The right to development, respecting and protecting the environment

11/11/2009
Session 10Human Rights Council

Item 3 : promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. Written statement submitted by CETIM.

A/HRC/10/NGO/1

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1. From its earliest origins, western culture, has conceived the relationship between man and nature as conflictual and oscillating between two poles1. On the one hand, nature is seen as a powerful, spontaneous and creative force, the origin of life and all matter, determining birth and death, and imposing its laws on human destiny. On the other hand, nature is conceived as a collection of phenomena themselves subject to certain laws, which science is supposed to penetrate and master, in order to control. In both cases, however, the key concepts in this relationship are constraint and domination. Between these two extremes, there remains the problem of creating the conditions for harmony between man and nature. In order to advance in this line of thought, it is perhaps preferable to use the term human beings, rather than man – which tends to imply some kind of inaccessible “human nature” – and also to bear in mind that certain classes of men are able to exploit other classes through the productive and institutional systems with which they have endowed society. The essentially destructive nature of “really existing” capitalism, in relation to the environment and social structures, must be acknowledged. Indeed today it is more and more difficult to imagine a liveable world – or even a living world.

2. Through resolution 7/23, adopted on 28 March 2008, the Human Rights Council instructed the High Commission on Human Rights to present « a detailed analysis of the relationship between climate change and human rights » at its 10th session. This statement is intended to contribute to the debate that will take place on that occasion and aims to show that: i) Capitalism has become a real threat to humanity and to life on earth, ii) Proposals to pursue profit-based solutions and the false alternatives of “market reforms” with rights to pollute or “de-growth”2, are incapable of resolving these global problems, iii) A framework for the democratic management of the planet’s natural resources and protection of its environment, must be developed urgently.
Destructive capitalism, threat to humanity and life

3. The general public today is well aware of the state of degradation of the planet, and the major risks that this implies, in terms of the consequences of global warming linked to emission of green house gases, in particular: rising sea levels (by thermal dilation and/or supplemented by melting of ice caps and glaciers), accentuation of the geographical polarisation of rainfall (increases in temperate latitudes and decreases in subtropical zones), increasing intensity of cyclones and typhoons, flooding, displacement of zones of habitation for animals and plants, shifting of seasons for harvest… Certain consequences of climate change are already in evidence: freshwater shortages, soil depletion resulting in decreases in agricultural yields, biodiversity losses, destruction of cultural sites and of course, the environment… Others remain totally unknown: modification of ocean currents, extension of epidemic zones, others will probably be cumulative in effect, such as increasing methane releases linked to melting of the ice caps, energy consumption for air conditioning… These developments will certainly exacerbate regional and international conflicts relating to the control of resources (oil…), access to water, “environmental” migration, and forced displacement of populations in response to extreme climate events.

4. However it is not people in general but dominant classes and nations which direct and control the capitalist system, as well as its impact on the environment. National capitalist structures reproduce locally at first, establishing a domestic market, in which capital and labour are mobile, and a set of corresponding state structures. In contrast, the world system is characterized by the dichotomy between the existence of a fully integrated global market – with the exception of labour, whose mobility is restricted – and the absence of a single, supranational political instance. There is, rather, a plurality of state bodies regulated by international public law and/or by the violence of power relations. From this point of view, the question of the environment and natural resources cannot be understood without reference to a theory which takes as its object and proposes as a concept, the world as a concrete socio-historical entity constituting a system. These are urgent global questions for progressive movements, in a context in which capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form, has become a threat to humanity and to life on earth.

False alternatives

5. From the end of the 1970s, neoclassical theory, as mainstream economic science, was applied to the environment. Models of so-called “computable general equilibrium models” were used by the World Bank, notably for the management of energy supply, internalisation of external factors linked to natural resources, impact evaluation of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions or local, environmental situation analyses (site pollution, air quality, various hazards . . .) The key to integrating environmental and natural resources into economic theory lay in rejecting them as global commons available to all, without property owners and for free, and considering them as forms of “capital” subject to a process of appropriation, accumulation and private gain. There were problems associated with global commons (or collective global goods), in particular resource depletion and global ecological threats (ozone layer etc), as these might slow the rate of growth. By allowing substitution between factors of production, it is possible to get around the constraints of non-reproducibility of certain factors by replacing natural non renewable resources by forms of reproducible capital (knowledge, for example) thereby permitting sustainable growth. The rise of neo-classical economic theory cannot, however, resolve the scientific impasse in which it is stuck today, even while its leaders continue to be rewarded with Nobel prizes. For example: T.C. Schelling, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2005. Former employee of the Rand Corporation from where he supported McNamara in his military adventures in Vietnam, Schelling was part of the group of experts of the Copenhagen Consensus” directed by the anti-ecologist Bjorn Lomborg of Sceptical Environmentalist fame, assisted by Denmark’s National Environmental Assessment Institute, called upon to evaluate the Millennium Development Goals. Justifying the USA’s non-ratification of the Kyoto protocol, his recommendations have resulted in placing greenhouse gas emissions much lower in the hierarchy of UN priorities and in encouraging recourse to genetically modified organisms to fight malnutrition. This profit-based logic denies the consequences of capitalist domination, and leads the entire system towards catastrophe.

