Environmental rights, human rights, privatization, and climate change: A podcast conversation, and supplemental article.

Last Friday I went on the new podcast, Rights and Wrongs, to talk about environmental and resource rights with George Oakes and Scott Twigg. Check it out below. I do want to apologize for my own sound quality. The only mic I had available was a small one on a short cable, so I had to hunch over it to be audible, and didn’t think to put a piece of cloth over it. My breathing gets in the way about, so sorry about that.

It was an interesting conversation to be a part of, and hopefully, an interesting one to listen to, despite the audio problems. I recommend listening to it. There’s not currently a transcript for this, so if you can’t hear it for whatever reason, the best I can offer right now is the youtube version, with auto-generated captions. They’re not great, but they’re more than nothing if you really want them. Fair warning, the audio on that version is worse, includes more “ums” and the like, along with a barking dog at one point.

The rest of this post, which is a bit long, is to add in supplemental information and thoughts. It’s not a blow-by-blow of the conversation, but hopefully it’ll be a useful companion piece, as well as a stand-alone blog post.

First, on the issue of the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change (PDF), I think it’s worth noting a couple aspects of the discussion of economics vs human rights. The first is simply that the language of economics and capitalism has become far, far too embedded in our discussion of pretty much everything, in an inconsistent manner that always benefit those with wealth and power. This has been mentioned frequently in the discussion of universal healthcare in the United States – any time it’s brought up, someone will demand to know how it’s going to be paid for, in a way that is never asked of things like military activity. At the same time, economic calculations that show that a particular humanitarian action would actually save money in the long term are ignored. Part of this may be an ideological quirk – that anything that helps people and saves money is simply too good to be true. Another part is, I think, a very dangerous false dichotomy that has been drawn between The Economy, and the needs of people in general.

I don’t think I could pinpoint where in history this trend came about, but versions of it seem to go back quite a ways. The Economy has become a stand-in for “the greater good” in a lot of ways. It seems that our entire society has been structured – at a global level – around the notion that if The Economy is doing well, then the entire world is doing as well as it possibly could be. Along with that come the claims that anything that seems like it ought to benefit the population at large are actually bad, because they would hurt The Economy. Workplace safety, better wages, pollution, environmental degradation – all of these would help pretty much everyone in pretty much every way, but they have all been opposed as being dire threats to The Economy. What it really means, as far as I can tell, is that these measures which would so improve the lives of so many people threaten not our nation’s economy, but the people around whose interests The Economy is designed – the capitalist class, from which capitalism derives its name.

Workplace safety makes everyone’s lives better with one exception – it costs money, and therefor reduces the profits received by the owners of the company. The same is true for better pay for workers, and for environmental protections. The only time things that benefit humanity as whole become “worth it” in the eyes of The Economy, is when continuing to oppose them would cause enough of a mass uprising that it would harm the power and profit of the aristocracy even more than the beneficial measures in question.

The most successful project of the 20th century and the Cold War was creating a global capitalist system, with no real alternatives. In many ways, “developing nations” have taken on a role, in relation to the various imperial/colonial powers of a “free” working class. On paper they have rights, and sovereignty, but as the signatories of the Male’ declaration point out, those rights only really exist when respecting them does not interfere with The Economy. Historically, this has been most evident in the ways in which international activity has affected the politics and national economies of the countries in question. The end of colonialism came with various arrangements that left countries that had long been looted for the benefit of their colonizers with few options when it came to actually benefiting from the wealth that made them targets in the first place. Attempts to actually exert their sovereignty have resulted in everything from economic sanctions, to coups, to outright invasions. In reality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the sovereignty of nations – none of that matters unless it does not interfere with the endless hoarding of wealth by the capitalist class.

Small wonder, then, that climate change has followed a similar trajectory. The entire history of the efforts to deal with climate change has been plagued with this insidious, false dilemma. The only reason that the inaction might have surprised the “developing world”, who are long used to being treated as disposable, is that unlike other environmental issues, there’s no real way for the capitalist class to avoid the consequences of climate change.

