Module 1: Ecologism

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Ecologism: Conceptual Problems

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Political Ideologies Contexts, Ideas, and Practices
Professor Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
INSTRUCTOR-CORRECTD Ecologism Lecture 4/4 57:52
Ecologism Today. Conceptual Problems - The Idea of Nature. Natural Capital - Worked Example

So we’re going to do our concluding lecture, our 5th lecture I think, on ecologism. And we’ll look at ecologism today, and then work through an example of recent and current developments.

What about ecologism today? Where does it stand? It has much wider public support than it is often thought to have. The larger political parties, especially on the left around the world, have adopted various green policies relatively routinely. In Germany, the Green Party lead the governing coalition, or they did with the Social Democrat Party, the SPD, in several of the provincial assemblies or Länder, particularly important in Germany, in Germany because the federal upper house or Bundesrat is made up of members deputed from the Länder, from the provincial assemblies.

And under the German constitution, this chamber can approve or reject any legislation proposed by the federal government. That then means that a strong green presence in the provincial assemblies - and they’ve even won one very conservative assembly in the provinces - means that a strong green presence in the upper chamber of the German parliament. The Bundesrat has very great power over federal legislation and can reshape it in, on the lines it needs. In fact, Germany is notable for making green policy an element in just about every significant piece of legislation.

In France in 2011, the Greens and the Socialist Party did so well in the, in a certain form of provincial elections, in the cantonal elections, that they formed the governing coalition in several of the 96 départements, which are the third tier of the French state. As in Germany, the national upper house is elected from, in France the Senate or Sénat. The national upper house in
France is elected from a range of lower-level assemblies and therefore, at that time, it got its first ever broad-left majority.

At national level, the German Greens led the way. They won 28 seats in the federal lower house, the Bundestag, in the 1983 general election. They won 47 in 2002, 55 seats in 2005, and they became coalition partners with the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, in both the resulting governments. The former co-chairman of their parliamentary faction Joschka Fischer was Germany's Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the Head of Government from 1998 to 2005.

In France, in 2011, a green alliance with the Socialist Party and other left groups won a majority in the Senate for the first time, the first time since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958. In the United Kingdom, the Greens attracted widespread attention by winning 15% of the vote in the European Parliament elections in 1989. And in 2010, the Greens won their first seat in the House of Commons when Caroline Lucas was elected for the Brighton Pavilion constituency in 2010. She has held her seat since then, Dr. Lucas has held her seat since then.

We need to note that the proportional or hybrid electoral systems used in almost all Scandinavian and Continental European countries, as well as Scotland and Wales, give Green Parties a far better chance of effective representation than the simple majority system, which is used in British and Indian general elections.

The simple majority system basically is winner takes all; no one else gets a look-in. But proportional or semi-proportional systems offer much, much wider ranges of representation. And therefore, the Greens have done very much better in France and Germany than they have done in the United Kingdom.

Well, what about everyday issues? In everyday matters almost all industrial countries’ households have for a long time been required by their local corporations and councils to separate waste for recycling. For example, glass, paper and cardboard, recyclable plastics, all have to be separated by households just for separate collection by councils.

This is starting to be introduced in certain areas of India. Here in the city of Chennai, the system has just been formally inaugurated by the Corporation and we as householders have to follow certain segregation rules. The system is still in its very early stages, but the green intention is absolutely clear.

In the industrial countries, councils - corporations - also provide separate facilities into which people can put different kinds of household waste. And many now have separate, have separate facilities for the disposal of old computers and mobile phones or other forms of e-waste. They contain highly toxic and dangerous substances - not widely known.

Practice of course varies, and in some, in parts of the United Kingdom, the local councils only take a limited range of plastics for recycling. I can say from personal experience, it can be surprisingly difficult to find out which plastics are recyclable and which are not; there have also been scandals over the export of certain kinds of plastics to other parts of the world such as
China because industrial countries, certain industrial countries, simply have not the facilities or the technical capacity to recycle those without causing significant environmental damage.

Well, non-recyclable plastics may well go into very expensive and possibly environmentally harmful landfill. Or as I said, they may be, as has come out in various scandals, exported to other parts of the world to pollute other parts, those other parts of the world.

