The problems of restricting the worldwide damage to the environment resulting from human economic activity and pandemics are extremely severe, complex and diverse. One set of critical challenges is to solve severe problems which damage people’s welfare in the poorer countries of the world in which the great majority of the world’s population live.These challenges are huge, extremely difficult but essential to be confronted and overcome quickly. They are all primarily political, But there are significant ways in which academics other than scientists can help to find solutions, some of which are discussed here.
1.Neglect of Basic Services Provision in Poor Countries
Basic infrastructural investment in poor countries – in particular investment in provision of clean water, adequate sanitation and electrical connection has been grossly neglected, as has the need for supply of healthy nutrition of poor people throughout the world.
About 2 billion people in poor countries have neither an electricity supply nor adequate sanitation, and about 1 billion lack a safe water supply. The principal reason for persistence of these problems is that no means have been found of financing the expenditure to create the infrastructure necessary to provide and run these essential basic services.
Between 1945 and 1990, many governments of poor countries used state-owned monopolies to provide these services. But these organizations made heavy losses which governments found impossible to finance, so they were not expanded further. Between 1990 and 1997, there was very rapid growth in privately financed infrastructure projects. Average annual private investment in poor countries’ basic infrastructure projects in the 1990s was about $60 billion per year. This was during a period in which private investment for infrastructure projects in developing countries was higher than it has ever been before or since. But after 1997, private investment dropped sharply as a consequence mainly of the understandable disappointment of private investors with the financial returns they had received from their investments. At the same time, critics of privately financed infrastructure suggested that access to services by poor people had become less affordable. (Harris, 2003, p.41). Grace Blakeley (2020) has suggested that very high priority should be given to a debt write off for the Global South. If this can be achieved by international agreement, ways could surely be found of linking debt write off to the financing of basic infrastructural investment in those countries.
2. Severe Deficiencies in Provision of Adequate Nutrition and Environmental Implications
About a third of global greenhouse emissions are now created by the industrial food system which includes agricultural production, land use change and deforestation, as well as processing, transport, packing and retailing.(Crippa,et al 2021). During the last century, the world’s agricultural and food system dominated by capitalism has indeed increased total food production immensely to attempt to cope with very rapid growth in the total world population. The rapid growth in human populations has also been facilitated by the growth in output from the world’s agricultural and food system. But many national systems have been converted to export-oriented agriculture, at the same time as countries have been forced to open their own markets to food imports, including imports dumped on them by US and EU companies at less than the cost of production. As a result, millions of small farmers have had their livelihoods destroyed. In contrast, very high proportions of the world food and agricultural industries – including seeds, pesticides and retailers – have been concentrated into the hands of very few major multinational corporations for many years.This is only in the interests of the those companies’ shareholders and entirely against the interests of consumers and workers.(Patel,2007,pp99-118 and Lakhani et al, 2021)
Capitalists influence policies at all levels. They control global food chains and those for non-food agricultural products, as well as markets for inputs, especially seeds. Too many consumers are forced to rely on industrially produced ‘cheap foods’. Globalized trade is defended and enforced by many states and multilateral agencies. Threats to production from climate change are intensifying and wreaking havoc on production in many of the world’s poorest regions. (Edelman et al, 2014, p. 927).
Many large capitalist farms use intensive production methods, often focusing on the use of monoculture. Increasingly they dominate agriculture world-wide. Capitalist corporations expel peasants and pastoralists from their land to secure large areas of land to produce food for export to rich countries or to produce crops to be converted into fuels. These farms require large inputs such as water, fertilizers and pesticides The top priority of the capitalist corporations who own these farms is to derive the maximum profit from their operations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been one of the Foundations “with unprecedented financial power to shape the agricultural development agenda.” (Mc Keon 2015, 25) This Foundation has been one of many which has supported corporate sector interests including agricultural intensification. (McKeon, 2015).
The food and drinks produced by intensive farming followed by intensive manufacturing processes are generally neither tasty, nutritious nor conducive to human health (Blythman, 2015). Capitalist farming increasingly uses monoculture, intensive methods of farming, mechanized tillage and makes increasing use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, which cause soil erosion and depletion of nutrients in the soil. Biodiversity is diminished by intensive, large-scale production methods which concentrate on a very restricted range of crop varieties. Since 1970 there has been a 68 percent decrease in the world population of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. It is urgent to stop biodiversity loss. Total material consumption in developed economies needs to be reduced, nature needs to be accounted for in economic decision making and governments and businesses need to adopt new ways to avoid, mitigate and remedy the deterioration of nature. Better ways are urgently need to be adopted to appraise investment projects and identify sustainable development. (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2021,p5)
Food for healthy nutrition has not become available for all the world’s population. Less than 60% of the world’s population consumes an adequate amount and quality of food to maintain health. About 28% of consumers eat too little food and 15% consume too much, which can result in obesity and chronic conditions as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These effects are partly the result of fast food consumption which is heavily promoted by large capitalist firms, and which has been increasing in many countries (Foresight, 2011, pp. 9–10, Schlosser, 2002, pp. 241–42). Substantial production of food which instead of meeting people’s food needs makes them obese and unhealthy is a waste of resources: inevitably it also creates excessive global warming, pollution and other environmental damage.
