QuestionsWeb LinksClass OutlineClass notes
Question for Discussion: What are the larger
lessons we can learn about the global environmental
crisis by studying the development of China today?

Readings: Hertsgarrd,"Introduction to Earth Odyssey;"
Hertsgarrd, "Playing the Sorcerer's Apprentice"

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World Atlas: CIA Factbook Links to Environmental Effects

U.S. and World Population Clocks

Do We Consume too Much? (1997)

"The world has the wealth and the resources to provide everyone the opportunity to live a decent life. We consume too much when market relationships displace the bonds of community, compassion, culture, and place. We consume too much when consumption becomes an end in itself and makes us lose affection and reverence for the natural world. " Mark Sagoff

Yearning for Balance: Views of American
Consumption,Materialism, and the Environment

"This research and other recent work by The Harwood Group indicates that engaging the American public in a productive dialogue about this set of issues will not be a simple task. People are upset about the course we are on, but find it difficult to imagine how that course could be altered. Beset by a whirlwind of change - economic, technological, cultural, political - people feel increasingly disconnected and atomized from one another. They have lost their bearings; they feel cast adrift. Racing around, frazzled, exhausted, people feel they barely have time to stop and think about their own priorities, much less discuss them with others. The easiest thing is to turn on the T.V., close the blinds, and hope that things are different in the morning. "

Orville Schell: China: The Coming Collapse
"In the most concrete terms, China's ballooning population of 1.3 billion, which every year generates
12 million to 15 million new mouths to feed and workers to employ, presents a challenge so daunting that it is difficult even to imagine a solution
. And its natural resources and environment have been so degraded by the high-speed development necessary to keep people quiescent that nine of the world's ten most-polluted cities are in China. "

The Most Overpopulated Nation
"A large part of the responsibility for solving the human dilemma rests on the rich countries, and especially on the United States. We are the archetype of a gigantic, overpopulated, overconsuming rich nation, one that many illinformed decision makers in poor nations would like to emulate. Unless we demonstrate by example that we understand the horrible mistakes made on our way to overdevelopment, and that we are intent on reversing them, we see little hope for the persistence of civilization."

Overpopulation: The Population Explosion
"The relatively small population of rich people therefore accounts for roughly two-thirds of global environmental destruction, as measured by energy use. From this perspective, the most important population problem is overpopulation in the industrialized nations.

The United States poses the most serious threat of all to human life support systems. It has a gigantic population, the third largest on Earth, more than a quarter of a billion people. Americans are superconsumers, and use inefficient technologies to feed their appetites. Each, on average, uses 11 kW of energy, twice as much as the average Japanese, more than three times as much as the average Spaniard, and over 100 times as much as an average Bangladeshi. "

Hertsgarrd,"Introduction to Earth Odyssey;"

"No, the biggest environmental problem is poverty-or, more precisely, the urge of billions of people to escape a level of poverty inconceivable to Americans. No one can begrudge the poor a better life, but the environmental consequences of their ascent) from misery will be profound, particularly since most of the six billion humans now living on this planet are indeed distressingly poor." (vi)

"If poverty is the biggest environmental challenge of our time, however, wealth is the biggest environmental burden. The consumption patterns of the nearly one billion people who live in the affluent world of Europe, North America, and other industrialized countries cause much more environmental damage—more greenhouse gas emissions, more forest cutting, more soil, air and water pollution—than do the strivings of the impoverished human majority. China again illustrates the point. Measured by population, Chinese outnumber Americans nearly five to one. Yet the United States dwarfs China’s total environmental impact because Americans consume fifty-three times as many goods and services per capita."(vii)

"Americans should therefore care a great deal about whether China triples or merely doubles its coal use over the next twenty years. And we should care even more about the behavior of our own nation, the world’s single largest source of ecological stress." (viii)

