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2. NGOs as a driving force
José A. Lutzenberger
In companies, as in other human organizations, powerful tendencies toward inertia and maintenance of the status quo mean that change is usually driven either by competitive pressures or profit-seeking. Moreover, in industrial societies business usually has effective control over most actions of government. The result is that the movement toward sustainability has to be driven mainly by citizens, who have learned to mobilize themselves in so-called "NGOs" - non-governmental organizations. Business needs to see this "other" perspective, and therefore our dialogue begins with this point of view.
NGOs have concerns for health and safety of individuals and communities, environmental protection, political responsiveness, and many other areas, and they have proliferated immensely in most countries of the world. They pressure governments to take new actions and reform traditional practices; they attempt to use the power of media and public opinion to influence companies directly; and they educate the public about issues, so that citizens can exert pressure directly upon companies - either through changed consumer behavior or publicly visible demonstrations and other actions.
José Lutzenberger is an agronomist and engineer from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul who spent many years working for the large chemical company BASF but then quit his job and began a vigorous and successful campaign against the activities of the agrochemical industry. Lutzenberger served as Brazil's Minister of the Environment from 1990 to 1992 and is today one of the best known environmentalists in the Southern Hemisphere.
In spite of his high profile as an environmental activist, Lutzenberger is also a successful businessman who knows how to cooperate with large companies and change them from within. For example, he fought Riocell, a large cellulose and paper factory in southern Brazil, for many years because of the way it polluted the environment, but during those years he always remained on speaking terms with the factory's director. Eventually, the director ended up hiring Lutzenberger as a consultant - with dramatic results. Before Lutzenberger's involvement with the company, Riocell spent half a million dollars a year burying its (mostly organic) waste in huge pits, which polluted and devastated the environment. Now, the factory hands over its total waste to Lutzenberger's waste management company, where it is processed, turned into fertilizer and other products for organic farming, and sold to a network of organic farmers. As a result, the environmental degradation has stopped, the factory saves half a million dollars a year, and 99.6% of the waste is sold. The waste processing involves low technology and thus is labor intensive, supporting 50 full-time jobs.
In addition to his waste management company, Lutzenberger also runs a landscaping company. He created a park right on the Riocell factory site. Instead of waste dumps, there are now fish ponds and reeds with an abundance of birds. The whole park, situated on a big delta, is a thriving ecosystem, wrapped right around the factory. Thus at Riocell, ecological sustainability has become an industrial achievement.
In this chapter, Lutzenberger shares his reflections on years of environmental activism, reviewing the process by which NGOs he has been associated with have attempted to reduce Brazil's use of agricultural toxics. The story illustrates both the energy and tenacity that NGOs bring to their task and the resourcefulness with which industries fight back.
We believe that people like Jose Lutzenberger and the NGOs they represent are like antennae in our society, reflecting the mood and spirit of the time before ordinary people can see it. In previous centuries, artists have often served as such sensitive antennae. Perhaps the NGOs of the environmental movement in our time should be considered equivalent to the Michelangelos, Beethovens, and Van Goghs of previous eras.
I became an environmentalist out of despair. As a student in agronomy in the late 1940s I often spent my vacations surveying paddy-rice fields, measuring the crop size for the bank that financed the planters. Our rice fields are artificial swamps of a sort and most of them were and often still are contiguous to natural wetlands, the majority of which were mostly intact. This gave me a chance to enjoy intensive observation of South American waterfowl, from plover, ibis, and ducks to egret, crane, cormorant, and spoonbill. There were various species of storks as well as the stately taja, a giant plover the size of a turkey, and all the smaller birds that lived in and around the water or on the fields and in the woods. From early childhood I had always been a naturalist, so these were some of the happiest times of my life. Our climate in Rio Grande do Sul is subtropical, but most of the birds are the same that live in the Pantanal, which is tropical. Some of them even migrate between our region all the way south to Patagonia and through the Pantanal to Amazonia. Among the swallows that hunt insects by flying so low they almost scrape the water, some are known to go as far as North America. Then there was the capibara, the largest rodent in the world, the nutria, and sometimes we could even observe one of the most graceful and playful creatures I know, the otter. Everything was intact; most of the landscape was pristine. Farming was still what we today would call organic farming. But nobody used this term and the word ecology was yet unknown.
