 39 and 42.
  12. Barry Commoner, “The Causes of Pollution,” Environment, April, 1971.
  13. Of course, not all the developed countries have private enterprise economies, and Western capitalism is not the only economic system that generates pollution and resource depletion. The Soviet Union has a centrally-planned, state socialist economy and yet still has serious environmental problems. This does not imply, however, that “technology” is more important than economic organization in determining the severity of a society’s environmental impact. It simply suggests that both the capitalist and the Soviet economies currently lack environmentally sound social institutions. For a discussion of why the Soviet economy is environmentally unsound. see Marshall Goldman, “The Convergence of Environmental Disruption,” Science, October 2, 1970.
  14. For examples of this approach, see Larry Ruff, “The Economic Common Sense of Pollution,” The Public Interest, Spring, 1970; and E. J. Mishan, The Costs of Economic Growth (Praeger, 1967), ch. 4-6.
  15. It is probably the recognition of this point that led Kennan to call for the creation of an international agency, to be controlled by the dozen leading industrial and maritime nations, which would formulate and enforce emission standards for global pollutants. See George Kennan, Op. Cit.
  16. For a discussion of why oligopolistic competition leads to non-price competition and price fixing, see Joe S. Bain, Industrial Organization (Wiley, 1959), p. 321.
  17. Kenneth Boulding has been arguing for twenty years that consumer welfare depends on the use of stocks of consumer goods and not on the purchase of newly-produced consumer goods. Increased product durability would mean that the same population could enjoy the same standard of living with less production taking place. See Boulding’s “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” in Henry Jarrett (ed.) Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Johns Hopkins, 1966).
  18. Some economists believe that this inadequacy of consumer spending reflects the unequal distribution of incomes and wealth in capitalist economies. For a discussion of the possibility of using a guaranteed annual income in order to stimulate consumer growth, see Warren Johnson, “The Guaranteed Income as an Environmental Measure,” in Warren Johnson and John Hardesty (eds.) Economic Growth vs. the Environment (Wadsworth, 1971).
  19. Nixon’s contention that tax relief for monopoly capitalists is justified by the “depressed” condition of corporate profits has been ably refuted by Professor Robert Eisner. Successive postwar “liberalizations” of corporate tax laws have permitted large companies to treat an increasing portion of their real profits as “depreciation costs.” During the first half of 1971, after-tax profits plus depredation allowances as a percent of gross corporate product were approximately the same as the average fraction from 1946 to 1970-about 18 percent. See Robert Eisner, “Are Corporate Profits Low?” New York Times, October 20, 1971.
  20. See “Ford in Asia,” written by the Brain Mistrust research collective, in American Report, December 10, 1971.
  21. Thomas Weisskopf, “Dependence and Imperialism in India,” The Review of Radical Political Economics, Spring, 1973, p. 76.
  22. David Barkin, “Quick Coup or Slow Strangulation?” Science for the People, November, 1973, p. 21.
  23. “Japanese Stakes in Vietnam Rise,” New York Times, October 12, 1971.
  24. The military government of Brazil has already embraced this sort of national policy. According to Joao Velloso the Brazilian planning minister, “Brazil can become the importer’ of pollution … We have a lot left to pollute… And if we don’t do it some other country will.” (The New York Times, February 13, 1972)
  25. John Gurley, “Capitalist and Maoist Economic Developmen t,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, June, 1970, pp. 38-40. Gurley’s description of Maoist economics is similar to Schumacher’s characterization of traditional Buddhist economics. See E. F. Schumacher, “Buddhist Economics,” in Warren Johnson and John Hardesty (eds.), Op. Cit.
  26. Leo Orleans and Richard Suttmeier, “The Mao Ethic and Environmental Quality,” Science, December 11, 1970; p. 1174.
  27. Ibid., p. 1175.