I – THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MAN AND NATURE AND THE SOCIOENVIRONMENTAL DICHOTOMY
1. Antagonism between man and nature and the ecological crisis.
Since its origins, Western Civilization has put nature at the disposition of man, for him to subjugate. With a few rare exceptions, this is how Nature is presented in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, in the Koraan, in the medieval philosophers, and in the rationalist thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
This occurs with the same frequency within theocentric and anthropocentric conceptions. And it is in the societies founded upon the Industrial Revolution that the man-nature antagonism has deepened and ultimately defined itself. There have been nonetheless, intervals and exceptions.
Pre-Socratic thinkers held a differing word-view. For them, the gods and dieties were present in all things. In Greek mythology the men and the gods had the same origin. In the beginning, according to Hesiod, Chaos reigned, and out of Chaos came Uranus and Gaia, the Heavens and the Earth. The two, in turn, begat the gods and men. The difference between the dieties and the mortals is not their origin, but rather their destiny. The gods mortals is not their origin, but rather their destiny. The gods were immortal, yet they were, in truth, created in the image of man, with feelings and passions and positive and negative characteristics.
The Greek gods were not supernatural entities; they were believed to be an integral part of nature. There was no omniscient God, creator of the entire universe, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The gods and men coexisted in nature and this bespeaks a especial relationship between man and nature. In Greek the word “phisis” means nature and man, together with all of their thoughts and actions. One word encompassed the significance of both nature and humanity. Thinking in terms of “phisis,” the pre-Socratic thinkers conceived of all beings as one, as a complete reality.
Throughout history and cultures, there certainly have existed many variations on the man-nature theme, but the one that prevailed in the Western tradition was the Judeo-Christian ideal, in which nature was always passive, submissive to the domination of man. Overall, it was the Judeo-Christian influence that fully developed the opposition between man and nature, between the spiritual and the material.
Philosopher Rene Descartes (17th century) provided the most complete justification of this opposition. The Cartesian conception placed man as subject and nature as object; man became the master of nature. Cartesian writings profoundly influenced thought patterns in the western word and laid the foundation for the Scientific Revolution and ultimately, the Industrial Revolution, where these ideas would realize their highest form of expression. Following on the heels of Descartes, Francis Bacon declared that men must dominate natures just as they dominate women. He elaborated that nature, being feminine in character, was required to submit to masculine domination.
Anthropocentrism, the pragmatic-utilitarianist pattern that views man and nature as subject and object, placed an indelible mark on the modern era.
Anthropocentrism in society leaves no room for integration between humanity and nature. Patriarchal structures and the predatory economic systems that have prevailed in the past few centuries can also be considered descendents of the Cartesian rationalism that innaugurated modernity.
Capitalism takes this rationalism as far as it will go. The Enlightenment of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution showcase these ideals. Science and technology acquired, in the 19th century, a central role in the human life.
The idea of nature as an objective, exterior entity presupposes a concept of human beings as unnatural and outside of nature. And it was during the Industrial Revolution that this concept was crystallized within Western thought.
In the so-called Western world nature is either viewed as savage and hostile, the place of struggle between all competing forces (better known as the Law of the Jungle), or in the other extreme, as an idyllic symbol of beauty and harmony. The former justifies the state to impose law and order to impede chaos, which is considered, in essence, “a return to the natural or animal state.” The latter criticizes the man who destroys nature, yet maintains the man-nature dichotomy. The former is anthropocentrism; the latter is naturalism.
These ideas are clearly developed in political ecology, notably in Marxist political ecology. In this case, the opposition between man and nature is rejected, expressing the need for a more organic, integrated conception of human society and nature; nonetheless it applies a different perspective to the two sides of the equation. As such, it fails to completely overcome the dualism it attempts to refute. In effect, the Law of the Jungle is accepted on the societal plane under the guise of class struggle. On diagnosis for nature, another for society. The ambiguity remains: dialectic thought is only able to se the world through the prism of struggle, conflict, negation. It is incapable of perceiving it in terms of creation.
