Taking precautions

Issue: 109

Mike Haynes

bq. A review of Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations (Pluto Press, 2005), £12.99; Steven P McGiffen, Biotechnology: Corporate Power Versus Public Interest (Pluto Press, 2005), £15.99

What is to be done about global warming? The greenhouse effect is caused by our pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when we burn carbon-based fuels like coal, gas and oil. The
atmosphere acts like greenhouse glass, trapping the heat we need to survive. But when the greenhouse becomes too hot,
disaster beckons.

It is the advanced world that causes most of the problems and it is the poor world that suffers most as the number of ‘ecological
refugees’ rises. Andrew Simms’ Ecological Debt offers a vivid description of how this happens. The advanced capitalist states have plundered the world and continue to trap poor countries in a network of economic debt. But in any ecological accounting the
debt would be the other way. The few owe the many because of their disproportionate use of resources and the disproportionate
pollution that they cause. This is getting worse as competition for resources and energy grows. Two thirds of the anticipated
increasing demand for oil in the next two decades will have to come from the Middle East, for example. This may not be the
only reason for the US presence in Iraq but it is a powerful contributing factor.

Simms rejects the idea that capitalism has a self-correcting economic mechanism. Some claim that when prices rise the
system will adjust and reduce the burden on the environment. For Simms, any such price signals would be too slow and distorted by dirty subsidies. They would also require unrealistic increases in
technological efficiency. Inevitably the costs would again fall more on the poor. So far so good. Simms’ account echoes what some on the left have argued. In two articles in the Journal of Economic Issues (34(3), September 2000 and 37(3), September 2003), for example, Rumy Husan and I have argued that even if the
market argument worked (we don’t think it does), then it could only equalise global incomes over huge time periods and with
unsustainable environmental costs.

Is there an alternative? Simms suggests that if nothing changes the result will be chaos. Only a reduction and redistribution of
resources makes any sense. This is what, following Aubrey Meyer, Simms calls ‘contraction and convergence’. I would prefer to talk of restructuring, redistribution and convergence. But the key issue is, can we get either inside the system?

Simms’ answer is by far the weakest part of this book. He veers towards the apocalyptic at one point, suggesting that ‘global warming probably means the death of capitalism as the dominant organising framework for the global economy’. Yet much of the second half of the book is taken up with the idea that the
international legal system can be used to control and moderate capitalism. Simms never seriously considers the limits to the law at the national level, let alone the international level. Nor does he ask who will enforce it.

To have an illusion in the law is also to have an illusion in the state and the ability of states to work together. In Between Equal Rights (reviewed in International Socialism 107), China Miéville has shown in terms of legal theory why international law cannot work in the way that its supporters hope. But even without this
we might have hoped for a more sceptical position from an environmentalist like Simms. He uses the idea that the law needs to control the ‘global commons’— the common land, atmosphere, etc, that we all share. But in England it was the rich who took the original common land from the people using the law and state
together. Legal challenges have a place, but by themselves they are not enough and to the extent that they are effective they owe as much to the sound of noisy opposition beyond the courtroom walls as to ‘legalistic thinking’ inside.

Such arguments underpin Steven P McGiffen’s Biotechnology: Corporate Power Versus Public Interest. McGiffen reviews the
legal basis of the control of Genetically Modified Organisms across the developed world, in the developing world and through international treaties. Whereas Simms’ writing is light, McGiffen’s is dense. But he is the more realistic about what law and regulation can do. Corporate power, he argues, likes legal
protection for some things—patents, for example, or forcing farmers to keep buying seeds from the company store.
Corporate power dislikes regulations which conflict with its basic drive for profit and attempts to commodify increasing areas of life across the globe.

This undermines the possibility of the ‘precautionary approach’ whether it be to climate change or GM farming. The ‘precautionary approach’ is the argument that, since we cannot know exactly what climate change or genetic modification
will bring but we suspect that any negative changes might be irreversible or only reversible over generations, we should err on the side of caution. In contrast, McGiffen argues that corporate
power has no interest in a ‘measured and considered’ debate or measured regulation. Both are subject to ‘the ferocious, self-interested lobbying of multinational corporations with a stake in

This is justified by a GM science that makes vastly inflated claims. Companies prevent or denigrate independent tests.

One of the most interesting facets of global capitalism at the moment is the huge power of agribusiness. Hundreds of millions of people produce the food that feeds billions, but if it enters into the global economy then this food is funnelled through a tiny number of multinational companies. Ten pesticide companies, for example, control 84 percent of the global pesticide market and
five of these (Du Pont, Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto and Dow) control 25 percent of the commercial seed market as well. These same five companies control 71 percent of patents of agricultural

The problem is how to go beyond this situation. McGiffen argues that ‘under pressure from a public increasingly aware of
problems associated with biotech’ in some places the law and elected representatives have gone some way to creating some
controls. But elsewhere those who try to regulate the system ‘have become nothing more than builders of the road along which the juggernaut of corporate-controlled
biotechnology is moving, and crushing all that stands in its way’.