Some twenty years later, after having lived and worked in other countries, I came back to my home state in Southern Brazil. I then did a lot of travelling and saw most of the rice growing regions again. I was shocked, horrified! The birds had been decimated almost to extinction. Intensive and ruthless use of agri-poisons, not only in the rice plantations but on all crops, was causing more damage than uncontrolled hunting and partial obliteration of habitats had ever done before. In some cases it was so bad that big rice planters would invite hunters to hunt out everything they could before the application of the first poison, with the argument that it would all die anyway. At the time a terrible herbicide was in use. It was applied into the water, dripped from drums mounted over the entry canal of the paddy. It killed all life in the water and hence everything that fed on it.
I'm the kind of person who, when confronted with something bad that could be changed for the better, will get a very bad conscience if I do not act. Fortunately this attitude is not too rare yet or the world would not be teeming with NGOs. I've worked as a government official, and government can do useful things - if it is prodded enough. But the impetus comes from the NGOs of the world, as our Brazilian story makes clear.
I talked to my colleagues, the agronomists. Most of them did not care, but some did. We then campaigned for a law that would make it a requirement for farmers, when buying their poisons, to present a prescription signed by an agronomist. The agronomist would be responsible and liable in case of damage.
Most of the poisons were used preventively. In the case of insecticides the farmers would spray as soon as they saw any insect whatever, even lady beetles. People are so alienated from nature today they often cannot distinguish a spider from an insect. The chemical industry even proposed "spraying calendars." The spraying was against pests that could appear at the respective time, not only against what really constituted a threat. The poisons were cheap, and credit was subsidized.
A couple of years later, campaigning within the associations of Brazilian agronomists who worked at the county, state, and federal levels, we obtained a majority for prescription. We then asked for one more step. To avoid conflict of interest, only agronomists not working for the chemical industry should be eligible for writing prescriptions, for the same reason a pharmacist should not prescribe what he sells. This provoked a lot more opposition, as too many agronomists made their living selling or promoting agri-chemicals. A few more years and we won. The Ministry of Agriculture always fiercely opposed any idea of prescription, but we got the semi-official bank that had the monopoly for agricultural credits to accept it as a policy for granting them.
This rapidly led to a considerable reduction in the sales and use of poisons. Previously it had also been the policy of the bank to require that a sizable portion of the credit money go into pesticides, whether needed or not. It is easy to imagine who suggested this to them. Agronomists also became more careful; many even looked into books on toxicology. Some developed methods of appraising whether pest attack was economically significant or not, suggesting chemical warfare only when serious reductions in yield were to be expected. More often than not the cost of the damage caused by some bug or fungus is much lower than the cost of the poison. Many farmers learned to recognize their pests better and realized they could save money by spending less on unnecessary inputs.
Initially it was only the regional office of the bank that imposed prescriptions but, then, by lucky chance, the president in the national head-office applied the new policy to the whole country. That was decidedly too much for the Ministry. It suddenly issued a decree that also instituted prescription, but with somewhat different provisions. Where we excluded agronomists working for the chemical industry, they allowed all of them, whether self-employed, employed by farmers or working for the government, and including those who were in industry to sign the prescriptions. There was another important addition. We made no distinction among poisons concerning toxicological classification. Prescription applied to everything, but the Ministry now limited it to only those pesticides in toxicological classes I and II, the most toxic and persistent. Classifications III and IV, which then included relatively harmless substances such as sulfur, were free.
Well, it was still progress compared to the initial situation, where any small boy could go to the farmers' supply shop and freely buy extremely toxic and/or persistent poisons, without even being asked what he was going to do with them. Brazil also had a world-class toxicological classification for agricultural biocides. So we were not too unhappy.
Then something interesting happened. The Ministry of Health issued a new classification. Now all the really bad stuff that was on the market in Brazil and that had been classified I and II was shifted to III and IV ... But the agricultural bank decided not to follow suit; they continued as before. Then, again within a very short time, another curious thing happened. The national agency controlling the banks took away their monopoly and allowed all banks to lend to farmers. Some of them reinstituted the obligation that a certain percentage of the money must go to pesticides.
So we decided to work on a different level. In our state legislature we got a majority of deputies to approve a new law that made prescription mandatory and that required state registration for all agri-poisons, regardless of whether they had federal registration or not. The definition "agri-poison" (agro-tóxico) became law, as against the word used by industry, "defensivo agrìcola,'' which translates freely as "defensive treatment." The new law also banned chlorinated hydrocarbons and gave NGOs power of appeal in registration. In only a few days our governor, who had never shown an interest in these questions, vetoed the law. Could all this be coincidence? Incredible coincidence!
Our state constitution allows the governor's veto to be overthrown by a seventy-five per cent majority. It was unanimously overthrown. Soon, other state parliaments voted similar laws, some better than ours, which had some flaws because it had been prepared in a hurry. Among other details we had forgotten to include the aspect of advertising that did not draw attention to the danger involved with these poisons. Sixteen states now had good legislation. These included all those where agri-poison use was intensive.