The creative model of thinking about nature and society is a unique viewpoint. In “Creative Evolution”, Bergson wrote: “Nature is a creation which continues without end by virtue of an initial movement. Evolution is a creation that never ceases to renew itself. Life transcends finality. Essentially, it is a flux propelled through matter.”
Nature com be perceived not as a struggle but as creation. In Espinoza, this manifests itself as the power of expansion, the power to produce alterations and influences, virtualities and wave motions. The dichotomy between man vs. Nature, artificial vs. Natural disappears entirely.
Even the revolutionary currents of Rationalism, like Marxism sink into crisis for lack of a means of defining the modern world, and above all, the global environmental crisis.
It is within this context of failed ideology that we find the ecological crisis. It is a huge challenge for all humanity. And Classic Reason, based on repose and order, on the divorce of nature from society, is impotent to take on this challenge.
Science itself, heir to rationalism, has undertaken to hasten its decay. The theory of relativity and quantum physics in the 20th century showed that science does not produce any more certainties, only probabilities. Thus, the Occident becomes more receptive to holistic concepts that prevail in oriental philosophies.
There has been an opening to ideas that re-conceive of humanity and nature as parts of a whole, made up of forces that interact in constant movement and transformation. It is necessary to profoundly rethink the man-nature relationship in order that the current perception of nature can change.
This is a growing effort to restructure the conceptions of the world, nature and the universe; this demands a new Reason with new cognitive instruments. The ecological crisis presents humanity with a global epistemological challenge To face this challenge, it wold be necessary to find an Alternative Reason to replace classical and dialectic Reason. It wold be necessary to rethink thought and to produce new modes and lifestyles in search of a new aesthetic of existence.
2. The Environmental and the Social: Methodological Perspectives
From the point of view of political strategy, the environmental struggle is increasingly incorporating social movements are more frequently bringing environmental issues into their platforms. There is a common ground that permits a unified effort in political action to combat the current development model which is both socially unjust and ecologically predatory.
Nonetheless, some differences remain, a result of divergent theoretical concepts, A social movement with environmental concerns can have a methodology distinct from an environmental movement with social concerns. And no common political action strategy will be able to hide these differences, the fruit of distinct theoretical roots.
These differences frequently result in contradictions between environmental and development-oriented NGOs, between an environmental vision and a social vision, etc. These methodological differences are summarized in the diagram below, which was created solely for didactic purposes.
The environmental question crosses horizontally through society, although each social class or sector is affected differently. The social question is predominantly vertical, characterized by two opposites in conflict.
II – UNCED: THE MARRIAGE OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND THE SOCIAL
Here we see that the ecological perspective is horizontal, eccentric, organic and based on diversity in its search for consensus through creativity. And the social perspective is in its search for unity through contradiction.
Much can be said about these two perspectives and their characteristics. But what interests us most is showing that, above all differences, there exists an enormous common ground which makes possible the creation of a socio-environmental political strategy. This has already been recognized in some countries, notably Third World countries, where it is impossible to separate environmental issues from social issues.
On the international level, the largest factor which prompted the strategic alliance between the environmental and the social was, without a doubt, the UNCED process (Unites Nations Conference on Environment and Development which took place in Rio de Janeiro, June 1-15, 1992). In order to better comprehend the significance of the successes and failures which resulted from this event, a rapid descriptive analysis of its functioning and its conclusions is necessary.
1. A Few Reference Points
In June of 1992, all of the world’s governments came together in Rio for the Unite Nations Conference on Environment and Development. International public attention turned to Rio de Janeiro during those two weeks, and the city became known as the ecological capital of the world. Although the results of the Earth Summit did not live up to their expectations, various accords were signed and the conference became an important mark in the history of United Nations.
