čtvrtek 11. srpna 2011

Tomáš Profant: A Reply to Matt Rees

Thank you very much to Matt Rees for considering my short text "A glimpse of the post-development approach" published originally in the Global Politics magazine. His valuable comments bring up many important questions and one could write a book answering him. I will try to be briefer.

First, the planet runs towards its ecological limits and the reproduction of the industrial (or imperial) mode of living is impossible.

Rees begins by criticizing the assumption that we have reached ecological limits. He shows his leaning towards technological centrism, i.e. the capacity of people to solve ecological problems by using technologies. At the same time he suggests the possibility of such a great efficiency that we would do without solar power. He also praises our capacity to gain a lot more from agriculture than our ancestor used to get, hence we are already on the way towards a society where ecological limits simply are not a topic.

I can only say that I wish this was true and that our efficiency increases in the near future to such an extent that it will be possible for everyone to fly or drive a car. This would be close to inventing a decentralized perpetuum mobile. Unfortunately, this is not the case and we are very far from that. The rebound effect has consumed all the gains in efficiency so far and our energy consumption keeps on growing despite the supposed technological wonders. Another problem is the Green Revolution, either I (fertilizers, pesticides) or II (GMOs). Increased yields especially in the global South have brought great destruction of the soils, not to mention the social impact as this has been usually connected to the forces of the global capital. What we need is sustainable farming. Pesticides or genetic modifications prove not to be guarantors of such an approach. They lead to a circle of human inventions which always seek to destroy the new invention of nature in ever stronger sorts of weeds. This circle, not unsimilar to the antibiotics-resistant stem circle, has so far not produced a catastrophe of such a magnitude that it would lead to a world-wide hunger, but there are examples of smaller areas unsuited to farming after the Green Revolution has taken place.

As to the ecological limits, one also should not forget about the loss of biodiversity that our modern agriculture and way of life cause. Probably the best didactic example of an environmental problem is the decreasing amount of fish in the sea. We simply eat too much fish and no GMO fish are going to change this. Technology, rather than preserving the fish actually is the instrument that helps us destroy the nature. Only thanks to the great fishing industry it is possible to decimate the remnants of what used to be an abundance of food. The climate change sets yet other form of limits on our way of life.

Thus, rather than expecting technology and science to master nature in such a way that it will become truly subservient servant to culture, as Francis Bacon has dreamed about it, I prefer to be more cautious and call for sustainable organic farming with more people involved, less monocultures, less fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and simply more harmony with nature. For further reading I suggest Vandana Shiva’s Staying alive.

Secondly, with the end of the Cold War, ‘development’ lost its political impetus. As we may see today the East-West confrontation has disappeared, but ‘development’ lost nothing of its attraction.

Regarding the second point, there is a bit of misunderstanding. Trying to be as brief as possible I first stated Sachs’ original idea from 1992 that there probably would not be any need for ‘development’ anymore, since one of the main reasons for the whole ‘development’ apparatus to gain momentum after the Second World War was to offer a counterproposal to the communist utopia. The second sentence then is my correction that it remains important. However, the discourse of ‘development’ has been partly replaced by the discourse of ‘globalization’ and one may question how the ‘Peace Dividend’ materialized when one thinks of e.g. tying of aid or the cancellation of odious debts.

There is another problem in the reply by Rees. He uses the term “developed nations“ as if there was a single track according to which we could measure ‘development’. Such assumptions are typical of eurocentrism, which one might subsume under the heading neo-racism, i.e. creating a hierarchy between groups of people based on their cultural rather than physiognomic features. I prefer not to exclude the possibility of comparing cultures, but first I would like to see common reference points in order to be able to do the comparison. Rather than the level of industrialization or GDP, we could compare openness towards strangers, caring for the elderly or the extent of the epidemic of psychic diseases. The rankings might look different as soon as we change what we actually want to measure.

Reproducing the distinction between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ nations also means that M. Rees has decided to ignore or is not aware of the insight the dependency theory and later world-system theory have brought to development studies. Methodological nationalism makes us forget that societies are connected and the wealth of one depends on the poverty of others. Colonial relations of exploitation have not been changed by the discourse of ‘development’, but were merely reframed in order to escape the dead end of racism brought about by the horrors of Nazism.

One may only agree with Rees that people want “a life for their children of less hardship, less hunger...” However, the West has not found a key to solving some of those problems as Rees claims; the West has found a way to use others’ resources to solve those problems for itself and to impose them upon others. Material wants are often framed within the terms of the development discourse but that does not mean that there are not other discourses that reject ‘development’ and demand material betterment at the same time.

Thirdly, the ever growing gap between the rich and poor defined in terms of monetary income makes the concept seem less persuasive. One look at the Millennium Development Goals shows how ‘development’ switched from modernization to poverty reduction. The neoliberal economic panacea ruling the world at least since the beginning of the 1980s remains nonetheless.

The third point criticizes me (Sachs) for putting too much stress on the growing gap between rich and poor. It seems that according to M. Rees the suffering of millions of people is to be overlooked in order to highlight the growing middle class in China, India and Brazil. This argument is clearly problematic in relation to China (and the same argument could be made in relation to South Korea). The regime there is (was) authoritarian and thus I believe not to be followed even if it achieved higher standards of living for many of its people.

