Category Archives: Environmental politics

Books Environmental politics History

Notes from An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, by Richard C. Hoffman

p. 32 “… particulars had to be learned by human users, sometimes through processes of trial and error. Early Neolithic clearances of fields in upland Britain became moorland and peat bog under later wetter conditions. Bronze Age clearances for pasture in Denmark strained local wood supplies to the point that some pasture was left to grow back as trees.”

p. 34 Mediterranean Europe acquired its Neolithic agriculture complex from southwestern Asia during the sixth and fifth millennium BCE. At first this comprised cereal grasses, legumes, and ovicaprida… intensive hand labour by humans maintained the system until draught animals (oxen, donkey) and a simple plough arrived by the early Bronze Age…. Crops had to be adapted to the rainy cool winter and the hot dry summer: annual cereals seeded in autumn grow throughout the winter and spring to mature before the summer drought; perennial grasses, vines, olives and other plants go dormant or otherwise adapt to the heat. .. Grain, olives and vines have formed the ruling trinity of Med crops since pre-classical times, providing the ancient staple diet of bread, oil and wine. Less stereotyped legumes from field or garden could provide important supplements. Grain crops, wheat and barley, … were reared on ploughed fields (ager) on a two-year cycle, alternating crop and fallow. Resting the field one year in two and ploughing the weeds under hoarded two years of previous water for the grain. Bare fallow leaves the soil surface open during the winter rains, both absorbing water and risking erosion. … Olive trees, … sensitive to frost … on the north they tidily mark a natural boundary of Mediterranean agriculture, which mostly coincided with that of the Roman world. .. Wines and olives might be grown beside vegetables in gardens, but especially when raised for family subsistence were often interplanted in grain fields as cultura mixta. … Livestock played a secondary role … a major technical problem inhibited livestock rearing in the Med, as summer forage was sparse in agricultural areas long cleared of most woodlands and subject to summer drought. The typical response even before good written records was vertical transhumance; a semi-annual movement of livestock and their keepers … to summer pastures in the mountains. The practice moved the animals to forage at the price of depriving the arable land of their manure and the risk of overgrazing upland woodlands and turning them to grass, maquis or garrigue. Transhumance componmuded the problem of fertility maintenance in Med dry farming, an issue that much worried Roman agricultural writers.”

p. 52-54 During and after Roman fall “a long series of epidemics and losses of regional populations caused inhabitants of the western provinces to decline steadily in numbers from the 15-20 million range of the second century to 8-10 million about 600. The economy lost its urban focus… environmental forces of both natural and anthropogenic origins had some significance in this evolution, while even more can be attributed to the environmental impacts of the cultural changes themselves. … [the end of ] the relatively warm and dry Roman Optimum… by the third century, falling general sea levels reveal, and traces of volcanic activity in ice cores help explain, a general cooling that continued into the fourth century, although some regions then became drier. In the Alps, the glaciers were advancing and the tree line creeping downwards. In winter 406, the lower Rhine surprisingly froze solid, giving Germanic invaders easy passage to plunder in Gaul. The ensuing fifth century, in Europe at least, was cooler still, and in the north up to c.450 wetter, but aridity in the southern Med is blamed for abandoned North African farmland. If, as some writers now estimate, mean annual temperatures declined by 1-1.5C from the second century to the sixth, Europe outside the Med basin was becoming less amenable to the favoured crops of Med agrosystems….
Severe pandemics ravaged the Empire during the late second century and again in the mid-third, killing as much as a third of its inhabitants. Some may rather have succumbed to ensuing food shortages and famines… most modern authorities now think these were smallpox, measles or influenza rather than plague. .. most famous is the ‘Justinian plague’, named retrospectively for East Roman Emperor Justinian (527-65)… Most late 20th-century scholars accepted this as the first pandemic of bubonic plaque … less tendentious label for the entire episode is Late Medieval Pandemic. Whatever the pathogenic agent, it was new or long unfamiliar in the region, entered from Africa, probably by way of Egypt, and caused many deaths. … a possibly new endemic presence of malaria… whose several varieties had colonized the Med since at least the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. … the form most common in the western Med debilitated rather than immediately killed, leaving victims with weakened immune systems and life spans shortened by other diseases, and persuading survivors to abandon marshy areas. …
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Books Environmental politics History

Agricultural notes

Notes from Martin Empson’s, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History

p. 144
“The census of 1851 shows that year was the peak of rural employment in Britain… Twenty years later there were more people working in domestic service than in farming. By 1880 the number working in agriculture had fallen to approximately one in eight of the working population; by the start of the Second World War the corresponding figure was one in 20.”