"Americans tell pollsters they want environmental protection even if it means less economic growth, but the happy truth is they need not choose between the two. The same holds for the rest of the world. We humans what to save ourselves. The question is: Will we act in time? Ten years ago, experts began warning that humanity had to have environmental solutions by 2000 to avoid eventual catastrophe.Today, most environmental trends are instead still heading in the wrong direction, and some are accelerating. This makes it hard to be optimistic." (ix-x)

Hertsgarrd, "Playing the Sorcerer's Apprentice"

"Despite having lived with China’s pollution for decades, Zhenbing was not exactly a militant environmentalist. Born into a very poor rural family thirty years before, he, like most Chinese! had met, was quite willing to put up with filthy air and dirty water if it meant better pay, more jobs, a chance to get ahead."(4)

"Even the government’s pronouncements, which invariably over accentuated the positive, admitted that environmental degradation would get worse before it got better. After all, China’s newfound wealth had only whetted people’s appetites for more. The Chinese people wanted to ( join the global middle class, with all that entailed—cars, air conditioners) closets full of clothes, jet travel." (6)

"With the Cold War over, Reeves was optimistic that humanity could avoid nuclear self-destruction. He was less sanguine, however, about the threat posed by global warming, excessive population growth, and other more gradual forms of environmental overload. “This problem will be much more difficult to solve,” Reeves said, “because it is so much more complex. You can’t just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid.”

"A further complication: although it is hard for humans to feel much urgency about problems far in the future, many of these problems have short fuses. The long lag time between cause and effect means that ozone depletion, climate change, and population growth could acquire so much momentum that they cannot be halted, much less reversed, quickly."

"Like the captain of an ocean liner who has to turn the helm miles ahead of where he actually intends the vessel to change course, humans will have to alter their environmental behavior years in advance of seeing much positive effect....Yet the more time that passes without taking action against hazards like global warming and population growth, the harder it will be to change course. Indeed, when I left on my global trip in 1991, some prominent environmental figures were warning that humanity was nearing a point of no return—that within ten years the momentum behind major environmental problems could become too powerful ever to reverse."

'In short, how much of a danger did environmental hazards pose to the future well-being of the human species, and how was humanity faring in its struggle against these hazards? Would human civilization still exist one hundred years from now? Or would our species have been wiped out, partially or completely, by ecological disasters of its own making?

Of course, none of the ecological hazards in question threatened to end all life on earth—just human life. Newspaper headlines notwithstanding, it is not a question of “saving the planet.” It might take thousands or even millions of years for the earth to recover from such man-made catastrophes as runaway global warming or full-scale nuclear war, but that is barely the blink of an eye in geological time. "

The Earth Charter Initiative

Conservation What does a
Sustainable Society Look Like?

Sustainable Development Links

The WWW Virtual Library: Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development Gateway

Sustainability and Simplicity Links

Eco-Portal: The Environmental Sustainabiliy

Ecology, Energy and Economy for a Sustainable Environment

Corporate Welfare in the United States

Common Cause Urges Senate To Act To
End Corporate Welfare Programs

Corporate Watch Home Page

World Atlas: CIA Factbook

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Technological vs. Ecological Sustainablity

Technological Sustainability: Use science and technology and market solutions to create sustainable development without fundamentally transforming modern industrial civilization (p. 25)

Ecological Sustainability: the task of finding alternatives to the practices that got us in trouble in the first place; it is necessary to rethink agriculture, shelter, energy use, urban design, transportation, economics, community patterns, resource use, forestry, the importance of wilderness, and our central values. Sustainable development is a cultural process in which needs and their satisfaction arise from a vernacular culture.
Principles of Technological Sustainability:

1. To control and dominate nature in order to create wealth and abundance for human beings.

2. Human beings maximize their economic self interest and minimize their losses. Humans are economic maximizers that are incapable of the discipline implied by limiting consumption and resource use.

3. Economic growth is essential. Need economic growth to end poverty and protect the environment and achieve sustainable development.

4. Sustainability involves policymakers, scientists, corporate executives, banks, and international agencies finding and using the right policy levels to adjust prices to reflect true scarcity and real costs, and developing greater efficiency in the use of energy and resources.

