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By the pond

The next war: over the fate of the earth


The major conflict of the early third millennium will be the battle for the earth. It will be waged -- if we may generalize -- between materialists and environmentalists.

In the initial analysis -- which is where we are now -- it is a war within each of us. It is still largely an internal conflict about what values we hold versus what values we ought to hold; a battle between our material desires and satisfactions, and our deeper -- possibly buried -- convictions about nature and the integrity of creation.

The combatants are on opposing hills. Environmentalists are struck by scientific assertions regarding deteriorating ecological conditions and fear the consequences. Materialists feel free to ridicule the fear because the consequences are as yet unknown.

Botanist Sir Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, writing in The Tablet at the time of the Brazilian forest fires, asks, “Why do we wait for such events before we think of the environment? With our continuously rising population, our focus on economic growth and excess prosperity, we are changing the environment at an unprecedented rate. As a biologist, I truly fear that we are approaching the point where the biological systems that sustain the earth will collapse.”

Materialist Ben Wattenburg, in effect, replies. Writing about “economic doomsayers” in The Washington Times, he relies on “man’s intellect” to provide substitutes for nonrenewable resources. He would undoubtedly include Prance among his “Malthusian runaway environmentalists.”

Arguing against Malthus

States Wattenberg, “Malthus (the 19th century social thinker who urged “moral restraint” population control and believed population would outrun resources) has proved to be wrong about resources. They can and do often grow far beyond the slowpoke arithmetic model he offered. Computer-chip speed has been doubling every 18 months, that’s a geometric progression. The advent of tractors, new seeds, mass irrigation and fertilization send food production rocketing.”

There are plenty in the environmental field who would welcome the opportunity to explain to Wattenberg what else has been sent rocketing by the advent of tractors, new seeds, mass irrigation and fertilization. The disappeared farmland cannot grow increased yields of wheat from new seeds; reduced seed variety due to the commercialization of seeds threatens plant life on which the world depends for 60 percent of its food.

The pope agrees with the materialists -- there’s plenty of food to go around. But, the pope adds, share it. Don’t let necessities be subject to the profit motive, the pope begs. That doesn’t go down well with materialists.

Environmentalists see the entirety of nature’s biodiversity threatened. Among vertebrates alone, the World Conservation Union sees one in four vertebrate species in serious decline. Indeed, we can actually “see” the popular wildlife of the world, the elephants and rhinos of Africa, the tigers and Great Pandas of Asia, the plumed birds of the islands dwindling in numbers. Even materialists -- perhaps especially materialists -- have contributed to the World Wildlife Fund.

Building blocks at risk

Unseen, however, is the fate of the millions of microscopic building blocks of the Earth’s life web, facets eliminated by toxic waste, tourism or ignorance. As one who has written extensively on marine biotechnology, I am convinced that a polluted ocean that kills marine life is also depriving the next century of new sources for drugs and antibiotics. Unknown are the consequences of all this loss. And that lets the materialists off the hook.

The environmentalists are at a disadvantage because the results are not yet in. Sure, the frogs are disappearing, as are bees and pollinating insects. Clean air, clean water, clean rivers are disappearing. Fish are disappearing to the point where governments have banned certain catches. But what does it add up to?

The scientific cautionary tales are many but not understood in the aggregate. There isn’t yet a big picture. It could well take the ecological Chernobyl implied in botanist Prance’s remarks to enable us to explain our dilemma to ourselves.

There is a parallel between the economic world and the natural world. Perhaps it helps explain why materialists don’t worry when species disappear. The economic world, too, dangles on finer and finer threads and fewer of them. The economic “ecosystems” are in decline.

As there are fewer strains of wheat or rice to rely on -- if and when an ecological Chernobyl strikes -- so everything in the capitalistic world comes down finally to the “rule of two” or the “rule of three.” Only because it can’t yet come down to the “rule of one.”

End result of capitalism

Everyone who took Economics 101 knows that the end result of capitalism is monopoly or, where monopoly is impossible, a comfortable duopoly or oligopoly. The polite fiction is that even where only two or three are gathered in profit’s name, competition remains. That fiction is shattered whenever a new lower cost competitor appears, quickly to be bought up, denied access to the distribution network or otherwise put out of business.

If the survival of two or three works for the economic world, materialists posit, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the natural world? This would be consistent with Wattenberg’s thesis that “man’s intellect” is on hand to solve problems or dispose of unfortunate by-products. In other words, let the frog take care of itself.

Materialists play the same game of chicken in their own lucrative world that they’re prepared to play in the environmental world. The prospect of credit failure due to First World consumer saturation is as serious a threat to the economic system as flood saturated land is to the agricultural system, to take one example. Nuclear failure is on hold, not eliminated, to take another.

But the materialists are first to insist on fallback scenarios and contingency plans. Yet the same intellect does not make room for the necessity of similar farsightedness in the environmental/ecological realm. A healthy fear of unknown consequences is not always unwarranted. It’s sometimes called wisdom.

If materialists refuse to be as farsighted over biodiversity preparedness as they are for business risks, there must be something else at stake.

There is: profits.

To acknowledge threats to the environment is to acknowledge that something ought to be done. But to do that requires acknowledging the need for ever greater regulation, greater oversight, an interruption of capitalism’s freedoms.

So the battle at this initial stage is being fought on several fronts, including negotiation, agitation by proxies and politics.

Negotiation starts when capitalism, backed against the wall, says: Tell me what’s needed and I’ll fix it. The fix then becomes part of the cost of doing business. A classic example is ISO 14000.

International standards

The 52-year-old International Organization for Standards in Geneva is a grouping of 130 worldwide national standards bodies. One of the agreed standards, ISO 14000, is an agreement on environment management. It concerns industrial and manufacturing processes. It means, in effect, that manufacturers cannot produce their exports cheaply by cutting costs the easy way -- dumping foul liquids in rivers, belching poisonous smoke into the air. They sign on to ISO 14000 as a pledge they are meeting these international standards. Taiwan is a classic example of a country pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into environmental cleanup to meet ISO standards.

The proxy agitators are usually columnists and talking heads, academics and scientists. The Wattenbergs and the Prances. Their attacks on each other are not so much ad hominem as between warring special interests.

Finally, there are the political battles over money and property rights whose outcomes are dependent entirely on access to government support. An example is West Virginia where the coal companies are slicing the tops off thousands of acres of mountains. They dump the debris in the valleys, foul the water as the dust clogs the air, they buy up the housing, close down the towns, haul away the exposed coal seam, and then haul ass to the next mountain and begin again. To critics the coal companies can always cite Isaiah 40 about every hill made low -- or, if that doesn’t satisfy the critics, refer them to West Virginia’s governor and his pick as head of the state Division of Environmental Protection. They’re both former coal company executives.

There’s little doubt who is winning most of those current battles.

Why, in the next century, does it have to be war? Capitalism’s first criterion is: “Tell us what to do and we’ll fix it. Just don’t try to change the system.” War will be declared the moment environmentalists link up as a political-economic force that starts from something other than profits.

Call that system distributivist, democratic socialist or something else, it will be the opening shot in the third millennium war over the fate of the earth.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998