We were all very surprised at the help we got from our state deputies. I think the success was due to the fact that the issue was not raised by a green party as it would have been in Europe but by concerned citizens and NGOs, oriented by experts in the field. The leaders of the movement were all agronomists and their associations on the county, state and federal levels embraced the fight. This was in the early eighties. Today these associations are mostly back in the hands of people who follow the official line.
Brazil does not have a green party worth that name. I think this is very good. I always thought ecology must permeate all parties; it is too important to be appropriated by one group. When ecological issues are presented as the defense of life for our children and of future generations, who can openly be against it? As a party issue the story would be different.
We were very happy but it did not last long. The chemical industry went to the Supreme Court and argued that our state laws were unconstitutional. They insisted only the federal level could decide and said the Ministry of Agriculture could decide by decree.
It took the Court about a year to reach a verdict. The nine Supreme judges individually took the dossier home for study and then decided separately. After some time, four had already decided in our favor. We were sure to win. We knew the opinions of two of the other five. But then, another coincidence: three judges retired and were replaced. The industry won. I hope someday someone will tell this whole fascinating story in all its detail.
But industry did not reckon with another coincidence, this one against them and of their own making. It so happened that soon after the decision, the new Minister of Agriculture was a friend of ours, a traditional politician from our state, who had been one of our governors. Since the law now said the minister could decide by decree, he did. But one more coincidence occurred. It did not take a month before the minister was replaced. His successor had nothing more urgent to do than to revoke the decree.
This short outline of a very complicated story that is not over yet and that now goes into its third decade illustrates how difficult and frustrating it can be for environmentalists to overcome the unending ruses of the powerful. But it also shows the power of the citizen. If you are knowledgeable, have determination, and accept personal sacrifice, there is much that can be achieved. In this case, even though the industry often seemed to come out on top, something was won that they cannot destroy. There is now a new, growing consciousness in agriculture and among consumers. The use of poisons has gone down considerably. The initial aim of the industry, an eight-fold increase in sales from 1974 to 1984, was only half reached and then sales fell back to almost the initial amount.
So nature has had a chance to recover. In the case of our paddy rice the water fowl are all back, as beautiful as ever. I cannot describe the joy it gives me when every late afternoon, on Gaia-Corner, the rural center of our Foundation, I can observe enormous flocks of egrets and ibis flying to their roosting places in V-formation. A couple of cranes have taken up residence with us and cormorants dive for fish. A family of otters build their caves at our pond.
More and more younger and also older farmers, agronomists, and students come to our courses on organic rice growing and regenerative farming. Soon we will also bring here whole classes of youngsters with their teachers. We will show "how to wonder," as Rachel Carson would say, to help them see the marvels of the living world and to relate to it in a spiritual way.
Our place is especially well suited for this. When we first saw it ten years ago, it was like a big sterile crater. An enormous quarry, producing gravel for road building, had just been closed down. We had to fight a project to turn it into a garbage dump for the nearby city. Then the big hole filled with water. It is now a pond with two hectares of crystal clear water, in some places up to twenty meters deep, teeming with fish, water snails, and freshwater crabs. All around it nature is coming back and we manage to grow our crops and have cattle, pigs, chicken, ducks, and guinea-fowl, while keeping one third of the land in recovering wilderness. Biological diversity is growing at a rate we never thought possible. Only when we show our visitors photographs of what this place was do they realize the incredible powers of regeneration of nature.
But this is not a happy ending, only a small seedling in the clearcut. The problem with poisons in agriculture may be a little less serious but it is still there, and it is getting more complicated. Now, allied with biotechnology, it threatens to initiate a replay of the Green Revolution. Few people, even in the ecology movement, seem to see what is happening. During a recent international meeting on biotechnology and farmers' rights, some of the participants put most emphasis on "safeguards," thus implicitly accepting biotechnology as it is being introduced to agriculture by the same powers that forced the poisons.
This brings us to one of the most fundamental aspects of environmentalism today. If you want to be efficient, you must be knowledgeable. Otherwise there is danger of attacking at the wrong point or arguing on the wrong level the level the powerful choose and on which they almost always win.
