By Walden Bello
(This article also appears in Red Pepper, September 2002)
Ten years after the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development, the global environmental situation is unarguably worse. The main culprit: an unchecked capitalist mode of production that unceasingly transforms nature’s bounty into commodities and incessantly creates new demands. Capitalism constantly erodes man and woman’s being-in-nature (creature) and being-in-society (citizen) and, even as it drains them of life energy as workers, it moulds their consciousness around one role: that of consumer. Capitalism has many “laws of motion,” but one of the most destructive as far as the environment goes is Say’s law, which is that supply creates its own demand. Capitalism is a demand-creating machine that transforms living nature into dead commodities, natural wealth into dead capital.

Capitalism has expanded unevenly, being now overdeveloped in its heartland in the North and underdeveloped in the periphery. Thus its environmental impact has likewise been differentially distributed. Nothing captures this better than the difference in per capita greenhouse gas emissions: one American emits as much as 17 Maldiveans, 19 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 49 Sri Lankans, 107 Bangladeshis, 134 Bhutanese, and 269 Nepalis.

The global impact of the superdeveloped capitalist North may, in fact, be greater than the comparative statistics reveal. For in response to the rise of the environmental movement, the North has displaced ecological disequilibrium to the South. Perhaps paradigmatic in this regard is the way Japanese capital has lived up to environmental standards in the homeland by accelerating its consumption of nature and creation of waste to East and Southeast Asia. Japanese consumption, for instance, was responsible for up to 70 per cent of timber logged–most of it illegally–in the Philippines from the fifties to the nineties. Japanese consumption of commodities produced from a safe distance drove the uncontrolled toxification that accompanied the massive transfer of Japan’s pollution-intensive and labor-intensive manufacturing facilities to that region beginning in the late 1960s.

Today, European and US capital have joined Japanese capital in making cheap-labor, pollution-friendly China both the workshop and the wastebasket of the world. What is happening to China and East Asia today is, however, only the latest phase of capitalist globalization’s 150-year-old process of displacing the environmental costs of global capitalist production and consumption from the center to the subordinate parts of the world economy.

Ten years ago, George Bush Senior torpedoed the Rio Summit by saying “America’s lifestyle is not up for negotiation.” The Europeans and the Japanese feigned horror, but the next ten years showed that consumption was king for them too, and that ever escalating consumption was the common recipe for keeping the global capitalist economy going. The Group of Seven has essentially served as a forum to negotiate which capitalist center would serve at which period as the consumption-engine of the global economy. The so-called management of the international economy is essentially a process of determining which center would accelerate its conversion of nature into commodity and commodity into waste.

Today, the Johannesburg Summit is stillborn, killed over a year before it was held by George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw the world’s prime capitalist power from being party to the Kyoto Climate Change protocol. This is capitalism stripped of its liberal face, capitalism that reveals its essential nature as an enemy of nature. The Japanese and European elites pretend to be upset, but what they are most upset about is the Americans’ frank acknowledgment of the basic dynamic of the system of production they all share: that its continuing expansion must be achieved via an accelerated consumption and toxification of nature.

Johannesburg will be a mixture of corporate greenwashing, American bullying, European holier-than-thou posturing, third world leaders begging for aid in return for more pro-corporate liberalization, and the World Trade Organization hijacking the environment in the service of free trade. It is one more UN conference bound for ignominious failure.

This failure comes at a time when Latin America is exploding in rebellion against neo-liberal economics and lack of accountability and systemic corporate criminality has eroded the credibility of corporate capitalism in the United States, with 72 per cent of Americans feeling that corporations have too much power over their lives.

It comes at a time when, owing to the crisis of overproduction or overcapacity, global capitalism’s ability to consume its way out of crisis is stymied. The US, Japan, Europe, and East Asia—the engines of consumption-driven growth–now face the spectre of a synchronized downspin. What analysts from Marx to Schumpeter have discerned as self-destructive dynamics of the capitalist system is developing as nature’s revolt becomes more and more evident each day and as consumers throughout the world are turning into citizens determined to regain community, to recreate a social solidarity that has been undermined by capitalism.

Johannesburg may well be remembered a significant signpost in the struggle between capitalism and the environment, capitalism and community. Which side will prevail remains to be seen.

*Executive Director of Focus on the Global South.