5. Sustainability is a top-down process that does not require an active, ecologically competent citizenry and the effort to create such a citizenry through education is a diversion of scarce funds.

Principles of Ecological Sustainability:

1. Humans are limited, fallible creatures. "No amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.

2. Requires active, informed, competent citizens, who will know in detail where they live and how they live.

3. Sustainability will not come from homogenized top-down approaches but from the careful adaptation of people to particular places. Sustainability is based on knowledge, livelihood, and living created by cultures living in particular places.

4. Nature is not just a set of limits to human action but a model for the design of housing, cities, neighborhoods, farms, technologies, and regional economies. (p.33)

5. There are real limits to the scale, size, and centralization of a human community and society. Large scale, complexity and chaos, and human error makes living in large, industrial cities and nations inherently dangerous and risk-filled.


How do we combine these two types of sustainable development: technological and ecological sustainability?

The larger question facing human civilization is this:

"Can we harness and control technology for the long-term benefit of humanity?"

Orr's Larger definition of sustainability:

The goal of a Sustainable Society based on the model of natural systems is not necessarily antithetical to technology. The question then becomes what kind of technology, at what scale, and for what purpose. We need to use technology to preserve and restore the environment and protect and support the people and cultures who live in specific places . (39)

David Orr would challenge Paul Hawken's definition of sustainability. While Hawken focuses on a top-down, technological, and economic strategy, Orr focuses on a bottom-up, cultural, and educational strategy for creating sustainable development. Unlike Hawken, Orr believes that we must make fundamental changes in our culture and society if we are to create a sustainable society. Orr argues that many of the basic cultural assumption of modern industrial civilization are flawed and must be critically examined. If we don't change our flawed cultural assumptions, no amount of technology, economic, or government reform will work to create sustainability. Orr contrasts the flaws of our modern industrial cultures by comparing the basic assumptions of technological and ecological sustainability.

Orr would tend to see Paul Hawken as an advocate of technological sustainability. Supporters of technological sustainability would tend to take the 1987 Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development:

"Development is sustainable if it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Advocates of technological sustainability argue that only increased global economic growth can protect and restore the environment, end poverty and other social problems, and create a sustainable society. Orr argues that this is just more of the same economic growth and industrial domination and control of the environment that is already threatening the Earth. Finally, Orr concludes that top-down, government and corporate elite-led sustainable development will not work. Only cultural change from the bottom-up that grows out of people fundamentally questioning the basic assumptions of our modern industrial culture will lead to the creation of a sustainable society.

Unlike advocates of technological sustainability, Orr believes that sustainable development really requires an ecological sustainability approach. Instead of seeing nature and society as a machine which we can dominate and control, Orr argues that we should see them as living, interdependent organism. If we try to educate people and societies to imitate and model natural systems, then we can begin to create real sustainability. Because of humanity's limited knowledge, limited control, and limited responsibility, we must limit our efforts to control and remake nature. Instead, we need to redesign our cultures and use of technology to conserve "people, communities, energy, resources, and wildlife." By reducing the scale, size, and complexity of our cities, communities, and technology, we can create more sustainable cultures. Through education and the creation of an active, ecologically competent citizenry, we can help people learn to live well and adapt to particular places drawing from the knowledge and wisdom of their local cultures.

Orr now compares the fundamental assumptions of our modern industrial culture with what he calls a postmodern culture by comparing the international systems of nationstates with the biospheric systems that sustains and supports life on Earth. Here, Orr draws on what is known as the "Gaia hypothesis," which states that the Earth is a living biological system that is supported and sustained by the interaction and support of the the vast blanket of biological organisms on Earth. In other words, through the actions and interactions of global plants and animals in vast, interconnected ecosystems throughout the world, the Earth's atmosphere, temperature, climate, and ability to support life is balanced and stabilized by the Earth's green carpet of life. If we continue to destroy these ecosystems and damage this green carpet of life, what James Lovelock calls Gaia, then we will weaken and limit the ability of the Earth to support our modern industrial civilization. But Orr argues that the present system of global competing nations is doing just that--destroying the complex, interdependent fabric of life that supports our civilization.