Simultaneous with the official proceedings was the Global Forum, a massive reunion of thousands of non-governmental organizations from all parts of the world that took place in Flamengo Park (also Rio de Janeiro). The Global Forum was the largest meeting of social and civil organizations to date. The organizations present offered their own proposals of solutions to the social and environmental crisis which threatens planet Earth and its inhabitants.
The results of the official conference were very unremarkable. The Climate Convention was emptied of its content in order for U. S. President George Bush to sign it. The Biodiversity Convention, even in its final, weakened form, was not signed by the U.S. some very crucial issues such as the regulation of multinational corporations and the nuclear question were never discussed. However, the accords that were signed, notably the plan of action approved in the Agenda 21 should serve as a new reference point for the multilateral financial institutions when they consider environmental and development projects.
The possibility exists, though, that these agreements will end up as mere promises on paper, lacking a true commitment from the governments and the U. N. The Brazilian government, for example, signed the Biodiversity Convention and at the same time introduced an industrial property and patent law into the Congress that violates both the spirit and the letter of the Biodiversity Convention.
Among the innumerable decisions made by the governments in the Rio conference, one of the most important was the creation of commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), considered by many NGOs a great, silent victory. The Commission, whose first meeting took place in New York, June 14-25, 1993, has the task of evaluating and accompanying the progress of Agenda 21, in a constant dialogue with governments, the multilateral banks and the United Nations agencies. The Brazilian government did not request that this commission be located in Rio de Janeiro, and the headquarters of the CSD remain in New York. But even more important is the current Economic and Social Council of the U.N., the CSD may be suffocated by the U. N. burocracy. For this reason, the NGOs proposed that the CSD be placed directly under the the direction of the U.N. Secretariat, with enough financial and human resources to function effectively, to pressure governments and the U.N. itself to find alternatives for the planetary social and environmental crisis.
2. A Quick Assessment: One Year Later
One year after the conference in Rio, the environmental and social problems that prompted the United Nations to convoke the Earth Summit remain unchanged. A quick summary is presented below.
Modern industrial production is driven by the burning of fossil fuels which release a wide variety of harmful gases, principally CO2, which is responsible for global warming (also known as the greenhouse effect).
Other gases, mainly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are expanding the hole in the ozone layer which filters the sun’s ultraviolet rays. We have seen the effects of this in the high incidence of blindness in sheep in the extreme south of Argentina and the ever-increasing rate of skin cancer in human beings all over the world.
We are facing an ecological crisis. The urban-industrial civilization is in check. This system brought wealth to 20% of the world population. And this 20% uses 80% of the planet’s natural resources and produces 75% of the pollution. The ecological crisis is at the same time a social crisis.
Confronting the rising poverty, created, to a large degree by the functioning of the world market, Third World countries destroy their natural resources to obtain foreign exchange credits through exports. A significant example can be found in the rainforest countries; they destroy the forests in order to export wood, minerals and agricultural products.
The income from exports generally serves to benefit the local elite, and then returns to the G& countries in the form of debt payments (actually the money generally never leaves the First World banks at all).
We can see that (1) Third World countries want to follow the same unsustainable model of economic growth as the industrialized countries, and this is simply impossible; (2) Third World elites live on islands of oppulence while the majority of the population is deep in poverty. Thus, they reproduce internally the conflict between overconsumption and poverty that exists in North-South relations.
During UNCED the governments remained imprisoned by interests of State, and this hindered the negotiations so that it was impossible to achieve results that could guarantee sustainability.
The Climate Convention was weakened substantially. The European proposal to gradually reduce CO2 emissions to 1990 levels over the next decade was eliminated.
The Biodiversity Convention was not singed by the U.S. during UNCED. President Clinton eventually signed the document, but introduced safety clauses to protect the interests of American biotechnology firms. Thus, the U.S. government continues to cater to the transnational corporations with an interest in patenting the laboratory production and transformation of living organisms.
The Forest agreement was signed only in the protocol form with very generalized directives that do not obligate the signatories to comply.
