Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Mark Everard - Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air

Mark Everard's new book covers a neglected topic in environmentalism. Given the importance of air to us personally, as well as wider eco-systems, this is a strange omission. Everard argues that
Despite its vast bulk, the fluidity, transboundary nature and lack of ownership of the airspace renders it not only the world's greatest 'common; but also the most commonly overlooked natural resource. An integrated approach to the recognition and wise use of this ecosystem is therefore long overdue, and needs to be instituted on a consistent international basis.
In Breathing Space, Everard sets out to do just this. He begins with a useful discussion of air itself. How scientists understand it, as well as its origins; its role in the world's eco-systems and how humans use air. Everard's approach is one that you might describe as dialectical - understanding the components of a system in terms of their wider impact upon each other. While he doesn't mention their work in his bibliography, Everard's approach has similarities to that of the scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. In particular this is noticeable when Everard discusses the way that living organisms both depend upon, and shape their environment, a topic that Levins and Lewontin devote much space to in their book The Dialectical Biologist. Everard notes that the very existence of the atmosphere as we know it today, capable of supporting life and in turn shaping wider eco-systems, is only possible because of the historic role of early life-forms in transforming the poisonous smog that blanketed Earth millions of years ago.

We continue to alter the atmosphere, most notably through the emission of fossil fuels. Everhard writes
Deposits of fossil carbon, metals, phosphorus and other substances now mined to support modern lifestyles are a product of progressive sequestration from the atmosphere and the wider biosphere over geological timescales. To release these mined substances back into the biosphere is therefore inherently dangerous, as accumulating concentrations in the air reflect earlier, more contaminated biospheric history.
Following this approach the author looks at the way that our air is being damaged, altered and polluted. Tragically there are a myriad of ways that this is happening and Everard devotes time to summarizing these. However the limitations of the book begin to become apparent when Everard discusses the way that contemporary society misuses nature and tries to find solutions.

Everard rightly notes that under capitalism nature is externalised from the economy. He approvingly quotes Nicholas Stern's words that climate change is the "greatest market failure". In other words it hasn't yet been adequately integrated into economic models. It is the sort of approach that has led to market mechanisms such as carbon trading being offered as the solution to global warming. The problem is that this approach is inherently flawed, and Everard falls into the trap of arguing, like Stern, that more such mechanisms are what is needed. He argues that "There is also a role for new economic tools, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) that integrate formerly overlooked ecosystem services into the economy."

In New Zealand, Everard notes that the Maori have "cultural values" in their approach to land use and ownership, suggesting that the example of Ngati Porou Whanui Forests Ltd, a company which "has been established as a tribal cooperative bringing together Maori landowners and Maori agencies to benefit from market opportunities for ecosystems services" is a positive example of what can be achieved.

In this model, "Some forest areas may also be eligible for funding for carbon sequestration services" Everard notes happily. But this approach is precisely the opposite of what is needed. The further commodification of nature in this way can only serve to put nature further into the hands of those who want to make money. This is most notable when Everard discusses REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). Everard explains that
REDD+ includes a wide range of mechanisms... These in turn could open up market mechanisms through which payments made by industrialised nations for emission offsets would reward developing countries for protecting ecosystems that are of value for many purposes
What Everard doesn't mention is that REDD+ has been roundly condemned by environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth International describe REDD as "a risky and false solution to climate change, both in theory and in practice". While the author does note that "There remain some concerns about 'putting a price tag on nature'" he argues that the Ecosystem Approach that he advocates contains enough internal safeguards to ensure that PES schemes and the like are not abused and "provide benefits to different stakeholder groups".

I am skeptical. The Ecosystem Approach certainly has its benefits over the unfettered way that capitalism degrades nature. It attempts to look at different aspects of nature as part of a wider continuum. Something that can only bring benefits. Approach questions of pollution in this way has enormous benefits. For instance, Everard points out that an approach to reducing pollution from vehicles in urban areas by replacing them with electric vehicles, might well ignore the impact on the environment of manufacturing those vehicles, or poisoning other eco-systems with the chemicals from their batteries. Instead Everard urges us to consider how our cities are designed, how we travel to and from work, and where we work in relation to living and so on. Such an approach, which challenges the inherent anti-environmental aspects to capitalist society can only be supported.

Unfortunately, trying to solve these problems by playing the system at its own game will not bring the sustainable society we need. The vested interests of the corporations and the governments that are in thrall to their wealth need to be challenged. We need a vision of a different society, where nature is integrated into the economy, but in a way that breaks from a world driven by the desire to make profit. This is not to say that changes cannot be made in the here and now. Though all the evidence is that the action needed from governments is not further markets, but investment in public transport, insulation schemes and renewable energy. Such changes, as outlined in the UK trade union One Million Climate Jobs report, can bring both real change and act as a incentive to further challenge capitalism.

Recently Naomi Klein has brilliantly outlined why Capitalism is a barrier to sustainability. Mark Everard's book contains some useful information on air as an important ecosystem and a better approach to questions of environmentalism. But his solutions are ones that cannot succeed in the face of a economic system that starts from the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate
Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
Carbon Trade Watch - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy

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