Let's look at some of the major examples Orr uses to argue that are present global system of competing nationstates is undermining the larger biospheric system that supports them. Because of global competition nationstates must constantly increase their economic and military power in order to defend and expand their wealth. For example, the United States spent 8.4 trillion dollars on its military and defending its national security. And global military spending since 1960 has been over 16 trillion dollars. But as a result of increased competition between nationstates in the twentieth century over two hundred million people of died due to war, the greatest number in any century in all of human history. This military spending costs these nations a lot; instead of investing in protecting their environment, ending poverty, and creating a healthier society, they are forced to build weapons that provide no real long-term benefit for their citizens. Finally, as a result of this massive military spending, there are enough nuclear weapons in the world now to destroy all of human life and undermine the global environment. Can threatening to blow up the world really provide security and protect the environment? Orr concludes that "humane values, culture, and ecosystems are sacrificed for the sake of maintaining and preserving power within a pitiless international system."

Orr briefly surveys the rate of modern industrial civilization's destruction of global ecosystems. He argues that "energy use has risen by a factor of eight, disrupting geochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur...Since 1700 the decline of forested area is larger than Europe...Methane in the atmosphere has doubled. Heavy metals and toxics now exist everywhere in measurable quantities. Humans are causing a biological holocaust that is destroying life ten thousand times more rapidly than the natural rate of extinction." And, in addition to all this, we are currently witnessing the rapid increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by our global use of fossil fuels. And, of course, we are also experiencing the growth of a global ozone hole that is threatening global ecosystems. Orr observes that we have a set of vital signs for the global economy in terms of financial and stockmarket reports, but we don't have a set of "vital signs for the planet." By placing the health of our global economy and competing nationstates over the health of the global environment, Orr concludes we are threatening to destroy our future; without a healthy global environment, the global system of nationstates cannot continue to exist.

Orr's larger conclusion is that our current global industrial society is not sustainable, and is rapidly destroying the environmental foundation that supports it. We must transform our present global industrial civilization and make its values and institutions more compatible with the global biosphere that supports human life. If we don't question the basic cultural and political assumptions of our modern industrial culture, then we will continue to destroy the global environment and threaten our future. For Orr, the challenge is how to rethink our basic cultural assumptions about our place in the global environment, how much resources and energy we use, how much material consumption is necessary, how we pollute and waste environmental resources, and the importance of caution and humility in the presence in order to ensure the future. In order to rethink our basic cultural assumptions, we must educate and convince the peoples of the world that sustainability is vital for ensuring a healthy and secure human future and global environment. This is the larger problem of Orr's book: How do we create Ecological literacy and educate for sustainability?

Today I want to look at what Berry means by peaceableness. He argues our dependence on resources from other countries forces us to be prepared to defend those resources from competing countries and from the people in the countries who supply us these resources. Because we must defend these resources to maintain our standard of living and our present levels of consumption, the United States must constantly prepare for war. As a result of our preparations for war, and our periodic military defense of "our resources," the United States is trapped in a "cycle of violence." Our efforts to defend our resources and defeat those who would challenge our right to use them leads to wars. And wars lead to victory and defeat. By defeating our competitors and enemies, we are creating and reinforcing a cycle of violence. Wars lead to more wars, defeat leads to revenge, and victories force us to prepare for future wars and future attacks from vengeful enemies.

Berry argues that we can break this cycle of violence, this cycle of victory and defeat, by practicing peaceableness. In order to end war and to ensure peace, Berry concludes that "we will have to waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less." If we don't reduce and even end our growing dependence on resources from all over the world to support our standard of living, we will be forced to prepare and fight wars to defend our way of life. Only by reducing our consumption and consuming only what our own country and regions can produce can we reduce the threat of war.

