Two commonly held views about Nature lead to a systematic overexploitation. The economic view conceives of the natural environment as a warehouse of resources available for human exploitation and sees Nature’s services as being provided by mechanistic ecological processes. The economic perspective fails to recognize the sharp distinctions between ecological and economic processes by positing that issues of environmental sustainability can be successfully addressed by “economizing ecology and ecologizing the economy.”1 This mixing and matching obfuscates the driving force of today’s environmental crisis.
Both ecology (which represents Nature) and economy (which represents humanity) have the same Greek root: oikos, “house.” Ecology is the knowledge or understanding of the house. Economy is the management of the house. And, it’s the same house, a house we humans have divided at our peril. At issue here is “whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment.”2
Economic activities that destroy habitats and impair the free services performed by ecosystems will create costs to humanity over the long term that will undoubtedly exceed in great measure the perceived short-term economic profits. Yet, because most of these services, and the benefits they provide, are not traded in economic markets, they carry no visible price tags to alert society to their relative value, changes in their supply, or deterioration of the underlying ecological systems that generate them.
These ecological costs are usually hidden from traditional economic accounting but are nevertheless real and are borne by society at large. Tragically, a short-term economic focus in current decisions concerning Nature’s ecological services often sets in motion great costs that are bequeathed by myopic adults not only to their own children but also to all the children of the future.
Unfortunately, history teaches that humanity finds the real value of something taken for granted only when that something is lost—thus, in hindsight. The upshot is that social-environmental sustainability demands that we frame all economic decisions in generational time scales because what may appear to be a good short-term economic decision (the benefits of which we reap) can simultaneously be a bad long-term ecological decision and so a bad long-term economic decision, the cost of which future generations much bear.
To wit, economic projects the world over share many common characteristics that lead to severe impacts on the region’s natural ecosystems. Top-down political decisions ensure that desired economic projects are inevitable before any environmental studies can be made—despite negative tradeoffs that are already known. In addition, government officials frequently renege on commitments to protect natural habitats and tribal areas, where they still exist. Thus, environmental measures are often merely symbolic and serve to tranquilize public concern during a project’s period of vulnerability prior to its becoming a politically irreversible fait accompli.
The larger and more immediate the prospects for material gain, the greater the political power used to ensure and expedite exploitation because not to exploit is perceived as losing an opportunity for monetary gain to someone else. And it’s this notion of loss that people fight so hard to avoid—including targeted murder of the social-environmental opposition.
The eulogies called Chut Wutty one of the few remaining activists in Cambodia brave enough to fight massive illegal deforestation by the powerful. The environmental watchdog was shot by a military policeman in April as he probed logging operations in one of the country’s last great forests.
Nisio Gomes was the chief of a Brazilian tribe struggling to protect its land from ranchers. Masked men gunned him down in November; his body, quickly dragged into a pickup, has not been seen since.
. . .
The dead last year  included Rev. Fausto Tentorio, an Italian Catholic priest who fought against mining companies to protect the ancestral lands of the Manobo tribe in the southern Philippines. Affectionately known as “Father Pops,” he was buried in a coffin made from a favorite mahogany tree he had planted.
In Thailand, where at least 20 environmental activists have been killed over the past decade, seven hired gunmen were paid $10,000 to kill Thongnak Sawekchinda, a veteran campaigner against polluting, coal-fired factories in his province near Bangkok. Powerful figures believed to have ordered the slaying are yet to be apprehended.
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“It is a well-known paradox that many of the world’s poorest countries are home to the resources that drive the global economy. Now, as the race to secure access to these resources intensifies, it is poor people and activists who increasingly find themselves in the firing line,” [London-based] Global Witness said.
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Targeted assassinations, disappearances followed by confirmed deaths, deaths in custody and during clashes with security forces are being reported. The killers are often soldiers, police or private security guards acting on behalf of businesses or governments. Credible investigations are rare; convictions more so.
. . .
The countries where environmental killings are most common share similarities: a powerful few, with strong links to officialdom, and many poor and disenfranchised dependent on land or forests for livelihoods, coupled with strong activist movements which are more likely to report the violence.
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“In Asia there has been a rise for some years but this has been off the radar of international NGOs until recently,” says Pokpong Lawansiri, Asia head for the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders. “Political rights activists usually have international connections but environmental ones are often teachers, community leaders and villagers, so they have little profile.”3
Clearly, it is imperative that we, the adults of the world, raise our level of consciousness to the fact that our decisions and actions of today become the consequences with which all generations must ultimately live—if they can. Thus, the question we must ask ourselves is: Would we want to be the recipients of—and have to live with—the effects of the economic greed we are progressively forcing on all generations?
1. Brett Clark and Richard York. Dialectical Materialism and Nature.,” Organization & Environment 18 (2005):318–337.
2. Lester R. Brown. A Copernican Shift. Resurgence 213 (2002):14–15.
3. Denis D. Gray. Killings of Environmentalists Appear to Be on Rise. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/killings-environmentalists-rise-16608511#.T-HaDRwU64A
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.