Now public authorities in many democracies are also now required to prepare environmental impact assessments for all large projects above certain threshold values, certainly for all larger public works - but public awareness of this fact is limited and access to the reports may be restricted by law in various countries. In at least one case, which was given in the exercise, it’s in the exercise accompanying this chapter, the public authority concerned submitted an assessment prepared for an area several hundred kilometres away on the opposite coast of the country. That was for a nuclear power plant, I might add. The environmental impact assessment was for an area, several hundred miles away, on the opposite coast.

Now, those kinds of measures are a good thing. Environmental impact assessment, segregation at source of rubbish, and so on, are a good thing. But they all fall far short of the kind of thing that deep ecologism would require. That would require wholesale economic changes and it is bitterly resisted by powerful corporate interests.

In many countries, they are overwhelmingly, those interests are the biggest source of politician’ election campaign funds. So are the mainstream news media, they are overwhelmingly corporate owned, and they consistently underreport or suppress the seriousness of the global environmental crisis. This has been called the ultimate media betrayal. That is a phrase drawn from Cromwell and Edwards 2006.
Other developments may well be occurring out of sight of the news media. Environmental economics is expanding and some statements of it recognizes the issues that environmental issues, concerns pose for existing economic orthodoxies. For example, the idea of externalities, which I mentioned earlier (is), has the results that we ignore the impact of economic transactions on the environment.

In an ecological sense, there are no such things as externalities; everything we do has some environmental impact. There’s strong argument for this and it includes excellent evidence to support the detailed rejection of one of the main tenets of orthodox economics, that is the idea of rational - that we’re rational economic beings. It is a very strong argument for this, put by Kate Raworth in a book called, now if I remember rightly Doughnut Economics. Where she sees economic systems as concentric circles with the outer limit of the circle being the earth's environmental limits.

Raworth, in the same book, goes on to propose a radically revised economics, which recognizes the interconnected environmental effects of all human activity. There are other kinds of analytical methods, which include environmental audits, and in these, we take account of energy uses, greenhouse gas emissions, and so on of any activity or policy, as well as the financial costs of such environmental impacts. These can be quite shocking; online systems exist so that we can calculate the particular environmental costs of say journeys by air and the like.

Some notable authorities have produced sobering, even frightening, analyses. In some industrial countries, the costs of running a car fall steadily, while public transport gets more and more expensive, yet even coach travel, a form of transport using the internal combustion engine, could be used to great effect. In the United Kingdom, which is a comparatively small
country in global terms, it’s been estimated that every coach would not only take 50 cars off the road, but reduce highway or motorway car traffic by one mile’s length of cars. It’ll also carry up to 13 times the number of people at any one given time; I get that from George Monbiot, a book written in 2007.

Another factor often ignored in standard economic analyses, presumably because it can be called an externality, is the cost of road congestion, congestion and delays. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimated the cost of road congestion and delays in the UK, the UK alone, at 15 billion pounds a year, and that was in 2005. Again I get the figure from Monbiot.

Any number of such analyses can be found, they are very widespread, easily accessible. But the governments we elect seem as incapable as ever of reaching agreement on what could rapidly become a global catastrophe. We may well be in the middle of one already.

Conceptually, the challenge remains. We’re almost certainly in need of a completely new metaphysics of value, if we are to avert the catastrophe. Few or none of us would survive global environmental catastrophe.

Of course, we’ve got to think about this; there are conceptual problems. Campaigners and campaigning groups are often very well aware of the differences in their various approaches.

Several have produced wider statements of our predicament and what we need to do about it.

But substantial conceptual or philosophic problems arise, and some of these have been clearly outlined.

For example, Andrew Vincent points out that the green agenda goes beyond human concerns, in contrast to the customary concerns which political, political theory, shows with government, justice, the state and so on. Vincent, Andrew Vincent, states the familiar distinction between shallow and deep ecology; he calls it ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. We’ve met that distinction, ecocentrism versus anthropocentrism.

But even within these we find differences; one strain of ecocentrism sees nature as having intrinsic value, and as being a comprehensive system, we’ve met that one. Another strain sees us in terms of our, of our having a sound relationship with nature, and as having to change our moral sensibility in order to have a sound relationship with nature. This is the result of what Andrew Vincent calls a mature psychology rather than, rather than the result of our being convinced by moral arguments or obeying moral imperatives.

