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Economic globalization has greatly expanded opportunities for the rich to pass their environmental burdens to the poor by exporting both wastes and polluting factories. This has been a particularly common practice among Japanese companies - with nearby Southeast Asia being a major recipient. The figures are striking. Japan has reduced its domestic aluminium smelting capacity from 1.2 million tons to 140,000 tons and now imports 90 percent of its aluminium. What this involves in human terms is suggested by a case study of the Philippine Associated Smelting and Refining Corporation (PASAR). PASAR operates a Japanese-financed and constructed copper smelting plant in the Philippine province of Leyte to produce high-grade copper cathodes for shipment to Japan. The plant occupies 400 acres of land expropriated by the Philippine government from the local residents at give-away prices. Gas and wastewater emissions from the plant contain high concentrations of boron, arsenic, heavy metals, and sulfur compounds that have contaminated local water supplies, reduced fishing and rice yields, damaged the forests, and increased the occurrence of upper-respiratory diseases among local residents. Local people whose homes, livelihoods, and health have been sacrificed to PASAR are now largely dependent on the occasional part-time or contractual employment they are offered to do the plant's most dangerous and dirtiest jobs.

The company has prospered. The local economy has grown. The Japanese people have a supply of copper at no environmental cost to themselves. The local poor - the project's professed beneficiaries - have lost their means of livelihood and suffered impaired health. The Philippine government is repaying the foreign aid loan from Japan that financed the construction of supporting infrastructure for the plant. And the Japanese are congratulating themselves for the cleanliness of their domestic environment and their generous assistance to the poor of the Philippines.

There is nothing particularly special about this case, other than the fact that it has been documented. There are thousands of such stories illustrating the realities of corporate colonialism that economic globalization is advancing around the world. The Economist, an ardent globalization proponent, has argued that those who criticise such toxic dumping practices would deprive the poor of needed economic opportunities.

Although an open trading system is sometimes advocated as necessary to make up for the environmental deficits of those who have too little, it more often works in exactly the opposite way - increasing the environmental deficits of those who have too little to provide a surplus for those who already have too much. Furthermore, an open trading system makes it easier for the rich to keep the consequences of this transfer out of their own sight. The farther out of sight those consequences are, the easier it is for those who hold power to ignore or rationalize them.

Perhaps the ultimate resource limit is the available input of solar energy, the one truly renewable and nonpolluting energy source. The significance of this limit is highlighted by the difference between plant life and animal life. Plants have the ability to capture and store solar energy through photosynthesis. Animals - including humans - do not. Thus animals, even those that are meat eaters, ultimately depend on this distinctive capability of plant life for their food.

The amount of energy potentially available from photosynthesis for the support of animal species, after deducting what is consumed by the respiratory processes of the plants themselves, is known as net primary production (NPP). A 1986 study concluded that humans were already using directly, co-opting, or displacing nearly 40 percent of the potential annual NPP of the earth's land surfaces. This leaves less than 60 percent for other species, for improving the lives of the 80 percent of humanity that enjoys only 20 percent of the wealth, and for meeting the needs of increasing human numbers. If current patterns of consumption are maintained, the doubling of the earth's human population that is projected to occur within the next thirty-five years would require some 80 percent of NPP just to maintain living standards at current unequal levels. Only 20 percent of NPP would be available to support all other nonplant life.

Consumption, Population, and Equity

We have far too many debates in which the representatives of rich countries condemn the population growth of the poor and refuse to discuss overconsumption and inequality, and the representatives of poor countries condemn overconsumption and inequality and refuse to discuss population growth. In a full world, consumption, population, and equity are inseparably linked, and we must deal with them holistically. One reason we fail to do so is that we have failed to develop accounting systems for sustainable resource use. I have found three studies to be particularly instructive in illuminating what such systems might monitor and what they would tell us.

The first is a study by William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, Rees estimates that four to six hectares of land are required to maintain the consumption of the average person living in a high-income country - including the land required to maintain certain levels of energy consumption using renewable resources. Yet in 1990, the total available ecologically productive land area (land capable of generating consequential biomass) in the world was only at estimated 1.7 hectares per capita. The deficit of the industrial countries is covered in part by drawing down their own natural resource stocks and in part through trade that allows them to expropriate the resources of lower-income countries.

Among the industrial countries, per capita resource consumption is generally highest in the United States and Canada. However, since Europe and Japan have higher population densities, the case can be made that they are living even further beyond their own ecological means. Rees estimates that the population of the Netherlands, for example, consumes the output equivalent of fourteen times as much productive land as is contained within its own borders. The deficits are made up through international trade.