p. 147 On the sewing of turnip seed (lost skills!) from a contemporary account: “The sower had a small seed bowl on his chest; this was secured by a leather band which went around his neck. He took the small seed between his finger and thumb and sowed in step; that is, as his left foot came up his left hand dipped into the seed-bowl and scattered the seed. It was a skilled job to sow with both hands and keep in step as the rhythm could very easily be broken. If this happened, the sower would have to stop and start again, as a break in the rhythm meant a blank patch in the sowing. Few men, too, could judge the amount of seed to sow at each pinch of the thumb and forefinger; turnip seed was sown at the rate of half a pint an acre.. not more than one or two men on each farm could sow at the necessary rate with two hands. Most men were only able to sew with one hand.”
(quoting from George Ewart Evans, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, 1965)

p. 167
“after 1941 rationing levels meant that the average diet was better than before the war. AT the end of the war there were still 545,000 farm horses, but the 56,000 tractors on British farms had mushroomed to 230,000 by January 1946 and the number of milking machines increased by 60% between 1942 and 1946.”

p. 171
Government protection for farmers was virtually removed in India in 1991. “Before 1991 there were ‘no mass peasant suicides owing to debt’ but between 1998 and December 2008 there were 198,000 suicides and ‘specifically debt-driven suicides have claimed over 60,000 peasant lives over the last decade’. (ref: Parnaik and Moyo The Agrarian Question in the New-Liberal Era, 2011.)

p. 174 In the US 160 litres of oil are used to produce a tonne of maize. In Mexico it is less than five litres.

p. 184 One of the consequences of the Green REvolution was a tendency towards monoculture of staple crops such as grain or rice… ‘Countries with vegetable consumption of more than 100 grams of vegetables per day do not have vitamin A deficiency as a major problem… it only takes two tablespoonfuls of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables or two thirds of a medium-sized mango a day to meet the vitamin A requirements of a pre-school child. … Vitamin A deficiency in adults and children is unlikely to occur without other nutitional deficiencies”

p. 185 A 2007 estimated the lowest cost of a daily diet to meet the nutritional needs of a family of two adults and three children, one under two, in Bangladesh, Burma, Ethiopia and Tanzania … ranged from 72US cents in Tanzania to $1.17 in Ethiopia… 79% of households in Bangladesh, all households in Ethiopia and the very poor in Burma and Tanzania could not meet it. In Ethiopia a day’s unskilled work only covered 69% – in Burma it was 50%.

p. 225 “As early as 1963 one US state, Vermont, enacted legislation banning the sale of disposable bottles, driven by farmers who found their cows eating containers that had been thrown into their fields. But the packaging industry fought back. Within a few months of the Vermont legislation, the American Can Company and the Owens-Illionis Glass Company (inventors, respectively, of the disposable can and bottle) formed Keep America Beautiful (KAB). With other corporations such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company who had similar concerns, they initiated a well-funded campaign to persuade Americans there was a new problem in society – litter, caused by litterbugs, a term invented by KAB. KAB rapidly became a major organisation with a membership of 70 million. It produced books for schools about the problem of litter, funded anti-litter campaigns, and welcomed ‘any legislation that cracked down on individuals who carelessly tossed their trash’. … Four years after it was passed, the Vermont law banning the sale of disposable bottles was defeated.”

Books Environmental politics

Notes from Mark Cocker’s ‘Claxton’

My favourite passage …

“The first badger to appear… got down to the opening chore of the evening. A good scratch requiring all four paws working vigorously through the side and belly hair, and even from 50 metres away you could hear those razor-sharp claws raking the dried skin.
“One of the stranger biological links between badgers and humans is a shared species of flea, although perhaps a more inspiring sense of common ground arises from the abundance of historical marks that both of us leave in the landscape. Whenever I go badger watching I am always overwhelmed by the deep sense of tradition that surrounds their lives. It is not just the network of visible tracks, worn through years of passage up and down the hillside, not is it simply the tonnes of hard, red,clay-rich soil heaped outside the sett’s complex of holes.
“Some of the details at this sett are oil marks and pied hairs left on part of a lime=tree trunk where the badgers, each in turn, slump with ursine contentment to perform their elaborate groom and toilet. … every night of the year, generation after generation.” (p. 65)

The bad news …
At the end of March … “the vocal duel between two local song thrushes wakes me every morning at the moment … it is a fabulous noise that gains momentum as the season draws on, with a vocalist adding new motifs to his repertoire. A bird borrows elements from the others that it can hear, and you can imagine these scraps of melody being passed all around the country… The British Trust for Ornithology discovered that half of them have gone in 30 years…. What price should we put on the song thrush’s priceless song?” (p. 51)

