Material World – Pollution pays

In environmental legislation the ‘polluter pays’ principle is an attempt to force businesses to bear at least some of the costs resulting from their polluting activities. However, this runs up against the logic of market competition. That logic encourages businesses to seek ways of externalising their costs as far as possible and to resist any attempt to compel them to internalise them that would have the effect of reducing their profits.

Thus, the problem with calling on governments to take stronger measures to protect the environment (or the interests of workers for that matter) is that what governments can do, even with the best will in the world, is limited. When they do act out of sheer necessity, the response is often ‘too little too late’. Objectively speaking, the interests of governments and those of the business community (that ultimately finances governments) are inextricably intertwined and closely aligned. Penalising businesses too harshly will rebound against the government itself.

It is precisely these fundamental economic realities that make the posturing of governments in relation to such pressing issues as anthropogenic climate change, at best tokenistic and, at worst thoroughly deceitful. There can be no hope of resolving such an issue through international agreements or strident appeals to world leaders to ‘do the right thing’. That is a timewasting and pointless endeavour, doomed to disappointment and despair.

Concerted attempts to get countries to comply with international agreements concerning emissions of greenhouse gases to combat climate change have frankly descended into farce. Periodic COP summits to discuss the issue have become little more than photo opportunities for politicians to convey the impression that they are actually doing something worthwhile and to placate their critics. In the meanwhile, the problem just gets steadily worse.

A holier-than-thou attitude on the part of some richer countries that have historically contributed most to the emission of these gases and still do so to some extent, sits uneasily with poorer countries wanting to industrialise and develop themselves and feeling they are somehow being prevented from doing so by other countries that are already industrialised and developed. Accusations of hypocrisy and double standards fill the air, contributing more heat than light to the ongoing debate. As the backbiting continues so does the global temperature gauge continue to inch its way upwards. In a ruthlessly competitive market economy the chances of its rivalrous participants cooperating for the common good appear increasingly slim if not non-existent.

In the meanwhile, as the scale of the environmental costs mount so does the room for manoeuvre diminish. These costs will incrementally impact on profit margins yet, paradoxically, the more they do so, the more resistant do businesses and governments appear to become towards taking affirmative and effective action to mitigate them. In a competitive market economy the temptation is always to want to offload the costs of dealing with the problem onto someone else, rather than yourself.

This is the perverse logic that informs the system we live in. The potential, or actual, ‘resource wars’ it gives rise to over such things as mineral reserves, water supplies and fertile farmland not only exacerbate the unfolding environmental disasters but provide a further distraction from, or an excuse for not, doing anything about it. Who is going to be overly concerned with environmental quality when heavily militarised states become fixated with carpet bombing the cities of their sworn enemies?

The truth is that in a capitalist society there is nothing quite like economic distress to focus minds on the priority of profit making. Environmental standards will be surreptitiously eased by default, if not by design, for the sake of promoting economic growth.

Corporations may well fall back on that well-documented ruse called ‘greenwashing’, feigning concern while simultaneously promoting sales of their products amongst their more ‘environmentally enlightened’ consumers, even though the underlying imperative that drives them – getting consumers to consume more and more – is itself fundamentally antithetical to what a sustainable world stands for.

‘Consuming more’ is precisely what has been happening. Of course, in itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing at all if you are talking about individuals in desperate need. However, ‘consumption’ covers a multitude of things, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with meeting human needs. What is ‘environmentally friendly’ about an M1 Abrams battle tank or a Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter?

The point is that we need to disaggregate the very concept of ‘consumption’ itself instead of just vaguely talking about the ‘greening of consumption’. Consuming what and to what end? For all the growing concern about the environmental costs of consumption, consumption itself is growing.

The solution to our problems cannot lie in technology alone. It has to involve also changing our social priorities and that can only really come about by changing the kind of society we live in.


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