Years ago in our wine-growing region in the northeast of our state a very potent total herbicide was introduced. It had serious toxic effects on people and was therefore soon abandoned after having been in general use. The manufacturers reacted by insisting it was only a question of improper use, that farmers were not using protective clothing and masks, were not using the right concentrations at the right time, and so on. As so often, it is the victim who was blamed. Most farmers and agronomists were inclined to accept these arguments. I then argued as follows: even if this product were as harmless as distilled water, as good for health as mother's milk is for the baby, it still should never be used in our vineyards. I reminded the farmers, all descendants of Italian immigrants who came here in the middle of the last century, that their grandfathers, when they introduced wine growing here, did something quite different from what they did in Italy. There, in a much drier climate, they grew the vines on trellises, but here, on the rocky slopes where they lived and in our very humid climate, where weeds grow luxuriously when not controlled, they preferred a continuous arbor, high enough for cows or sheep to graze underneath. They kept a good green cover of rye grass with vetches and clovers. Their vines were healthy and the farmers used only the traditional, harmless copper-fungicides. The new herbicide, regardless of whether it presented toxicological problems, was a disaster because it destroyed the green cover that kept the vines healthy. The cattle had kept the grass short. So, instead of spending money on plant-killers, the farmer had free pasture. Most wine growers now keep their vineyards green again. But the herbicides also caused serious erosion, and with weakened vines, the farmers resorted to the new carbamate fungicides that cause still more problems, including more insidious toxicological ones.
In the case of biotechnology in agriculture today we also have a situation where many good people are fighting against the lesser part of the evil without seeing the great overall dangers. The Green Revolution caused the uprooting of millions of peasants worldwide and there was another, even more irreversible disaster: uncounted thousands of varieties of traditional cultivars were lost forever. In the case of rice, for instance, these varieties were the result of thousands of years of conscious or unconscious selection by the peasants themselves. Today we sow the same varieties in Louisiana, Hawaii, in southern Brazil and Uruguay, and in all of Southeast Asia. The same has happened to wheat, barley, rye, or maize; apples, pears, etc. In the Andean countries, Central America, and Mexico, Indian peasants cultivated an incredible wealth of varieties of potatoes. What survived the Green Revolution will soon be wiped out by biotechnology, when the same corporations that put the farmer in the position of total dependency on agri-chemicals succeed in making him equally dependent on their patented seeds, some of them selected not for resistance to pests, but resistance to pesticides. So it is nonsense to fight the planting out in the field of genetically engineered strawberries. They could never survive, much less spread out without our help. Most of our cultivars are plants that live, so to speak, in symbiosis with us humans. A field of maize or wheat not harvested cannot survive into the next year. Native vegetation will take over. Of course this does not apply to organisms that can survive in the wild, especially bacteria, fungi, and insects.
What we must now fight in biotechnology as now directed by big corporations is the patenting of living beings, parts of living beings, or processes with living beings. During the last two decades the same corporations that forced agricultural poisons onto the farmers have bought almost all the seed companies. They insist on patenting. Among other tools for making the farmer still more dependent on them, they are spending millions of dollars on research to put on the market patented seed that is already covered with layers of fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, and a total herbicide that kills every plant that happens to be near but for which that particular patented seed is immune!
Legislation to foster such schemes is already on the books in many countries. In Brazil, until now, we have been able to prevent it. In Canada, Pat Mooney was the pioneer in making the world conscious of what is happening. In our parliament tremendous pressure is now being applied to our legislators to approve this kind of legislation. This time, we may lose.
Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with molecular biology and genetic engineering, but it should not be used to create still more structures of dependency. It could really bring great benefit if it was directed at true advantages for humanity. Suppose, among other things, we learned to really understand how genes control structure and growth, not just the synthesis of proteins. We might then be able to have an amputated arm grow back. This is still possible in frogs and other lower vertebrates; it just may be possible for us.
Agri-poisons and biotechnology are only part of the problem. Modern agriculture is not only ecologically pernicious and socially disastrous, it is just not the solution for the problem of feeding the human masses. Even if it can temporarily, with absurd subsidies, produce surpluses that then require additional subsidies to destroy, in the not very long term it will lead to total calamity. No process that builds on nonrenewable raw materials and energy can last very long. But it also is not as efficient as it pretends to be.
When comparing modern agriculture with traditional peasant cultures, it is always said that, while in the past forty to sixty per cent of the population had to work the land to feed itself and the rest, now, in First World countries, less than two per cent are sufficient; one farmer can feed fifty people. If this were true, we really would have no alternative. But it is a fallacy, when not a deliberate lie. When looked at systemically, traditional peasant agriculture was an autarchic system of production and distribution of food, that is, it produced its own inputs. The peasant produced his own fertilizer, dung from his animals, and his energy too. He used draft animals that grazed on his pasture or were fed hay or silage that also came from his soil: solar energy captured by photosynthesis. He also delivered the food he produced practically into the hands of the consumer at the weekly local market.
