13 Pages

The environmental politics of development

The rise of ‘ecological consciousness’ from the late 1970s onwards has complicated the already hugely contentious field of development policy and studies by adding a reflectivist dynamic, which seems impossible to avoid (see, for example, Beck 1992, 2009; Beck et al. 1994). In this chapter, I want to trace broadly why environmental questions are today central to development debates, and what this means for political debates over the future of our contemporary civilizations. The chapter begins with an outline of the reflectivist challenge posed by ecological concerns, and provides a basic account of the contradictions this raises for development policy and analysis. This is followed by a discussion of some case examples, which help to highlight central problems in the environment/development debate. In the third part, I step sideways to take a look at some of the reasons why the debates take on the forms they have, and investigate the intellectual, practical and political conditions that sustain things in this way. The final part concludes by drawing out three broad ideas central to reconciling environmental and developmental concerns. Before proceeding, I want to put a few preliminaries in place, which will

help to scope and evaluate the exposition below. In developing the observations and points that follow, I won’t be able provide any arguments regarding some rather large issues. For example, whether anthropogenic climate change is or is not ‘happening’ is one of the questions that has-rightly or wronglyoccupied most of the headline news on environmental concerns, and has underpinned much political work in multilateral forums. (Think, for instance, of the importance assigned to the allocation of, and trade in, emission permits; see United Nations 1998; HM Treasury 2006). Beneath such pre-eminent, global concerns, others occasionally gain public exposure, such as the problems of ‘food security’, the provision of drinking water, disease control, deforestation and desertification, the integrity of oceanic ecosystems, and waste management; all are intermittently prominent concerns in debates involving scientists, interest groups, governments, bureaucracies, businesses and laypersons. For the purpose of the discussion that follows, I want to move away from

one aspect of these discourses that has been fairly pervasive, namely the tendency to treat the issues in question in terms of an either/or logic. On such a reading, for instance, either climate change is (significantly) down to the active transformation of ecological conditions through human activity, or it is

a coincidental occurrence, contingent upon cosmic or geological cycles and their implications, but beyond (decisive) human influence. The general expectation is that either of these two positions will eventually be validated on the strength of evidence produced through scientific research. In the meantime, politics revolves around people throwing their lot behind either one of the two approaches, sometimes out of conviction, but more often than not out of selfinterested motives. Once the truth about climate change is established, the condition of uncertainty that feeds the political debates will be removed, and social and political organization be conducted in the light of the new scientific consensus. This strikes me as unhelpful for the question of how environmental and

developmental imperatives may or may not contradict one another, what to do about it, and how to construct an analysis for such purposes. While the question of human agency in climate change is eminently important, for example, for considering some really rather tough questions about justice, both intergenerational and intercultural, the effects of alterations in climatic conditions require responses, whether these particular justice dimensions can be explicated with the help of scientific consensus or not: some of the Pacific Islands, which are threatened by rising sea levels, for example, are home to populations for whom assistance will be essential, whatever the expediencies of the ‘blame’ question might be (COP15 2009). For the purpose of this chapter, I will then assume that the main challenges posed by the ecological question for thinking about development are social and political, rather than about scientific validation, and epistemological arguments over what sorts of criteria should count in the latter. Lest I be misunderstood in this move, this is not to suggest that the debates about the science of climate change and about the ethics of responsibility and guilt are not important and worthwhile; instead, I want to suggest that a rather large part of why environmental questions have the effect of complicating and altering the ‘development’ narrative retains its plausibility and importance irrespective of settling on the science of either climate change, or any of the other constellations alluded to above. As we will see below, the paradoxes posed by considering developmental and environmental imperatives next to one another occur in a variety of contexts with discernible impacts, and are therefore already a persistent part of what people have to negotiate in their day-to-day lives around the world (Bass et al. 2005). Having said this, I should also point out that a constitutive assumption I do

make for the purpose of this chapter is that human societies in general do have the proven capacity to alter their natural environment in ways that are potentially, and frequently were, actually detrimental to their ‘interests’. Overexploitation of natural resources has been a frequent contributory cause for the collapse of civilizations, not to speak of smaller communities (indicatively, see Diamond 2006). Once we step inside human history for orienting our frame of reference, we will thus find ample reason for proceeding very carefully with

claims regarding links between ‘know-how’ and technology, and ecological sustainability.1