One implication is that we need to develop an entirely different sense of ourselves within the environment. Again, we’ve met those themes in various ecological or ecologistic approaches. Anthropocentric approaches themselves vary as well. Deep anthropocentrism is indifferent to nature, lies outside green arguments, not surprisingly, even though green activists and indeed all who are concerned would no doubt be directly opposed to, to if you like deep anthropocentrism.

In contrast, Andrew Vincent uses the term ‘pliant anthropocentrism’. And this would introduce environmental concerns into the existing body of political thought. The aim of such pliant anthropocentrism would therefore be to devise a conception of being human which is appropriately alert and sensitive to the natural environment and to our impact on it. It would be human centred without being instrumental towards nature. It hardly need saying that both sets of approaches would see humanity as living inseparably from nature, even though the concepts of interdependence would vary very greatly between the two approaches.

Now, as Vincent shows, the concept of nature is crucial to this whole issue. One concept takes nature to be, so to speak, driven by patterns or perhaps by an inner logic - and that logic would be distinct from human action.

Another of the concepts involved sees humans as being a part of nature. This view raises the problem that if we're fully within nature as a part of it, then the process resulting from our existence and our actions, including the environmental damage and degradation we cause are themselves part of nature. This could imply that we should not do anything about our current conduct towards the natural environment. If we’re just a natural process, a natural phenomenon, then should we do anything at all about our current conduct within the environment?

The tension here is between reducing human culture to a natural phenomenon, and anthropomorphizing nature so that we see it mainly or even only through our concerns and purposes. That is a form of restatement of the deep and shallow ecologism distinction, but it’s informed by a philosophic sense of different conceptions of human nature that both those
approaches involve or those respective approaches involve.

Vincent concludes that green political theory is close to incoherence. But the global environmental crisis is still very much the case. If there is some light coming through the smog, it might be found in some of the increasingly direct approaches being taken by some of the industrial countries or former industrial countries, particularly some in Western Europe and Scandinavia. I have mentioned some of these above, earlier. The change in sensibility that Vincent and others [mention] may also already be taking place.

So that is where we stand. We need to look at examples of the kinds of things that are being done and the kinds of things that are being said in response to our current global environmental crisis, even catastrophe. So, that will form the second part of this particular lecture. Let’s move on to that.

The arguments around here have to do with the idea of natural capital. Can we make sense of the idea of natural capital? What is it? Well, the term is used particularly in business circles or in circles where, in thinking which tries to see that, which tries to argue that viewing the whole natural environment as a form of capital will lead us to act better towards the environment,
precisely because our market successes and our profits would depend on that.
So nature becomes a form of capital. So, what is natural capital? It’s the stock of renewable and non-renewable resources, plants, animals, air, water, soils, and so on - minerals, the kinds of things we use and that provide benefits to us. What kind of benefits are we talking about? The air we breathe, the water we drink, wildlife, animals we eat, the wildlife that maintain healthy ecosystems. And that could include lots of animals we simply don’t see, various kinds of bacillus, bacteria, very small plankton, and so on, in the soil and in the water.

Now, the benefits, well, all come from nature. Our existence comes from nature. So this would mean imagining, so to speak, that nature is a trust fund. We’ve seen similar concepts earlier.

We are the beneficiaries of that trust fund. We live off, so to speak, the interest that this trust fund that nature provides, carbon storage, raw materials, water, the ability to regulate climate and mitigate floods and so on. If we keep using too much of the capital, we run out of it, we’re going to see diminishing returns.

All this, the natural capital concept is put in very recognizable financial, largely capitalist, terms. So what does this mean in practice? It does mean, we have to identify our most important areas of dependence on nature. That is, identify the benefits and identify where they come from. And we have to recognize our impact, our use of them might have on these ecosystems that provide the benefits. And that’ll give us an account, if you like, of the mechanics of how we use these resources in the trust fund.

Now, yes, a great deal of natural capital is in the tropics, and that’s where many of the world's biggest repositories of carbon and wildlife and freshwater are. It is not true all around the world, but I mean, India, for example, has 20% of the world’s population and only 5% of the world’s, only 5% of the world's freshwater, groundwater; I understand that of that 5%, one half is already contaminated beyond use of almost any kind.

