In an interview with Le Monde (April 1999), environmentalist Anil Agarwal, who passed away on January 2, talks about the three big challenges for humanity in the 21st century
What are the major environmental risks for humanity in the 21st century?
I see three very big challenges. The first is the problem of poverty and of that part of poverty which is deeply related to environment. I see a lot of economic globalisation in the next century, the result of which will be enormous economic growth, and enormous economic wealth for the world. But this wealth is going to bypass at least a billion people -- very poor people who do not have the skills to integrate with the world market. If we want a world in which there is greater equity, we have to make sure that these billion people are able to meet their basic needs. It is here that the environment becomes very important.
A large part of these billion people are living in villages. And, therefore, their local economy, which is built on the good use of the land -- their agriculture, their cattle -- is dependent on the productivity of the land. If this productivity collapses, they are in deep trouble. Therefore, the big challenge we have to address ourselves to is land degradation.
Another problem in the next century which is really frightening is the problem of pollution. The speed with which pollution grows, along with economic growth, is phenomenal. Most environmentalists have forgotten that after the Second World War economic boom, within 15 years the entire Western world was heavily polluted. It is only in the 1960s that environmental concern began to grow, and Western countries started to act. A lot of efforts were made, and only now we can say that, to some extent, pollution is within control.
But what is happening in the developing countries? In the last 15 years, economic growth rates of the developing world as a whole have been far higher than those in the industrialised countries. And this will continue for a long time. Developing countries will find themselves in the same kind of scenario that the Western countries were in in the late-1950s and the 1960s. Already it is beginning to happen. Almost every Asian city today is choking for breath. The same is the state of water pollution: Almost every small river of Asia is like a sewer. Per capita income is still very low. So even at US $400-500 per capita income, India is already heavily polluted. And we still have a long way to go to reach US $ 8000-10,000 per capita income. This is going to create an enormous amount of pollution.
The trigger to change all this lies in the civil society. We need to make people more and more conscious of the problem of pollution, of the speed with which it will grow, and more and more be able to force the political system to respond to it. If the civil society is not organised, instead of action happening in ten years, it will happen in 40 years. The faster we start to organise civil society, the faster we will start to deal with it.
There is a role in this for industrialised countries. As the economies of the developing countries are weak, financial support for civil society is weak from the domestic base. And, therefore, one needs very clear thinking in Western countries, that if they do want to deal with the environmental problems of the developing world, they will have to deal not only with governments but also work with civil society.
In one recent article, you write: "The 21st century could be like the 15th century". Could you explain?
This has to do with the experience of India. In a large sense, it is also relevant for large parts of the developing world. The institutions of governance that we have created in the last 100-150 years in the developing world are essentially models that we have adopted from colonialism. India, before the British came in, was one of the richest countries in the world, which is why the French, the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch, all came to us. Also, we were the most literate nation, almost 90 per cent literate, unlike today. All of that collapsed. We can say the collapse was because of colonialism but now colonialism is 50 years old. Why didn't we straighten ourselves up quickly?
I've come to the conclusion that it has to do with the fact that the institutions of governance which we are running today are western institutions. By this I mean the State. Two hundred years ago, India was ruled by kings, who were highly dishonest and highly corrupt. They did very little for the country. Yet India was a rich nation, literate and organised.
We have documented the water management traditions of India. There were hundreds of thousands of tanks all over India, on which the villagers and townspeople survived. The kings never made them, and, that's fascinating, they were all made by the people. So how did it happen? Essentially, a very decentralised form of government was working, a highly democratic form of government, in which the community had much of the control on natural resources, and it did things for itself, much more carefully than we do now. They made channels to bring water to the tank and they would make sure that nobody could pollute the channel or the watershed. Today, nobody cares. It's all the responsibility of the State. And the State has proved to be extremely incompetent in the developing world in dealing with these problems. It is extremely centralised and extremely corrupt. If this is the case for India, for China, you can imagine what will be the situation in Africa, in the Middle and Central American countries. So the 21st century is going to see one of the biggest changes -- not an environmental issue -- in the governance system, which will have major implications for the environment. In that sense, the 21st century of India will be going back to the 15th century. This is the only way to solve the problem.