The governments also approved the Rio Declaration, a rhetorical document which established the right to environment and development, and the Agenda 21, a plan of action that provides direction to orient governments and financial institutions in the adoption of sustainable development projects. The proposal of the UNCES Secretariat, which estimated the cost of promoting sustainable development in the Third World at U$ 125 billion, was not approved.
Held concurrently with UNCED, the Global Forum was the opportunity for NGOs the world over to debate their own agenda on environment and development. In the 300 events of the Global Forum, a few stand out: the International Meetings of Women, Indigenous People and the International NGO Forum, which includes environment, development, community and religious organizations, discussing environmental, social, economic, and cultural questions and how they relate to sustainable development.
The International NGO Forum approved 36 treaties with proposals and plans of action for the local, national and international level. Not only did the participants denounce the problems, but they also proved the social and economic importance of autonomous and community organizations.
The people showed their ideas and proposed solutions. At the same time, UNCED got lost in a labyrinth of formal discussions and never touched the root of the problems: the unsustainable development model of industrial society.
Just as in the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the environmental issue was perceived by governments as a pernicious and undesirable consequence of development, when, in reality, it is a functional condition of development.
What we have seen in the past 40 years is that the more economic growth occurs, the more income is concentrated, poverty intensified and environment degraded.
In order to overcome this situation, the role of NGOs will be of fundamental importance. Confronted with the political power (the States) and the economic power (the Corporations), an international civil society is growing from the seeds of an emergent planetary citizenship.
III. THE CHALLENGE AHEAD: IN SEARCH OF THE ECONOMIC
As we have seen, the conclusion can be drawn that UNCED failed in its proposed objectives. But it is important to also conclude that UNCED was able to achieve two important goals.
In the first place, it raised the world’s consciousness on the environmental question, placing the environment permanently within the official debate on development. The second important result was the integration between the social and environmental perspectives. UNCED cemented the socio-environmental alliance, and this is not an issue of minor importance. Remember that in the beginning, the Unite States and other countries of the North tried to isolate the environmental theme from socio-economic and development issues (trade, debt, etc.).
The post-UNCED period can be characterized by a tendency toward a consolidation of socio-environmental focus, which is occurring in an uneven process. And now there exists another urgent challenge.
In a world dominated by Cartesian categorization and separation into impervious compartments, the economic category, obviously predominant, tends to ignore the social and environmental necessities in the formulation of public policy at the national level as well in the definition of norms which govern the financing of projects by international institutions.
The great challenge for the end of this century appears to be the integration of the economic with the socio-environmental. In theory and practice it must be recognized that, as far as public policy is concerned, the objective must be social, the constraints ecological, and the efficiency economic.
The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, in is first meeting in June of 1993 in New York, began to formulate directives and orientation, and is expected to monitor annual reports which will be sent by governments and international financial institutions (World Bank, GATT, etc.). Longstanding economic taboos are beginning to fall, as is evident, for example, in the current discussion on sustainability indicators and local sustainable development plans.
This affirms that the process of socio-environmental integration is on its way to materialization, and there has been an effort (albeit incipient) to incorporate the economic. The United Nations Conference on social issue–the Social Summit–scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in 1995, could be the great historic opportunity to incorporate the economic into the socio-environmental dimension.
Indeed, the Social Summit agenda makes possible a discussion of structural relationships between poverty, income and employment, clearing the way for the confrontation between the dominant economic focus and the social perspective. In this Conference, a great step could be taken–we hope–toward a future holistic perspective where the social, the ecological, the cultural, the spiritual would cease to be subordinated by the dominant economic interests.
The environmental, the social and the economic – this trinity broken by cartesianism – will be reunites. Their particularities will be maintained, however, in the context of a new logic. When the parts of a whole meet, a revolution takes place. Then the concept of sustainable development–today still vague and ambiguous–would attain its compete fulfillment.
Liszt Vieira 15/10/1993
I.E.D./ Rio de Janeiro/ Brazil