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27.12.06

A Political Ecology Lesson for Ronald Bailey

I'm not terribly impressed with Jeremy Rifkin's recent article The Risks of Too Much City. His recitation of the usual list of environmentalist concerns is noteworthy only for its failure to mention climate change (even though that issue sometimes seems like the only thing environmentalists care about). And despite his title and the accompanying "hook", he never talks about the risks caused by urbanization -- rather, his problem is with industrialization and population growth.

Nevertheless, Ronald Bailey's attempted rebuttal is even worse. Bailey focuses on Rifkin's final paragraph, in which he laments humanity's failed attempt at domination of nature, and calls for "reintegration" instead. Bailey counters that "integration" with nature is a recipe for disease and famine, while urban isolation has brought longer lifespans and greater riches. Bailey insists, contrary to Rifkin's vague and wishy-washy policy advice, that this is a question of urbanization versus rural life.

Bailey says we need look no farther than how people have voted with their feet: "While some people may be pushed by war or drought, or poverty into cities, most people today are pulled in by the prospect of reinventing themselves, escaping from the narrow strictures of family, class and community, and a shot at really making it." But this description of urban migration patterns is largely inaccurate. In the first world, migration out of rural (i.e. farming) areas is driven as much by economic necessity as it is by a desire to escape the cultural constraints of rural life. Meanwhile the cities themselves are emptying out as people flee high rents and dark-skinned neighbors. These urban emigrants -- who constitute the largest population movement at present -- are moving in search of precisely the two things Bailey claims they're rejecting: rural life and nature. Many relocate to the suburbs, looking for a mythic rural-small-town-idyll, a cozy village with strong "strictures of family, class and community" in which to raise their children. Others seek a closer connection to nature, making their homes among the (dangerously flammable) pines and chaparral of exurban areas.

In the Third World, there is a strong rural-to-urban migration stream. Yet here Bailey misses the mark too, both by stressing the primacy of "pull" factors and by assuming that urban immigrants want and achieve freedom from "strictures of family, class and community." Largely external forces of worsening market conditions, lack of capital, environmental degradation, government policies that range from misguided to exploitative, population growth, and the legacy of colonial dispossession make it nearly impossible for many rural residents to make ends meet. Migration to urban areas (as well as international migration) typically begins as a way to support the rest of the family, clan, or village who remain in the rural area. One or a few individuals (usually young men) migrate to the city in search of work, then send generous remittances back home, honoring rather than escaping their family and community ties. And the jobs in question can only be described as "really making it" by contrasting them to the unemployment and poverty that these migrants faced in their original villages. Migrants to third world cities often end up living in illegal and unsanitary shantytowns, working in the "informal" (black market) economy -- hardly a recipe for escaping the depredations of disease and other "natural checks" that Bailey claims urbanization has freed us from.

Bailey claims that urbanization (actually economic globalization, but he seems to have as much trouble as Rifkin in keeping his eye on the ostensible topic) has helped us to escape the vagaries of nature. For exampple, a famine in one place can be offset by movement of food from an area less hard-hit. This is one possible effect of globalization -- but to cite only this is to ignore the potential for globalization to create famine and poverty, by (for example) encouraging the easy movement of food out of areas with low purchasing power.

But in any event, the fact that people choose a certain way of life, and that it makes them better off, misses the point of the environmentalist critique. Had Bailey not dismissed the idea of "sustainability" as a subject for platitudes, he would perhaps have realized that the core of environmentalism is pointing out that what benefits us in the short-term is setting us up for problems down the road (and that what benefits one person ends up harming others).

Bailey claims that "nothing is more destructive of nature than poverty stricken subsistence farmers." This statement can perhaps be forgiven due to Rifkin's failure to mention climate change, but it bears pointing out that it is not "poverty stricken subsistence farmers" who are projected to double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And even on the question of habitat destruction, subsistence farmers vie for the title with industrialized logging and corporate plantations. Yet Bailey's solution is not to rectify the conditions that make subsistence farming a poverty-stricken lifestyle, but rather to hustle those farmers off to the big city and replace them with industrial plantations. He is here buying into one of the most potent environmentalist myths: the wilderness myth. He asserts that the only way to save nature is to keep people out of it. An intensive use of one fraction of the earth, he says, will allow us to leave the rest alone.

This "wall it off" solution is bad science, bad political economy, and unnecessary. It's bad science because it presumes that we're capable of creating a self-contained and carefully managed ecosystem, thus detaching the human habitat from the rest of the earth. Yet such a feat is clearly beyond us -- even industrial agriculture, whose efficiency Bailey extols, is only made possible by constant infusion of petrochemical fertilizers and poisons to prop up its dangerously impoverished ecology. And of course human habitat and wild nature share the same atmosphere.

Walling us off from nature is bad political economy, because it presumes that increasing efficiency will lead to using less. In reality, it would lead to using the same amount of resources, but getting more out of it, making us richer before we crash. Does Bailey -- who, remember, writes for a libertarian magazine -- really imagine that, absent major changes in our culture and economic structure, corporations and governments would simply allow 90% of the world's resources to go unused simply because the remaining 10% can provide a first-world-middle-class-in-2006 standard of living? Even the small amounts of protected land we already have are currently under sustained assault from those who would exploit their resources.

Luckily, walling off nature is also unnecessary, because we have another option -- the "reintegration" with nature that Rifkin advocates. Contrary to the earnest strawmen promoted by libertarians and corporatists, this does not mean a movement backwards to the middle ages (or completely away from urbanization). Rather, it means finding ways to use nature without destroying it (e.g. organic rather than industrial farming), and realigning our cultural and political-economic system to encourage such use. This is not to say that protected areas are not important, but rather to re-envision them as serving an integrated function in upholding the workings of the overall system, rather than as chunks of self-sufficient nature rescued from, and set away from, humanity.

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