Climate and Energy

“This Long, Slow-Burning Fuse”

In the opening pages of this incisive study on the relationship between globalization and the environment, Melbourne-based environmental scholars Peter Christoff and Robyn Eckersley pose the following thought experiment: “What if the harmful ecological consequences of decisions to invest, produce, and consume were to become increasingly localized, quarantined, immediate, and well-understood?”

One can imagine the scenario playing out in one’s own life. You pump your car full of petrol and arrive home to face the ecological repercussions: a monsoon has filled your home with two meters of water and decimated your food supply. The weather clears and you drive back to the office where your boss informs you that climate change has rendered routine operations at work impossible. You are summarily laid off and deprived of your sole source of income. Unemployed and without a roof over you head, you are forced to migrate, immediately and illegally, to a country whose citizens regard you as an unwelcome parasite. Within moments of filling your tank, you have metamorphosed into a climate refugee.

If the distance between the purveyors of ecological destruction and its victims were thus diminished, leaving us literally “standing amid the mounting wreckage and refuse of our consumption habits,” then, the authors conjecture, change would be at hand. We simply wouldn’t stand for it. Being made to bear the ecological costs of their own actions, decision-makers—politicians, investors, producers, consumers—would respond by adopting behavior more in line with the overarching principles of the global environmental movement. “Their sensitivity to ecological signals and risks would become as routine and ‘natural’ as sensitivity to price signals and commercial risks are in today’s economic world.”

Crisis of moral accountability

But this is fantasy. In the real world, we supply our automobiles with fuel and drive—83.1 billion kilometers in 2013 in Belgium alone—unmolested by questions of liability for any remote consequences this banal and routine practice may beget. As production and consumption chains trample borders and grow in complexity, “contributions to climate change are dispersed and veiled by distance and time.”

Under such circumstances, the authors maintain, determining causation and attributing responsibility becomes logistically and legally unfathomable. By what laws of criminal justice does the Maldivian peasant claim redress for a home washed away into the Indian Ocean? To whom does the Brazilian smallholder farmer appeal when her crops fail to grow? Our increasingly interconnected world, the authors contend, is beset with “growing problems of displacement, distancing, and disconnection between decision makers and ‘environments’, between producers and consumers, between perpetrators and victims, between cause and effect, and between space and time.”

If we widen the aperture beyond the purchasing habits of the individual consumer, we find that this “accountability deficit,” and the accompanying “systemic irresponsibility,” exists in every significant domain of public life. Shell invests in deep-sea drilling in the Arctic, the European Parliament gives the green light to import Canadian tar sands oil, and individuals and communities (as well as nonhuman species) far removed from the corridors of power silently endure the ensuing externalities, the “slow violence” of climate change, biodiversity loss, groundwater depletion, extreme weather events, and the rest. As Christoff and Eckersley put it, “globalization has made it easier for more powerful social agents and social institutions to avoid or evade taking responsibility for the consequences of their decisions and actions.” At the heart of the environmental crisis is “a growing crisis of moral and political accountability between those who generate and/or benefit from ecological risks and those who suffer the consequences of such risks.”

 “Reflexive globalization”

To be sure, Globalization and the Environment is not a call for “localization,” the moribund program to de-link the global economy and replace it with self-sufficient ghettos. Nor is it a vindication of “degrowth,” the anti-consumerist doctrine calling for a global reduction in economic output. Rather, the authors hold that man-made problems on the scale of climate change can, and must be, addressed within the imperfect framework of the current political and economic power structure. “Given the diminishing time we have to avert ecological destruction,” they warn, “we must find a way of working more creatively with, around, above, and below this system rather than entertain the political fantasy that we can design and build new global governance institutions from scratch.”

As it deepens the “accountability deficit,” the global spread and merging of markets—beginning with industrialization and European imperial expansion (“this long, slow-burning fuse”)—is indeed a principle driver of environmental change. But the authors acknowledge that it is theoretically possible to “decouple” economic development from ecological degradation. If adequate and enforceable regulations are put into effect, economic exchanges within and across national boundaries need not transgress the Earth’s carrying capacity.

But fostering sustainable production, consumption, and trade requires a collective shift towards what the authors term “reflexive globalization.” In their words, “both agents and social structures must become more attentive to the consequences of their actions and impacts on others through space and time.” This means “moving beyond conventional liberal understandings of accountability and responsibility, based on individual agency, direct causation, and culpability, toward a postliberal, cosmopolitan understanding of ‘extended responsibility’ that is more appropriate to a complex, interdependent, and globalizing world.”

A “proxy representation” for voiceless constituencies

They cite a number of contemporary practices and structures that embody the ethos of extended responsibility: voluntary and mandatory eco-labeling that informs consumer choice; nonprofits like the Global Reporting Initiative that provide sustainability reporting to companies and organizations; Hungary’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations. Mechanisms like these can provide “proxy representation” for voiceless constituencies, for long-term public interests, and for the environment itself. In so doing, they soften the blow of what economist Michael Jacobs has termed the “invisible elbow,” or the unintended ecological consequences resulting from market transactions.

The concluding chapter of Globalization and the Environment makes clear that there is no shortage of ideas for creating a more socially-inclusive, environmentally-sustainable, and flourishing global economy. But in this there is nothing new.

We have long known that a “steady state” is technically within reach, that “sustainable development” need not be an oxymoron. In fact, as the authors acknowledge, many of the principles undergirding their notion of “extended responsibility”—the precautionary principle; the polluter-pays principle; intra- and intergenerational equity and access principle—are outlined in the 1992 Rio Declaration, among other aspirational UN documents.

Christoff and Eckersley highlight “the failure of states to accept national or international regulation of a kind that would ensure ecologically sustainable trade,” but leave unexplained how it is that states would, all of a sudden, be more receptive to the ideas and reforms proposed in this book.

The great lacuna

And herein lies the book’s great lacuna. Christoff and Eckersley are careful to acknowledge the lobbying clout of the carbon-intensive industries. But in an ambitious study that is meant to provide an all-encompassing account of the dynamics between globalization and environmental change, this weighty variable receives far too little attention.

Environmental degradation is, ultimately, a political problem. That states repeatedly fail to live up well-meant compacts like the Rio Declaration is evidence of the political prowess of the energy sector. In 2013 seven of the ten largest companies in the world, as ranked by Global Fortune 500, were in the energy sector: Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobile, Sinopec Group, China National Petroleum, BP, China State Grid, and Total. And Toyota and Volkswagon ranked eighth and ninth, respectively.

Of course solutions exist (and those found in this text are welcome additions to the growing litany), but the political obstacles to their implementation are enormous. And except to say, rather vaguely, that we need far-reaching “societal and political mobilization,” the authors are silent on the question of how we are meant to overcome them.

Globalization and the Environment is a thorough examination of the origins and nature of the environmental crisis. The authors’ concept of an “accountability deficit,” in particular, is highly useful to understanding why a constructive response to the crisis is so hard to galvanize. As academics describing and dissecting a social phenomenon, Christoff and Eckersley succeed masterfully. But if their hope is to chart a practical way forward out of the crisis, they still have some distance to run.

 

References

  • Peter Christoff and Robyn Eckersley’s Globalization and the Environment. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2013

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