Category Archives: Morality and the Environment

Occasionally, Things Go Right

Donghra Villager

One of the challenges I’ve found in talking about environmental justice occurs when justice claims seem to oppose economic ‘development.’  In short, marginalized people around the world too often find their claims about appropriate land use policies and practices ignored or outright dismissed if these claims contradict large-scale industrial development.  For example, in the video below, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India tried to block the onset of open-pit bauxite mining sponsored by the transnational company Vedanta.  The Indian federal government and Vedanta made fairly similar arguments – opposition was ‘irrational,’ particularly since the arguments made by the Dongria Kondh seemed to rest so much on emotional, religious and cultural appeals.  Surely, these should matter little to the possibility of GDP growth, modernization, and capitalist development.  This is something we’ve seen before, including in this country.

However, the Dongria Kondh remained unconvinced: refusing to compromise on their vision of the sacred nature of the mountain, the tribe remained steadfast in their opposition to mining.  As described in this article by the Telegraph, one of the major villages, Lakhapadar, voted to ban mining in a move that was recognized as legitimate by the Indian Supreme Court.

While the Indian villagers are not convinced that this ban is permanent, it still represents a hope that even the marginalized, if supported by legal institutions, can have a positive impact on environmental practices as linked to social justice.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

The Population of Asia


I find this to be an interesting map, because there are a few different ways to interpret the data (which seem pretty accurate), that reflect how you think about people and the environment.  The first is that the population of East and Southeast Asia is massive, and still growing.  Since our environmental impact is a product of our population, affluence (or rate of consumption), and use of technology – or I = PAT for short – we could say that the population of East and Southeast Asia is alarming.

This is a logical connection to make.  As multiple sites show, our 7 billion people on earth are consuming a lot of resources.  Water, oil, and other natural resources are being used at rates that may seem Malthusian.  Therefore, there is a solution that also seems pretty logical: we should curb (or reverse) population growth to slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources.  As this handy-dandy video indicates, our population’s exponential growth over the past 200 years is something unheralded.

The problem with this line of thinking (i.e. focusing on population as the source of environmental woes), is that it shifts the blame for the state of the world’s current condition to people who have not historically benefited from its overexploitation.  While it is true that changing lifestyles in China mean that it (and other Asian countries) are consuming more and more, historically and presently, each North American and Western European consumes much more than each Asian.

Garrett Hardin – Secret Eugenicist

Further, this line of thinking may lead to very troubling conclusions.  If we focus on population as the source of our problems, then our solutions should likewise focus on population.  One prominent environmentalist, Garrett Hardin (read in almost every single class on environmental policy and politics) took this logic to its natural, eugenicist conclusion.  In a paper titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin, noting the problem of a growing world population, argued for cutting off foreign aid to poor people living in Asia.  He observed, as clinically as possible, that “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

The fact that it is we, living in the industrialized world, that are the primary consumers does not seem to have impressed him at all.  Of course, population is a concern.  And of course Asians (like everybody else, I should add) are consuming more than they did a generation ago.  But let us not lose site of who is responsible for the ‘Non-Negotiable Lifestyle’ that started all this.

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.

Tradition: Some Things Change, Some Things Remain the Same

Old meets new.

One of the first international campaigns, and one that has become a shorthand for international environmentalism as a whole, was to Save the Whales.  However, the initial attempts by the International Whaling Commission to regulate the killing of whales were dismal: improperly chosen international quotas, a lack of monitoring, and rampant defection meant that for the first few decades of its existence, the IWC permitted a fundamentally unsustainable rate of killing whales – to choose one specie for example, only 3% – 11% of the pre-industrial population of Blue Whales remains. As is usually the case, human technical ingenuity, including but not limited to the invention of the exploding harpoon in the 19th century, and the development of whaling vessels that functioned as floating factories, permitted mankind to change the environment (read: kill whales) faster and more efficiently than before.

Nevertheless, environmental movements in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by the emergence of international environmentalism embodied in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, with the US as a powerful ally, and with the votes of new non-whaling members, persuaded the members of the IWC to adopt a de facto commercial moratorium.  At the same time, given the dependence of some traditional indigenous communities on whales, member states included an exemption to the ban on whaling in the IWC, permitting Eskimos (among others) to hunt a limited number of whales under the current Schedule.

But things are more complicated than that: while it sounds romantic to imagine the traditional whale hunter, spear in hand, plying the waters for trade, the reality is that indigenous populations are no more immune to the allure of technology.  The Inupiat, for example, use powerboats and grenade-tipped harpoons to hunt.  While causing nowhere near the level of environmental impact implicated in the real transgressors of the whaling moratorium – the Japanese Nisshin Maru is currently the world’s last remaining factory ship – for some, this does raise questions about how “traditional” the practice is.

However, there are other, potentially more serious environmental issues at play here.  First, as indicated in this wonderful video on the practice, the practice of whale hunting is now – like many other forms of human activity – being affected by climate change.  Thus, another ostensibly traditional activity is under threat from the process of industrialization.  Second, as described by the EPA and other international regulatory bodies, whales are, by virtue of their position in the marine trophic web, likely to accumulate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), long-lived, bio-accumulating compounds that can cause cancer, developmental defects, and function as endocrine disruptors.  This is somewhat alarming, considering that, as indicated in the video mentioned above, the consumption of whales is shared by entire communities, women and children alike (confession: the thought of eating whales is – to me – a scrumptious one).  Could it be the case that we do need to ban whale hunting,  not necessarily out of some desire to impose our cultural preferences on other societies, but rather out of humanitarian concerns?