In the final analysis, Berry argues, our global industrial economy and our increasing dependence on global resources to support the First World's standard of living is the larger cause of war and military conflict in the world. Consumers are, in fact, responsible for this war and bloodshed by continuing to demand foreign oil, foreign minerals, foreign food, and foreign materials. If we reduce our consumption, and come to depend only on our own local resources, then we can end the threat of war and reduce our massive spending on arms and global defense of American interests. For Berry, war and the economic and social costs of war make it imperative that we reduce our dependence on the global economy. He concludes:

"We must see that a nation cannot hope to live at peace without a domestic economy that is sound, diversified, decentralized, democratic, locally adapted, ecologically responsible, and reasonably self-sufficient."

By continuing to depend on global resources and the global economy, we increase the cycle of violence. Indeed, consumerism as a way of life requires war and preparations for war.

The tragedy and irony of this cycle of violence and war is that competing nations get so drawn into defeating and defending themselves from their enemies they don't see how each of their bloody victories leads to more war and bloodshed. In the end, war doesn't lead to peace, but to more bloody and ruinous war. The more victories we win, the more battle we need to be prepared to fight; and the more we defeat our enemies, the more we have to fear their wrath and vengeance. To better understand this cycle of violence and the futility of war let's look at a case-study of the United States' war with Iraq in the Gulf War.

To understand American involvement in the Gulf War, we need to go back the United States efforts to overthrow the democratic leader of Iran in 1953. From the early 1900s, British and American interests had been exploiting and controlling the Middle East's oil resources. After World War II, France and Britain were pressured by the United States to grant their colonies in the Middle East their independence. But granting their colonies independence did not mean that European and American interests were willing to give up their control of the Middle East's oil resources. European and American companies continued to dominate and exploit these oil resources. In 1953, when the democratic leaders of Iran, Mossadegh, tried to nationalize the British-American oil companies control over their oil, the British and United States government saw this as a threat to "our oil resources." We did not believe that the people of Iran had the right to control and profit from their own oil wells! Refusing to accept Iran's challenge to our control over their oil, the United States and the CIA overthrew the democratic government of Iran and installed the Shah of Iran, a brutal dictator and puppet of the United States. From 1953 to 1979, the United States supported the Shah of Iran and continued to control and dominate the oil wealth of Iran.

Now you might ask what this has to do with Iraq. We didn't fight the Gulf War with Iran. Iran is in fact an enemy of Iraq. So what does Iran have to do with the American war against Iraq? All of this tangled history demonstrates Berry's larger argument about the cycle of violence and the futility of war.

In 1979, the people of Iran were so angry at the Shah of Iran and his brutal exploitation of Iran with United States aid that they threw him out of power. A former top CIA official commented that we didn't understand the culture of Iran and weren't prepared for the sudden collapse of the Iranian government under the Shah. After overthrowing the Shah of Iran, the Iranian people installed a fundamentalist government run by Islamic religious leader. The new ruler of Iran was the Ayatollah Khoimeni, who called the United States "the great Satan" and called on his people to begin a Jihad--a Holy War--against the American enemy. Expressing their outrage and American complicity with the Shah, Iranian students with the support of their fundamentalist government stormed the American embassy and took and held American officials as hostages for more than 400 days. The same top CIA official said that the Iranian hostage crisis demonstrated how vulnerable to terrorism the United States was.

After Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, the Iranians released their American hostages in return for the United States allowing the Israelis to sell and supply Iran with American military equipment. In the early 1980s, Iraq invaded Iran and began a long, bloody war that lasted until the late 1980s. While the Israelis, with American support, were arming Iran throughout their war with Iraq, the United States was arming Iraq, hoping to punish Iran and bloody it for taking American hostages and threatening American lives through their global terrorism campaign. So throughout the 1980s, the United States was arming and supporting Sadam Hussein, the brutal dictator of Iraq, hoping to get back at Iran. But, in the mean time, Iranian militants captured and held Americans as hostages in Lebanon. President Reagan, hoping to win the release of the hostages, tried to exchange missiles and military supplies with Iran in exchange for the hostages. Instead of releasing all the hostages, the Iranian terrorists actually took more hostages and then demanded even more military supplies from the United States in return for the hostages. Despite the fact that Iran was our sworn enemy, and holding American hostages, the United States began to sell and supply Iran with missiles. Thus, by the late 1980s, the United States was arming both the Iranians and the Iraqis, watching both sides inflict inflict tremendous loss of life and suffering. When the American people found out that we were arming Iran even though they were still holding our hostages and committed global acts of terrorism against Americans, they were outraged. How could we arm and support a nation that threatened our own people and our resources--the oil in the Middle East?