But boy, are they trying. Unless we build solidarity as a global species, and work to value human life and happiness over the priorities of capitalism, the island nations will not only lose their homes, they will then be subjected to all the worst abuses we’ve seen inflicted on immigrants the world over.

Because helping them might hurt The Economy.

As Scott rightly points out here, we’re in a situation where this endless homage to The Economy now serves not to minimize and erase the suffering and death of portions of the population, but to minimize and erase the possible – and avoidable – demise of our entire species.

The second bit is on the phenomenon of enclosure, and how it applies to water. As I’ve said many times, I’m no expert on this, but here’s where my understanding is currently at:

The transition from feudalism to capitalism required a major shift in how the ownership of land was considered. Under feudal society, while the nobility had nominal control over the land, the lower classes also had rights to that land, and it was generally used for the maintenance of the society, rather than the creation of excess – what we now call “profit”. There were people who accumulated wealth, of course, but that wasn’t really the driving force of production at a systemic level. In order for capitalism to exist, all of that common land had to become someone’s “private property”, as did the resources needed to work the land. That allowed for production to be driven not by the needs of the local community, but by the creation of excess, which belonged by law to the landowner, in one form or another.

This process did result in the creation of excess material resources, at least in some ways, but it also changed the rules by which a person had to survive. You couldn’t make your living by hunting, gathering, or working common land for food and shelter, you had to work for wages, and use those to get those simple bear necessities of life. It was a long process, with some benefits, and some downsides, and it’s worth learning more about. I think this article from Socialist Appeal is useful in this regard, but there’s a lot more out there if you want to look into it.

One of the problems with this, as I see it, is that capitalism wasn’t just born with the enclosure and privatization of the commons, its existence has also always depended on endless new enclosure. That has been the engine of the “endless growth” economic model, and it has been largely hidden from most of the people benefiting from this process – the middle and upper classes of so-called “developed” nations. The colonial powers had limited space available for enclosure within their own territories, and so they began to conquer and enclose other territories around the world. On the continent of Africa, this resulted in the mass removal of some people through the slave trade to the American continents, the extermination of other people to make room for settlers, and the mass enslavement of others, most notoriously in territory that Belgium conquered in the Congo River region.

In North America, the process was primarily one of ethnic cleansing through forced relocation, a never-ending series of broken treaties, the destruction of food sources to create famine, biological warfare, and direct mass murder. South and Central America endured similar fates to Africa and North America.

Asia, Australia, and various island nations saw the same thing happen, to varying degrees.

In the United States, at least, all of this is treated as largely in the past. It’s History, and so part of some closed chapter that no longer affects us much today. If you ask the various Native Americans, I think they’d tell a different story, as would most minority groups in the country. The reality is that this process never stopped. The Dakota Access Pipeline is one recent, famous example of the effort to seize and enclose Native land for private profit. A couple other examples are the ongoing deforestation in Brazil and in Indonesia. As climate change alters the entire surface of the planet, the capitalists and their enablers are actively planning to expand this process into the Arctic as well, to continue the fantasy of endless growth, with no regard for the cost.

When it comes to water, the situation has always been a bit more fluid. By its very nature, water is generally difficult to enclose, and because it’s so essential to every aspect of life and society, there’s a degree to which enclosure was simply not practical. The claims of territorial waters, and the various international disputes over things like fishing rights are a good example of this. This has come up recently in the conversation surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union – fish don’t respect lines that humans draw on maps, and their life cycles often take them from one country to another. If the UK were to over-fish “their” waters, that would hurt the fisheries of other countries that border on the North Atlantic, and that’s something that can get pretty heated. Look into the Cod Wars if you want an example.

