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Sustainable Development:  A Neoliberal Chimera

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

09 March 2021

In the communities where the exploitation of oil and mines is projected or some large scale agribusiness project, two magic words are usually invoked in order to try and convince or pacify the communities: Sustainable Development.  This phrase is waved about as much by companies, NGOs and supposedly left wing academics.  It is expressed but not explained and put forward like a divine truth i.e. it is revealed but not questioned nor discussed.

Here we aim to question it as the future and well being of many regions of Colombia are at stake.  Firstly, the phrase Sustainable Development is counter-posed to simple development, its proponents want to emphasise that there is a difference between mere development and that which is sustainable.  On this, it should be pointed out that development has always been viewed in exclusively economic terms, placing no importance on the obvious destructive environmental results, displacement, unemployment, impoverishment of the population: all of this under the guise of GDP growth.  However, even the regimes' economists have seen that to measure development just in terms of GDP was a mistake.  GDP measures the value of what was produced, not the external costs of the production process, such as pollution, nor does it measure the workers' income, the sharing out of the income, nor the usefulness or benefits of what is produced.

In the 1980s, we began to hear some voices in environmental movements, left wing organisations and some, though not that many, academics questioning the concept of development used in the capitalist world (and also in the Eastern European countries.  The concept of Sustainable Development emerges, but not as a proposal from below, although it covered the concerns of various sectors, but rather as a sophism that answered the usual needs of companies and governments.  That being so, this proposal is not a socialist one, not even an alternative proposal in the broad sense.

One of the first times this concept was widely seen in the press and society was in the 1992 Río Declaration.  Although the document published following the conference is known as Agenda 21 and deals with various environmental problems, it is not an environmentalist document, but rather a document that aims to set down new rules for the capitalist exploitation of the planet.  The document contains various vague recommendations about what to do and the importance of saving our ecosystems, but it does so within a framework of how to protect the environment without affecting the profits of the companies or of how to make environmentalism profitable.  Also the document was not binding, it was rather a guide for the future.  This document argues for the liberalisation of international trade and promotes economies based on the comparative advantage of each country.

The liberalisation of trade has already been established, after years of negotiations countries such as Colombia have signed free trade agreements with the USA, Europe and others.  These treaties accelerated economic processes and made it so that the rules of comparative advantage were felt.  But, what is comparative advantage? It is basically the idea put forward that some countries have advantages in certain sectors of the world economy due to their already existing economic power, or due to the natural geological or climatic conditions or a specialisation already established through processes of colonisation and imperialist domination.

It is paradoxical that Colombia's comparative advantage is precisely that it is ideal for highly contaminating and destructive economic activities.  A clear example of this are the hydrocarbons, such as coal, gas and oil.  Colombia has large deposits of coal near the surface, which makes them easy to exploit and the seams are long and continuous running for kilometres.  Its coal has low levels of sulphur and other impurities, which makes it attractive on the international market, as it contaminates less and has a higher yield compared to coal from India or China, two of the largest global consumers of the mineral.  It was also attractive to Europe and to date the European Union continues to be the largest importer of Colombian coal.  The only reference the document makes to coal is paragraph 6.4.1 where it asks for educational campaigns to reduce the health impact of domestic coal use, as if that were the principal problem or even the main use of coal, leaving aside any consideration of industrial use.  Of course, over time, there would be other initiatives regarding global consumption of coal, but today almost 30 years after the Río Summit, coal as a source of energy is as strong today as ever.  According to the World Coal Association, it is projected that by 2040 22% of all electricity in the world will be generated by coal, compared to the current level of 37%, although in some regions such as south east Asia coal will contribute 39%.  But since the the Río Declaration world consumption of coal has increased.  Domestic use has fallen from 131,258 Ktoe(1) in 1992 to 74,877 in 2018 and industrial use increased from 456,562 Ktoe to 796,792 in 2018, reaching a high point in 2011 with 919,808 Ktoe.(2)

