Nature & Environment Archive


Crees open Embassy in Nation of Quebec:, though they have always insisted Quebec is not a nation

Monday, December 6th, 2010

It is amusing — in some circumstances one might call it slightly alarming — to observe how effortlessly the leaders of the Cree Nation, as the eight Cree villages in Quebec now style themselves, have switched their policy towards the nationalist claims of the province of Quebec.

In the 1990s, the Crees published a groundbreaking legal study of Quebec claims to sovereignity, called Sovereign Injustice, in which one of the major arguments advanced against Quebec separatism was that the province of Quebec, whatever else it may be, cannot claim to be a nation without the agreement of the many non-French-speaking people who live in the province. Of these, the indigenous people are probably the most important, for they have an authentic claim to be the owners of much of the territory of Quebec. The study did not deny there may be a French-Canadian nation, but it did deny that this nation is contiguous with the province of Quebec.

I wrote a popular version of this immense legalistic study, called Never Without Consent which also rested largely upon this argument that Quebec in itself is not a nation, and never will be until the separatist agenda of a minority of the French-speaking population has been embraced by the substantial non-French population of the province.

The most extreme expression of this view is the argument tendered by opponents of separatism that if Quebec does separate, the only land it would be free to take out of Canada would be the narrow strip along the St Lawrence, with which they first entered the Canadian confederation — the rest, including the vast reaches of the north, being lands to which Crees and others have priority claim.

This became an article of faith with the Cree leadership during the years of their maximum opposition to the repeated damming and dyking of their territory by the Quebec government and its agencies.

But magically, it seemed, this article of faith was abandoned when immense amounts of money were dangled before the leadership, embodied in the so-called Paix des Braves. This is a new arrangement with Quebec under which the Crees have agreed to carry out sections of the original James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, that Quebec has just never bothered to implement, through, it seems, as much as anything, sheer indifference. In future, Quebec will pay the Crees to fulfil these unfulfilled promises themselves — a startling new interpretation of the meaning of treaty promises.

Suddenly, Ted Moses and other Cree leaders were proclaiming from the housetops — or should that be treetops or hilltops?— that they were making a nation-to-nation deal with Quebec. Since Quebec, in the Cree policies, was not a nation, how could this be?

Simple. Merely by saying so. Overnight, without, so far as I know, any debate among the people, Quebec was recognized as a nation by the Crees.

This recognition has been taken a step further in recent days by the opening of what the Crees call an Embassy to the Nation of Quebec. Although the Crees of Quebec are not a numerically significant element in the Canadian political scene, they have established a leading role for themselves in the minds of non-indigenous people, largely through their once-staunch defence of their great, wild rivers against the overwhelming power of mindless technology. Thus, their establishment of what they call an Embassy in what they now call the Nation of Quebec , will not be particularly welcomed by those forces across Canada which believe that a separate Quebec, torn from the bosom of Canada, will not be in the best interests of this country, nor of this continent.

Among those who have in the past argued that the Crees should be treated decently by authorities that historically treated them with contempt, this sudden switch of allegiance will be added to an earlier switch, when supporters of a free-running, wild Rupert River equally suddenly found themselves side-swiped as the Crees decided to sell their great river to Hydro-Quebec.

Politics, as the old saying goes, does indeed make strange bedfellows.

Read the original post on Boyce's Paper.

strangersdevour Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land.

Two weeks in Croatia: a remnant of the old Yugoslavia after suffering a nationalist war

Monday, November 8th, 2010

I have just spent two weeks visiting a friend who has lived in Croatia for nearly 40 years. It was my first time in the country — having been denied a visa to visit Yugoslavia in 1954 when my passport carried the deadly word “journalist” —- and I confess the impact of being in this country that has been torn apart by unreasoning, pointless nationalisms was rather unsettling.

What caused the Yugoslavian war? Is a rather difficult question to answer. But In Croatia they seem to have no doubt it was caused by an outburst of Serbian nationalism, whose intention was to create a Greater Serbia over the entire territory of Yugoslasvia.

What resulted from it is a mishmash of national borders so that one can scarcely move 10 kilometres from Dubrovnik, where my friend lives, without confronting the need to cross a border into neighbouring Bosnia. People I met referred constantly to “the war”, meaning their civil war, in much the same way as we still refer to the Second World War. But although their conflict was smaller, it was still a real war, and Dubrovnik, a gloriously beautiful little medieval town on the Adriatic coast, was bombed almost to smithereens by attacking forces.