So even as capitalism took over the world, water remained a commons, primarily restricted, protected, and exploited at a governmental level. Some corporations bought rights to bottle and sell water, but they often had to compete with municipal water supplies, or with the ability of people to simply draw water from nearby rivers, lakes, streams, or wells. That meant that while bottled water might often be a convenience, as long as a person had access to either clean tap water, or the means to boil or filter water for themselves, bottled water was mostly a luxury. It was a way to get clean, safe water quickly and conveniently. There are two problems with this situation. The first, from the point of view of corporations that profit from selling water and other drinks, is that they have to compete with water suppliers that aren’t trying to make a profit, and therefor can keep prices right around the cost of production.

The second is that as a commons, water sources are very vulnerable to things like pollution. The environmental movement was driven, in part, by the horrific consequences of water pollution – almost entirely by capitalist corporations – for those relying on those water sources. A lot of progress has been made, at least in some parts of the world, but even with much of the industry supplying the United States now operating in and polluting other countries, the problem has not gone away.

In January of 2014, a chemical storage tank owned by one “Freedom Industries” broke open and released thousands of gallons of  4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol – a chemical used in coal production – into the Elk River of West Virginia. The spill was upstream of an intake for the public water supply. Much of the groundwater in West Virginia is polluted, and has been for some time. when the Elk River spill happened, the river was the only “clean” water source available for that community, and the citizens were forced to rely on bottled water from outside their region. The spill not only highlighted negligence within the coal industry, but also the degree to which industrial pollution has put some parts of the United States right on the edge of being without a clean water supply.

In reality, millions of Americans have been without access to safe drinking water for some time, and the situation is as bad or worse around the world. In general, the closer an area is to industrial activity, the more likely it is that the water will be contaminated in some way, and that the people living there will be poor and politically powerless. Most decisions that result in poisoned water supplies are made by people who are not, themselves, exposed to the consequences of those decisions.

This is a problem all by itself, but unfortunately the situation is worse. It’s not just reservoirs and rivers that are being polluted, but aquifers are being put at risk by the natural gas industry, and are also being drained faster than their natural rate of replenishment.

History has show us that corporations are usually among the first to know about the harm that’s being done by their products or their byproducts. History has also shown us that with no exceptions I can think of, they respond to this information by doing their best to bury it, and silence anyone who tries to sound the alarm. While this is most likely done to serve the interests of short-term profit, in the case of water pollution, it has resulted in the gradual elimination of safe water sources that can be easily accessed by the working class. By accident or by design, the corporations that profit from selling water have seen their competition being eliminated.

Climate change has been rightly described as a “threat multiplier”. In the case of water, the implications of a hotter Earth are dire. Not only is water one of the most central ingredients for all known life, it is also the primary means of cooling available to a vast array of organisms, ourselves and our food included. Higher temperatures mean humans need to drink more, so our bodies can cool off through sweating. We also use water to cool ourselves through swimming, cold showers, and so on. Plants also require more water in higher temperatures, meaning the water demands for outdoor farming will be increasing. Without adequate planning, this will mean that the draining of reservoirs and aquifers will accelerate as the temperature rises, and much of the world will become increasingly reliant on water shipped in from elsewhere. This problem will be compounded again as refugees leave parts of the planet that are no longer habitable, further concentrating other populations.

As dire as all of this is, at this point I think it’s essential to emphasize that many of the problems of scarcity we’re facing, whether it be water, food, or housing, are artificial. Just as we have more than enough for everybody today, odds are we’ll have enough as the planet warms, as well.

But if we continue to use a system that prioritizes concentration and accumulation of wealth over human need and happiness, then that abundance will be as meaningless as it is today. Ever more people will become hungry, thirsty, and homeless, not because we can’t provide for them, but because we can’t provide for them, and also feed the endless greed of the capitalist class.

There are a few links to relevant resources in the “sources” document linked on Rights and Wrongs, including, but not limited to these two videos from The Michael Brooks Show:


As always, these issues are fare more complex than can be meaningfully addressed in a single blog post, but I hope this serves as a good introduction to the topics, and a useful angle on some of what’s happening in the world today.

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