Japan announced today that it’s going to release one million tonnes of contaminated water from the old Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea – which will no doubt have negative consequences for fishing around Japan and maybe in neighbouring countries.
It was 10 years ago when an earth quake ruined the nuclear plant, putting it out of action, and 10 years on the Japanese government is still dealing with its legacy – a toxic radioactive legacy that is going to linger for many years into the future.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is a great example of how large scale modernist projects can go very wrong and cause enormous high level environmental damage. When we way up the huge costs of nuclear disasters such as this, it makes smaller scale renewable energy systems look much more appealing.
It’s also a reminder not to trust BIG tech or governments – the two together are required to build and back huge high tech projects like nuclear power – and when they go wrong, it’s the government that has to deal with the problems, and in this case we can see that they don’t have any decent answers – other than holding onto the waste and then finally releasing it.
Western models of development are built around high levels of production and consumption to increase economic growth, and all other things being equal, the more we produce and consume, the more pollution and waste we produce.
According to the World Health Organisation, Air Pollution kills 7 million people a year, most of whom live in developing countries.
This recent report outlines the 15 most polluted cities in the world, 10 of which are in India, which reflects the extent to which India’s recent development has been dependent on the largely unregulated use of fossil fuels (coal and oil) in recent decades.
There are some regions of earth where pollution is particularly intense, and these tend to be areas of resource extraction or industrial manufacture in countries with lax environmental legislation.
One well-known historical example of this is Shell’s oil extraction operations in the Niger Delta – where huge amounts of oil have leaked into local water ways, destroying local economies and ‘gas flaring’ is used to burn off excess gas generated during the oil extracting process. You can explore this more in this video: Poison Fire.
There are also certain regions of China which are very polluted, and this is something Anna Lora-Wainwright (2018) explored in her recent ethnographic study – Resigned Activism – Living with Pollution in Rural China.
NB – this isn’t ‘ordinary pollution’ she’s looking at – she studied three villages in total, all of which are coping with the effects of large-scale industrial pollution because of the heavy manufacturing or waste disposal that occurs in those areas. All of these villages have well over the national average of cancer deaths reported, and it’s obvious the pollution is the problem
One village was dealing with phosphorus pollution, another Zinc and Lead pollution and the third the pollution from electronic waste. The later village has global notoriety – Guiyu is well known as the world’s largest e waste site.
Lora-Wainwright focused on how people responded when they knew they were being subjected to a significant cancer risk from pollution – how they organised and protested, but also how they just coped on a day to day basis -living with things such as polluted water that’s going to give you cancer if you drink it.
She also focused on how this all ties in with the wider Chinese government’s industrialization agenda and the fact that the government would rather keep reports about such pollution quiet.
It is not just industrial production processes that cause environmental problems, it’s also people’s increasing levels of consumption and the amount of domestic waste generated….
One country which faces a real challenge with pollution from domestic waste is Indonesia, a densely populated country where residents have developed the habit of throwing their rubbish in the river, resulting in one of Indonesia’s river’s: The Citarum being dubbed ‘the dirtiest river in the world’, explored in this 2020 DW Documentary.
Discussion Question: do you think industrial capitalist models of development can ever be sustainable?
Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, at least according to Stacey Dooley’s Google investigation during her latest BBC documentary: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets.
The program is only available on iPlayer for another couple of weeks, but what I’m going to do here is link into the people and issues covered in this excellent documentary.
Issues brought up in the documentary…
Fashion is a surprisingly polluting industry – the reason it comes in at number two is because of all of the pesticides, fertilizer, and not to mention the sheer volume of water it takes to make many of our most basic threads, cotton being the biggest problem, given its popularity. Check out Lucy Siegle’s writings for more info.
Stacey visits Kazakhstan to witness one of the biggest human made environmental disasters in history. The country used to be home to the Aral Sea – which used to span 68K square kilometers. HOWEVER, now most of it has dried up because of dams being put in place to supply water to massive cotton plantations in neighboring countries. The region is now a desert plagued by sand storms.
It takes a staggering amount of water to produce cotton… 15 000 liters to grow the cotton in one pair of jeans, for example.
There’s the obligatory trip to Indonesia… where we see clothes producing factories churning out chemical polluted water into local rivers, and local slum dwellers washing their clothes in said water with strange skin rashes. This article by Al Jazeera covers the same ground.
Not one single Chain store (e.g Primark etc.) accepted an invitation to appear on the show, and even the Department for the Environment gave a ‘standard reply’ not focused on fashion, but rather on their plastic bag policy, strongly suggesting all of the Corporations involved in fashion and the UK government couldn’t give a toss about the environment.
Stacey did interview a few fashion vloggers, thinking that these ‘influencers’ could be a way to get consumers to switch to less polluting threads. They seemed extremely ignorant of the high environmental costs of ‘fashion as usual’, but willing to push the moral imperative to shop for more environmentally friendly brands. HOWEVER, only one of the four interviewed actually took this up on her vlog.