Among the risks for the future, you didn't mention climate.
I come to the third major challenge for the next century, which is the question of ecological globalisation. Economic globalisation is going to create an enormous amount of wealth, and we are already beginning to realise that what you do in one country will have an environmental impact in another country. And therefore you cannot maintain the earth in harmony by only managing your own country. You have to manage the whole earth. That is what I call ecological globalisation.
It is already beginning to happen; the last three decades of our century have seen an enormous number of environmental treaties. Environment diplomacy is becoming as important as commercial diplomacy or nuclear diplomacy. And this will grow even more rapidly in the years to come.
Clearly, there will be a big challenge here. We have countries with different levels of development: how do we bring everybody to work together in a way which protects the interests of every country? How do we develop a global environmental system, which is fair and just?
We do not want to see a repeat of what happened in Europe in the past, when its economy was in transition, from a feudal economy to a market economy, when the commons got enclosed for the interests of the rich, and the poor lost out. Essentially today, we are doing the same thing, we are enclosing the global commons. Oceans and the atmosphere are the global commons. We're polluting the oceans beyond repair, we're polluting the atmosphere beyond repair, we're polluting the ozone layer beyond repair. So we must all together do something about it and we are enclosing the commons. But will we enclose in a way that will drive the poor out or will we do it in a way that we all live equitably in the global village?
Now you can build this global governance on two principles. One is the principle of good governance, which is built on equity, justice and democracy. Or we can build it on business transactions, which has nothing to do with good governance. What is happening now in the environmental treaties has more to do with business transactions than with global governance.
Developing countries form one group, industrialised countries form another group, and they make business transactions. It will not be easy to substitute that with good governance, with justice, equality, and democracy. Why? Because we do not know how to get the most powerful nation on earth to submit to global democracy. I'll give you an example.
All the compliance clauses in the environmental treaties are linked to trade sanctions. But trade sanctions are hardly an instrument that can be used by the poor against the rich. They can only be used by the rich against the poor. If Bangladesh had trade sanctions against the United States, you would laugh. But if United States has trade sanctions against Bangladesh, it means something. Therefore, the only way out is if the United States were to itself willingly say, I'm the richest nation, but I consider myself a part of the world community, and therefore I'm ready to submit myself to any action taken by Bangladesh. Like, for example, if Bangladesh goes to an international court, and if the court decides against USA, it will choose to accept the verdict. Will that happen? That's going to be one of the biggest challenges.
Do you mean that the United States is the main obstacle on the road to ecological globalisation?
Yes. It will have the most determining role, for the very simple reason, it is the most powerful nation on earth. If the Americans act only in their own interests, then there cannot be ecological globalisation which is fair and just for all. But if the American leadership sees itself leading not just American interests, but the interests of the whole world, then it will happen. Because when the Americans begin to respect global rules, like any other country in the world, then all small countries such as the Maldives or Bangladesh will also gladly accept them.
What will be the role of India and China in the process of ecological globalisation?
Let us take an example. If industrialised countries want to reduce their emissions, but if China and India don't want to reduce their emissions, you cannot prevent climate change. So India and China will play a very important role. But they will also be playing an important role from the perspective of the poor people. Because India and China also have the maximum number of poor people in the world. They still are among the poorest nations on earth. They will have to play an important role in fighting for social justice. But their leadership may also be very afraid of globalisation, and therefore create obstacles in the process. So the question is: Will the leadership of India and China be proactive and positive, or will it be reactive and negative?
It will depend a lot of the activity of the local civil society. On the other hand, the Western nations will have to learn to appreciate the role of India and China when they're proactive and positive, because if they're proactive and positive their biggest stress will be on fairness and social justice, and Western countries should not see that as obstructionism.