But according to this particular item, put out by a natural, by a natural capital organization, the tropics are the biggest source of many of the resources we use. Okay, that’s the bulk of the trust fund. Now, we need to map those, if we are to know the value of the benefits and the extent of the reserves and stocks (which), from which we get them. Does that mean we are placing a
value on nature? Is that a bit of a cold-hearted thing to do?

Well, ecological economists do say, some of them say, we’ve taken those benefits for granted. We are using them at a rate that we cannot replenish. We need to start thinking about the value of these benefits and how to change our ways and rates of using them - again, familiar arguments from all forms of ecologism.

How does this go further? In order to grow, grow in value, every business, according to the natural capital organizations have to be efficient and to make better decisions. And so we must incorporate the idea of natural capital into our business decisions. Sounds all right. Otherwise, we’re missing risks and opportunities. Notice again, the profit making, the capitalist orientation
and the capitalist type of language, it does seem to make sense.

For example, if we run a coffee company, we need a steady and sustainable source of high-quality beans and so on. That means protecting the environment, perhaps also protecting the lives of the farmers who grow the beans for us, perhaps in other continents, if not other parts of our own country. And so if we, our activities degrade these habitats and degrade the lives of the people who grow the beans, from which we make profits, our profits suffer. Sounds perfectly tenable.

So, something has been proposed called a natural capital protocol. What is it? It is a framework designed to help create accurate and reliable information so that businesses can measure their value and their impacts and dependences on the natural environment, on natural capital. There are examples, firms which produce sweet drinks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola - Coca-Cola certainly have had some adverse publicity, if I am not mistaken, on their use of water. Certain, of course major, food corporations have had campaigns against themselves in various parts of the world because they have been given licences to, to draw groundwater and thereby both deplete groundwater heavily and very seriously affect, adversely affect the lives of those who live in the area. You will be familiar with the controversies, they are in the international media.

But Coca-Cola according to this particular item has, I quote, an ambitious target to replenish and replenish safely as much water as it uses in its, in its beverages, in its drinks, by 2020. That is next year. How would this protocol be used? Well, it would be available worldwide online and it would provide information on available resources, rates of use, nature and type of
environmental effect, and so on.

I’ll add here that we cannot always predict environmental impacts easily or over the short term. So there would be complications - we’ve already seen some of those in our analysis of the polluter pays principle. So that’s the natural capital theory. That’s the idea of natural capital.

Well, does it make sense? Certainly, it’s, I beg your pardon, I’ll go to the page that I was hoping to call up. Here we are. This is a column, called the Schumpeter column, in the Economist journal, dates from 2011. We will send you the links on a PowerPoint, I can’t send you the texts themselves, because they’re copyright.

But here we are. It’s called green growth. It’s a kind of commentary-type column in the Economist, green growth. Apparently, some emerging world economies are combining growth with greenery. What does the column say? What does the Schumpeter column say?

Well, the Economist is very enthusiastic about the enrichment of previously poor countries. It’s worried about the environmental effects of population growth, 7 billion in 2011 to 9.3 by 2050, as demographers expect, and a growing proportion of this, of this population will be able to afford goods that were once reserved for the lites and generally available only in industrialized countries.

Can the planet support that kind of economic activity? Well, there seem - the Economist doesn’t not say this, but it’s been said that the planet even in its present form, even at present, can support population of 10 billion. The question, of course, is the consumption pattern. And the Economist is now cautious in this column, about a top down and western-centric approach to planetary problems like population growth and environmental impact.

So, the author cites a study by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, and they say, at that time 2011 there were 16 emerging market firms turning ecoconsciousness into a competitive asset or source of competitive advantage. These are highly profitable companies, apparently they’re called the new sustainability champions. And they are using greenery, presumably meaning green approaches, to, I quote, ‘reduce costs, motivate workers and forge relationships’. Their homegrown ideas will probably be easier for their peers to copy than anything cooked up in the West - a confident assumption there.

