Wasteful use of the earth’s resources is a leading cause of environmental disasters, and the wealthy industrialized countries are benefiting from the exploitation of developing countries.
In August 2019, the world turned to Brazil with horror: the Amazon rainforest so crucial to the earth’s climate system and essential for global biodiversity was ablaze. The clouds of smoke stretched all the way to Brazil’s financial centre São Paulo, where they darkened the sky. Scientists, politicians and celebrities all over the world felt impelled to respond in some fashion. But somehow the fact that the actions of the industrialised countries and the multinationals they support are the main driver behind the ecological and humanitarian disasters taking place in the Amazon and many other parts of the world was largely ignored. And yet the continued exploitation of raw materials thanks to restrictive trade agreements among the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Union (EU) is a reality in many former colonies.
Earth Overshoot Day Earlier Every Year
The Global Footprint organisation calculates when “Earth Overshoot Day”, the day when we have used up all the recourses the earth can regenerate in one year, occurs every year. And every year Global Footprint has also warned of a growing global ecological deficit, as after Earth Overshoot Day humans live beyond their means for the rest of the year. Our resources are finite, and the biocapacity of the earth is 1.7 global hectares per person per annum. On average, however, every human being consumes 3.3 global hectares per annum. The world's population is currently living as if it had 1.75 earths at its disposal. This has manifold consequences for the environment, such as climate change and the extinction of species. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day was 29 July, the earliest date since the first survey in 1961. Australia, the USA, Russia and Germany are the countries with the highest ecological footprints worldwide. If the entire earth's population were to achieve Germany’s standard of living, we would have to have a whopping three earths at our disposal.
The Battle for Raw Materials
According to the German Environment Agency, in 2018 Germany consumed around 1.3 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, minerals, metal ores and biomass used in areas like mechanical engineering, cars and electronic devices. These include metals such as iron, copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, platinum, tungsten, indium, gallium and rare earths. Consumption in Germany is 10 percent above the European average and an impressive 100 percent above the global average. Demand is growing as a similarly resource-intensive lifestyle spreads across the globe. The consequences are catastrophic: the United Nations (UN) estimates that around the world more than 40 percent of all conflicts in the last 60 years have been associated with the extraction and trade of raw materials. Additionally, while many countries of the Global South, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, are becoming increasingly dependent on the export of unprocessed raw materials, most of the value added remains in the countries of the North.
Climate Colonialism: A New Power Structure
These figures show how Germany – along with the other industrialised nations – is living at the ecological expense of other countries, an idea widely known as ‘climate colonialism’. “This is based on a development model that made the industrialized countries rich through exploiting less highly developed nations. The rich countries are outsourcing burdens to countries with smaller footprints,” molecular biologist and philosopher Christoph Rehmann-Sutter explains in his essay Stoppt den Klima-Kolonialismus
(Stop Climate Colonialism). Colonialism, he argues, is associated with an imperial structure of domination in which nations built settlements in remote areas to bring goods and products back home. This definition can also be applied to climate issues, Rehmann-Sutter adds, if we take the one-sided distribution of global economic power into account. “When I talk about climate colonialism, I do so with the proviso that this form of spatial and temporal relocation of productive areas makes it more difficult to recognize the imperial structures the countries involved employ to dominate the inhabitants of the other countries. There are, of course, still power structures between the rich industrialized countries and the territories formerly colonized by them, especially at the economic level.”
Living Beyond Others’ Means
As sociologist Stephan Lessnich says the same thing another way in his book Living Well at Others' Expense: The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity:
“We are not living beyond our means. We are living at the expense of others.” He also researches the impact of Western prosperity and has come to the same conclusion. There are many examples of how developing and emerging nations are providing the raw materials industrialised countries depend on for growth while simultaneously acting as their waste bins, from high-tech agriculture in Europe that depends on destructive soybean cultivation in Argentina and the deforestation of Thailand’s mangrove forests to raise cheap shrimp to the import of sand for the construction industry currently eroding Africa’s coastlines and the mounds of our plastic waste swirling in the North Pacific. Unchecked growth brings climate disasters, and ecological inequality promotes migration and flight.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/WILDLIFE/M. Edwards
Chainsaws in the rain forest
The fires in the Amazon are only one facet of the ongoing destruction of the rainforest in Brazil. For decades now, healthy and essential rainforests have been converted into soy and sugar cane plantations or pasture to produce meat for the European market. Virgin rainforest is being turned into valuable and marketable land. The multinational companies that operate on the ground and their customers are often from rich, industrialised countries.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/imageBROKER/ Herbert Berger
Fishing for profit
European fish consumption also has its downside for the Global South. In Senegal, for example, fish is a staple food, and around 600,000 people earn their living in the fisheries sector. But fishing agreements allow European Union (EU) fleets to fish in African waters because EU demand can no longer be met with fish hauled out of the seas around the EU. Since May 2014, the EU has been allowed to fish 14,000 tonnes of tuna per year off the coast of Senegal. This means many people in Senegal can no longer make a living from fishing and are often forced to leave their homeland.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
Lasting environmental destruction for oil
Fuel production is another example. Subsidised by the EU, multinational energy companies have been producing oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta for decades. Western business enterprises and local elites are the top beneficiaries. A large proportion of the oil is exported to the European Union, leaving behind the environmental pollution associated with oil production and the destruction of agricultural land that deprives locals of their livelihoods and leads to poverty and disease. Every year hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil seep out of leaking pipelines, and many oil companies do not comply with Nigerian laws and promote corrupt structures.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
Child labour for mobile phones
According to UN figures, around 168 million children work worldwide, many of them in Africa. UNICEF estimates that more than 40,000 children in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo are forced to mine coltan, cobalt and other precious metals. The DCR is a key exporter of these metals indispensable in the production of mobile phones. As the global demand for electronic devices increases, so does the demand for raw materials. Violent conflicts over resource control often erupt in production areas, and mining goes hand-in-hand with human rights violations, health hazards and the destruction of agricultural land.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Gioia Forster
Tsunami of electronic waste
While consumption is increasing, the lifespan of electronic products is also decreasing. In 2018, 48.5 million tons of electronic and electrical waste, also known as e-waste, was generated worldwide. In the EU, the figure is just under 10 million tonnes per year. Only 20 percent is recycled, and around 15 percent is exported to non-European countries. The United Nations is therefore warning of a "tsunami of e-waste". The world's most notorious e-waste dump is Agbogbloshie near the Ghanaian capital Accra. Around 60,000 people live here, recycling what consumers have thrown away. To recover the valuable metal parts, they burn plastic or rubber coatings, releasing toxic vapours that cause serious health problems.