Globalisation, technology and the environment – a recipe for pollution

The speed at which globalisation has spread has lead to unprecedented impacts on the environment. There are two schools of thought however; one group believes that through the spread of economic success, knowledge and technology, globalisation will improve the condition of the environment. However, the opposite perspective states that the success of globalisation inherently depends on environment degradation.

Optimists believe that globalisation leads to economic growth and higher per capita incomes, which creates wealth and political will, two factors necessary to combat environmental damage. They often point to the environmental Kuznets curve, which states that along the path of economic growth, there is a tendency for temporarily higher pollution levels as a result of the early stages of industrial development. However, once a certain level of per capita income is reached, environmental damage decreases.

The Environmental Kuznets curve

Unfortunately, this view is overly simplistic in that it ignores two powerful reasons why the net environmental impact is still higher as income increases. Firstly, globalisation facilitates an increase in consumption that occurs as a wider selection of goods become available at a lower price. Industrial countries, with 15% of the world’s population, account for 76% of global consumption expenditure. This brings us to the second argument, which is that as countries develop, people tend to shift the production, and hence the pollution, onto less developed nations. This creates a gap between consumption and production, which distances the consumer both physically and ethically from the negative implications of consumption, further encouraging more consumption. In other words, if I don’t see the net effect of my purchases here in Australia, because the factory underpaying the workers and producing pollution is in China, I can go out on a spending spree guilt free.

This gap is further highlighted when one considers the inequity in carbon produced between developed and developing nations. Current data from the World Bank suggests that the bulk of CO2 emissions produced in 2002 overwhelmingly came from countries with a high-income average. This debunks the underlying assumption of the environmental Kuznets curve, because clearly, as per capital income increases, pollution also goes up and up.

National CO2 emissions per country per capita, click to enlarge.

If globalisation was supposed to result in improved technology, which facilitates more efficient and pollution-free production, then it is clear that on balance, this has not occurred either. The Jevons paradox states that increased efficiency through technological progress leads to increased consumption, as human behaviour dictates that an increased demand for a resource occurs as the cost is lowered. The classic example used to illustrate this phenomenon is that in creating more fuel-efficient cars, you have billions of fuel-efficient cars purchased, rather than millions of inefficient cars. So an increase in technology and efficiency through globalisation has the effect of increasing consumption and hence environmental degradation.

Critics also point to the fact that the focus of globalisation is on profit and economic success, through trade liberalisation, and the environment necessarily becomes a secondary consideration. As Roe and Eaton put it, “WTO rules do not consider the value of such elements as clean air and fresh water”. Globalisation inherently causes environmental damage through the increase in transport, goods, infrastructure and energy consumption that occurs out of necessity as world markets are linked together. As markets move from local to global, the physical space between the consumer and producer increases. This not only results in higher transport costs to the environment, but also infrastructure to support the transfer of these goods.

In attempting to combat globalisation’s effect on environmental degradation, a major barrier is the increasing number of actors in the global political economy, and their decreasing levels of accountability. At the very heart of this problem lies the shift in power that has occurred from states to markets, and the increasingly transnational forms of governance that have occurred. Simply put, the lack of an intergovernmental body overseeing this area means that growth is unregulated and unsustainable.

Globalisation and the underlying principles of neoliberalism suggest that the natural equilibrium of the free market leads to a more efficient and productive society. While this in itself is questionable, it leaves issues like the environment in the “too hard” category, because protecting our natural resources is not considered as something of major value. This issue brings up many questions surrounding global governance, and where responsibilities lie when corporations are left unregulated in the pursuit of profit. For example, what challenges would an international organisation charged with regulating environmental degradation face? Where does the responsibility for solving environmental problems lie – with the state, market or civil society? Is there hope towards true international regulation, or will it be stymied by the individual agendas of each country?

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Weh Yeoh

Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/wmyeoh) and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.

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7 thoughts on “Globalisation, technology and the environment – a recipe for pollution”

  1. Which brings me to my last point and to touch upon an issue raised by Weh in his article, that of power. Who is this new globalisation for? Whilst economic development is undoubtedly bringing millions out of material poverty in South & South-East Asia, it is doing so at an uneven rate. Those within Indian society who suffer environmental injustice are the same who suffer economic in justice in the form of marginalisation, disposession of lands and oppression via the corruption you so rightly pointed out.

