Social Environment is also crucial for Natural Environment, ignoring which no pious wish, no sci-tech can cure Nature

Earth

Several species have shown their ability to change natural environment to some degree, Humans showed what maximum destructive changes can be done (an in some limited small-scale cases the opposite was tried). But ‘humans’ do not mean just a sum of some individuals, some Robinson Crusoe and Fridays. Humans act on nature as a society, as a system, as societies, as ‘economies’ run by some governments (for the benefit of some people, or purportedly all), society ≠ just arithmetical summation of individuals. Humans as individuals of course matter, and when the managers of society think a change is needed, they start changing the individuals so that the society can be veered to a certain direction. But in history we have seen undoing those changes, if any, are often associated with a ‘social impetus’ some social actions, not just individual choice-changes. Let us see just one example: indigo cultivation in Bengal. This was introduced by the British, by the aegis of East India Company. The peasantry suffered. Land suffered too, it was not easy to regenerate a indigo-planted-land for say rice-paddy cultivation, soil got changed or degraded whatever we like to say. One by one planters employed agents one by one or by dozens, they also forced peasants by dozens or more into indigo cultivation. We know how it changed. There were series of rebellions. Brute forces were applied, such cruelties that only colonies saw (Bishwanath Sardar was killed in 1808 and the body was kept hanged in a cage on a tree so that vultures eat the body – but new rebels grew in number instead of being cowed down by such spiteful measures). News of protests and rebellions reached England. And on the other hand, at some certain time, indigo could be manufactured from coal-chemical processes. Ultimately indigo cultivation stopped. Not by individual farmer’s choice of to do indigo or not to do, but as a social protest, social action in nineteenth century. Social action of boycotting ‘British goods’ was seen in the next century in India and a century earlier we saw how the Boston Tea episode sparked the American independence. But that is a different subject, anyway.

Behind Indigo

Now, let us go back to a point – why the British needed indigo? It was the effect of Industrial revolution as effected in the the domain of Textiles – clothing, the second most essential thing after food. For producing white textiles and maintaining the whiteness indigo was needed and also a whole process of caustic-chlorine things was needed. Indigo, at that point of time could not be produced synthetically and so it was enforced upon Bengal peasantry and profited East India Company, its Bengali Gentry agents and businessmen. Indigo cultivation could be stopped, but some irreversible (for time being) changes started happening, Bengal’s textile industry declined. Caustic-chlorine industries and many other associated industries brought their footprint on the environment. An also on social environment, in society, it brought changes, it needed cheap labour, the once Irish and other immigrants in British Textile industry may not be seen now, but we can see the global textile industry with its backbreaking labour-process and low-wage labourers in India, Bangladesh and other countries, and the consequent environmental degradation, air-water-soil pollution and etc. The Industrial revolution, overall, did some drastic changes. Fossil fuel burning is one terrible indicator. There had been rebellions, from the domain of thoughts from early nineteenth century by the socialists, by poets-novelists and artists, to the domain of social actions, by workers oppressed by inhuman condition of existence since early nineteenth century. But the early socialist ideas — overcoming the town-country division, overcoming this family-ownership-property etc paradigm and practice and emancipation of women, overcoming division of labour, overcoming human-nature contradiction and many other such emancipatory ideas were yet to be put into social actions.

From Producers, Creators to Processed Consumers

By the way, even much later also this power-loom vs handloom conflict surfaced in some districts of West Bengal in the late twentieth century. Slowly the ‘invisible hand’ of the market prevailed, the power-loom was blessed, and the society, the ‘consumers’ chose it more, except some rich and fashionable who could afford otherwise. Consumer is sovereign is one of the most laughable lies, consumer choice is also manufactured from as early as mid-nineteenth century. Coca Cola was there before cars (automobiles) came and it is still there in spite of having nothing very special in it except that it is a fashion, as other soft drinks. Soft drink companies are emptying groundwater, fashionable textiles are polluting water. even if we leave aside all other environmental and health consequences. Inconspicuously billions watch football and internalise those textile brands manufacturing which millions of labourers are oppressed, internalise cold drinks and fast-food brands which from health ground at least should not be consumed. So even a daily wager is lured to come to Kolkata travelling 100-200 kilometres to be a part of Kolkata Durga Puja festivity, he also may contribute to the revenue of soft drink companies, he may also be lured to buy factory-second branded dresses and so on. From a ‘producer’ of food, cotton (for textile), houses, a producer of much needed socials services, from being a ‘creator’ he was turned into a mere ‘consumer’ and a ‘happy consumer’ who is happy by consuming this and that as taught by different companies, their advertisers. Brands make their way in literature, in different spheres of ‘culture’ produced even by very ‘cultured’ and much respected icons. At such points nobody bothers environmental effects of such choices.