6. In the face of serious environmental threats imposed by capitalism on life, aggravated by neoliberal management of the crisis, various solutions have been proposed, most prominently, the Kyoto Protocol (1997). On the surface, it seems impossible not to adhere to the objectives of this agreement: how could anyone not be in favour of reducing green house gas emissions? But we cannot be satisfied with the modest objective of -5% by 2012 when a majority of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that an immediate reduction of at least 50% is required merely to maintain pollution at current levels. Given the dimensions of the challenge facing humanity, the Protocol’s set of measures are full of good will but derisory; and worse, its mechanisms including the market in “rights to pollute” present very worrying dangers. This is a first false alternative. At base, it transforms nature – including the atmosphere – into a commodity and launches a vast movement of modern enclosures. It creates a right to pollute, with an object (the permit) that can be traded. Carbon wells, for example, can be traded for water wells, when the mechanisms of “clean development” replace official public development aid. The rich can buy permits allowing them to remain big polluters without altering their destructive behaviour3 while the poor are encouraged to sell their « rights » rather than implement policies which might improve their life conditions. Certain projects, launched by transnationals, thanks to which they gain credits, has led to the expulsion of small farmers from their land in order to impose anti-CO2 crops, or to fiscal ecological scandals allowing these companies to receive public subsidies while simultaneously increasing profits and greenhouse gas emissions. For as long as there is no regulatory body or control other than powerful TNCs, fraudulent declarations of pollution levels and usurpation of carbon neutral labels (sometimes even used as an ethical pretext for exploiting new opportunities) will continue to be important factors. The role of the state is not to submit to the power of capital but to impose external limits to its operations and its internal logic, in order to protect the environment and natural resources. The strategy chosen by the Kyoto Protocol, based on market mechanisms, represents the surest way not to meet its objectives.

7. A second false alternative is the zero growth theory – which has met with some success recently among anti-globalization movements. We should refer rather to theories (plural) of zero growth, as they include a great variety in terms of content and quality. However, there are one or two pertinent suggestions (such as controlling the passion for consumerism) common to all these theories, around which militants can mobilize. Criticisms of zero growth theories must take into account that many of their adherents are progressive and it is important to join forces rather than divide. However, various confusions are harming the credibility of the project which they are promoting, for example, that between “growth” – a quantitative (and questionable) indicator, with « development » – a concept with multiple qualitative and strategic dimensions.4 Supporters of zero growth also go wrong in extending their criticism of economism, which justified, to the economy itself, and therefore also to economic policy – which after all is one of the instruments of social transformation projects. Given the asymmetries and inequalities characteristic of the world capitalist system, “zero growth” theories risk accentuating current problems in social terms (unemployment, dismantling of social protection) even environmental, resulting in even more pollution. Even more serious is the substitution of the taboo term “capitalism” with “progress” or “modernity”. If the antiglobalization movement for “de-growth” removes the question of the ownership of capital and popular participation from economic decision making, it will simply end up as another capitalism – which is an illusion. Eulogies on poverty, presented in some analyses, are certainly difficult to digest for the billion inhabitants of the world’s megacity slums ! Unless and until real solutions are envisaged to global problems of the world system, presenting genuine alternatives for transition from fossil fuels to renewable, equitable reduction in consumption of energy, and also for projects of social emancipation and popular sovereignty, good intentions of deep and/or apolitical ecology based on beliefs rather than science, will remain pious wishes and will delay sine die any significant reduction in pollution.

For democratic management of natural resources

8. We need a world order based on recognition of the non-market character of nature and natural resources – including land. The environment is at the heart of this modern day conquest in which the neoliberal model subjects all forms of life – or almost all – to commodification and privatization. The latter have devastating effects in ecological terms, with waste of resources, biodiversity loss and global threats, as well as in social terms with destruction of farming communities expelled from their land. Agrobusiness favours rent over subsistence cultures, imposing technologies which produce both dependence and devastation. Natural resources must be treated as common goods of humanity. Decisions about them are not the responsibility of the market but of public powers under the sovereignty of the people. The aim must be democratic management of resources, which itself must be subordinate to the right to life. This is a vital principle and not a simple management tool. Resources are not to be used beyond their capacity for renewal but must be adjusted to need and to the preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems.

9. Establish an international tribunal to judge environmental crimes and order TNCs to pay reparations for their “ecological debt”, make illegal any contracts which impose dependency on farmers vis-à-vis seed suppliers, abolish the market in “rights to pollute” and force rich countries to decrease their carbon dioxide emissions to allow the poor to develop, protect biological and genetic resources from patents, which constitute robbery, reverse the trend towards privatization of water in order to prevent war for its appropriation and guarantee to everyone sufficient supplies, while respecting ground water levels, create an international environmental observatory to respond to attacks on nature… These and many other proposals must be discussed and advanced today. As half the world’s population are farmers, the most pressing concerns are those linked to creating a better future for smallholder agriculture – which implies guaranteeing the right of access to land and when necessary, land reform.


1) This statement was developed in collaboration with Rémy Herrera, researcher at CNRS, Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Université de Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne.
2) Literal translation of the term “décroissance” in French. Unfortunately the term does not exist in English.
3) Spain, for example, has just bought 6 million tons of CO2 from Hungary and is pursuing negotiations with other Eastern European countries (Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Baltic states) in order to compensate for its 159 million excess tons of CO2 resulting from domestic consumption and transport. To salve its conscience, Spain has imposed as a condition of this purchase that the selling countries devote the money received to protection of the environment and 370 million euros have already been invested in various projects in Latin America in the context of “mechanisms of clean development” of the Kyoto Protocol (cf. Le Monde, 6 January 2009).
4) Cf. in relation to this, see Article 1 of the Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the General Assembly on 4 December 1986.

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