The war was brought to an end some 15 years ago by the so-called Dayton Agreement, establishing separate republics of Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia (Serbia, in fact). Bosnia is divided into a Bosnian-Croat federation and the so-called Serbska Republic, which controls 49 per cent of the state, but which does not, apparently, have control over the state’s borders.The entire war was complicated by differences between various religions, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim.

More than a million people were displaced in the war, partly by violence and partly by ethnic cleansing, as aggressors captured and burned towns and villages, and forced certain populations to relocate.

Well, this isn’t the place to rewrite all this detail about the settlement, but rather to report on my friend’s reaction to the new arrangements, after living with them for so many years. In her view, “I am so glad to have been here before, when life was so relaxed, when people had a real sense of solidarity and of the collective will, when people would burst into song on the buses, and join to walk the streets singing and dancing. It was beautiful.” In those days, when there was no real competition, everyone had a chance to follow his or her talents, the educational levels (which her children enjoyed) were much higher even than in class-bound nations like England, even actors and artists were provided with a reasonable living and were not under the stresses since introduced by capitalism.

As soon as the agreements were signed, the IMF was introduced, and the new government was ordered to privatize everything, with the result, according to one informant, that “Croatia today owns nothing, everything is owned by foreigners.” My friend said, if you ask people the question, is it better today than before, most people will mutter, “better before.”

Dubrovnik, largely destroyed by the war, has been rebuilt, and is today a city given over entirely to tourism. It is remarkably beautiful, a city of red roofs over white stone houses and buildings, whose narrow, stone-pavemented streets are kept incredibly clean, and in large parts of which no traffic penetrates. You cannot go far in Dubrovnik without climbing hundreds of steps, but my friend deplored the fact that the wide variety of services once available — barbers, tailors, merchants, shoemakers, fishermen, fruiterers and the like — have been replaced by a plethora of shops selling only T-shirts to tourists, T-shirts manufactured, for the most part, in China.

On the other hand, as a resident of the central city, and a pensioner, she has free entry to concerts, cinemas, ferries and a wide variety of services for which in our cities we have to pay through the nose (to such an extent that many of these services are in essence denied our impoverished aged).

In one burst of eloquence my friend described a holiday she had taken in the days before the war, to Bulgaria, and how wonderful it had been, how carefree and relaxed had been the Bulgarians, how spiritual and culture-loving they seemed as one moved among them — it was an altogether different version of life under Communism from anything I have ever read in our public prints, and it came from someone who knew the Western world well and had a basis for comparison.

Today my friend keeps closely in touch with the world mainly through the BBC news every morning, and such programs as Hard Talk, in which various international personalities are grilled mercilessly by an interlocutor. She is also extraordinarily well-read, keeps up to date with the latest books — had no trouble identifying Life with Pi, for example, and had already read the three volumes of the Swedish sensation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo— and she reads every week’s edition of The Guardian Weekly assiduously from cover to cover.

She has three grown children, two of whom having been educated in Yugoslavia, are still living there, surrounded by their own children, all of whom, although still thinking of themselves as in some sense English (although their grandparents were once regarded as Canadians), nevertheless identify with the Croatia that has given them their primary language.

A fascinating experience indeed, to pass some time in this small country, still trying to qualify for membership of the European Community, and to get a sense of the respect given by its people to their national poets, as well as to their contemporary writers, artists and historians.

The generally right-wing tendency of Croatian leaders traditionally was indicated by the fact that memorials to the heroes of the Yugoslavian resistance who drove the Germans from the country in 1945 — Tito’s Partisans, who contested the country with Michailovich’s right-wing Chetniks —– have been removed from the streets, to be replaced with statues of heroes from ancient times.

The single institution that made the most impact on me was a museum of war kept by a young New Zealander. He was featuring a superb exhibition of pictures taken by a brilliant Spanish photographer of the Yugoslavian wars, and the permanent exhibits, of earlier wars, were of such quality that, as I remarked to the curator on leaving, one could hardly see the exhibits without remarking, “Never again.” This museum did not glorify war in any of its aspects: its focus was to establish that war is, in the last resort, the final refuge of scoundrels who should never have been admitted to government.