And more …
Willow warblers are Afro-Palaearchtic migrants, wintering in a wide belt of sub-Saharan Africa then spreading to breed across the boreal regions of Eurasia, from easternmost Siberia to the Atlantic coasts of Ireland … the sound is an audible analogue of that wider sense of luxury and nonchalance at the heart of summer. Alas there is now less scope for complacency than there used to be: willow warbler numbers have fallen like a stone in the last 30 years, declining possibly as a consequence of habitat loss and climate change by 60%.” (p. 69)

Interesting facts..
Holly for centuries “was used as a hedgerow or boundary tree and an important part of its meaning in the landscape was a coded language of arbitrary division, ownership and power that only the human eye could decipher. Even now makers of the British Ordnance Survey maps regard old holly trees as the best guide to the course of historic boundaries between parishes and neighbouring estates or farms.” (p. 180)

“Every autumn the average jay plants 5,000 acorns to retrieve as food in the winter. .. [in the US] one blue jay was recorded to plant 100,000 beech nuts in one month. … They are the great keepers of the northern forests and are busy now husbanding that vast carbon-rich landscape in its millennial journey north as climate change begins to take hold.” (p. 157-8)

“The grasshopper discovery of my summer [2010] has been the widespread local presence of Roesel’s bush cricket, a species that until recently was listed no further north in East Anglia than Essex … on a northward march, possibly as a consequence of climate change. The first Norfolk record was 1997… the song, a long soft drawn-out reeling buzz, is one of the most resonant of all orthopteran melodies. Whenever I hear one I dig at the grasses at the roadside to reveal a weird armour-plated brute who is as hideous as he is beautiful.”

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom by Derek Wall

p. 186-7 “Elinor Ostrum, and indeed Vincent, viewed ecological matters as fundamental to their political economy from the early days of both of their respective careers. Vincent and Elinor had observed how democratic structures had been used to manage real-life environmental problems, such as the dilemma of how to share grazing land or water basins. Yet Hardin [of Tragedy of the Commons] ac=dvocated largely top-down, and potentially authoritarian, solutions to these environmental problems… Elinor Ostrum, to her credit, worked very hard to challenge it. Bu doing so she has helped to promote environmental sustainability and the rights of collective resources owners – from indigenous people to peasant farmers to free/open source software designers.

The reality is that there is a spectrum, or kaleidoscope, of property rights. When we move beyond the idea of the binary of state and private property, the alternative is not simply the commons. The notion of commons, both as a resource and a property right, is an advance over the binary. Commons, rather than being unowned non-property, have been identified as collectively managed resources. Yet Elinor Ostrom’s work points to a conception of property beyond the commons. Items can be owned in a variety of ways and, as more sophisticated legal theorists have long understood, even privately owned items contain a bundle of rights. The insights gained from John R Commons that property systems are diverse further opens up a new economic and legal understanding. This enhances concepts such as usufruct, the right to access a resource on the condition that it is maintained and not degraded, which are essential to creating more environmentally sustainable systems of governance. ..

The norms and rules of usufruct are the norms and rules of sustainability. An economics of social sharing, whilst not investigated by the Ostroms, fits well with their research. With the social sharing of physical goods it is possible to cut the knot of prosperity versus environment dilemma, and have access to more physical goods than we need, while reducing other use of resources. Neither usufrust nor social sharing automatically solve sustainability problems, but they are useful tools that make them easier to face. More fundamentally, the Ostroms’ concern with self-governance suggests that grassroots popular design can be promoted as a means of dealing with a range of ecological problems, including climate change.

Elinor Ostrom’s approach to sustainability, therefore, cannot be reduced to a calculation of costs, or governmental regulation, or any other panaceas. Social-ecological systems are complex, and purely cost considerations, or centrally imposed regulatory measures are inadequate to their maintenance. The seven-generation rule is helpful in understanding her perspective … however, she did not believe a normative commitment to sustainability was sufficient, but that practical policies had to be worked out. Policies that were developed democratically were more likely to be effective, and people needed to see practical gains from such policies.

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Poverty of Capitalism by John Hilary

p. 17 “Studies of the functional distribution of income between capital and labour have shown how comprehensively the working class has been excluded from the benefits of growth in the era of corporate globalisation.Far from keeping pace with growth, in three quarters of all countries for which data were available the share of national income going to wages declined between 1985 and 2006. The most precipitous fall occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the share of income going to wages decreased by 13 percentage points in just 10 years, while dramatic declines were also experienced in Asia (10pc), the industrialised north (9 pc) and sub-Saharan Africa. … Wage levels for full-time male earners in the USA are well known to have stagnated in real terms over the past 40 years, even while per capita GDP more than doubled … yet when increases in unemployment are taken into account in addition to inflation, the median wage for all working-age men in the USA actually declined by 28pc between 1969 and 2009.”