Authoritarian measures are not avoided in ‘democratic’ countries such as Brazil or India either. The most well known cases are their dams which cause huge amounts of people to be displaced. If the rights of indigenous people were to be protected as one would expect of a democracy, ‘development’ would probably look a lot different with many people not having the lifestyle of a middle class American, yet happy in their own way. The misery of the millions of displaced people is in my mind not to be balanced out by any raise in standard of living. I simply do not think that sacrifices are to be accepted in the name of ‘development’. Just ask those people, who had to sacrifice themselves. The fact that capitalism does not succeed in improving lives of all is not a case for more capitalism as M. Rees seems to be suggesting, but for less capitalism, as is to a certain extent the case of redistribution in China or Sweden. The fact that European governments are not capable of ‘dealing with’ the migrants is not going to be solved by pursuing even more competitive policies and by trying to ‘develop’ (i.e. assimilate) the migrants, but by creating a more inclusive society, in which difference is not punished.

As to the technological leapfrogging, one of course does not wish to prevent other people from using the technology of their choice such as cell phones, but the consumption of these should not be based on war that is waged because of the necessary minerals. Neither should it be based on unnecessary transportation of these items. While some suggest that intermediate technology is better for the poor, I think that it is not up to us to decide for others which products are necessary or useful and which are merely luxurious.

Certainly is the economic approach that favors free trade around much longer than since the 1980s, but that does not mean that there was not a lot more intervention into the economy of state than there is now for example after the Great Depression. To state that the liberal economic panacea “seems to work time and time again” suggests (among other things) a contradiction in the reply by M. Rees. Are the policies of authoritarian China characterized as “a huge success” liberal or statist? The Asian miracle debate also shows that it has never been free trade policies that led to the ‘miracle’ in South Korea or Taiwan.

Finally, there is an argument called philosophical and is the usual accusation of neo-populism within the development discourse. Maybe unsurprisingly, the author suggests TV as his example and asks: “Should we wait to produce any product until we are certain everyone can have it? And what technology should we reject as “inauthentic” or destructive of our culture?” There are quite a few good reasons why we should not be using TVs the way we use them now or maybe why we should not be using them at all (see e.g. Jerry Mander’s Four arguments for the elimination of television). I simply suggest that we start taking this point more seriously. While it might be the case that it is possible to spread a TV or a similar item throughout the world if there was more equality, a car is a good example of a product that cannot be spread. Privately owned cars can exist only in an oligarchic world, i.e. in a world with high economic inequality. It is certainly possible that there will be poor people desiring a car, but since not all of them can have them, due to already mentioned environmental limits, I suggest that we stop using cars as massively as we do now and start using transportation means which everyone else can use such as bicycles or buses.

The problem with inauthentic technology that destroys cultures is a bit broader in the sense that it includes the problem of false consciousness. People do not desire things freely, many desires are implanted into our heads through the huge marketing industry. The development apparatus functions in a similar way. I do not suggest that such needs are to be rejected as inauthentic, but I simply suggest that we try to create a level playing field among the various narratives that are told in our world. Not only should commercials be limited in general, but also counter discourses coming from the South should accompany those from the North. Lastly, we should stop valuing the lifestyles of the rich people, since it is impossible to replicate these by greater parts of the population due to environmental limits. However, I am not calling for perfect equality as M. Rees is suggesting but for a great deal less environmental, gender, race, class... inequality.

Fourthly, the single ‘development’ track indeed seems to be obsolete in the postmodern age of cultural relativism.

Fourthly, the author seems to criticize the logic around cultural relativism. I will try to answer his questions one by one, because they (deliberately) take this logic as far as possible to show how absurd it is. The problem is that they exclude substantial issues, which I have already mentioned. First, it is unclear why one should bother with ‘development’ at all if one is a good cultural relativist. Even if I do not support most of ‘development’ projects or programs, not only might there by useful projects, but especially, there might be people who seek help with their everyday endeavors. One should, however, bear in mind how they got into their situation and how has this desire emerged. A world with more equal trade system that is not based on colonial relations would not require as much ‘development’ as our world. I would thus call for more engagement here at home to transform our societies to consume much less and allow others to consume more. I am quite sure that poorer societies would do very well without us if they could.

The second question logically asks if within the cultural relativist framework does not any kind of act lead to destroying something organic. The counterargument is based on the dynamic perspective of a society. Even if there are different cultures, they evolve and there is nothing wrong with a change in cultures, the problem is whether the change shows a similar pattern all around the world. This is a clear indicator of very unequal power relations. The success of Al-Jazeera is an evidence that one part of one culture has changed (adoption of a TV), but uses this change to foster non-Western culture (with many Western elements). The point to be made then is that Al-Jazeera certainly influences the West, but not to such an extent to which the West influences the rest of the world. The cultural exchange is simply too unequal. I would argue for more equality in this regard.

The third question further follows the logic and poses the problem of cultural imperialism in any contact with other cultures hence logically asks what is wrong with being imperialist in the first place. I can only agree with such logic, but that does not mean that there is not a way out of this conundrum. As I already said, we should first of all strive for a world, in which no ‘development’ aid is necessary and if we engage with distant others, we should be aware of the inevitable ‘imperialism’ (social and cultural inequality) within a gift or aid. This does not mean that we should stop giving gifts, but it simply means that we should be aware of the implications that are inherent to gift giving and behave accordingly.

These arguments that deal with culture should all be more nuanced. Cultures are never as separate as this text implies.

The points made by M. Rees are well articulated and they are quite common within the development studies. However, I am afraid that the environmental degradation and suffering of millions of people throughout the world suggest that ‘development’ paths of the western type are not the ways forward. Rather, we need a (revolutionary) change towards more equal and less consuming society.

Obrázky: Footprint, Nothingtobegainedhere a Éducation.

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