But what is the modern farmer? Not much more than a tractor driver and applier of chemicals. The individual farmer is a very small cog in an enormous and complex techno-bureaucratic structure that includes oil fields, refineries, mines, steel mills, aluminum smelters, big dams that flood rainforests and wipe out Indian tribes or uproot rubber tappers to make the electricity for the aluminium smelters, tool and tractor makers, combine and truck manufacturers, a sizable portion of the chemical industry and the banking system, agricultural schools, extension services, agricultural experiment stations, plus an industry that did not even exist before, the food manipulating, denaturing, and contaminating industry - and a lot more, such as all the packaging, deep freezing, pre-cooking, and what not.
So, if we want to compare the traditional farmer with the modern-day farmer we must compare the systems. How was food produced and distributed then and today? Modern economic macro-accounting doesn't make this kind of calculation. The different industries are seen as different parts of the economy and in the gross national product, only money flow is compared. If we compared the complete systems, we would certainly find that today, also, at least forty per cent of all working hours are for production and distribution of food. We would have to include the working hours necessary to earn the tax money that goes into the subsidies. Overall, we haven't really gained very much in terms of man-hour efficiency. What we have is a different distribution of tasks and a tremendous increase in environmental costs.
Of course, it can be argued that it is much more comfortable to sit in front of a computer in the bank than to trudge in the fields. But then, it need not to be as hard anymore as it was in the past. Intelligent organic farming, with the right crop rotation, companion planting, green manure, and integration of crops with animal husbandry, makes totally unnecessary what I still saw in Germany in the 1950s - women on all fours in sugarbeet fields pulling weeds with their hands. With today's comforts, life on the farm can be a lot more interesting, more humanly significant, and healthier than the lives of most city workers.
In the 1940s, when I studied agronomy, all agricultural research and experimentation was still directed toward organic methods. It was not the farmers who asked for a change in course, it was industry that imposed it on them. The banks, the schools, and the government catered to the interests of industry, not to the interests of farmers, of consumers, and of ecological sustainability.
Among the high environmental costs of modern agriculture are energy and raw materials. Traditional agriculture worked with solar energy via photosynthesis in its crops. Today it is fossil fuels and even nuclear power that goes into food production. Worse, agriculture now consumes more energy than it gets from the sun. This can be compared to an oil well that uses more energy in the pump than can be recovered from the oil pumped up. This kind of oil well is harmful for the economy as a whole, but it can be profitable for the owner if he is subsidized. That is why modern agriculture needs massive subsidies.
To make some of the fertilizers, enormous amounts of electricity and fossil fuels are used to fix nitrogen from the air in highly pressurized containers and at very high temperatures (Haber-Bosch process), a process that legumes do at ambient temperature with minimal energy use and with the help of certain bacteria on their roots, at no extra cost for the farmer. To make phosphorous fertilizers, phosphate mines are depleted at a rate that will exhaust them even before the oil is gone. Whole islands have been demolished in the Pacific.
The absurdity of modern food production systems is even more evident in intensive cattle, pig, and chicken rearing. Here we are faced with massive destruction of food for the sake of "vertical integration." The chicken slaughterhouse also owns the feed factory and the hatchery for the chicks. These are not even races anymore, they are registered chicken brands. The "producer" must buy all his inputs from the company, at prices they control, and he must sell his produce to the same people, again at prices they dictate! He may think he is a self-employed entrepreneur, but in fact he is a laborer with no guaranteed salary and no social security. These schemes have little to do with efficiency in production but very much with power structures, with developing techno-bureaucratic structures for the creation of dependency.
In the past, our farm animals produced the fertilizer to keep soils fertile; today, they produce waste. In Europe alone, hundreds of millions of tons of slurry - liquid cattle or pig manure - are treated as dirt. Until recently, much of it was simply dumped in the ocean. Now, when it is put back where it belongs, on the soil, it is done in ways that degrade, not improve, the soil. This leads to heavy leaching of nitrates into the subsoil and hence into wells, springs, brooks, and rivers, creating manifold health problems.
Where traditional agriculture worked with closed cycles just as ecosystems do, its modern counterpart opens cycles that should be kept closed. The fertility of our soils ends up in immense and growing garbage dumps and in the sewers. Some modern sewage treatment plants are now, on the pretext that the sludge is contaminated with heavy metals, drying it with high energy input, then burning it and dumping the ashes. Nothing could be more absurd!