    1. Thanks Sam!

      I agree with you, it definitely is a System problem! and in India the main problem lies within the Political System, which needs a complete overhaul. The hope is on the future generation of leaders to bring about change in the system, as I do not see this happening with the present generation of leaders ( who have criminal records and are definitely not thinking about the environment or its safety)

      Vandana Shiva is an inspiration to us, she's one of the few people who has stood against the Monsanto carnage in India, and I'm happy to see her work being recognised around the globe. The Farming community which was once self sufficient is now completely dependent on companies like monsanto, globalisation has definitely not been beneficial to this section of the population. We've seen a large scale migration of farmers into the urban cities in search of jobs which adds to the complex web of degradation of the the urban environment as well, which is a similar situation in China too.

      I hope the efforts in the South to develop sustainably finds the right response from the North in terms of technology transfer etc,. The need of the hour though is a conducive effort and commitment from both sides of the divide…

  2. Whilst I think environmental regulations are really really important, at the end of the day, the environmental problem is a system problem. It is inherent in our globalised economic system, as Weh's article demonstrates. Arathi, I really liked your comment as you highlight the key problem in any debate around global environmental/economic issue. There are contradictory forces at work here – yes, the world cannot afford to have another century of economic development like the last, however, restricting the development of the South is a new form of repression & neo-colonialism.

    What I would say Arathi, is that fortunately, some of the strongest voices for an overhaul of globalisation and neo-liberal economics come from India and the South. Only a couple of days ago i was lucky enough to hear Vandana Shiva speak about the injustices being wrought by corporations in India, most often on the poorest and most marginalised in society.

  3. Hi Arathi,

    Thank you very much for that perspective. It's a very difficult issue to address, and one that developing nations have put forward so many times in such an effective manner to developed countries: "if, in achieving 'developed world status', other countries have damaged the environment for centuries, why should we not be allowed to do the same?" It's an extremely difficult argument to counter, except for the fact that we (as a global community) simply cannot afford for that kind of rampant environmental damage to occur on a larger scale again. I would hope that countries like India and China would use available knowledge and learn from mistakes made to develop in more sustainable ways, and there certainly is some evidence of that happening at a policy level. Whether that occurs at a local level is another matter. It's almost impossible to say to the man on the street who is just trying to get by – "you know, you should really think about living in a more sustainable manner." Thanks again.

    1. Hi Weh,

      You're welcome! I enjoyed reading and giving my input for your article. Developing countries have questioned the right to develop to end poverty ( thats definitely not happening anytime soon, the poor are getting poorer) and what not, and I think the term "Sustainable Development" has penetrated the minds and decisions of policy makers and the people in power to a certain extent, we have to I think consider that this is was not the case when the North was developing. So yes we all hope India and China learn from the mistakes of the North and implement more sustainable ways to develop. I can see it happen in India to a decent extent like I mentioned previously, but China is another issue, they are big on Renewable energy and CDM projects, which is very little done, considering the rate at which the country is booming, bringing in its wake massive environmental degradation as we all know. We need more awareness, action and more commitment at the community level here in India at least to bring about change at a local level, which I hope to do sometime soon!

  4. This is a very small perspective of the situation in India. India is benefitting from Globalisation no doubt, it has brought massive opportunities to India, but its a very challenging issue to deal with, where close to half the population is under the poverty line. The other half of the population and the government of India are so strongly pushing development at any cost (almost), where awareness is minimal, and the average Indian is preoccupied with getting rich or rooting for the national cricket team in the next cricket match, theres no room to deal with issues concerning the environment (be it their immediate or global environment). They do not care about industries polluting the rivers and the groundwater tables which they derive water from ( I was appalled to see people just accepted it, paid money to buy water from a dealer nearby and moved on). How do you then push the idea to people living in these conditions, be it in the poor or a middle class/upper middle class section that they can possibly do something to save the environment?

    Theres a protest tomorrow from a very small section of the society who are around 20 people in number at the maximum ( initiated by 5 school kids and a local environment group in Bangalore, India) to stop the cutting of trees on a busy road which the local authorities are carrying out without any consensus of the public nor have they thought about alternatives. Small movements like these are sprouting all over India and its heartening to see the new generation taking up arms against unreasonable authorities and actively being a part of urban issues affecting them and their community.

    For what its worth, change is around the corner, although at a very slow pace. We have a very dynamic Environment Minister, who has taken it to the industries and shut many of them down who do not meet the regulatory standards, put a hold on commercialisation of genetically modified Bt Brinjal(eggplant). We have companies engaging in Sustainability Reporting, and taking up Environmental and Social initiatives (even though at a very small scale), 50 Indian companies are listed in the Standard & Poor’s ESG index . Environmental Law stands strong in India, if only it is implemented efficiently and corruption did not reign so high.

What are you thinking?