By the late 1980s, Iraq and Iran agreed to end their bloody war. Both Iran and Iraq were heavily damaged by the war. Even after the dictator of Iraq had dropped poison gas on his own people, the United States and Europe continued to arm and support him, hoping to continue to punish Iran. In 1990, believing that the United States was his ally, Iraq invaded Kuwait and tried to conquer it. Kuwait was in fact once a part of Iraq before European colonialism. Instead of accepting Sadam Hussein's brutal conquering of Kuwait, the United States now declared Iraq an outlaw nation and demanded that it withdraw from Kuwait. President Bush justified the American war with Iraq, arguing that Sadam Hussein was just like Hitler. The United States fought a brief bloody war with Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and forcing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Americans leaders claimed we were fighting to protect democracy in Kuwait, but Kuwait wasn't a democracy by a monarchy. Once again, the United States was supporting an authoritarian government that did not have the support of its people.

After defeating Iraq in 1991, the United States now faced two bitter enemies in the Middle East, Iran and Iraq. Fearing these enemies, the United States began to massively arm Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf nations. Just as we had earlier armed Iran, then Iraq, now we were arming Saudi Arabia. In 1996, Islamic fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia blew up an American barracks and killed dozens of Americans; they were angry about American domination and control of Saudi Arabia. Could the United States be making the same mistake with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf nations as we did with first Iran and then Iraq?

The larger tragedy here is that as a result of American efforts to control the oil and wealth of the Middle East, Islamic and Arab terrorists have declared war against the United States. And, of course, both Iran and Iraq are sheltering and supporting these terrorists. But American officials and the CIA cannot understand why these terrorists have declared a "holy war" against the United States. The more we try to punish these Arab nations and punish and destroy these terrorists, the more angry and bitter they become toward the United States.

Clearly, the United States had created and reinforced a tragic cycle of violence in the Middle East. The harder we try to control the oil resources of the Middle East, the more angry the Arab peoples and nations become, and the more the United States is faced with war and terrorism. And despite all of its tragic mistakes, the United States is still trying to control the oil resources of the Middle East. We are unwilling to give up our control of these resources because our way of life depends on it. In return for cheap oil and gas, the American people have to pay billions of dollars to support the United States' efforts to militarily dominate the Middle East. Our efforts to dominate their oil resources and societies had led the Arabs, especially the Islamic fundamentalists, to hate and despise the United States. And this hatred and bitterness soon leads to terrorism against Americans.

In the end, Americans' dependence on cheap oil has forced the United States to spend ever larger amounts of money, prepare and fight countless wars and military conflicts, and face endless threats of terrorism and vengeance and retribution. For Berry, the Gulf War and this tragic cycle of violence created by our dependence on cheap oil demonstrates the dangers and costs of our dependence on the global economy and global resources. If we didn't need this cheap oil, we wouldn't have to defend "our resources" from their rightful owners, the people of the Middle East. As long as we depend on cheap resources, which we exploit and control by dominating other countries, we must prepare for war and violence. This is one of the larger and greater costs of the global economy. Only by creating sustainable local economies that depend on only local and regional resources can we break this cycle of violence and reduce the threat of global war. If we don't reduce our dependence on global resources, the increasing global competition for scare and limited resources will only lead to costlier and bloodier wars.

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© 1997 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 20 Jan. 1997:  Last Modified: 10 Dec. 2003

America, the Environment, and the Global Economy