Read the original post on Boyce's Paper.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land, available now.

Guitar virtuoso virtually unknown in his native Canada: “Who he?” asks Redd Volkert

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Quite possibly Redd Volkert is the greatest guitarist Canada has ever produced. I suggested that to him on Saturday, when I again had the privilege of hearing his astonishing virtuosity on his instrument during a quick visit to Austin, Texas, the self-styled music capital of America. “Oh, no,” he said in his self-deprecating way. But when I added that he is virtually unknown to Canadians, he laughed heartily and said, “Who he?”

Volkert was just back from yet another trip to Australia, where they seem to appreciate him more than does his native country, and if ever I saw a man comfortable in his art, master of his instrument, totally at peace with and enjoying what he was doing, it was Volkert in this performance.

He plays most Saturday afternoons in the Continental club, that dark grungy hole that I always call “the world’s greatest night club,” with a group of young musicians to whom he gives plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, notably a remarkable keyboardist called Rick Harnett, whom I have heard playing behind all manner of artists in Austin over the years, always finding the perfect way to pick up whatever genre of music is on the programme.

Redd is also a regular member of Hey Bale!, a sort of country group (in fact, most critics say they are the last exponents of the old, real country music) whose gig at the same club every Sunday night always pulls in a packed house of aficionados who love the music and are keen to show off their dancing expertise.

It’s when I hear stuff like this that my anti-Americanism takes a rest. As someone remarked in an article recently, being critical of American politics, as well as many aspects of the American way of life, doesn’t mean that you don’t like jazz, aren’t enraptured by Nina Simone, or astonished by Ben Shahn or Jackson Pollock. The United States is a country that encapsulates the best and worst of life. How could a nation that was capable of producing Louis Armstrong have lived so long with a social system that stopped non-white people from drinking from the same tap as whites, or sitting at the same restaurant, or staying in the same hotels, or living in the same part of town, or a million other like barbarities.….

Indeed, how could a nation that has produced such great writers and artists as Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, and countess others, have elected George W. Bush as president, or Ronald Reagan? And how could a nation that, setting all that history behind it, has managed to elect a black president, have so consumed itself in bitterness that there seems to be a very real possibility that pretty soon the crazies will be running the asylum?

The trouble with the United States social system is that the people of wealth not only are running things, as they have always done, but that nowadays they have begun to use that wealth in such a fashion as to exclude the interests of the majority of people who are not wealth-owners. The evidence is mounting: a terrible disaster seems to be in the offing. The wealth-owners control everything, media, opinion, universities, research, culture, the political process, and, once again, opinion, opinion, opinion. They are in such a position of power that they have begun to brainwash the entire population, which has apparently fallen only too easily for their ceaselessly repeated homilies masquerading as politically unchallengable facts. To get sensible government back out of their grasp is not proving to be easy. No one with wealth is ever ready to give it up voluntarily, or the privileges that go with it.

No, it’s not the entire population that’s been brainwashed: my nervousness about what seems to be building in the United States, momentarily got the better of me there. There remain many, many people, as there have always been, who resist the power of money. It has always been a nation of heroic dissenters. But the mainstream media these days is able to ensure that expressions of this dissent do not reach the majority of people in such a way as to rouse them to action. It seems that even the tradition of dissent is gradually sinking into irrelevance as the crazies begin to take over.

Austin in an interesting anomaly in the United States, capital of a raw-boned Republican state whose citizens seem to value their iconoclasm, their guns, their macho myths to such a degree that they are normally classified by outsiders as rednecks. Yet Austin is a town of liberal instincts exercising most of those good American qualities referred to above. Not only the superb musicians give the town its quality, but it is also a centre of high-quality research in its several universities; the city seems to be ahead of the game in such essential items as acknowledgement of climate change and the need to get our technologies under control, and it is a centre of high-tech industry.

In addition to taking in the Continental club during my five-day visit, I made another visit to the splendid Blanton museum of fine arts kept by the University of Texas, where works by many of the greatest artists of the United States and Latin America are to be found alongside an extensive exhibition of ancient masters from Europe.