A study by Friends of the Earth Netherlands took such an analysis a step further, asking: what would the allowable annual levels of consumption of environmental resource and waste-absorbtion services be for the average Dutch person in the year 2010 if (a) resource consumption levels are equal among all people living on the earth at that time and (b) the global level of resource consumption is sustainable? The results are sobering. The researchers found that in almost every area of consumption, the average person in the Netherlands is consuming far beyond his or her means and is thereby depriving people in poorer countries of the ability to meet their basic needs.

Friends of the Earth USA applied the Dutch estimates to the United States and reached a similar conclusion. For example, current annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions are 19.5 tons in the United States and 12 tons in the Netherlands. To meet suggested targets for the reduction of global warming, world per capita carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuel use must be brought down to 4 tons by 2010. If the burden of achieving this target were shared equitably, each person would be reduced in 2010 to consuming no more than one litre of carbon base fuel per day. "A Dutch person will be given the choice of travelling 24 km (15.5 mi) by car, 50 km (31 mi) by bus, 65 km (40 mi) by train or 10 km (6.2 mi) by plane per day. A flight from Amsterdam to Rio de Janeiro can probably be undertaken only once every twenty years!"

For those whose only transportation option is walking, such standards may seem luxurious. They are sobering indeed, however, for those of us accustomed to spending much of our lives in cars, planes, buses, and trains. It is even more sobering when we note that our allowance of one litre of fossil fuel a day is our allowance not only for direct personal travel but for the fuels used to produce, transport, and market the things we consume as well-burdens we place on the environment but never see and tend to neglect.

The allowable timber usage, based on an assumption that there will be no further logging of primary forests and that existing nonprimary forestlands will be used on a sustained-yield basis, would be 0.4 cubic meters per person per year - including wood used for paper. To bring consumption in line with equitable sustainable use, the Netherlands would have to reduce its timber consumption by 60 percent, the United States by 79 percent.

The Friends of the Earth studies were based on simple sector-by-sector estimates of the availability of environmental services and took projected population growth as a given. A third study, reported in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Cornell University professor David Pimentel and his colleagues, asked similar questions but also looked at interactions among sectors and took population as a variable. For example, it took into account that although we might cultivate more land, doing so would require using more water. We could get more of our energy from the sun, but only by using more land. Each hectare of agricultural land could produce higher yields, but only by using more energy inputs.

The Cornell researchers also took into account that although we continue to bring new land under cultivation, 10 million hectares of productive arable land are already being abandoned each year due to severe degradation. These abandoned lands must be replaced simply to maintain existing levels of food consumption. An additional 5 million hectares of new land must be put into production to feed the annual net addition to the world population - before making any dent in reducing existing malnutrition. Most of this new agricultural land comes from clearing forests.

In conclusion, they posed a fundamental question: "Does human society want 10 to 15 billion living in poverty and malnourishment or one to two billion living with abundant resources and a quality environment?" They argue for a population of 1 to 2 billion, which by their calculations would allow a level of consumption roughly equivalent to the current per capita standard of Europe. They note that "a drastic demographic adjustment to one to two billion humans will cause serious social, economic, and political conflicts plus catastrophic public health and environmental problems." What they do not mention is that in a world of 10 to 15 million humans, there will be no place for other forms of animal or plant life that are not immediately essential to human survival.

Such calculations are at best preliminary approximations based on controversial assumptions and the use of fragmented and often unreliable data. They are, however, the kinds of analyses that are fundamental to any realistic discussion of sustainability, and they bring into clear perspective what we are otherwise inclined to ignore - the inescapable relationship in a full world between consumption, population size, and equity. This virtually forces us to take a whole-systems perspective in these fundamental issues. It becomes abundantly clear that if the earth's sustainable natural output were shared equally among the earth's present population, the needs of all could be met. But it is equally clear that it is a physical impossibility, even with the most optimistic assumptions about the potential of new technologies, for the world to consume at levels even approximating those in North America, Europe and Japan. Furthermore, each time the world's population doubles, the allowable per capita consumption share is reduced by half.

If we take seriously the implications of studies such as those cited above, we have little real choice other than to give the highest priority to efforts to simultaneously end overconsumption, population growth, and inequality. They are inextricably linked, and no one, rich or poor, could possibly want the consequences that we will all bear if we do not achieve each of these outcomes in the very near future. It is of utmost importance that we develop adequate resource-use accounting systems, embodying concepts from the above mentioned studies, to provide ourselves with adequate tools for monitoring progress toward bringing or lives into balance with the earth - household by household, locality by locality, and country by country. It is also essential that we break free of the myth that economic growth is the foundation of human progress.

Source: Corten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World, Kumarian Press, 1995.

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