Joanne Knight

January 14, 2009

Environmental Frankensteins

Filed under: environment — joanneknight @ 10:39 pm
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Written on 8 Jul 2008

. . . the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

By ignoring two key features of the Garnaut Report (exempting petrol from the carbon trading scheme and compensating electricity generators), it is clear that the Federal Government, under the thrall of free market economics, is incapable of divesting itself of corporate control. The Frankenstein-list of solutions proposed by corporations to global warming include nuclear power and genetically-modified food. These are simply the same commodity-focussed, profit-driven solutions that have led the global economy (and now the environment) to the brink of collapse, having increased poverty and the wealth gap.

In May, the National Australia Bank cut its 2008-09 winter crop forecast by 5% to 37 million tonnes. A large proportion of Australia’s grain growing areas failed to achieve average spring rain. The market answer to a bad harvest: drive up the price so rich speculators can make more money on futures contracts. Meanwhile farmers cannot make a living and agribusiness descends to take over the farm.

After 30 years of market-driven poverty alleviation programs, developing countries are a social and environmental disaster. The Gross Domestic Product of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s seven richest people combined. Almost 1 billion people suffer from hunger, yet 1.2 billion suffer from obesity.

The market answer to the food crisis and climate change is Genetically Modified Food. Biotech companies are asserting that farmers cannot prevail against climate change without genetic engineering. The world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations, Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, and Dow, along with biotech partners such as Mendel, Ceres, and Evogene, have acquired patents and patent applications for climate-proof genetic traits, especially related to drought and extreme temperatures. Globally, the top 10 seed corporations already control 57% of commercial seed sales. It is a proprietary approach that seeks to expand an industrial model of agriculture, one which will concentrate corporate control, further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds and divert resources from affordable, farmer-based strategies for climate change adaptation.

Sales strategy disguised as philanthropy is spreading this technology to developing countries. Monsanto and BASF are working with national agricultural research programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa to develop drought-tolerant corn, which will open African markets for high-tech seeds accompanied by intellectual property laws, seed regulations, and other products and practices amenable to agribusiness. Governments in developing countries are so desperate to earn foreign exchange that they are selling their countries’ agricultural productivity to corporations.

In a genuinely democratic system, the needs of the poor would never be excluded. However, corporations constantly maneuver to avoid the consequences of democratic demands. The reaction by corporations to calls to clean up polluting industries is to move them to developing countries while still producing for profit for developed countries. Researchers found that US imports of goods from China cause a greater production of carbon dioxide than if the goods were made in the US. Factories in developing nations tend to use more energy than in the West. Thus in order for rich countries to ‘reduce’ their green house gas emissions they move the emissions to another country.

Corporate-controlled institutions, such as the WTO, fail to understand or respond to democratic processes. The decision-making processes of such bodies have led to the exclusion of the interests of most of the Earth’s people. Trade negotiations are structured in such a way to obstruct genuine participation by citizens and organisations acting on their behalf. Any mechanisms for participation reproduce the WTO logic that only groups with a ‘legitimate’ interest in the organisation’s work, defined as having a ‘direct interest in issues of production, distribution and consumption’, are entitled to a say. It seems that even when corporations attempt to institute inclusive processes they fail. At heart there is no motivation and no understanding. Corporations are blind to the legitimate demands of ordinary people.

Unless there is a move towards including the valid concerns of developing countries and ordinary citizens, our capacity to deal with climate change will be extremely limited. Tom Athanasiou, director of EcoEquity, a green think tank, argues that the only way developing countries are going to make significant reductions in emissions, without compromising their development prospects, is if the wealthy countries provide them with the technology and development assistance necessary to do so.

Under the influence of corporate globalization, the decision-making structures of democratic countries have been reduced to technocratic management of large, unresponsive, bureaucratic, and unaccountable institutions. The demands of the people are dismissed as ‘populism’ but populism began as a farmer’s movement demanding rights to land. Now it is typically associated with ‘the pathologies of the masses’: nationalism, xenophobia and calls for moral and racial purity.

René Cuperus of the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, think tank of the Dutch Labor Party, argues that the rise of populism could be a legitimate warning against technocratic policy making, against new inequalities, and the failures of representative democracy. In this sense of the word, populism must never be demonized and underestimated. He suggest that it may be an alarm indicating a crisis of representation or a communication breakdown between elites and ordinary people resulting in popular revolts, such as the recent food riots in Haiti.

Dr Janette Hartz-Karp, Associate Professor at the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP) Murdoch University, argues that to deal with the complexity of climate change and oil dependency, much of the adaptation needed will take place at a local level. However, local level adaptation can run into problems from individualistic attitudes and behaviours, such as the ‘not in my backyard’ (‘NIMBY’) syndrome; the tragedy of the commons (‘I don’t want a new freeway outside my house either but I’m still going to buy a second car that will contribute to the need for more freeways’); and the difficulty of reducing ‘ecological footprints’ when the full impact of that footprint is not felt locally (when environmental impacts such as waste are shifted large distances into someone else’s ‘backyard’). These attitudes work against the common good.

Dr Hartz-Karp pioneered a system of deliberative democracy. Deliberative Democracy envisions that a representative group of ordinary citizens selected by random sampling (as opposed to the 2020 Summit), comes together to deliberate on issues important to society. Disparate people have the opportunity to engage in egalitarian discourse on a public issue. The hope is that through respectful, informed dialogue, participants will solve problems creatively and find common ground that reflects the universal good. This system requires a reversion back to democratic basics, heeding the informed will of the people, in an environment that seeks to discover aggregate, communitarian viewpoints.

The need for urgent action on climate change has prompted calls for an oligarchy of scientists and technocrats to take over and declarations that democracy has failed. These calls come in response to the domination and failure by corporations and free market fundamentalists. A system of true democracy would involve people in meaningful decision-making and would ensure that all voices are attended to as we tackle climate change.


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