The new utilitarians...

  • 30/12/1994

AT A halt in Geneva during a recent globetrotting trip, Union environment minister Kamal Nath figuratively explained his view of the uneven environmental realities of the world. He asserted that the much-blamed population of the South, with "4 children per family" hardly taxed the earth's resources as much as the much acclaimed way-of-life of the North, with "4 cars per family". Too expectedly, Nath's numbers provoked some resentment among many European and American members of his audience.

It is easy to understand their irritation, entirely triggered by the threat implicit in Nath's argument -- that real, drastic checks on the consumption of the North is intrinsically basic to any sustainable solution to the world's environmental woes. This fulmination of governmental as well as non-governmental spokespersons of the South is annoyingly familiar to the North.

For, whichever the arena of international environmental relations, the culpability of the developed, industrialised countries in causing as much, if not more, environmental damage has been pointed out with substantive evidence. The per capita as well as the overall use of ozone-splitting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons in the developed countries is much more than in the developing countries. Just to illustrate the point, India's consumption of CFCs in the entire '90s will be less than 4 per cent of what had already been used in the US by the mid-'80s.

There are several similar stories to be told. Unbiased estimates of emissions of greenhouse gases have it that the contribution of the industrialised countries is at least twice that of the developing world. Nearly 90 per cent of all international trade in toxic wastes consists of dumping by the North in the South. And while experts vary in their assessments of the value of the appropriated biodiversity and forest wealth for the so-called First World's economic wellbeing, there is no doubt that this exploitation, too, has taken a horrific toll of the second side.

The North's hostility to such accusations is located in blocs of uncaring self-interest as well as quarters of indignant self-righteousness. The former is easily understood. The trouble with the latter is that it possesses green colours. Over the past 2 decades, environmentalist concerns have acquired considerable organisational and institutional solidity in the North -- ranging from think tanks and lobbies to NGOs and parties. These bodies share the realisation that the growth rates and lifestyles of the North's economy are exorbitantly unsustainable and have successfully propagated this consciousness to obtain real influence over public opinion and policies. Yet they hesitate to accept real-cost appraisals of the North's contribution to global environmental problems, or to recommend the drastic changes in its ways that sustainable solutions demand.

Instead, they find it much easier to tell the South what to do. The core of this message is that the development drives of the poor countries are only hurtling them towards environmental disasters and that the wisdom of the industrialised countries must be applied to prevent developing countries growing at the cost of their, and others', environment. The latter prognostication is often delivered with a sense of mission.

Indeed, this sentiment of determined liberal goodwill has always existed as a silver lining over the clouded relationship of the North with the South. Today, it may well boast a well-established intellectual and philosophical tradition. Many Englishmen, for example, just 6 generations ago, looked at India with a similar, seemingly benign point of view. These were the Utilitarians. They were fully for the benefits of British governance and knowledge to be willfully used to benefit all the recently subjugated subjects -- but never so much as to threaten the underlying exploitative relationship of the Empire. Their epitome, John Stuart Mill, between the '30s and the '50s consistently supported the entry of Indians into upper level administrative positions of British administration in India. Yet Mill was steadfast in his belief that human civilisation depended upon the intelligence of a tiny minority of creative minds and was always suspicious of what he called "complete democracy".

In several ways, the greens of the North today seem to have inherited the mantle of the Utilitarians. The affinity is most striking in their repeated proclamation of the principle of shared global thinking, curiosly divorced from demands of actions for global equity. This disjunction provides the vital gap for the governments of North to bring in, and sustain, its economic lead in environmental fields as well. Thus, every international environmental accord, be it the Ozone Treaty or the Biodiversity Convention, or the long-mooted Forest Convention, concretely supports the interest of the North -- surely a reminder that the more they change, the more they remain the same.

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