Masterly exploration of the state of Earth

  • 30/05/1993

AL GORE being elected vice-president of the US has delighted environmentalists elsewhere, for unlike his predecessor Dan Quayle, who once spelt potato with an "e" at the end in a schoolroom appearance, Gore is educated.

In Earth in the Balance, a recipient of the 1992 Robert Kennedy Award, Gore stimulates readers and arouses their concern for the environmental crisis. The book is Gore's personal testament and offers a glimpse of his philosophy, his religious belief, his mission in life and his vision. The book made the bestseller lists and brought him US $4,615,229 in royalties last year.

Gore's understanding of global ecological reality is diametrically opposite to Quayle's, who among other gaffes called environmentalists terrorists and urged Americans to fight environmentalism with the same zeal as they had fought communism. Gore wants instead, to make the crusade against environmental destruction the organising principle of American society and suggests that this crusade should be pursued as vehemently as the fight against communism.

While writing the book, Gore seems to have undergone a transformation, for he says, "In a way, the search for truths about this ungodly crisis and the search for truths about myself have been the same search all along." He firmly asserts that true change is possible only when it begins within the person advocating it, and quotes Mahatma Gandhi: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
Disastrous economics Gore is particularly harsh on modern economics and on rationalistic philosophy as the source of our present and burgeoning environmental predicament. He characterises our economic system as "the single most powerful force" behind irrational decisions about the global environment.

Rene Descartes' separation of mind and matter was an environmental disaster, says Gore, who attributes the blame for all the ills of modern times to this separation. Gore believes the rise of Hitler and of Stalin was the result of separating facts from values. The emerging effort to save the environment, he adds, is a continuation of the struggle against Nazi and communist totalitarianism and "a crucial new phase of the long battle for true freedom and human dignity".

It is difficult to accept Gore's analogy of a fight against communism as a sustaining struggle to ward off the environmental crisis, at least in the developing world. Especially as it can't be proved that communism was vanquished by the relentless onslaught of democracy. Except in China, communism failed because of its own contradictions and its inability to change; it survives in China precisely because it has adapted to the changing situations.
Global marshal plan Gore's approach to solving the ecological crisis is to set up a marshal plan to help the global environment, which "combines large-scale, long-term, carefully targeted financial aid to developing nations, a massive effort to design and then transfer to poor nations the new technologies needed for sustained economic progress, a worldwide programme to stabilise world population and a binding commitment by industrial nations to accelerate their own transition to an environmentally responsible pattern of life".

The global marshal plan Gore proposes includes a massive educational programme and information blitzkrieg to drive home correct perceptions of the environmental threat. Besides, it sets up a general integrating goal -- the establishment, especially in developing countries, of social and political conditions most conducive to the emergence of sustainable societies.

Gore proposes a new scheme -- strategic environment initiative (SEI) -- whose focus, intensity and funding would be analogous to the US military establishment's strategic defence initiative (SDI). The purpose of SEI, he explains, will be to phase out older, inappropriate technologies while simultaneously developing and disseminating a new generation of sophisticated and environmentally benign technologies. Gore offers a number of concrete suggestions for developing technologies in agriculture, energy and construction. As for agriculture, he calls for a second Green Revolution.

While there is not much that is positive in Gore's global marshal plan for developing countries, there is a lot that should cause them real concern. Gore concedes the plan "will require the wealthy nations to allocate money", but offers no concrete suggestions on the transferring of resources to developing nations. Does he intend provisions for financing to be made within the framework of international agreements?

Gore proposes the creation of an environmental security fund, with payments based on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. But this will be only a US national fund, to be used to subsidise the purchase by consumers of goods produced by environmentally benign technologies. Gore does not comment on the planet protection fund suggested by former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. SEI is weak precisely because it doesn't specify funding sources; after all, SDI was a national US initiative, it still ran into many problems. Hence, as an international undertaking lacking clearly identified resources, SEI is unlikely to get off the ground.

Technology dissemination
Gore is silent on the issue of technology dissemination. If this is to take place only commercially, then the chances of their reaching the poorer countries are remote. It doesn't occur to Gore to put these technologies in the public domain -- in fact, his emphasis on stronger intellectual property rights protection rules this out. Given the difficulties faced by developing countries in obtaining new technologies, Gore's call to phase out old technologies can only spell disaster for them.

Gore seems to contradict himself in the context of the global marshal plan. Having argued that there is no technological fix for environmental problems and that every new technology carries with it dangers for the future, his emphasis in the global marshal plan on a whole new generation of sophisticated technologies comes as a surprise. The environmental crisis, in the ultimate analysis, is a moral and political one and it has to be dealt with at that level.

But this is not the book's only contradiction. Having so convincingly exposed the adverse consequences of the first Green Revolution, Gore advocates the development of new technologies for a second. What is required for environmentally sound agricultural practices and policies is a new social and political morality -- and not sophisticated technology.

After eloquently explaining in the chapter, Seeds of Privation, the dangers of gene erosion and increasing uniformity in plant variety, Gore makes the extraordinary statement that "much of the current suspicion of plant-breeders by the Third World is unjustified". He concedes, at least, that this attitude "is also not hard to understand" because allowing plant-breeders to enjoy untrammeled patent rights, will only lead to further genetic erosion and uniformity of plant varieties in use. As this would jeopardise the entire future of agriculture in developing countries, these countries have no alternative but to strive to prevent the patenting of plant and animal life forms.

By far the most important measure for averting the environmental crisis is to bring about a fundamental change in lifestyles, particularly in the consumption patterns, of the developed countries. And here, too, Gore is long in rhetoric and short in suggesting firm measures and time-bound action programmes. Gore's strong advocacy of the debt-for-nature swap is misplaced. Experience so far indicates this has only led to the liquidation of a very minuscule proportion of the total debt burdens of the developing countries concerned. Moreover, such a swap has the effect of transferring a developing country's ownership, if not sovereignty, of its natural resources, to multinationals from the developed countries, which have both the interest and capacity for purchasing debt bonds.

Developing countries also have reason to be concerned that a number of Gore's suggestions have the effect of imposing green conditionalities on them in the provision of resources or market access. Gore suggests the World Bank should halt funding that subsidises environmentally damaging activities.

One of his most ominous suggestions for developing countries, however, is the incorporation of environmental responsibility in laws and treaties governing international trade and the inclusion in the definition of unfair trading practices, of weak and ineffective enforcement of pollution control measures. This can constitute a formidable non-tariff barrier to the exports of developing countries, most of which are in no position to meet high pollution control standards. Hence, carried too far, this may have the effect of shutting developing countries out of the world market.

It is a pity that a political leader of Gore's vision displays a fatalistic lack of confidence in the United Nations, the only organisation that has the mandate to underpin any new, dynamic multilateralism.

One wonders how Gore, in his otherwise excellent work, has failed to show sensitivity towards the problems faced by the developing countries. Is it his cultural bias showing up? Nevertheless, despite differences over some of the analyses and suggestions in the book and a regret for some of its omissions, Earth in the Balance is an extremely well-written masterpiece and compulsory reading for all who are concerned about the threat to humanity posed by the environmental crisis.

---Muchkund Dubey is former foreign secretary to the government of India.

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