Therapy for Gaia

Austin Williams | 22 May 2003

For those who believe in the concept of Gaia – the planet as a living organism – the latest European Environment Agency (EEA) report reads like a sick note. Whereas some environmentalists have diagnosed the planet as terminally ill, the EEA takes a more modern approach and simply suggests that it is in need of therapy. Forests are “damaged”; the soil is “degraded”; fish are “over-exploited” and reservoirs have “water stress.” Waste needs treatment and even the ozone layer suffers from lapses in concentration.

On first reading, the EEA report is simply a confused and over-cautious commentary on the state of Europe’s environment. It is critical of economic development because of the perceived pressure it puts on the environment, while at the same time, it recognizes that economic development has led to great improvements in living standards and material improvement.

Calls for greater harmonization between economic development and environmental protection are relatively non-contentious nowadays. A decade since Al Gore suggested that “we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” the EEA report might even be considered mainstream. But a “rescue of the environment” from what?

This report doesn’t answer that question. Instead, it comes across as an argument in need of a point. But in its confusion, it does maintain a consistent, thinly veiled attack on development per se, especially for those countries aspiring to western standards. It implies that, at long last Western Europe seems to have got its environmental house in order – but now the ecologically unreconstructed eastern bloc countries are threatening to undo all of that work. In this context, harmonization is another way of laying down the standards by which the Eastern European countries will be judged. But in so doing, the authors unwittingly call into question the very concept of development for Western European economies.

By broadening the ‘European’ catchment to include not only East European countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, but also Central Asian economies, from Azerbaijan to the Russian Federation, the authors rely on generalizations across all economies, as a warning of the problems of development. We in the Western European countries, the report seems to say, have a duty to inform those in the aspirant European nations of the folly of their ways. Essentially, it is a call for more control of accession countries (i.e., those countries aspiring to get into the main European club) in the guise of an economic development program.

Worse still, in some instances, it is a call for renewed backwardness in some areas of an enlarged Europe, using the threat of environmentalism as a stick with which to beat them. Intensified farming, for example – a positive, efficient agricultural production method in developed regions of Europe – is decried as leading to problems with irrigation, drainage and over-use of chemical fertilizers. These so-called problems have historically been resolved by careful investment in technology and equipment, but by criticizing “undergrazing and land abandonment,” the report seems to be championing labor-intensive peasant economies. The opposite of undergrazing and land-abandonment condemns these nations to “traditional,” “organic” farming techniques. But what then does it say about western forms of agriculture?

Admittedly, the report is generous enough to state that for those Eastern European countries, “productivity will have to be improved if their efforts to reach standards of living comparable with the west are to be achieved.” But this, they argue, must be done with no detrimental effect on the environment. And since “detrimental effects” are easily reclassified to suit the accuser’s requirements, accession countries will be given a difficult initiation.

For example, the industrial sectors in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and EECCA (East Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia), we are told, are much more energy-intensive and “hence have greater environmental impacts.” However, Western Europe relies on these irresponsibly produced goods and so has “a degree of responsibility for the environmental burden … sharing of best practice on regulations, technical standards and other measures.” This seems to be a politically correct trade tariff, and one that reflects and exacerbates the real tensions within western economies.

But not to appear too authoritarian, instead of calling for more regulatory controls, the EEA report actually wants to encourage demand management within Central and East European economies. In effect, the report puts a positive spin on those CEE and EECCA economies showing “decreasing environmental pressures as the consequence of their economic downturn” during the 1990s.

End-of-pipe legislation (taxes on emissions, etc.) has played a role in clearing up pollution, but now the authors want to influence “general patterns of production and consumption.” In practice, this type of hands-off regulation legitimizes more subtle forms of interventionary management in order to ensure that aspirations and demands are kept down to manageable levels – for the West as well as for the Central and Eastern European regimes.

Rather than using more resources as economies develop, the report implies that developing nations need to reduce their resource use and prioritize environmental harm-mitigation measures. This is known as “decoupling” – isolating environmental impacts from economic growth. It’s also known as underdevelopment.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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