Particularly I wanted another look at the large exhibit from 1987 by Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian artist, called Mission (How to Build a Cathedral). Since it is such a direct critique of the Catholic Church and its work in Latin America, I thought it might have been removed since I saw it a few years ago, in the current white-hot drive by the crazy right-wingers for power. But it is still there. Meireles has erected a sort of city square on the floor of one exhibit room, filled the square with 600,000 pennies, representing the economic forces behind the missions, overhung by a ceiling containing 2,000 hanging cattle bones (representing destruction of agriculture, and perhaps other things as well?), the two forces joined by a long, thin layer of altar wafers (800 of them, one on top of the other), the ensemble representing a direct piece of socially conscious art that one would not think popular in the current climate. Following the military coup in Brazil, Mereiles in 1970 developed a political art project which aimed to reach a wide audience while avoiding censorship called Insertions Into Ideological Circuits. This was achieved by printing images and messages onto various items that were already widely circulated and which had value discouraging them being destroyed, such as banknotes and Coca-Cola bottles (which were recycled by way of a deposit scheme).

There was one peculiar thing about this museum: they apparently can’t count. Not years, anyway. They charged me the full adult price of $7 entry, ignoring the evidence of my advancing years, which should have earned me a $2 remission. Are these guys just trying to flatter?

Read the original article on Boyce's blog.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land.

A statement I totally agree with: the Canadian government has an aggressive policy to assimilate Indians

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Here is a statement about relations between the Canadian governments and the indigenous people, with which I wholeheartedly agree. It comes from a group called Defenders of the Land, who encourage and organize First Nations to base their policies on Aboriginal rights (which are recognized in the Constitution) and title.

Here it is:

Canada's Indian policy in 2010.
This year, the Canadian government has renewed an aggressive policy of assimilation of Indians. Despite all the apologies and high-minded words from elected officials over the last few years, this policy is the same Indian policy the government has pursued since the 1850s. From Tom Flanagan and the Fraser Institute, there is a push for privatization of reserve lands and conversion of Aboriginal title into fee simple on a small percentage of traditional territories. The comprehensive claims process and the regional treaty tables continue to push First Nations towards extinguishment of title using a range of carrot and stick tactics. Indigenous Peoples who fight back too hard against the assimilation agenda, like the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, are targeted for special repression.

It is important that the threats to the rights of the indigenous so clearly described in this one paragraph should be absorbed and thoroughly understood by Canadians.

As the Defenders say, assimilation policies have been pursued since at least the 1850s, a fact that makes nonsense of most non-indigenous commentators in the mainstream media who, when they rediscovered Aboriginal people in the last few years, almost unanimously came to the conclusion that as a nation we had a miraculous new policy available: namely, assimilation.

These people seemed not to know that this policy had ever been tried before, whereas the fact is, assimilation forced on indigenous people through countless Acts of Parliament, thousands of Orders-in-Council, and untold ad hoc regulations, was precisely what had brought the native people to their state of endemic poverty.

These so-called right-wing “experts” appeared never to have heard of the 1850 Acts, ostensibly designed for the protection of Indian lands, which nevertheless allowed the Crown to lease Indian lands, collect rents, license logging, and put the money into a fund that was spent, but over which, in spite of their protest, the Indians had no say whatever. This policy survived so long that when David Crombie became minister in 1984, he asked his bureaucrats “if it was still existing practice to use Indian funds to pay the cost of programmes which are regularly available to the Canadian public?” Of course, this question was never answered, like the 63 others Crombie put to his civil servants before being summarily removed from office.

These “experts” appear to have never heard of the 1857 “Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of the Canadas,” which spelled out in detail how Aboriginal people could be detached from their community, their nation and even their race, and become honorary whites. Have they never heard of the Establishment Acts of 1859 and 1869, which replaced traditional chiefs with elected chiefs, encouraged Indians to take private ownership in their lands (two policies actively being pursued by these modern-day Rip Van Winkles), and which led to the absurdity of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people being defined as non-Indian although they lived as Indians, spoke Indian languages, and held to Indian beliefs and values, while thousands of European women who married Indians were defined as status Indians? To protests made against these policies (which continued until 1985) one bureaucrat responded that these measures were “designed to lead the Indian people by degrees to mingle with the white race in the ordinary avocations of life.”

