Books: politics, perspectives and planetary protection

Economic and social inequality lies at the heart of north-south differences on green issues. Can nations move beyond self-interest? Lu Nan reviews Xu Zairong’s “Global Environmental Issues and International Response”.

Global Environmental Issues and International Response
Xu Zairong
Environmental Science Press, 2007

Xu Zairong’s Global Environmental Issues and International Response is one of very few books published in China in recent years to approach environmental protection issues from the viewpoint of international politics. An examination from this angle has particular significance.

First, environmental issues have been “global” since the start; they cross borders and regions and present humanity with challenges on a worldwide scale. Secondly, these issues are highly politicised; they impact on complex struggles of interests between economic and political groupings, and there can be no realistic attempt to find a solution outside of these political frameworks. Xu is to be applauded for the way his volume both places environmental issues within a global perspective and sketches out the interactions between political interest groups and between those at the centre and the margins of the global political chessboard.

The author concentrates on the analysis of the economic and social roots of global environmental issues. He holds that during the growth of the world economy, the process of globalisation and inequality between the economies of north and south have had a major impact on environmental issues, forming their main economic roots. Meanwhile, the rise of consumer societies and rapidly growing populations are the social causes of those same issues.

Since the advent of modern society, our rapidly increasing productivity has brought us huge material wealth — but it also has led to a global economic system characterised by increasing inequality in the distribution of that wealth between north and south. This presents a number of obstacles to resolution of the environmental issues. And since the 1950s, as consumerism has blossomed in Europe and the United States, Xu writes, “this type of desire to enjoy life started to swallow up resources, increasing demand for material and energy to unprecedented levels”. The growth in populations of developing countries similarly increases the difficulties involved in resolving global environmental issues.  

A seriously imbalanced global economic system and over-exploitation of natural resources led to successive environmental movements from the 1960s onwards. Xu looks back over the historical processes that took place between the first wave in the 1960s and the second in the 1980s, the formation of the global environmental-protection arena, political struggles between northern and southern groupings, and the unstinting intermediary efforts made by the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The author returns repeatedly to north-south conflict, reminding us of the key role of this relationship in global environmental politics. “The developed nations emphasise broad, bottom-up participation, managed with legislation,” he writes. “But developing nations stress external aid and top-down government management.”

We could even say that against this background of economic imbalance, it will be hard to form any agreement or reach any common ground, and environmental degradation is outstripping the speed at which human society is able to react.

So where is the hope? Xu places his in international organisations and NGOs. Since the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was founded in 1972, it has implemented global environmental assessments, carried out training and education, and set policy and law, making efforts to create a basic framework for global environmental management. At the same time, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and the World Bank offered funding and liquidity, providing soft support and limitations for environmental protection. Of most interest are the numerous NGOs and environmental movements that sprung up, gathering huge strength from among the people and “the margins”, pushing for the political centre to tackle ever-worsening environmental issues more effectively. And this remains the source of our hope today.  

The author firmly grasps three dimensions of global economic issues: the political struggle between north and south; the interaction between the “margins” and the “centre”, and the limitations of nation-states in contrast to the global nature of environmental issues. These form the core of all global economic issues.

Xu holds that “the main source of conflict on global environmental issues between north and south remains inequality under the global economic system”. This conflict is manifested in two ways: attribution of responsibility for environmental degradation, and financial aid and technology transfer. The two major groupings have argued over this continually, greatly delaying any possible solution. Neither the United States, as head of the northern grouping, nor China, head of the southern grouping, can see the gravity of the global situation when it is concerned with its own and its allies’ economic and political interests. Hence, the formation of an effective and practical plan of action is difficult in the extreme.

The global nature of environmental issues already is forcing a re-evaluation reflecting international outlooks. A stubborn insistence on local interests will only cause harm in the long run – to those interests and for the future of humanity.

The public environmental sector — represented by international NGOs and the two environmental movements, and acting largely through the international media — is a type of social force that arose from the “margins”, encouraging people to care about issues and to get involved. It has become stronger since the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, and in the middle of the twentieth century it became the main force behind the implementation of environmental policies.

We can see that political power is gathering at the margins of society and marching towards the centre, using the United Nations framework to influence sovereign states and to change the existing political layout. Positive interactions between the margins and the centre are the hope for an appropriate solution to the environmental situation.

But even if those public voices are louder, political decisions rely on governments and legislative support. Environmental protection issues must be brought within legal frameworks – but this brings us up against the limitations of national politics when faced with global problems.

The globalised nature of environmental issues urgently demands a single, comprehensive, world political framework with which to address it. But the isolation and self-interest of the nation-states severely limits our ability to deal with a worsening environment. As nation-states point fingers of blame and haggle with each other, the environment degrades further and it becomes even harder to ignore the mismatch between national politics and a global problem. We might hope for a global political model that can absorb all the different movements and meet the challenge, but the complexity and in-fighting leave us without cause for optimism.

Perhaps we need the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “world domestic politics without a world government” — or further, a more powerful world government — before we can find an effective solution to global environmental issues.

Lu Nan is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s school of law.