What is, what about these approaches? They turn limitations, resources, labour and infrastructure into opportunities. In India today, the firm, in India the firm Shree Cement, which had long suffered from water shortages apparently, developed what this article calls the world's most water efficient system for making cement, in part by using air cooling rather than water cooling. Manila Water, a utility in the Philippines reduced water losses through wastage and illegal tapping from 63% in 1997 to 12% in 2010, because it made water affordable for the poor, much less of an incentive to steal.

It’s been an issue in parts of West Africa as well, where illegal tapping of oil pipelines has been a significant problem. I should add that there have been public controversies about water losses from poorly maintained pipeline infrastructure in the United Kingdom. England and Wales certainly have privatized water systems. And there have been, those firms have been involved
in controversies over the nature and quality of their infrastructure maintenance or infrastructure replacement.

Okay, back to this one. A Chinese maker of air conditioners, Broad Group, has, we are told, tapped the waste heat from buildings to power machines. A fishery group, Zhangzidao, a Chinese aquaculture company that is, recycles uneaten fish feed to fertilize crops. All this sounds very good. These are green goals - setting them is apparently a common practice.

SEKEM, an Egyptian food producer, apparently set itself the task of reclaiming desert through organic farming. In Costa Rica, a firm called Florida Ice and Farms, or Ice and Farm rather, has adopted, we’re told, exacting standards for the amount of water it can consume in producing drinks. And these firms measure themselves by what Schumpeter calls their greenery. 60% of bosses pay are linked by one firm to the triple bottom line of, I quote, people, planet and profit. Woolworths, a South African retailer, claims that many of its best green ideas come from staff not bosses. Now it is recognized that in emerging markets, it is hard for companies to stick to one specialism, I quote, ‘because they have to worry about so many wider problems from lousy infrastructure to unreliable supply chains’.

So, again I quote, the sustainability champions seek to shape the business environment in which they operate. And we have given examples here, Grupo Balbo, a Brazilian organic sugar producer, working with the Brazilian government at that time 2011 to create a certification system for organic products. And that’s been done elsewhere. We can buy things in the United
Kingdom, which carry various kinds of certification, the Soil Association, various organic labels and so on.

Partnerships are formed between governments and NGOs - happened in Kenya, where the International Fund for Agricultural Development has formed an alliance with Kenya's Equity Bank to reduce risks when lending to smallholders. And this happens around the world. The question then is rich because green or green because rich?

Causation may be difficult to identify there, but somebody called Rosenzweig in Switzerland, Phil Rosenzweig in Switzerland’s IMD Business School says that, yes, management writers are prone to the halo effect. They treat the temporary success of a company is proof that it’s discovered some internal principle of management. Well my PhD was on managerialism, that sort of phenomenon has been documented elsewhere, not just in my PhD. But the fact that successful companies have embraced greenery, therefore doesn’t prove that being green automatically makes us successful in business.

[There’s a perfect,] it could be the case that once we are successful, we can spend more on greenery. But nevertheless, the central message according to the Schumpeter column here is that some of the best emerging world companies are combining profits with green, green systems or with green, green activities. They say emerging world companies, Schumpeter says emerging world companies can be just as green as their western rivals.

Again, I quote, many have found that when natural resources are scarce and consumers are cash strapped, greenery can be a lucrative business strategy. So, green capitalist business is apparently viable or potentially viable and is showing successes already. We need to raise issues about that - is the idea of natural capital tenable? And let’s look at a critical analysis of
that. We’ll look at a critical analysis of this by George Monbiot, one of the world's best known environmental campaigners writing in English, a former lecturer in philosophy at Green College,

Oxford, if I am not mistaken. He has for 30 years or more been an extremely forceful, extremely well informed campaigner for far sounder environmental approaches, far sounder conduct on our part.

In 2014, he gave the annual lecture at the Sheffield University, the Sheffield P
olitical Economy Research Institute, called SPERI. They hold an annual lecture and George Monbiot gave it in 2014; it was given without notes and transcribed afterwards, and we shall draw upon it to see if the idea of natural capital is tenable.

Quite simply, what Monbiot calls neoliberal capitalism goes with natural, the idea of natural capital. It’s the doctrine that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. We’ve met that when we’ve studied neoliberalism, under the topic of liberalism. It means minimal intervention spending by the state, and we can maximize the general social interest through the pursuit of self interest.

Okay, well, Monbiot gives examples, which we do not need here, of as he calls it the spectacular crash