Our environment, our decision

  • 29/09/1993

WITH THE collapse of the Soviet Union and the ongoing changes in communist China and Vietnam, the market today rules supreme. Entrepreneurs mobilise resources -- finance, raw materials, knowledge and labour -- to make products that cater to market demand. Whether they are farmers, miners, industrialists or providers of services, they all impact on the environment, either by using and extracting natural resources or by letting out wastes into the biosphere. Increasingly, stringent state regulations are being imposed on producers, especially in industrialised countries. As a result, the burden of pollution is moving away from the point of production to the point of consumption. For instance, cars generate more pollution over their lifetime than the car factory itself.

Whatever the source of environmental damage, the costs of that damage are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. It is their water bodies and air that get polluted; their surroundings on which toxic and other wastes are dumped, and their forests that get ripped off. These costs are externalised by the rich producers and consumers and have to be internalised by the weaker sections. Today, given the scale of the world market and its level of production and consumption, resource expropriation and environmental damage have become major elements of social injustice and inequality, both at global and national levels. One person"s development often becomes the cause of another person"s underdevelopment.

The nation-state has played a key role in the socialisation of the market in order to ensure that the market works in the interests of the majority. But the state today is embroiled in political and economic trends that increasingly prevent it from playing this role. Firstly, given the ongoing processes of economic globalisation, the nation-state finds its grip on the national economy getting weaker. Growing technological prowess, on the one hand, and transnationalisation of production systems, on the other, constitute two forces that make it difficult even for nation-states in the powerful industrialised world to control the national economy. One result of this is the growing need in these countries for large regional markets accompanied with supranational governance systems at least in the economic field.

Developing countries, on the other hand, are getting integrated into the world economy and suffering an erosion of their economic sovereignty because of the sheer pressure of debt, declining commodity prices and balance-of-payment crises.

But as far as the environment is concerned, it is not just this erosion of sovereignty that ought to be a matter of worry. A major threat to the environment comes from the fact that not just the market but the nation-state itself has become the biggest purveyor of development. And, the experiences of USA and the former Soviet Union, the two ideological poles, show that unless there is counter-pressure to contain, direct or modify this development, it does not matter whether this development is directed by the market or a state plan: it inevitably ends up in environmental damage. In the developing world, where poverty and powerlessness are extreme, the ideology of development when implemented without any checks and balances has led to some of the most appalling ecological damage and associated social injustices.

Democracy has been a key factor in Western market economies in containing the excesses of development. During the l950s and l960s, technology not only began to become more energy- and materials-intensive -- and hence environmentally damaging -- but also more hazardous and toxic. The state, even though governed by systems of representative democracy (elected representatives), found itself increasingly aligned with these technological forces that represented growth, progress and development.

The environmental movement emerged precisely because of this shortcoming of the nation-state. From Rachel Carson to Barbara Ward, and Barry Commoner to Brice Lalonde, citizens organised themselves to participate in their nation"s governance and to provide a check and balance to the development process being promoted. The young activists who picketed nuclear power stations did not know much about nuclear physics or reactor engineering but they were clear that if they did not want them in their backyard, the state had no moral right to thrust these monsters upon them. In India, at about the same time, the Chipko movement challenged the albeit democratic state in the same manner. Its activists knew it was illegal to prevent the state from felling state-owned forests. But their argument was that these forests constituted their natural resource base and protecting them for local use was their moral right.

The environmental movement is thus the product of a popular desire to participate in the nation"s decision-making system, and in nations purporting to be democratic, this has essentially led to a tempering of their representative democracy with a dose of participatory democracy. Since public participation is most feasible at the small, local scale, environmental concerns and local democracy have inevitably strengthened each other.

In this context, the European experience appears to be most instructive. When environmental concern grew in Europe during the l970s, governments began to set up ministries of environment and enact standard air and water pollution control laws. Because natural resources like air and water were controlled by provincial governments in many countries, they had to amend their constitutions to allow the federal government to enact these laws. This was felt necessary to provide uniform standards across the country.

However, over the years, the implementation of environmental laws, nuisance regulations and land-use planning has been increasingly driven down the democratic ladder and decentralised. Municipal-level governments have got more powers to deal with environmental issues. Switzerland has always promoted community sovereignty. But Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have also strengthened their local democratic systems to deal with environmental issues.

It is interesting to note that in many European countries, even small groups of people, numbering not more than a few thousand, can intervene in decisions that affect their environment. They decide how their environment can be used and they decide what constitutes misuse. Even windmills, an environment-friendly technology, have run into problems in Denmark. A Swiss contributor to this issue argues that the strength of local democracy in his country ensures that dams like the Sardar Sarovar on the Narmada cannot be built.

Local democracy should also bring with itself responsibilities. Local authorities must be given the power to raise financial resources and then be obliged to undertake services like water pollution control from their own funds. Indeed, many countries now get local authorities to play a major role in providing these services.

In fact, the question of whether local communities have the right to set their own environmental standards is raising touchy political issues in Europe, especially in the context of the economic integration of Europe. Free-trade proponents demand uniform standards in a common market because different standards could easily constitute a non-tariff trade barrier. This argument worried many in Denmark, which voted against the Maastricht treaty, and Switzerland, which said no to the European Economic Area. They preferred the territorial principle, under which local communities have the right to set higher standards than the norm for the larger region. The common norm should only be treated as the minimum standard that has to be observed.

This makes sound economic sense, too. If, as environmental economists point out, the environment should be valued and not treated as a free good, then automatically the question is: who should value the environment? Obviously, who better than the very people whose environment it is and who will suffer the consequences of their own decisions? It is best that they decide the trade-off between environment and development and where and at what point they want to balance the two.

There is a key issue at stake here. If the world economy is to be run by a globally integrated market in which nation-states become weaker and economically subordinated to supranational institutions, then can we leave it to the nation-state -- even if its governance system is built on principles of representative democracy -- to manage the environment and determine resource-use patterns? The European experience shows that local democracy provides a much better system of checks and balances to external depredations. How local democracy shapes up in Europe will be one of the most interesting developments to watch over this decade.

After decolonisation and national sovereignty, the key political issues of the 20th century, will community sovereignty become the biggest political issue of the 21st?

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