And the animals in the feedlots, chicken concentration camps, and pig dungeons are fed grain and even - the height of lunacy - dried milk. Instead of complementing food production for humans on our fields, they now compete with us. They need extra crops, such as the soybean fields in southern Brazil for which the remaining subtropical rainforests in the Uruguay valley were wiped out, or tropical rainforests that are cleared in Asia to make way for manioc to make tapioca for the fat cows in Europe that produce the seas of milk and mountains of butter.
Peasant agriculture was sustainable forever. Modern agriculture is suicidal.
In October 1993, in Bangalore, India, at the opening of a conference on "Farmers' Intellectual Rights," there was a demonstration by half a million farmers against GATT, the World Bank, and biotechnology, and for sustainable farming. This gives us hope again. The leader of the Indian farmers said that, if necessary, he could bring twenty million people to New Delhi. The media almost totally ignored the event.
Why did the farmers protest against the World Bank and GATT? Because they realize these technocratic instruments threaten them by replacing small farmers with agribusiness everywhere. Even if they don't openly say so, that will be the result of the globalization of the economy. The uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, is for the same reason. NAFTA will make the survival of the Mexican peasant impossible. The Indian peasants will not be able to compete with American agribusiness. When American industrial workers protested as well, it was because they know that to the extent that real wages continue to go down in Mexico, with increasing migration to the cities, American big business will export jobs to Mexico, and American real wages will also continue to drop.
It is bad enough when European farmers are uprooted, as can now be observed in Spain or France. Old peasant wisdom is lost forever. In the Third World it is much worse. The Mexican peasants are Indians, descendants of the Mayas and Aztecs, with many different languages and cultures. When the village empties and the peasants languish in the slums of the cities, all is irreversibly lost; it is cultural genocide. This is what the Asian farmers in Bangalore knew could happen to them.
The globalization of the economy with GATT and the common markets is now threatening not just peasants and small farmers. The export of jobs to where labor costs are lowest is causing unemployment in the First World too. And worse than the destruction of jobs is the systematic disruption of all historically and systemically grown, stable, locally adapted, and sustainable social structures. Everywhere people are being massified and alienated, becoming uprooted, losing their traditional values and ideals, and being confronted with only the hedonistic, orgiastic ethics of modern advertising. Small wonder that even in wealthy countries such as Switzerland, children of rich families slide into the squalor of places such as Letten Station in Zurich, where thousands of young people languish in filth and stupor, physically and mentally destroyed by hard drugs.
When conventional wisdom divides the world into rich and poor countries, what is usually left out of the argument is the fact that the poor people of today were formerly not poor at all. While their traditional cultures were intact, with very few exceptions they were rich, rich in human fulfillment. What made them poor was development. Colonialism disrupted their solid social structures and demolished their economies, as when peasant farming for self-sufficiency was forced to give way to big plantation farming for export to the central powers.
This process continues today but the dominating powers are not governments any more and they do not have to send armies to occupy other peoples' land to install administrations of their own. Neocolonialism is much smarter and much, much more efficient. When I was Minister of the Environment in Brazil, I often had to face arguments by some of our military that the First World would eventually occupy Amazonia and take it away from us, that they wanted to have control of the minerals and other resources. "Nonsense," I replied. "It is you who are giving it to them on a silver platter. They would not be so foolish as to occupy it."
Years ago, in Africa, a man in Senegal said, "During colonial times the situation was transparent. When somebody spoke French and was white, I knew he was one of my exploiters. Now my worst enemies have my color of skin and speak my dialect."
A good example of neocolonialism is the Tucurì-Carajás complex. The First World, with its multilateral development banks, conceived, proposed and financed a huge dam that flooded three thousand square kilometers of pristine forest, finished off two Indian tribes, uprooted more than ten thousand rubber tappers and other forest dwellers, caused a series of other environmental disasters, some indirectly triggered by it, such as the destruction of more than a hundred thousand square kilometers of virgin forest (an area larger than Portugal or Austria) and cost the Brazilian people an additional indebtedness of over six billion dollars. What was this dam for? The electricity, only some eight hundred megawatts, goes to multinational aluminum smelters and is delivered to them below production costs. Why? Because the smelters can argue that they need subsidized electricity to compete with low world-market prices for aluminum. But why is the price of aluminum so low? Because of the surplus production of the Tucurì-Carajás scheme! So what do we have? The First World imposes and finances a scheme that makes it possible for it to get resources from the Third World at ridiculously low prices and the Third World pays all the costs - social, environmental and financial. No occupation of foreign land is necessary.
In neocolonialism the central powers are diffuse and the situation is much more complicated. It is not the British, French, or Dutch, or even the Germans and Italians anymore, it is the transnational corporations and they do not really belong anywhere. Today they are the centers of technology development and the technologies they develop and impose are not necessarily conceived to satisfy true human needs, they are conceived in their interest, to conquer markets and to solidify and amplify their power.