Thus, in the context of sustainable development and comparative advantage there is no immediate contradiction with the exploitation and consumption of coal in the short to medium term.  Also, Colombia has a comparative advantage in relation to the production of certain tropical crops such as African palm, amongst others.  All monocultures are problematic in and of themselves.  This follows from the fact that large extensions of crops cause a loss of biodiversity on the one hand and on the other, an increase in the intensive use of chemicals and all that entails for the contamination of water and soil.  In the countryside, the Colombia state needs no encouragement to put the UN concept of comparative advantage into practice.  Historically the economy of the country partly depended on the exporting of raw materials and agricultural products such as coffee.  Nothing has changed.  In 2016, there were 5,458,762 hectares planted, but 66% of the land was under just six crops, with coffee accounting for 17% of the total and African palm 12%(3) at that time, although it is common knowledge that this last monoculture continued to expand throughout the country.  The departments of Santander and Norte de Santander, where the oil industry was born through the Mares Concession and the Barco Concession respectively and are now in the sights of fracking operations, are also dominated by a handful of crops.  Just four crops occupy 60% of the cultivated land in Santander (palm, cocoa, coffee and sugar cane) (4) and 55% of the land cultivated in Norte de Santander is under just three crops (rice, palm and coffee).(5)  The idea of Sustainable Development as preached by the UN and the NGOs is not real, at no stage does it break with the main problem: the environment and human life have a price, saving the planet is only done if it is profitable and the measures taken do not affect the profits of large companies.  The main aim of capitalism is the accumulation of capital, everything else is secondary.

However, the phrase Sustainable Development is heard everywhere, from the mouths of company spokespersons, governments and also in the academic world.  Unfortunately, it has also penetrated the thinking of social movements including peasant and environmental organisations.  There is what is euphemistically called the green economy.  But a capitalist economy cannot be truly green, just less destructive and all of us, without exceptions, even cooperatives function within a capitalist economy with the market deciding their activities, regardless of whether they soften the worst excesses of a capitalist company inside the cooperative.

The green economy, or more precisely green capitalism is the enemy of the peasantry.  In the name of protecting nature they order the expulsion of peasants from natural parks, ignoring that many of them have lived there before they were declared natural parks.  The peasant is banned from chopping down a tree for wood to use in building his house, but licences are awarded to large companies to exploit timber reserves, even though they add words like sustainable, necessary, renewable exploitation etc. to the description of the activity to justify it but not to change it.  They also force the peasant to plant the crops they want and frequently as monocultures.  This can be seen in the production statistics for the country.  African palm is praised as one of the green economy crops, as its oil is used for so called biofuels, that have little or nothing that is agro-ecological, as the monoculture is a contaminant in and of itself and the end product, despite the propaganda is not sustainable in environmental terms and its other uses include chemicals and plastics etc.

When it comes to dealing with environmental issues, the environmentalists and defenders of Sustainable Development usually ignore or completely discount Marxism, partly because the Eastern European countries were as destructive and contaminating of the environment on the one hand and on the other hand the myths that abound about Marxism that are an article of faith for many that the only issue is the economy, that we have to expand the productive forces at all costs, amongst other foolish ideas.  The analyst John Bellamy Foster has spent many years rescuing Marx and Engel's contributions to the understanding of ecological questions, often against the prevailing wind of the left itself, sections of which seek explications outside of Marxism in pre-capitalist movements or movements that do not question the market economy, in the slightest, nor do they understand how placing a price on nature and production can only lead to its destruction.

On this point, Bellamy Foster explains that:

To link Marxism and ecological transition may seem at first like trying to bridge two entirely different movements and discourses, each with its own history and logic: one having mainly to do with class relations, and the other, the relation between humans and the environment.  Historically, however, socialism has influenced the development of ecological thought and practice, while ecology has informed socialist thought and practice.  Since the nineteenth century, the relationship between the two has been complex, interdependent, and dialectical.(6)
There are those who wish to ignore this contribution and analysis, ignoring their own history as if everything was invented in the XXI Century, paying no heed to classics such as the Dialectics of Nature.  Marxists weren't the only ones though.  Bellamy gives the example of the German chemist and his commentaries on the nascent British agroindustry in the XIX Century.  "Liebig accused the British of developing a robbery culture, systematically leaching the soil of nutrients and thereby requiring that bones be imported from the Napoleonic battlefields and catacombs of Europe (and guano from Peru) to replenish English fields."(7)  Our concerns are not new and whilst modern economists and environmentalists believe they discovered something with the concept of externalities of production we should point out that neither is this new.  According to Bellamy:
He [Marx] insisted that nature and labor together constituted the dual sources of all wealth.  By incorporating only labor (or human services) into economic value calculations, capitalism ensured that the ecological and social costs of production would be excluded from the bottom line.  Indeed, classical liberal political economy, Marx argued, treated the natural conditions of production (raw materials, energy, the fertility of the soil, etc.) as “free gifts of nature” to capital.(8)
The oil companies continue to view oil and gas as gifts from nature and those who argue for the sustainable development of the oil industry, exclude from their calculations the social costs such as displacement, mass migratory flows, changes in the modes of production and changes in the communities in terms of the social relations between people resulting from the arrival of the oil industry.  They also exclude the environmental impacts, as both they and the oil companies promise to try and avoid, reduce or mitigate risks as it is impossible to avoid them as they are an intrinsic part of the industry itself.  When they talk of Sustainable Development in order to have oil or coal those who really end up using this oil or coal never pay the costs ever.  If they were to pay them the cost would be so high that no one would use a private car and a plastic bag would cost more than one made from cloth and coal would not be profitable either.

For example, according to a Harvard study in 2005, 50% of electricity in the USA came from coal compared to 81% of the CO2 emissions.  By 2030 they calculated it would be 53% and 85% respectively, without including the emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases from the mines or from its transport amongst other things.(9)  Globally coal accounted for 25% of world energy and 41% of CO2 that same year .(10)  These emissions and that of other substances such as heavy metals and other impacts have health costs for the people who live near the mines, the railways on which they are transported or the energy plants.  The Harvard study looked at various impacts and calculated the costs to be $523.3 billion per year.(11)  These costs tripled the price of energy generated by coal i.e. that really the health system, the sick and the communities subsidised the real cost of coal.  Their calculations exclude various impacts such as the impact of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in ecosystems.

In no sense can the exploitation of hydrocarbons be considered sustainable.  The process itself, the patterns of consumption, the pollution, how it leaves land unsuitable for other uses.  And if it is like this with conventional wells, with fracking it is worse still.

Capitalism is incapable of controlling even its own economic circuits and cycles and the defenders of the system usually reject any attempt at placing limits on it.  Thus capitalist sustainable development cannot control "green" economic cycles and less still the cycles of an ecosystem.

Of course there are agro-ecological practices that the peasants can adopt with their crops to cause less harm and also to set down the basis for practices different to agribusiness, but no peasant, no matter how green can defeat this system.  It is a system, with an economic basis and that is what has to be changed.  Meanwhile there are things that can be done, but these do not represent sustainable development.  Also in the case of extractivist industries there are a series of measures that can be taken to mitigate harm, reduce the impact on health etc.  But none of this is sustainable development, it just a mere meanwhile.  Oil exploitation is not sustainable development, not even development, as it leaves little or nothing behind for the communities.


(1) Kilotonnes of oil equivalent.

(2) See

(3) MADR (2016) Encuesta Estadística del Sector Agropecuario 2016, Bogotá: MADR. p.10

(4) Ibíd., p.261

(5) Ibíd., 247

(6) Bellamy Foster, J. (2015) Marxism and Ecology:  Common Fonts of a Great Transition p. 1

(7) Ibíd., p.2

(8) Ibíd., p.6

(9) Epstein, P.R et al. (2011)  Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal  en Ecological Economics Reviews.  Robert Costanza, Karin Limburg & Ida Kubiszewski, Eds. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1219: 73–98. p. 74

(10) Ibíd., p. 76

(11) Ibíd., p. 93

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