The Environmental Impacts of the Industrial Value of Environment as Commodity
By Anka Wilk
Human technological advancements make it possible to sustain larger and larger population by exploiting more and more natural resources. The three revolutions in human history, agricultural, industrial and green have all been answers to overpopulation. Naturally, industrialization leads to environmental degradation. The concern with Industrialization is that it is not a long term solution to human sustainability, since it operates under the premise of the tech fix, or the idea that humans will be able to invent new technologies to ensure their own survival. These solutions, while economically advantageous, do not consider the long term impacts of this continual and escalating intensification or resource use and extraction; indeed they suppose an exhaustibility of possibilities. However, the role human nature plays in determining these attitudes and actions which support this system is not insignificant, and is the key which will decide how the future plays out.
What is industrialization?
Dicitonary.com defines industrialism as, "An economic and social system based on the development of large-scale industries and marked by the production of large quantities of inexpensive manufactured goods and the concentration of employment in urban factories". This definition ignores the environmental aspect of industrialism; industrialization pushes the threshold of earth's resource availability. Such demanding management of the natural world is justified in the name of prioritizing immediate human needs over long term sustainability. However, the main environmental impacts of industrialization are those caused by consumption and population growth, which are both culturally malleable manifestations.
Is industrialization even necessary?
As the population of the world has risen exponentially humans have had to develop coping mechanisms, namely industrialization and agricultural technologies. "Over the period of the last two centuries, the curve of human population growth has departed from the normal S-shape because of man's ability to alter his environment." "With fixed environmental limits the population curve will follow an S shape like curve B in our figure." (Dolan 58)"
If humans have not taken it upon themselves to manipulate nature, the population would not have risen to where it is now.
However, if one subscribes to the Gaia Hypothesis, which views earth a
self regulating organism with a certain threshold for abuse, there is the
possibility that we could "exhaust the technological possibilities
for further raising the population ceiling (Dolan 59)." The result
would be what we have been trying to prevent all along, and mass starvation
would ensue, thus fulfilling the Malthusian Scenario. However, at the present
time, the only solution to overpopulation, industrialization is only a "tech
Overpopulation itself is the result of a lack of long term vision, so it is not surprising that the technologies adopted to alleviate the consequences will follow the pattern of short term solution, of repairing damage that has been done instead of enforcing preventative measures. The short term economic growth of the economy, due to "food, industrial output, and population grow exponentially until the diminishing resource base forces a slowdown in industrial growth (Southwick 173)" The costs of keeping production low are counteractive because in the long run, indirect costs to the environment will offset the short term advantages.
What is the role of an industrial economy in environmentalism?
Economic efficiency has traditionally been defined as the cost per unit of useful product. An alternate view of economic efficiency, which includes the indirect and unanticipated costs of production,(such as deforestation, global warming and war) is a more accurate envision, given the state of the natural world today.
Industrialization leads to social stratification, and global stratification. Industrialization leads to social stratification, because it divides society into producers and non-producers, "the haves and the have nots." The "haves," the owners of corporations, the most powerful, are least affected by environmental problems. The more industrialized countries are more powerful and wealthy than those who are not. Ironically, "The overwhelming preponderance of world population growth is occurring in the less developed countries"(Soutwick 166)
The environmental costs of this first definition of economic inefficiency are daunting. The reverse is also true; the social and economic costs of living a life outside this loop are demoralizing. Alternatives to the global industrial model are fringe and insignificant in the big picture. In an industrial capitalist system, the social and economic benefits (at least temporarily) rely on the exploitation of natural resources and pollution. The industrial economy could not be possible without values of industrialization.
What are the values of industrialization?
Industrialism rests upon certain assumptions and values. The values which make industrialization acceptable as an economic system mandate what the ensuing environmental consequences will be.
1. Acquire energy at any cost.
One extreme example of this is the early steam engine. In order to move one pound of water vertically by one foot, requires 85 pounds of coal (class discussion).
2. Economic costs are more important than the environmental costs (long term economic)
3. Environment is a commodity
In an industrial economy, the environment is a commodity, and, "Public policy is about achieving a balance between the cost to industry and the cost to society", a tradition in which, "legislation protects nature not for its own sake, but for its value to man."
."an efficient balance is not necessarily a just balance .it is assumed that environmental and safety values can be priced at the margin as if they were commodities."(Trent)
4. Everyone can afford waste and excess
a) Of course, consumption patterns are a cultural result. For example, in the United States, many people buy disposable Paper or Styrofoam plates, because compared it saves time and money. It is the culture which allows such a system to operate.
b) The capitalist reliance on "consumerism breeds a throw-away attitude toward man made goods, irrespective of quality, and thus contributes to an increase of waste"(Trent). "Most ecologists consider human population growth to be one of the problems in global ecology and a major driving force of environmental degradation. They see excessive consumption as an equally important cause of pollution and environmental degradation"(Southwick 160).
