And miles to go before we meet

  • 30/12/1993

And miles to go before we meet AN UNEQUAL world will always be a divided world -- and a divided world can never be sustainable. During the last year and a half of my "academic existence" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had many opportunities -- mainly through the Coolidge Centre for Environmental Leadership -- to speak to various organisations concerned about the environment.

Though most of my Northern audience were too polite (or were they just environmentally chic and politically correct?) to say so, the look on their faces and the tone of their questions convinced me that I am often viewed as a "militant Third Worlder". The very fact that I refuse and find offensive the "Third World" label, insisting instead on being identified as being of the "South", is taken to be a confirmation of this.

For others, it is merely a source of confusion. To this group, "South" means the other side of the Mississippi river, characterised not by Malaysia, Brazil, India and Tanzania, but Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia. The revelation that "North-South" has been my favoured context, at least since the 1950s, is as much a surprise for most of them as it is to me that so few in the US -- even among environmentalists -- have been aware of this usage, especially before the Earth Summit.

I have always maintained that strategies for confrontation for the sake of confrontation are invariably self-defeating; that the South"s bursts of anger have only been self-exhausting, often damaging its credibility, and that international environmental dialogue provides a real possibility of meaningful North-South cooperation.

As it is, being classified as a "militant" is both surprising and disappointing. But more importantly, it is symptomatic of the real perceptual chasm that exists between Northern and Southern environmentalists. The notion that the environment is a glorious "common unifying cause", while certainly being true in general, needs to be analysed at the level of specifics.

The fact that the essential causes of environmental problems in the North and the South are different -- affluence and its attendant waste in the North and poverty and its attendant misery in the South -- means the required solutions are different. More than just being "different", these solutions seem to be, at least superficially, diametric opposites: restraining exploitative growth in the North and accelerating sustainable development in the South.

Enlightened intellectuals and activists on both sides would be quick to point out, and rightly so, that the two are not necessarily contradictory. However, this reconciliation has not yet been made in the minds of many, or at best, is yet incomplete. As long as this remains, people like me -- who invoke the notion of North-South disparities as the framework in which all international environmental discourse must take place -- will continue to be labelled as militants.
Common refrain The most common refrain I am confronted with is a misinterpretation of the concept of "only one earth". Optimistic Northern environmentalists insist on reading it as a statement of fact rather than of hope! They, therefore, ask me not to be "divisive", the implication being that framing environmental dialogue within the North-South context is confrontationist because it splits the world and the environmental community into opposing camps. On the contrary, I feel not to do so is to ignore realities of the world we live in.

The North-South divide is not fabricated by some "crazy militant in the Third World": for three-fourths of the world, it is a fact of daily existence. Ignoring or refusing to acknowledge it will not make it disappear but only exacerbate the wounds. "Ah!" retort my Northern friends, "if humanity has a `collective soul", then is not the world the collective home for all its people? What is the use of courting confrontation by dividing its inhabitants into camps?"

This argument, however, is neither new nor profound. In fact, it is intellectually bankrupt. A denial of existing divisions does not eradicate them. If anything, it legitimises and exacerbates them. Abraham Lincoln had responded to similar rhetoric more than a century ago by pointing out that "a house divided against itself cannot endure". A world half-rich, half-poor is no more desirable and stable than a nation half-enslaved, half-free. In this case, it is much more than just a half that is poor, miserable, exploited and unfree.
Different worlds So, is it really "only one earth"? To the finite physical sense of limits to what we can collectively abuse, yes, it is only one earth. But in the sense of a common home for all humanity, a home in which everyone has an equal claim, certainly not.

An American child"s world, where the demand for a new computer game is passed off as a "need", is very different from the world of an Ethiopian child, for whom a second meal in a day is a luxury. The world of a reader of the Sunday New York Times (a glutton for wood), who proudly sports a Sierra Club sticker on his carbon dioxide-spewing car, is very different from the world of the poor Asian farmer who spends half his day collecting twigs (which are still less wood than the paper consumed) for the evening meal to be cooked, but is condemned for despoiling the "pristine wilderness" for future generations. The world of the Northern environmentalist who calls for banning all wood imports from tropical forests so that the "lungs of the earth" can be saved is very different from the world of the Southern environmentalist who realises how miserable such a ban can make the poorest within those forests.

Way back in 1976, while discussing "the environmental threat" in his book The Poverty Curtain, Mahbub-ul-Haq asked, "Will the growing perception of the concept of `only one earth"...also lead to the nobler concept of `only one humanity"... or will it become a narrower concern of the developed world, leading to many awkward confrontations with the developing countries rather than to a new era of international cooperation?" Today, the answer is evident.

Maybe, one day we will pass on to our children a planet that we can truthfully describe as "only one earth, only one world". Maybe... but not yet.

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