The Role Of Poverty And The Economy In Environmental Degradation

Posted by Nilanshu Kumar in Environment, Politics
January 9, 2018

The politics of the global imperial era are having a consequential impact on the environment, mainly in third world countries.

The powerful administration of the imperial powers transparently sought to enrich their home countries with resources, which came from the exploitation of land, mines, forests etc. of the colonies, without thinking of the environmental consequences and long-term impacts on the colonies.

One of the main objectives of the colonizing powers, from the first Spanish colonies to the last of the British and Portuguese colonies, was the enhanced profitable extraction of resources. The Industrial Revolution fueled the need for colonial resource extraction.

Industrialization and imperialism went hand in hand, in which industrialization worked as a powerful tool for imperialism. As the dance between industrialization and imperialism grew faster, less care was paid towards environmental concerns. This cycle continued until the mid-20th century.

These destabilizing forces had left many postcolonial countries unable to manage the environmental scars left by colonial powers. Rather, the postcolonial economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America fused into the global capitalist economy to compete side by side with the industrialized countries. They adopted the same means of production, as used by the advanced countries, which started depleting their natural resources even further, just as done by the colonizers.

Parati (1995) defined imperialism as a process whereby the dominant politico-economic interest of one nation expropriates the land, forest, raw materials and resources of the powerless nations. This is what happened during this period. It is during the mercantile era and mainly after the peace of Westphalia when counties started adopting this idea of occupying territories to get raw materials and resources for the production of goods, which would lead to more accumulation of capital and consequently the advancement of the nations to fuel their economy. Colonizers occupied the territories and started mining their resources and minerals for the benefit of the colonizer nations.

So, driving the economy was the main concern and still is the main reason for environmental degradation. Economic advancement goes parallel or is directly proportional to ecological degradation.

The global powers have left an unforeseen mark on the development path of the third world economies. This power of the globally developed nations has negatively impacted the environmental health of many former colonies. There were a number of forces that shaped the development path of the former colonies, but the consideration of the consequences of colonial policies make this damage attributable to global imperialism, even after the transfer of power from colonial power to third world countries.

The common suffering among all postcolonial nations is poverty and instability. Despite the paternalistic justification given by colonial powers, they developed their nations because of a surplus extracted from the resourceful countries of Africa, Asia, Latin, and South America which has adversely affected the standard of living of the people of these countries even to this day.

These factors have a negative impact on the condition of the regional environmental systems, and then these degraded environmental systems can lead to the issues of war and poverty. The people of the third world countries have experienced some of the most intense poverty on the planet. According to World Bank statistics, over 900 million people are making less than $1.90 a day, the majority of which are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.

Colonial powers had offered very less economic opportunities to the people of the colonies, other than low wage labourers, or low-level military positions. Better position or white collar jobs were given to the powerful elite of the colonizer state.

This increasing poverty of just managing to earn over $2 per day also adversely affected the environment and proliferated other environmental damaging legacies of the colonies. At this level of income, people have to be dependent on the forests and rivers for food and water. This can lead to an increase in the level of air and water pollution, as poverty has links to deforestation through dependency on timber as a fuel source. With this increased level of environmental pollution and deforestation, it impacted the rural poor who were dependent on the environment for their subsistence living.

Poverty also plays an important role in armed conflict. People suffering from poverty joined armed conflicts, which again is a source of environmental degradation. All these world wars and nuclear wars have impacted the environment. World War II caused a more significant impact, with the explosion of the nuclear bomb.

In the South-Asian subcontinent, British colonialism transformed the existing pre-capitalist social formations into a specific type of peripheral capitalism that worked as a subordinate to the British metropolitan. In the process of making a colony in capitalist regions, local production and self-sufficiency of the regimes were substantially dismantled or dissolved.

In effect, the colonial rule assembled a disarticulated form of generalized commodity production, in which the circuits were not internally complete, but linked to the fluctuations and needs of the metropolitan economy. Consequently, the imperial need for resources and raw materials promoted the expansion of agriculture, cash crops, mono-cropping and plantations, but led to the decimation of wildlife and the rapid decline of forest cover. This need and drive for imperialism were determined by the needs emanating from the metropole rather than generated from within the subcontinent.

In other words, the pressures of the accumulation process in the metropolis were transmitted onto the ecology of the colonies. It is also argued, that the process of reproduction of capital in the colonial areas was deformed, which means that the metropoles appropriated the maximum share of the economic surplus extracted from the colonies.

This extraction of economic surplus of the colonies impoverished them of resources and left them in the condition of famines. After the industrial revolution, steam engines were introduced and metropole economies started setting up train routes in the colonies to make their task of extracting and exploitation of resources easier.

The rich people saw hunting as a sport in the vast wildlife of the colonies. Hunting tigers for their skin, murdering elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, respectively, started during these centuries of colonialism. With capitalism, more efficient tools could be designed with more efficiency to hunt the wild animals for the enjoyment of the powerful rulers.

In the 1972 census, the tiger population was around 1,800. The figure was 42,000 nearly a century ago. We can’t look for the exact figures, but as for this data, British Raj hunted down around 380 tigers every year. Between the years 1871-1916, the British Raj killed around 1,00,000 wolves in the subcontinent. A British officer, Captain A. Mundy wrote in 1833, in his book “Pen and Pencil Sketches, being the Journal of a Tour of India”, that with the zeal of English sportsman and increasing cultivation, tigers and wolves were exterminated from the subcontinent

Prior to the industrial period’s use of coal, and later, oil, as highly efficient fuel resources, wood worked as an important resource for the European powers. Steel weapons produced by charcoal helped Europeans to conquer third world colonies. Timber was the vital material for building the colonial administration centres. It was also used for making transportation infrastructure like ships in the pre-industrialized world and trains in the industrialized world.

The rapid deforestation of the colonies mirrored the deforestation in European countries that had been taking place from pre-industrialized times. The colonial powers used deforestation as a system of control for taking advantage. They sought to shape the environment in the most profitable and strategic form, and that came with the cost of environmental degradation. This existed in stark contrast to the indigenous societies that had adapted their ways of life to the environment surrounding them.

We can trace back the negative environmental impacts from resource extraction (on a massive scale) to the pre-industrial colonial era of Spanish silver mining. The Spanish War between the 15th and 17th centuries made the Spanish crown dependent on South American silver, and it pressured the colonial administration to extract the silver, regardless of the human and environmental impacts.

To keep machines running at their full capacity, the main requirements were labour, mercury and timber. The prioritization of increased output over supply chain sustainability created an ecological overdraft that depleted local natural resources to a point, where it could neither maintain the previous levels of production nor meet the increased levels that were being demanded. As the requirements of timber increased, a vast area of forest land was cleared down for large-scale agriculture production, and the production of cash crops increased. This provided both a demand for greater centralized labour and more areas to concentrate populations on, thus assimilating a more significant percentage of the indigenous population into Spanish land-tenure systems.

The same case happened in India, when the British passed the Land Acquisition Act which said that the land for which anybody did not have documents for, would be considered as government land. Consequently, all forest dwellers who took care of the forest land they lived in, were forced out of their home. Then, the forest were used for the production activity of the British empire. Due to the land acquisition act, the British government acquired many forest lands and exploited the forest for wildlife and resources even further.

The backdrop of the 21st century are the effects of the exploitative activities that have been carried out by the colonizers in the past four centuries. The state of the world today, which is suffering from limited resource, is the consequent effect of the exploitative measures of powerful kings and empires.

As Harm de Blij once stated, “The emergence and diffusion of modern humanity is a drama whose scenes are still being reconstructed and whose backdrops are still being painted.”