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In Praise of Devastation

In Praise of Devastation

As developing nations come into their own, environmental destruction may be a necessary part of the cost.

Illustration by Michael Byers

Last year, the decades-long shadow war in the Amazon between developers and environmentalists erupted into the open, when a new logging initiative triggered a massive riot in the remote jungle town of Paragominas. A three-thousand-strong mob ransacked a government office, smashed computers, burned vehicles, destroyed documents, and stole fourteen trucks full of illegally logged lumber.

Sounds like just the thing to gladden Naomi Klein’s heart. Power to the people! A spontaneous mass movement! There’s just one problem: the initiative that so maddened the rioters was a crackdown on illegal logging. And the office targeted? Brazil’s environmental protection agency.

The Amazon is the jewel in the world’s environmental crown, the “lungs of the planet.” So why would ordinary Brazilians lash out at attempts to curb deforestation? Surely they should be stewards, not despoilers, of this irreplaceable global treasure.

What Westerners tend to forget is that agonizing over the environment is a luxury reserved for the rich. Brazil is still a developing nation; a rich one, relatively speaking, but home to tens of millions who live in abject poverty, from Rio’s infamous favela slums to squalid jungle villages. Insisting that Brazilians leave the Amazon alone is incredibly short-sighted and selfish.

Imagine a struggling single mother who inherited her grandmother’s family jewels, and a millionaire cousin who insists that she never sell them because of their sentimental value. That’s Brazil’s relationship to the West. Raw jungle is all but worthless; logging, pastures and plantations equal money. Ecotourism is nice, but will never be more than a niche.

To the men razing it, the Amazon’s beauty, and the well-being of the Earth, are basically irrelevant. Twenty million people live in Brazil’s Amazon states. What matters to them is putting food on their families’ tables, and maybe, if they’re lucky, saving up for a slightly better future.

Meanwhile, we demand climate-friendly technology that provokes the same destruction we bemoan. Consider biofuels. They’re carbon-neutral, because they absorb nearly as much CO2 while growing as they release when the fuel burns; they contain no toxins like benzene or sulphur; and they cost about as much as gasoline. The only really effective biofuel is derived from sugar cane, which grows in tropical climes like Brazil. More than 40 percent of Brazil’s fuel comes from its sugar cane plantations (most Brazilian vehicles run on fuel-flexible engines that can handle either gasoline or biofuel) and it exports more sugar cane-based ethanol than any other country. Clean, renewable, made-in-Brazil technology that’s making the country rich—sounds great, doesn’t it? But at the same time, those vast plantations have to go somewhere, and this demand for land leads to logging roads carved illegally into the Amazon jungle.

It’s the same story around the world. As you read this, old-growth rainforests in Africa and Borneo are being razed and replaced with palm-oil plantations for biofuel. Plummeting oil prices have slowed this process, but not for long—there’s only so much cheap oil out there. Cell phones, laptops, and PlayStations rely on coltan, a dull metallic substance vital to high-performance capacitors, strip-mined by Congolese warlords. High-tech manufacturing increasingly relies on countries with environmental laws considerably more lax than in the West. Then, once all the value is wrung from these goods, the waste, often toxic, is shipped back to Africa and Asia for disposal. It’s not hard to conclude that we’re outsourcing environmental degradation.

Meanwhile, better technology just seems to help the developing world despoil its environment more efficiently. (Sometimes in almost comical ways: Brazilian logging companies were recently accused of hiring hackers to break into government databases and increase their logging quotas.) Improved roads and economic growth mean more cars, and all their concomitant environmental costs. Coal-fired power plants come online at a rate of one a week in China, which last year produced more carbon dioxide than the US. The acrid air in Beijing, Cairo and Delhi is testament enough to the developing world’s fervent demand for economic growth. The world’s five billion poor want the same standard of living that you and I enjoy, no matter what the environmental cost—and who can blame them?

Does that all sound apocalyptic? Maybe so, but this disaster carries the seeds of its own salvation. We can’t save the Amazon by lecturing Brazilians about its importance. The only way to save it is to let Brazil become rich. If the West is not willing to pay South American nations many billions of dollars every year to keep the Amazon pristine (and clearly we’re not) then we have to accept that some of their natural resources will be destroyed by the process of national enrichment, just as much of North America was strip-mined and clear-cut in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Only then will its people start to care for their air, water and forests.

Consider Russia, which recently rerouted a pipeline at great expense to preserve the unspoiled wilderness of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest source of fresh water. Ten years ago, it couldn’t have afforded such a move. Or consider China. The whole nation is an environmental disaster zone: air you can hardly breathe, lakes turned purple with pollution, skyrocketing rates of cancer and respiratory disease. But at the same time, it’s finally rich enough, and its situation dire enough, to start paying attention to its environment. China’s fuel efficiency requirements are now twice as stringent as America’s.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not citing China as an example for all to follow. My point is that calling on the developing world to eliminate environmental destruction is counter-productive. We want countries like Brazil to monetize their environment at the rate which minimizes its long-term devastation, and that rate is not zero, because we need developing nations to become rich. Some environmental destruction is part and parcel of that economic progress.

This leads to another thorny question, and maybe the thorniest of all. Can everyone be rich? Is it even theoretically possible for the developing world to attain the level of wealth we take for granted in the West?

The snap answer is no. The per-capita ecological footprint—the amount of biologically productive real estate required to support a single human being—is estimated at about seven hectares per person for a Canadian, 5.5 hectares for a Brit, and nine hectares for an American. Worldwide there are only about two hectares per person. The knee-jerk conclusion is clear: not everyone on Earth can be rich like us. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around.

But that doesn’t mean nations in Africa, Asia and South America should “hush this cry of ‘Forward,’” as Tennyson once wrote (this debate has been around some time). If you asked a nineteenth century British aristocrat whether everyone could have his standard of living, the question would have seemed ridiculous; to be rich required servants, and if everyone were rich, no one would be a servant. But while few today have servants, our lives are immeasurably better than those aristocrats’ in a dozen different ways. So the non-snappy answer is: there’s room for everyone to be wealthy—so long as we define “wealthy” slightly differently.

We’re not going to have any choice. Over the next few decades the poor will become richer whether we like it or not (there’s a good reason why all the rags-to-riches stories à la Slumdog Millionaire are being set in places like India). Telling the rest of the world that it should stop developing for the sake of the Earth simply isn’t going to work. What we can do is use our wealth to make its path easier. Eventually cars will run on fuel cells or wind/solar-powered batteries, but if we don’t make those technologies cheap and reliable, and available now, then the demand for biofuel could destroy most of the world’s rainforests. Better not dawdle. There isn’t much time.