24 January 2008

Exporting environmental damage

I've often wondered how much of the undeniable success of western economies depends on exporting our problems to the rest of the world. I've known about the effects of our insane agricultural support policies on developing countries for some time: the closing our our markets; the catastrophic effects of exports of subsidised overproduction on farmers; the export of price instability for farm products - see this (pdf) for an extreme statement. Now here is a report about our environmental impact on the third world:
The environmental damage caused by rich nations disproportionately impacts poor nations and costs them more than their combined foreign debt, according to a first-ever global accounting of the dollar costs of countries' ecological footprints. The study, led by former University of California, Berkeley, research fellow Thara Srinivasan, assessed the impacts of agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, overfishing, loss of mangrove swamps and forests, ozone depletion and climate change during a 40-year period, from 1961 to 2000. In the case of climate change and ozone depletion, the researchers also estimated the impacts that may be felt through the end of this century. "At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor...."
What this implies for the development path of the poor countries should be obvious. Unfotunately policymakers in those countries, for the most part, persist in targeting aggregated economic goals - principally GDP and growth of GDP - which, apart have little to do with the wellbeing of ordinary people, threaten to replicate the environmental depredations of the west. Far better would be to target meaningful human (as distinct from economic or corporate) goals, such as those incorporated in the Human Development Index: life expectancy, standard of living, education, literacy. We need to remind ourselves of what we already know: economic growth is not an end in itself.

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