Deliberately Changing Ethics, Senses of ‘Necessity’ Created

But mass-production needs more. It needed to change ethical codes of humans and did it many times.

Once there was a maxim which was honoured by the toiling people: Cut your coat according to your pocket. Not to fall in ‘debt’ was a target, even a poor toiler was saddened if s/he had to pawn things to take loan, which poverty pushed him. Society did not like this loan and pawning business but was not able to uproot it, its dislike was reflected in religion, in literature and elsewhere. But if everybody cuts coat only when s/he is able to ‘buy’ one, mass production may suffer. Nonetheless people could not be motivated to take loans and buy – it was centuries old ‘prejudice’ for the aggressive capitalists. So came the word: “Hire Purchase”. You are not taking loan, you are hiring, and after payment of rent for some years you do not have to pay any more, it is yours. This came only after 1900. When buy now pay later was slowly ingrained into consumer-behaviours, in mass-psyche, openly did the term ‘credit’ came, Credit-Cards came, it took several decades to take roots. This is a big cultural shift in all societies of the world that came in the grip of capitalism, and it produced more and more consumption of industry produced goods which had huge ecological footprints. Change in human behaviour was accomplished by social engineering.

Not only this. Many other things happen, we may see only one for the sake of brevity. Even before 40-50 years people proudly showed an umbrella which her/his grand-parents used and proudly said still how functional it is. Same for watches, bicycles, everything. Peopled loved and adored creations by people’s labour (and nature) which serve them years after years. This was targeted and broken down spectacularly, in this ‘liberalisation’ period staring from early 1990 it was becoming starkly visible. “Planned Obsolescence” was planned in early 1930s, but put to practice in ‘developed’ countries for some commodities like cars in 1950s and 1960s. But the advent of electronic and computer age made this even easier for companies – always to lure ‘customers’ for newer features, newer genres or generations, and etcetera. When the 3-R was conceived purportedly for saving environment, resisting its degradation, for so-called ‘sustainability’, but the first R – REDUCE consumption was made ‘forgotten’, then the second R – REUSE was also pushed out of ‘consumer’ mind: now the 3-R symbol is only taught as Recycle which does not bother much anyway.

All these are taking toll on natural environment. Even the word Green has lost meaning, Green-Diesel-Generators ridicule the very idea of green – and anyway, if diesel ungreen so also are all fossil fuels. Even Lithium Batteries are not that much environment friendly if one looks into the process of lithium mining and lithium ore concentrating – how huge amount of water is lost just for a few grams of lithium salts (ore concentrate) before its extraction as metal.

Pricing Nature, Environmental Economics …

As everything has a price tag, it was imperative for capitalism to give nature some price tag too. Just before the first UN conference on Environment, 1972 Stockholm conference on Environment and Society, where prime minister Indira Gandhi in her famous speech said: Poverty is the Worst Pollution — a year before, in 1971 several actions were taken by some academicians, scientists, economists, etc. One was the CLUB OF ROME publication “Limits to Growth” which warned about growth and ‘development’. Another was a symposium in Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Études held an international seminar July 5 to July 8 where Problems and Methods of Political Economy of Environment were discussed. (Mouton, Hauge & Paris, published it in 1972.) How to calculate negative externalities, how to calculate ecological cost of degradation etc were problems that were attracting attention. The Plastic-polymer age and the semiconductor age had already started. The hole of the seventies saw a big jerk in capitalist economy, not only in the top 12 countries but elsewhere too. Capitalism was learning how to manage things without repeating a 1929-33 type crisis.

But soon came ‘ways’ of pricing nature – not just calculating land prices based on absolute & differential rents taking interest regime in cognizance. How to calculate price of ‘lake view’ from your window was also taken up and ‘solved’. The ‘price’ of ‘Nirmal’ Ganga was calculated by ‘willingness to pay’ method, for example. There are many other methods which even ‘help’ to calculate tourist fees to certain ‘forests’, ‘wildlife zones’, even how to calculate price of a forest by ‘services’ it produces. This had a dangerous implication — you pay the price and ‘buy’ it, then it is yours, you may ḍe facto destroy that as an owner. The government as a ‘owner’ of land is selling forests (or leasing) for mines, for ‘development’. And as you may get some blessing of externalities, like grabbing a job or contract, you just forget even the very loosely formulated word like sustainability.

There are many other aspects of our society and how it is running today, many aspects of capitalism, which is behind the ruin of the natural environment. These cannot be left unaddressed if saving our plant really matters to us.

(This article and the previous one of this series are only some introductory remarks and notes, nothing more.)

Sandeep Banerjee  is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India.  Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at sandeepbanerjee00@gmail.com


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