Finally, did they never read the Indian Act, passed in 1876 with 100 sections, most of them at the discretion of the Minister, the purpose being to exercise full control over every aspect of Indian life in Canada? Within 30 years, the Act had 195 sections, formalizing the inferior status of Indians, so that an Indian could scarcely sneeze without authority of the Minister.

Land, assembly, movement, speech, government, production, education, health, inheritance, ceremonies, rituals, and even amusements were brought under government control. And these so-called modern experts have just declared for assimilation as a bold new policy?

I have emphasized the controls exercised through legislation because they represent a measured, considered response by Euro-Canadians to the indigenous people they found here when the European invasions occurred. Nothing slapdash about them, nothing spontaneous, simply a measured expression of the racism and arrogance of the government society towards their indigenous neighbours.

The above summary of an acceptable native policy, depending on an affirmation of Aboriginal rights and title, was issued in the context of arrangements for Native Sovereignty Week, an observance launched successfully last year, and to be repeated this year in the week of November 21-27…

Read the full article here.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land.

My Log 226 Sept 19 2010: NY Times writer confirms David Harvey’s Marxist analysis of the economic meltdown

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

It is kind of odd that the day after I made a link to the informative interview about the economic meltdown granted by urban geographer David Harvey to International Socialist Review, validation of his Marxist interpretation should come from an article
in the New York Times—which I suppose could be called an icon of capitalist media.

Harvey’s thesis, which those readers who have bothered to peruse his article will know, is that there are so many contradictions in capitalism that they inevitably lead to crises, one after the other. Each of them is addressed and corrected in its capitalist fashion, but, says Harvey, these corrections are never complete or permanent. Usually they succeed only in moving the crisis on to the next crisis. And this is what has happened in the handling of the economic meltdown, which has left Western society facing a crisis of unemployment.

Now comes an article by Bob Herbert in the NYT on this crisis of unemployment that has seized the United States. "The American economy is on its knees and the suffering has reached historic levels,” Herbert writes. “Nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is more than 14 percent of the population. That is an increase of 4 million over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record-keeping. Millions more are teetering on the edge, poised to fall into poverty.

“More than a quarter of all blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics are poor. More than 15 million children are poor.”

Herbert notes that the middle-class are in retreat, and writes: “I don’t know what it will take, maybe a full-blown depression, for policy makers to decide that they need to take extraordinary additional steps to cope with this drastic economic and employment emergency. Nothing currently on the table will turn things around in a meaningful way. We’re facing a jobs deficit of about 11 million, which is about how many new ones we’d have to create just to get our heads above water. It will take years — years — just to get employment back to where it was when the recession struck in December 2007.

“While working people are suffering the torments of joblessness, underemployment and dwindling compensation, corporate profits have rebounded and the financial sector is once again living the high life. This helps to keep the people at the top comfortably in denial about the extent of the carnage. Millions of struggling voters have no idea which way to turn…”

Okay, this is the situation in the United States, as described in the system’s most important newspaper, which says the governing elites are in a state of denial of the crises the society is confronting.

Now on to Harvey’s analysis. He writes that an important theme of his recent book, The Enigma of Capital is that capitalism doesn’t solve its crises, but moves them around:

“…we’ve sort of solved the banking crisis, but now we’ve
got a sovereign debt crisis of the finances of states. You see this of course in southern Europe, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. But internally in the Untied States we also have a fiscal crisis emerging with California for example, being one of the largest public budgets in the world, which is in serious difficulty. So we’ve shifted the locus of the crisis from the financial institutions to state finance.

“Then there is a big question of how that is going to be addressed and that is the big question that is on the agenda right now. Whereas this time last year it was how to stabilize the banks, it’s now how to stabilize state finances and this is a question that is not going away easily; it’s one we’re going to have to be concerned with over the next ten or fifteen years. Alongside of that, as they attempt to stabilize state finances through austerity they’re going to stabilize high unemployment. That is the question emerging now, they shifted it from the financial institutions, then to state finances, and then to the people in terms of austerity and unemployment. The big question then is how are the people going to respond?”

He suggests that in Britain, with Cameron’s massive cuts in services, and in New York state, with huge budget cuts and immense unemployment in the public sector, there will be a great struggle between the public sector unions and the State, a modern version of the class struggle, to which Harvey, incidentally, attributes much of the high standard of living achieved up to 1970.

