Arran Gare, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy, School of Social & Behavioural Sciences (E-Mail)  


Introduction: Global Environmental Destruction

     According to the most advanced studies of global warming and its effects,

Large swaths of the planet will be plunged into misery by climate change in the next 50 years, with many millions ravaged by hunger, water shortages and flooding... [P]arts of the Amazon rainforest will turn into desert by 2050, threatening the world with an unstoppable greenhouse effect.... Land temperatures will go up 6oC by the end of the next century. (Brown, 1998).

How can we explain a civilization able to generate such destruction.

     Stephen Bunker in his study of the exploitation of the Amazon Basin offers one analysis (Bunker, 1988), an analysis formulated from the perspective of human ecology. It is the outcome of a globalised economy characterized by huge concentrations of power. Analysing the flows of usable energy in the world economy, Bunker pointed out the difference between economies of the core zones of the world economy based on production of goods and those in the semi-periphery and periphery based on the extraction of resources to trade for such goods. Extractive economies, as they "develop", use up their reserves and are impoverished, while the productive economies of the core zones, as they develop, increase their power to dominate and exploit the extractive economies. The regulatory structures of semi-periphery regions, such as the Brazilian state bureaucracy, become vehicles through which core zones have been able to intensify exploitation of and extraction from the peripheries. As Bunker summed up the situation:

The flow of energy from extractive to productive economies reduces the complexity and power of the first and increases complexity and power in the second. The actions and characteristics of modern states and their complex and costly bureaucracies accelerate these sequences. Modernization, as ideology, as bureaucratic structure and procedure, and as centralized control through complex regulatory organization, mediates and intensifies the socio-economic consequences of the interaction between global and regional systems. ... The modern state is but one of the forms of social organization which draw on energy flows out of modes of extraction and which extend the dominance of energy-concentrating modes of production, both globally and within nations.... The differences between the internal dynamics of modes of extraction and of modes of production create unequal exchange not only in terms of the labour value incorporated into products but also through the direct appropriation of rapidly depleted or non-renewable natural resources. Extractive appropriation impoverishes the environment on which local populations depend both for their own reproduction and for the extraction of commodities for export. (p.21f.).

Bunker went on to show in detail the destructive effect on the Amazon basin and its local inhabitants of the international economy and the Brazilian bureaucracy, showing how:

Once the profit-maximizing logic of extraction for trade across regional ecosystems is introduced ...  price differentials between extractive commodities and the differential return to extractive labour stimulate concentrated exploitation of a limited number of resources at rates which disrupt both the regeneration of these resources and the biotic chains of co-evolved species and associated geological and hydrological regimes. (p.47).

     Bunker's study of the exploitation of Amazonia illustrates how the transferral of most of the usable energy in living and fossilised plants to a small part or the world is generating ecologically costly over-exploitation of natural resources and socially costly hypercoherence. And as he pointed out,

Hypercoherence ultimately leads to ecological and social collapse as increasingly stratified systems undermine their own resource base. ... The exchange relations which bind this system together depend on locally dominant groups to reorganize local modes of production and extraction in response to world demand, but the ultimate collapse will be global, not local. The continued impoverishment of peripheral regions finally damages the entire system. (p.253).

The greenhouse effect, an effect due mainly to the burning of fossil fuels and to the destruction of rainforests throughout the world, an effect which will turn much of the Amazon rainforest to desert, can be seen as the most obvious manifestation of this undermining of the entire system (George 1992, chap.1).


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