5. Industrialization flies in the face of the law of Entropy (Trent)
Another value which allows industrial capitalism to operate is that it operates under a short term view. "Economic development through industrial abundance may be a blessing for us now and for those who will be able to enjoy it in the near future, but it is definitely against the interest of the human species as a whole.
6. Profits are the supreme value of industry
"A country or firm that cuts corners on pollution control has a cost advantage over its rivals." If environmental protection was a value of most industry If this were the case, "there would be no need to pass laws to deter polluters or regulate emissions"(Ridley and Row).
Industrialism operates under certain assumptions:
1. the premise of inexhaustibility
2. tech fix which will create new technologies once the resources upon which misplaced technologies relied.
Industrialization as the new colonialism
"The industrial revolution "gave Industrial Europe the opportunity to subjugate non industrial economies through the policy of "free trade" and the subtle mechanism of "dual economies"(Cipolla 146). Encylopedia.com defines colonization as an "extension of political and economic control over an area by a state whose nationals have occupied the area and usually possess organizational or technological superiority over the native population it may be the formal assumption of control over the territory by...civil representatives of the dominant power."
Today, the modern day civil representatives are corporations. Economic control means access to the means of production which is the environment which provides the materials which go into finished products, and the ability to pay workers whatever wages beneficial to the manufacturer. For the purpose of this essay, the main control industry has over a people is its power to harm or protect the environment. Granted, there will always be environmental consequences as a result of resource extraction and manufacture, but corporations are having power to practice processes of varying consequence.
. Today, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and agreements such as NAFTA are the new colonizer. Lawrence Summers, former chief economist for the world bank, "outlines the arguments in favour of exporting waste and dirty industries to the low waged, poor, undeveloped countries"(SOEV)
Western companies also exploit the vulnerabilities of less less industrialized nations to save money by building factories which are cheaper to operate because of a lack of environmental protections.
How do these values influence the environmental policy?
The clash between economic powers and public opinion drives public policy.
Certain countries have taken measures which are meant to ensure sustainable development. The national Environmental Policy Act of 1969 mandates an "environmental impact statement" which contains an "analysis of the impact a proposed development, unusually industrial will have on the natural and social environment. It includes assessment of long- and short-term effects on the physical environment as well as effects on enjoyment, living standards, local services and aesthetics." This statement is submitted to concerned government agencies and "to the public for consideration." The only possible outcome of this might be litigation on the part of environmental groups or "parties who feel that the assessment overstates the risks to the environment to the detriment of economic interests."(Encylcopedia.com)
In their essay, "Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" Matt Ridley and Bobbi S. Low argue that many forces are acting to counteract the effects of industry on the environment. It is a complex web of power and influence, between economists and environmentalists, local government versus national government, "free-rider" countries and those pushing for greener policies.
What is the role of "alternative products" that are sustainable
"Politically, we support the principles of equality and "fair trade." In the market place however, we are bargain hunters"(Trent). What then, is the role of alternative/ organic or green products? As long as there is economic injustice, where those who would choose to cannot afford to purchase clothes that is not made is polluting sweatshops or food that is not genetically engineered, there will always be a market for the cheaper product, and as long as there is demand, there will be supply.
Industrialization is an immediate solution to sustain the current population of the world. But industrialization as we know is not a long term solution to the continuation of human life. We are caught up in a system which is widening the global gap between the rich and the poor and destroying nature irreversibly. Multinational corporations and international organizations have the most power to change the effects of industrialization, but they will not do so without public demand. Although lobbyists can raise the public consciousness about corporate transactions, it is up the individual consumer to act upon his or her own conscience. "Conventional wisdom has it that the way to avert global ecological disaster is to persuade people to change their selfish habits for the common good. A more sensible approach would be to tap a boundless and renewable resource: the human propensity for thinking mainly of short term self-interest" (Ridley and Low). The future of the earth and human existence rests on the shoulders of our policy makers in government who must recognize the necessity of .
Trent, is my citation for an essay entitled "Sogoff on Environnemental Values I" which was posted on a website for an environmental science class at Trent University. http://www.trentu.ca/ers/erst310.shtml
Ridley and Low. "Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" in The Atlantic Monthly; September 1993; Volume 272, No. 3; pages 76-86.
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 2/23/03webmaster