To judge by the New York Times article, and other evidence slowly being produced about the coming crisis of unemployment in the US — see for example, in a previous post the item on the millions of so-called “99ers”, those people who have run out of their unemployment insurance after 99 weeks, and are now facing immediate destitution, loss of their homes, status and everything else they had thought was permanent — there is no room any longer to deny the prospect of a disastrous crisis developing around unemployment. Obama at the moment seems to embody the idea of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land.

My Log 221: shocking contrast: earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, no death to the wealthy, 300,000 for the poor

Monday, September 13th, 2010

There’s probably never been a more convincing demonstration of the debilitating effect of poverty on people, and on society, than the contrast between the effects of the Haitian and New Zealand earthquakes.

The earthquakes were of roughly the same intensity — in fact, I believe the New Zealand quake was slightly more severe than the Haitian — yet in New Zealand, a wealthy, ordered society, no one was killed, not one person. While in Haiti, probably the poorest country on earth, racked by corruption, violence, societal breakdown, exploited mercilessly for generations by the world’s wealth-owners, and by its own small, wealthy elite, more than 300,000 people were killed.

At its simplest, I suppose you could say the basic difference was between a society with strong regulations, leading to building codes and the like, which ensure that buildings are constructed to a minimum, high standard of safety; and a society almost without a serious government that has virtually no regulation, where anything is acceptable, including shoddy construction of homes, public buildings, and anything in between.

There are ironies, too, bitter ones: for in Christchurch, well-equipped hospitals were no doubt standing ready, geared up for an influx of wounded victims, which never arrived. While in Haiti, as the reports sent out to me by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) make clear, most of the hospitals were powerless to cope, because of their shortage of trained personnel, amounting, in some cases to an entire lack of, drugs and supplies. This meant that volunteer organizations, most of them, I suppose, internationally inspired, like MSF, were called on to perform tens of thousands of operations and attend to hundreds of thousands of wounded victims.

Though there is a serious, and huge international discussion about the efficacy of aid, it has always been clear that the world’s impoverished people require an injection from the prosperous of some kind of resources to get them going towards a better life. It may be true that some aid, especially aid from the West which is designed to go more to the providers of the aid than to the oppressed victims of poverty, can do more harm than good, and there is no doubt that the provision of subsidized Western food can have the effect of undermining the very productive capacity of an impoverished country, the encouragement of which should be the first priority of an aid programme.

I have had some experiences that encourage me to add some qualifications to the above outline. In China in the 1970s I filmed in an impoverished village, the poorest I have ever seen in terms of income, where every child was in school, every family had a house, every worker a job, and the general level of health was about equivalent to our own. Of course, it was achieved by a political system much more authoritarian than our own, yet it did seem to have delivered the qualities that made its population happy (at least, they seemed very cheerful), productive, and full of hope, especially in comparison with comparable populations I had seen in Africa, India and South America. It was all done without any foreign aid, which was specifically forbidden from entering the country.

Yet I have to admit that system has broken down, admirable though it was, its economic assumptions having been replaced by capitalist assumptions, although the authoritarian aspects of its governance have apparently survived.

These are complicated problems, much more complicated than the automatic assumptions generally directed towards them by our Western leaders would have us believe.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land, about the struggle of the Crees of James Bay in northern Quebec—a hunting and trapping people—to defend the territories they have occupied since time immemorial from a massive hydroelectric development.

Log 197: APOCALYPSE: it seems like the battle to save the globe’s environment is over

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Ever since 1970, and probably before, a huge movement has emerged around the globe whose determination has been to save the environment of the Earth from being utterly destroyed by industrial development, to save our water, air and soils from being irrevocably poisoned, our forests destroyed, our oceans denuded of fish.

Some notable victories have been won in various places, but the destruction wrought by the appetites of mankind, and the greed of private (and some public) entrepreneurs, have led to continuing spectacular disasters, which have been no more than punctuations in the inexorable decline of our soils, air, and water, from the unreasonable demands made upon them.

For some years I have been doubtful about the possible efficacy of this movement: I have always felt one has only to go to Toronto to observe the ceaseless traffic that courses the 401 road across the city, and to realize that this is multiplied across the world thousands of times in other cities, to get the sinking feeling that the battle is probably lost even before it is started.

