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Pathologising the planet

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The latest European Environment Agency report into the state of the planet reads like the longest sick-note in history

Herbert Girardet is most well known for bringing the concept of the 'urban footprint' into common usage, giving apparent agency to the inanimate world of construction and urban development. And it was James Lovelock who popularised the notion of Gaia, portraying the planet as a living organism. Notwithstanding that this approach doesn't exactly mirror the Dark Ages practice of applying human or deified characteristics to natural phenomenon, it comes close.

For that growing body of intellectual thought that buys into an anthropomorphic view of planetary science, the latest European Environment Agency (EEA) report will be sad reading indeed. The patient, it seems, is sick and the report reads like a doctor's note with suggestions for alternative treatment.

Sick Planet Syndrome

Whereas some environmentalists have regularly portrayed the planet as being terminally ill, the EEA has a more modern approach and simply suggests that it is in need of therapy.

Forests are 'damaged'; the soil is 'degraded'; fish are 'over-exploited' and reservoirs are having to deal with 'stress'. Waste needs treatment and even the ozone layer is suffering from lapses in concentration.

On first reading, the EEA report is simply a confused and over-cautious commentary on the state of Europe's environment. It is critical of economic development because of the perceived pressure it puts on the environment, while, at the same time, it recognises that economic development has led to great improvements in living standards and material improvement.

Calls for greater harmonisation between these two issues - economic development with a responsible approach to the environment - is portrayed as relatively uncontentious. A decade since Al Gore suggested that 'we must make the rescue of the environment the central organising principle for civilisation', the EEA report might even be considered mainstream. But a 'rescue of the environment' from what?

Well, essentially, this report does not really know, and comes across as an argument in need of a point. But in its confusion, it does maintain a consistent, thinly veiled attack on development per se, especially for those countries aspiring for western standards. It implies that, at long last, western Europe seems to have got its house in order - but now the environmentally unreconstructed eastern bloc countries are threatening to undo all of our best work. In this context, harmonisation is another way of laying down the standards by which east European countries will be judged. But in so doing, the authors call into question the very concept of development for western European economies.

By broadening the 'European' catchment to include not only eastEuropean countries such as Serbia and Montenegro but also central Asian economies, from Azerbaijan to the Russian Federation, the authors have to rely on generalisations across all economies, as a warning to us all.

We in the developed western European countries, the report seems to say, have a duty to inform those in the aspirant European nations of the folly of their ways. Essentially, it is a call for more control of accession countries (ie, those countries aspiring to get into the main European club) in the guise of an economic development programme.

Backward in coming forward

Worse still, in some instances, it is a call for renewed backwardness in some aspirant areas of an enlarged Europe, using the threat of environmentalism as a stick to beat them with. Intensified farming, for example - a positive, efficient agricultural production method in the developed regions of Europe - is decried as leading to problems of irrigation, drainage and over-use of chemical fertilisers in the east. These so-called problems have usually been resolved by careful investment in technology and equipment, but by criticising 'undergrazing and land abandonment' in the CEE (central and eastern Europe) and EECCA (East Europe, Caucasus and central Asia), the report seems to be championing labour-intensive peasant economies.

The opposite of undergrazing and land abandonment condemns these nations to 'traditional', 'organic' labour-intensive farming techniques.

Even the report's healthy demand for investment in infrastructure - couched in the language of environmentalism - has a certain moralising authority to it. The report implies an ethical judgement on which is the right and which is the wrong type of infrastructure. Railways are good; motorways are bad, for example.

And the restraint of demand management is not far behind. While EU experience shows that 'certain impacts' have been reduced due to regulatory intervention in transport, 'better-integrated transport and environmental strategies are needed to restrain traffic growth and promote the use of more environmentally friendly modes - two of the key objectives of the EU sustainable development strategy'.

Admittedly, the report is generous enough to state that for those CEE and EECCA countries, 'productivity will have to be improved if their efforts to reach standards of living comparable with the west are to be achieved', but Europe, as a whole, has a duty to reduce its 'ecological footprint on the world'. This, it argues, must be done with no detrimental effect on the environment. And since 'detrimental' impacts are easily reclassified to suit the accuser's requirements, accession countries will be given a difficult initiation.

'Energy use is the major source of greenhouse gas emissions and emissions of acidifying substances in Europe.' Because of restructuring of heavy industry in western Europe, these emission levels have been falling, but with a rise in energy consumption in Russian Federation, this may soon go back up again.

So if the premise of the report is that this cannot be allowed to happen, what then? Does this imply that underdeveloped regions will see reason - beyond their economic means - to prioritise environmental policies above production capacity; does it imply that certain small companies in EECCA countries will go to the wall; does it suggest that the west will not permit CEE and EECCA industries to develop unless they clean up their act?

Demand less

As with many environmental tracts, this report's 'solution' comprises demands for more financial penalties on the 'polluter'. But not to appear too authoritarian, rather than call for more regulatory controls, the EEA actually wants to encourage demand management within central-European and east-European economies.

End-of-pipe legislation as it's called - taxes on emissions, etc - has played a role, but now the authors want to regulate pollution by influencing 'general patterns of production and consumption'. But, actually, this type of hands-off regulation legitimises more subtle forms of interventionist management in order to ensure that aspirations and demands are kept down to manageable levels. After all, when you state that 'water resources in many areas are under threat from a range of human activities', the notion of human activity as a positive intervention in improving the social condition is undermined somewhat.

For example, the industrial sectors in the CEE and EECCA, we are told, are much more energy intensive and 'hence have greater environmental impacts'. However, western Europe relies on these irresponsibly produced goods and so has 'a degree of responsibility for the environmental burden sharing of best practice on regulations, technical standards and other measures'. While this sounds fair, in practice it is often a rationale for trade tariffs masquerading as helpful advice.

Rather than using more resources as economies develop, the report implies that developing nations need to reduce their resource use and prioritise environmental harm mitigation measures. This is known as 'decoupling' - isolating environmental impacts from economic growth.

It's also known as underdevelopment.

Redefining 'progress' and 'development' goes back a long way. Even as the concept of sustainability - which has come to dominate the debate - was being coined, the 1989 Caracas Report on Alternative Development Indicators suggested that 'if governments of the south can create a consensus amongst themselves around lists of indicators such as (net forest destruction, extinction of species, secondary school enrolment ratios, etc) which are ways of measuring social development and environmental quality and sustainability, they will be creating something which can rival orthodox ways of measuring 'progress', such as growth in GNP'. After all, they seemed to say, poverty need not be a consideration in quality of life indicators.

From this moralistic starting point, it is a short step to suggesting that material development might be a barrier to happiness.

Indeed, the report puts a positive spin on those CEE and EECCA economies showing 'decreasing environmental pressures as the consequence of their economic downturn' during the 1990s. Presumably, we are meant to weigh up the pros and cons of this equation. After all, who minds bread queues as long as indigenous species are allowed to run free?

'Europe's Environment: The Third Assessment' is downloadable from: http: //reports. eea. eu. int/environmental _assessment_report_2003_10/en/tab_ content_RLR

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