So we need a political and ecological critique of technology. Even among environmentalists, many do not realize what is happening. Politicians are either ignorant or collusive. When we fought poisons in agriculture, we were addressing misguided technologies. The requirement of prescription for the sale of pesticides is a technical fix; so is registration and other controlling legislation. We must now go much deeper. Of course technical fixes are important and necessary. For some industries that is all we need, but technical fixes are not always sufficient. We must rethink all our technology, not only in agriculture, but also in energy generation, in transportation, industry, health, and sanitation, and especially in education.
In the case of agriculture, the long term solution is organic agriculture, or, to use a more appropriate term, regenerative agriculture. Fortunately, it has already progressed to the point where it cannot be marginalized any more by those powerful corporations and institutions that feel threatened by it. Now, even they are reluctantly paying lip-service to it. Here, renewed and massive activity, a lot of practical work, is now necessary. Millions of young people who yearn for morally significant activity, and many older people too, can participate with enthusiasm. Consumers everywhere are also becoming more aware and are asking for clean, health-promoting food.
This effort could be helped and accelerated by a new orientation in sanitary engineering. Today it concentrates mostly on megatechno-logical and centralizing solutions, such as incineration or gigantic dumps where garbage and rubble are compacted and isolated and the area "recultivated," all at very high cost, up to hundreds of dollars per ton. In the case of toxic stuff the cost can go up to thousands of dollars per ton, when it is not openly or covertly exported to Third World countries (or even dumped in the ocean). In the case of radioactive materials the situation is such that nobody has found a final disposal solution yet.
The new orientation would not start from the premise that we want to get rid of what we call dirt, garbage, waste, etc., but that we want, first, to produce as little waste as possible and then to recycle whatever can be reused that is, we want to work with closed cycles, the way living systems always do. This applies first of all to the hundreds of millions of tons of precious organic matter that are discarded annually from slaughterhouses; from canning factories for meat, fruit, vegetables, and fish; from wine cellars, breweries, tanneries, and sawmills - all that goes into urban garbage dumps and sewers, as well as all the slurry from intensive cattle, pig, and chicken operations. While this monumental waste continues, while most of the stuff is handled in ways that either contaminate it or make recycling impossible, hundreds of millions of hectares of good soil are degraded every year with unnecessary mechanical tilling, causing erosion, and with massive use of chemical fertilizers and downpours of poisons all practices that destroy soil life and drastically lower the humus content. The soils are starving for organic matter while industry and cities are destroying it. This situation must be reversed. The cycles we have opened must be closed again. This is another great field of activity for millions of intelligent people, an activity from which uncounted numbers of NGOs and even businesses could prosper.
Modern medicine has become a multibillion dollar industry that operates on the same principle that keeps the repair shops for cars going: let the cars break down and we will repair them, preferably by exchanging spare parts. It has now become so technologically sophisticated and so expensive that most health care systems are breaking down. Here too we need a new orientation, where prevention counts more than repair. Prevention means healthy food and healthy life styles. Agriculture, industry, and health care must be linked in a way quite opposite to how they are linked today, where industry contributes to a sick form of agriculture which, therefore, produces food that makes us sick.
But our present environmental predicament is not just a problem of technology gone astray. The problem is there because the technologies are efficient, as efficient as their owners want them to be. It is not a question of too many bandaids, either. Most serious damage is done by well-meaning people. Better filters on our chimneys and exhausts, more efficient sewage treatment stations, healthier and more sustainable agriculture, cleaner food processing, more recycling of wastes, more and bigger nature reserves: all this will help, but it is not enough. It will not save our descendants.
We must reexamine our aims. What is progress, what is development? What is technology for? How are we going to put civilization back in step with creation and at the same time make a just society?
I remember reading, decades ago, an essay by Bertrand Russell. It was a thought experiment that, in essence, went like this: Suppose in an economy there is a certain number of pin factories. They produce all the pins the people need. Everybody is satisfied, both those who need the pins and those who manufacture them. Then, somebody invents a machine that makes it possible to produce the same number of pins in half the time, other factors remaining equal. What would be the intelligent, socially desirable thing to do? All the pin factories should use this machine and work only half time with the same income, the same wages and salaries. Workers and executives would have more time for leisure, for fun, for cultivating friendships and love, for sports, arts, music, the enjoyment of nature, and so on. Other industries would find and apply similar innovations. Technological progress would thus contribute to gradual improvement in comfort for everybody, society would become more humane, there would be more culture and beauty, and nature would be more protected, as we would use fewer and fewer resources. But what happens in practice? They all buy the new machines and everybody tries to produce and sell twice as much as before. Fierce competition ensues, half the factories go bankrupt, half the jobs are lost. In the end, the same number of pins are used but there is more despair, frustration, and unhappiness.