These gloomy thoughts have been stimulated by an article published this week in The Guardian Weekly, reprinted from The Observer, and taken originally as an extract from a book written by Jonathan Watts, called When a Billion Chinese Jump.

The extract deals with what has happened in Shanghai, which, when I visited it in 1983 in the course of researching a film, struck me as being not only the most heavily populated place on earth, certainly the most crowded place I had ever experienced, but also one in which a strictly disciplined population appeared to have the possibility in hand of eventually overcoming the problems posed by their overcrowding and their poverty.

The Chinese were trying to reduce the rate of their population increase, the most essential step; most of their cities, as they developed, were based on the bicycle, rather than the automobile; this allowed the cities to be planned in a reasonable way, without the industrial parks and far-off residential areas that in our cities demand the use of the automobile, just to get to work; in addition, the Chinese appeared to be on the way to housing and clothing themselves; and in agriculture, unlike in the Soviet Union, they had discovered how to grow immense quantities of food, and how to get it to market in the cities.

In various parts of the country they were performing miracles of environmental stewardship, many of which I saw with my own eyes. Yet the logic of their immense population told its own story: some places I visited were clogged with smoke and aerial pollution so grave that it was sometimes difficult to breathe the air.

Nevertheless, in many parts of the country I saw for myself, brave attempts were underway to provide work for everybody. No doubt there were vast areas where poverty remained intense, and jobs scarce. But, to judge by the agricultural commune in which we filmed, they had a genuine concern for turning what we would call marginal land into productive, crop-yielding land, using methods derived from their traditions (for example, generating manure from the millions of pigs they raised in the villages).

While I was there, however, Deng Xiaoping, the power in the country at the time, made a declaration that I considered to be very foolish. He said one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers. Of course, in this equation he was ignoring the vast energy input that stood behind the highly mechanized American worker. If he had taken that into account, the equation would have been much closer to equal, I believed.

Unfortunately, Deng imposed his view of production and power on his country, which has since adopted capitalism in a big way, and has not only become the workshop of the world, but has imported all the negative effects of capitalism, holus-bolus.

Thus, according to Mr. Watts, “from Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Starbucks to Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, international brands made (Shanghai) the biggest, richest and most globalized mass of modernity in China, home to the most luxuriant boutiques, the tallest buildings, the nation’s first formula one track, the biggest auto companies, the second-busiest port in the world and a gathering horde of international salesmen trying to sell the American consumer lifestyle.
“Chinese consumers have never had more options. America’s Wal-Mart, France’s Carrefour, Britain’s Tesco, and Japan’s Ito Yokado are expanding in China faster than in any other country.”

Since the first KFC opened in 1987, the company has built 2,000 outlets in 400 cities, employing 200,000 people, and McDonald’s have grown from one restaurant to 800. (As a result of changes in diet, obesity has emerged as a problem among young Chinese for the first time).

Well, okay, we said a few years ago when considering the possibility of this sort of thing: we have been through this, we have adopted an obscene consumer lifestyle, who are we to insist that the Chinese not be allowed to do the same thing? With their vast pool of labour, surely they have the right to provide them with work by whatever means is open to them?

Fair enough: except that those jeremiahs who warned that if China were to adopt American consumer habits, we would need four or five Earths to provide the resources such a lifestyle demands, are now able to look on the present consumer splurge with some satisfaction because what they have always warned might happen is actually happening.

The Earthwatch Institute estimates that to sustain American levels of consumption, the world would have to double production of steel, paper and autos, produce 20 million more barrels of oil a day, and 5 billion more tons of coal would be needed.

Even to provide all Chinese with a Shanghai lifestyle, says Mr. Watts, would require 156 million refrigerators, 213 million televisions, 233 million computers, 166 million microwave ovens, 260 million air-conditioners, and 187 million cars.

Since the earth’s resources of air, water and soil are already groaning under the impact of Western materialism, to add Third World materialism would seem to pose questions that, on the face of it, we would have little prospect of finding the answer to. Five or six more Earths? Just where do we find them?

And where, in this frenzied race to global consumerism, does the environmental movement fit in? If you ask me, since it is a movement of people without resources, opposed to the wealth-owners, the movement has little chance of surviving, or achieving its goals. A snowball’s chance in hell, maybe?

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land