Relevance to A-level Sociology…
mainly relevant to Global Development the material in this documentary is yet more supporting evidence for TNCs not promoting development, and both the Aral Sea disappearance and the river polluting factors in Indonesia are good examples of green crime.
A test match between India and Sri Lanka had to be repeatedly halted on Sunday because of the smog enveloping Delhi.
The Sri-Lankan team took the field after the lunch break wearing face masks, and play was halted for consultation with doctors. It then resumed, but was stopped twice more when two Sri Lankan bowlers left the field with breathing difficult and nausea; one of them was said to have vomited in the changing room. (further details are in this article in the Hindustan Times)*
This little story got me to digging around for evidence of the extent of pollution in Delhi – and it seems that it’s pretty bad – according to this BBC News Article pollution levels in early November 2017 reached 30 times the World Health Organisation’s acceptable limits, and the Indian Medical Association declared a state of medical emergency…
To my mind this is a great example of the relationship between development and environmental damage, which can be especially bad when development happens rapidly (or should I say ‘development’?) and there is a lack of regulation. Possibly yet another problems with neoliberal strategies of development?
*NB – The India cricket boss, CK Khanna, accused to Sri Lankans of making a ‘big fuss’, I guess it all depends on what level of pollution you regard as ‘normal’!
The case study of Nauru illustrates the potential catastrophic consequences of pursuing economic growth without considering the ecological consequences. It may only be one island but Klein argues that the logic which hollowed out Nauru is the same logic which has driven the global economy for the last 400 years.
Few places on earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru. Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in.
For decades, the tiny South Pacific Island of Nauru, home to only 10 000 people, seemed to be an example of a developing country which was doing everything right.
During the 1970s and 80s, the island was periodically featured in press reports, as a place of almost obscene riches, much as Dubai is invoked today, and in the mid-80s Nauru was reported as having the highest GDP capita in the world.
All of this was due to the fact that Nauru was made up almost pure phosphate, a valuable fertiliser, which the Nauruans had been shipping to mainly Australia since they gained their independence in 1968.
Extraction had been going on long before, since 1900, carried out by a series of colonial rulers, who had a simple plan for Nauru once all the phosphate had been extracted – simply ship the islanders to another island. In other words, Nauru was developed in order to disappear – an acceptable (and largely invisible) sacrifice to make for the advancement of industrial agriculture.
When the Nauruans themselves took control of their country in 1968, they had hopes of reversing the hollowing out of their island. They put large chunks of their mining revenue into a trust fund, with the intention of winding down the mining operation and rehabilitating their island’s ecology. However, this long term plan failed as Nauru’s government received catastrophically bad investment advice and the countries mining wealth was squandered.
As a result, rather than being wound-down throughout the 70s and 80s the mining continued unabated and Nauruans benefited from the royalties which rolled in – one consequence was a radical change in diet as islanders came to eat large amounts of processed food (as one resident recalls – ‘during the golden era we didn’t cook, we at in restaurants) which resulted in Nauru becoming the fattest place on earth (today it has the highest levels of obesity and the highest levels of diabetes in the world). Another consequence of high levels of cash was high levels of corruption amongst public officials.
Another consequence was, of course, the hollowing out of the island – in the 1960s Nauru could still have passed as a pleasant tropical island, but the 1990s it was a hollow shell with a small strip around the edge where people lived.
Now the island faces a double bankruptcy – with 90% of the island depleted from mining it faces ecological bankruptcy and with a debt of at least $800 million it faces financial bankruptcy as well.
But this is not the end of Nauru’s problems – it now also faces rising sea levels and inland water shortages because of climate change.
This isn’t the end of the misery of Nauru – because in the past decade the island has become a dumping ground of another sort – In an effort to raise much needed revenue it has agreed to house an offshore detention centre for the government of Australia, in what has become known as ‘the Pacific Solution’. Australian navy and customs ships intercept boats of migrants, most from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, and immediately fly them to Nauru where they languish in a detention centre, unsure of their status, sometimes up to five years.
Amnesty International has called the camp ‘cruel’ and ‘degrading’ and one journalist has likened it to a death factory because conditions are so bad that people have been driven to attempt suicide.
Nauru is only an extreme case – there are plenty of other examples which are similar, if not as bad…
Unfortunately for us, the logic which has led to such devastation and cruelty on Nauru is the same logic which has underpinned the last 400 years of ‘development’. This logic is the logic of ‘extractivism’ – a non-reciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking. The opposite is stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continues.
Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones – places that, to the extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress.
This extractivist thinking, unfortunately, lies behind not only the whole history of modernity and colonialism, and obviously neoliberalism, but also behind Socialism, including most of the recent leftist movements in Latin America, because despite their advances in bringing greater equality, national income is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Even the mainstream in the Green Movement are failing to challenge the extractivist model because they have come under the thrall of large-scale, big tech solutions to climate-change, rather than accepting as necessity that the earth requires us to consume less.
Pretty much the only ray of hope for a sustainable future according to Klein lies in the Scandinavian social-democratic models, which are going to take a globalised grass-roots movement to realise on an international level.
Sources used to write this post:
Summarised from ‘Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ (2014)
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