In contrast, traditional farming systems used by peasants and smallholders typically involves greater diversity of crops, year-round vegetation cover, lower levels of inputs including energy, and less unused waste. For such reasons, they can be far less damaging to the environment.
Food sovereignty offers enormous possibilities, drawing on agro-ecological approaches to production, concentrating on local, national and regional markets, and emphasizing access to and control of natural resources by local populations (McKeon, 2015, pp. 3-8). There has been rationalisation and intensification of farming in relation to food from animals as well as in arable agriculture. This has caused extensive air, water and land pollution and environmental degradation together with favourable conditions for new deadly pandemics.
It is probable that the worldwide application of Food Sovereignty principles could result in a far more effective system of agricultural and food production involving substantially less damage to the environment than the present systems which are thoroughly dysfunctional from every point of view except for the benefits to large corporations in terms of profitability. The present dominant global agriculture and food systems are inefficient in terms of the excessive resources used and wasted to feed each consumer with one unit of wholesome edible nutrition. There is abundant data which demonstrates that there is an urgent need for them to be reformed radically.
3.Creation by Capitalism of Favourable Conditions for New Deadly Pandemics
Wet markets in which relatively rich people buy exotic killed wild animals, and the trade in those animals are only symptoms of the diseases of industrial capitalism which heats and poisons the atmosphere, land, oceans, seas and rivers, animals and plants. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger humanity worldwide by helping to unleash new deadly pandemics. The increasingly intensive agricultural and food involves land grabs into remaining primary forest, drives deforestation and development leading to the emergence of pandemic diseases. There have been dozens of outbreaks of disease emanating from these practices. Contact tracing linked the infections which caused the Covid-19 pandemic back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, China, where several types of wild animals were sold.
Over millions of years, zoonotic pathogens such as viruses have lived on various animals causing them few problems. Animals and viruses co-exist: tropical forests house the largest numbers of all sorts of species – including both pathogens and their hosts: animals. But since the 1940s more than 300 new infectious diseases have occurred including HIV, Zika, Ebola, Sars, Mers, and many new strains of flu. Previously unknown microbes migrate from other animals to human beings in continual “zoonotic spillovers”. The main causes of this have been habitat destruction -mainly deforestation and capitalist industrialised agriculture – which includes huge numbers of pigs, cows or chickens being forced to live together in concentration, in close contact with human beings. Pathogens find new hosts when they are excreted by host animals. Most excretions do not have significant results for new hosts because there are generally strong barriers preventing transmission to a new host. But occasionally, those barriers disappear and the parasite finds a new host in which it undergoes multiple genetic modifications which assist it to multiply rapidly. A “livestock revolution” started in the USA. It involves billions of animals – pigs, cows and chickens being confined in colossal facilities which produce billions of animals to be slaughtered and sold to companies as meat. This revolution is now spreading worldwide.
Genetic monocultures of domestic animals remove whatever immune firebreaks may have been available to slow down pathogen transmission. Many new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world. Miniscule infectious parasites first reside in animal hosts and then jump into humans. Such a pathogen can be a virus, a fungus a bacterium or an amoeba Huge animal population sizes and densities facilitate transmission: crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible animals. This provides the fuel for the evolution of virulence. So these facilities are liable to be afflicted with viruses from the wild, for example from excretions from bats flying over huge pig farms. Previously contained pathogens can spill over into local livestock and human communities.
The capitalist corporations running these facilities now externalize the costs of their epidemiologically dangerous operations onto everyone else. As with Covid-19, the diseases generated from animals in these facilities are liable to turn into pandemics which spread from the animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers and local environments across the world. (Malm, 2020, Wallace, 2020).
Current policies to restrain environmental damage focus very strongly on attempting ineffectively to contain global warming; but there are other extremely important related policy issues – in particular those related to the damage caused by extraction of enormous quantities of minerals from the earth; together with those related to the damage caused by economic activities which reduce the biodiversity of the plants and animals which live on earth and which contribute to the ability of human beings to survive healthily.
It is essential for solutions to the world’s environmental problems to be holistic. It will not, for example, be adequate to develop policies to restrict the damage caused by climate change if such policies do little to contain the problems caused by mineral extraction, or even exacerbate them.