Of course, this is an oversimplified metaphor, but it illustrates how technology that could contribute to more freedom and contentment, as well as less environmental impact, more often than not has the opposite effect.
My father, who lived from the 1880s to the 1950s, could hardly have imagined all the time-saving devices we have today, but he certainly could not have understood how short of time we are today despite all the computers, faxes, modems, printers, photocopiers, global satellite transmission, high speed trains and planes, expressways, and what not. The only time-saving contraption he had was a phone and he boarded a plane only once in his lifetime. But he led a beautifully productive life. As an architect and building contractor he left behind artistic buildings and churches. He was also a professor at an art school, and produced many precious paintings that portrayed the life of the Gaucho, the cowboy of the Pampa, of the colonists in our peasant regions, and also life in the cities. All of them are of historical value now, in a style somewhat like Norman Rockwell, except that he painted only for fun. He never sold his paintings, he kept them or gave them away. And what profound satisfaction he got out of it all!
Ecological awareness must now go beyond confrontation and technical fixes, beyond even fundamental reformulation of technology and technological infrastructures.
Most important and certainly most difficult of all is the necessary rethinking of our cosmology. The anthropocentric world view Westerners inherited from our remote Judeo-Christian past has allowed our technocrats and bureaucrats, and most simple people, too, to look at Planet Earth as if it were no more than a free storehouse of unlimited resources to be used, consumed and wasted for even our most absurd or stupid whims. We have no respect for creation. Nothing in nature is sacred. Nothing, except us humans, has sufficient inherent value not to have to yield when "economic" or other human interests dictate it. Mountains can be razed, rivers turned around, forests flooded or annihilated, unique life forms or whole living systems eliminated without qualms, or patented for personal or institutional power.
How else could it be that even with a man like Al Gore in the Vice Presidency of the United States and with all the worldwide concern about the wholesale devastation of tropical rainforests, the final demolition of the Pacific temperate rainforest cannot be halted? Economists see creation of wealth only in the money earned in the export from the rape of the forest, while deducting nothing in their accounts of national wealth for the total and irreplaceable loss of the whole ecosystem. For them only the abstraction we call money is real and they think they can even create it out of nothing to produce the necessary technologies that, miraculously, will help us overcome all imaginable shortages and devastations. Funny, those who least understand science and technology are the ones who most expect from it, to the point of believing we can go on acting in the most irresponsible ways forever.
A beautiful coincidence: While writing this, early in the morning of September 19, 1994 - spring in the Southern Hemisphere - at a table in front of my cottage on Gaia-Corner, I feel a fleeting shadow passing me on the ground, then another. Looking up, I see a pair of storks. They came straight from the rising sun. After soaring in three large circles over our pond they continue their flight due west. This is reality! How not to feel profound reverence?
How are we going to spread the new - actually very, very old holistic ethics the planet now needs for the marvellous process of organic evolution to be allowed to unfold unhampered again?
The human brain has the capacity to become an agent for increasing creativity within the flow of life or it can continue disrupting it until it is too late, until points of no return have been overshot.
With very few exceptions indigenous peoples (those we like to call "primitive") developed mythologies, taboos, rituals, and attitudes that made their existence compatible with the survival of the ecosystems they depended on, sometimes even enriching them. In modern terminology we would say their life styles were sustainable. Modern global industrial civilization, though, is fundamentally unsustainable. It has now imposed on what remains of traditional cultures the ethics of the gold miner who takes what he can from a place where he has no roots, who refrains from no devastation in order to get to his bonanza and, when there is nothing left of interest to him, leaves without remorse.
We need a new frame of reference, to put it in more technical terms. If I said "mythology" many scientifically-minded people might protest. James Lovelock suffered stinging attacks from people who thought he was too emotional. But his concept of Gaia, the Earth as a homeostatic system that regulates itself so that environmental factors such as temperature range, salinity, redox-effect, acidity, mixture of gases in the atmosphere, cloudiness, etc., remain within what is appropriate for life, lends itself both to a strictly scientific interpretation and to more mythological ways of looking at the world, which is what most people need.
The most urgent and noble task of NGOs now is to mobilize all the forces that can contribute to the necessary change in world view. Our modern technologies of communication and publicity make it possible. The political will to do it can only come from below, from the citizen.
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