Some Governments have indeed become increasingly concerned to restrain global warming and environmental pollution. But their efforts to move in such directions have been severely restricted by major corporations’ ability to offer governments large benefits in terms of economic growth in return for not ’interfering’ with their operations. Foley et al (2016) suggest that companies need to change their focus from increasing shareholder value to a broader focus on all stakeholders so as to contribute towards sustainability. But it is difficult to see what stimuli could be provided to drive such radical change. In contrast, Adler wrote wisely:
Following Polanyi’s line of reasoning, we are led, I believe, to conclude that
the nature of the capitalist system drives far too many enterprises toward
environmentally destructive practices, drives far too few enterprises toward
stewardship practices, and ensures that governments will fail to meet the
resulting sustainability challenge. My reading of Polanyi suggests that enterprises
in a capitalist economy cannot change their environmental practices far
or fast enough to avert environmental crisis – neither spontaneously under the
influence of wiser corporate leaders, nor pushed by greener consumers, and
not even forced by more active government regulation (Adler, 2015, page 4)
But many economists believe that market and price changes could make very substantial contributions to solutions of environmental problems. Such views are now highly influential in the formation of policies, but there are very serious doubt on their efficacy. By the late twentieth century, after considerable political and economic twists and turns, laissez-faire followed by neoliberal ‘creeds’ had been adopted by many governments throughout the world – including, for example in Russia, together with its previous satellite states in the Soviet Union – after the Soviet Union ended its communist ‘experiment’. There are ever-increasing numbers and varieties of geographical locations of excessive commodity production and consumption as capitalists (whether indigenous to a country or originating in other countries) in search of increasing profits make and market an ever-increasing range of commodities in greater numbers of countries. Locations of commodity production change as capitalists in search of profits close down production facilities in some countries and establish new production facilities in other countries, e.g. because it is more profitable to do this as a consequence of lower labour costs in new countries. Both gaining and losing major employment opportunities causes huge amounts of disruption to people’s lives and the environment.
Conventional economists still tend to assume at least implicitly that there is still an ‘invisible hand’ which assures that consumer demand is the main driver of what is produced in capitalist economies. Such an assumption may have had some validity in the late eighteenth century. It was based on economies at the time, in which most suppliers supplied traditional products such as wheat, wool, meat, beer and horse driven vehicles which had been made in small quantities and great variety locally by traditional methods out of traditional materials for several centuries.
But well before the end of the twentieth century, mass factory production of new products from automobiles and aircraft to packaged foods manufactured by new methods, using new materials and components – from fertilizers and pesticide to Information Technology devices and systems – together with enormous expansion of transportation of materials, components marketing and advertising – had rendered such assumptions invalid. A large majority of strategic developments had been implemented by companies often in consultation with governments and substantial financial support from them, but with little input from consumer choice. And monumental expenditure on advertising and other forms of promotion surely had substantial influence on consumers’ decisions to buy ‘avalanches of consumer goods’. Moreover, only a small minority of companies’ and governments’ choices and decisions take environmental considerations such as global warming into sufficient account. And, various parts of the same Government’s policies can have contradictory environmental effects. For example, China’s government is the most prominent in the world in promoting production and sales of electric cars – ostensibly to reduce cars’ impact on the environment. But at the same time, the Chinese government also provides by far the world’s largest fossil fuel subsidies (Bloomberg,2021)
The principal solutions offered by conventional economists towards solution of these problems have involved creation of carbon markets Such measures are both ineffective now and unlikely to be effective in the future, in consequence of the inherent enormous complications involved in implementing them, and the serious inaccuracies of some of the key assumptions on which they are based.
The conversion of academic ideas into policies is extraordinarily difficult, especially when policies entrenched in huge countries are governed by people with very different political perspectives. But cooperation between academics worldwide is not impossible. For example, the political perspectives of those who govern Israel and neighbouring Arab countries are diverse. Nevertheless, there has been continual under cover cooperation between academics in those countries for many years. Sadly, such cooperation has not yet borne visible political fruit. But lack of cooperation between, say, China and the United States is so crucial and urgent for the future of the planet and all its inhabitants, academic cooperation is surely worth trying as one way of stimulating political cooperation between nations with diverse political systems.
Accordingly, international multi-disciplinary teams of scientists, technologists, engineers, historians and social scientists should be established. They should be asked to assess the damage caused by human economic activities to the environment, and to advise on the best approaches that should be developed to restrain it. Their research and analysis needs to be holistic, inclusive and broad ranging and to concentrate on empirical and historical analysis rather than theory. The amount of work required may not necessarily be so huge and expensive as it might seem at first sight: most of the work will surely involve involve analysis and integration of environmental implications of empirical research already completed and readily available. A few relatively small multi-disciplinary teams could be recruited and funded by an international agency such as the United Nations to undertake much needed analyses and publish them worldwide as soon as possible.
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