p. 37 “Shortly after Germany’s newly revised Atomic Energy Act had passed into law, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, which operated two of Germany’s oldest nuclear power plants, gave notice of its intention to sue the German government as a result of the decision not to extend their operating life. According to Vattenfall, the reduced book value of the two plants required the company to register an impairment loss in its 2011 accounts of just under 1.2 billion euro, including provision for dismantling the plants, and as a foreign investor it claimed the right to pursue the government for #compensation under the terms of the multilateral Energy Charter Treaty, which Germany ratified in 1997. That treaty was ostensibly designed to protect foreign investors in the energy sector from political risks such as discrimination and expropriation, in keeping with many other bilateral and multilateral treaties introduced in the 1990s. … the treaty had handed investors unprecedented power to challenge the authority of sovereign states and their democratic structures. … Vattenfall’s suit … was formally registered in May 2012 at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement and Investment Disputes (ICSID) … it had already been successful in a prior claim brought under the terms of the same Energy Charter Treat three years earlier. The case had centred on the city of Hamburg’s environmental regulations for the River Elbe, where Vattenfall had been granted a permit to construct its new Moorburg coal0fired power plant on condition that it meet the water quality standards required of industry along the river. Vattenfall argued that these requirements made their investment ‘unviable and sued the German government… for 1.4 billion euros plus costs and interest. The case was settled between the two partied in early 2011, and although the details of the settlement were kept secret, insiders remarked that Vattenfall could consider the outcome a ‘complete success’. The company was granted a new permit to continue its construction of the Moorburg power plant, duly revised in favour to include less demanding environmental conditions.”

P. 42 “By means of intense bullying and brinkmanship in the shadow of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a new round of international trade negotiations was launched at the WTO’s ministerial conference held in Doha in November 2001. .. the US managed to engineer the inclusion of the four Singapore issues (investment, government procurement, competition policy and trade facilitation) in the Doha round’s work programme at the 11th hour a coup widely credited to the personal persistence of the EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, who would four years later be appointed Director-General of the WTO itself. “… this led to the collapse of the Doha Round in 2003.

p. 47 Bilateral Investment Treaties commonly identify the forum (or forums) in which international arbitration is to take place, as well as the procedural rules to be followed… BITs commonly grant foreign investors the choice between bringing claims first before national courts or going directly to international arbitration – an innovation which breaches the customary rule that local remedies must be exhausted before foreign investors have recourse to international forums. Secondly, investors can disguise or switch their home country so as to take advantage of these powers, as in the infamous case of the failed water privatisation in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where Bechtel subsidiary Aguas del Tunari was able to take advantage of the Netherlands-Bolivia BIT by virtue of having inserted Dutch holding companies into its ownership structure…. an ICSID tribunal in 2004granted the ‘Lithuania’ company Tokios Tokeles permission to bring a claim against Ukraine under the Lithuania-Ukraine BIT even though … the company was 99pc owned by Ukrainians”.

p. 54 “the annulment of a number of high profile ICSID awards in recent years has further undermined the legitimacy of the investment arbitration system. In June 2010, an ICSID review panel overturned an earlier award of $128 million against Argentina in favour of California-based company Sempra Energy, on the grounds that the original ICSID tribunal had failed to deal properly with Argentina’s ‘necessity’ defence in taking the emergency measures it did in the financial crisis of 2001…. In 2007, Bolivia became the first country to withdraw from ICSID, followed by Ecuador in 2009 and Venezuela in 2012; by the beginning of 2013, Argentina had also indicated its intention to leave. In April 2011, the Australian government announced that it would no longer include provisions for investor-state dispute settlement in future bilateral or regional trade agreements; one motivating factor behind the decision may have been the UNCITRAL claim brought against the state by US tobacco company Philip Morris, under the terms of the Australia-Hong Kong BIT, for lossess “potentially amounting to billions of dollars” as a result of Australia’s decision to require all tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging’.”

p. 56 “the growing rejection of investor-state dispute settlemennt is consonant with states’ increasing confidence in re-establishing control over foreign investment by the means of new regulations. In 2000, fully 98 pc of all investment policy measures introduced at the national level served to liberalise the investment regime in host countries, while just 2pc introduced new regulations or restrictions on investors. In 2010… 32% of measures introduced new regulations on inward investment…. This rebalancing was most apparent in the the extractive industries, where 93pc of regulatory changes introduced in 2010 were restrictive, … in the agricultural sector … 62 pc of regulations introduced during 2010 were restrictive. .. business has responded by calling on the G20 to create an international framework agreement on investment that would guarantee transnational capital open access and protection in cross-border activities, including the permanent right to investor-state dispute settlement. … the B20 business lobby still identifies the WTO as its preferred forum for international rules and standards on investments.”

p101 “Intensified competition at the international level has played a role in undermining the prospect of positive outcomes in the garment sector, particularly as a result of the phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2005. The MFA was originally designed in the early 1970s as a protectionist shield for clothing manufacturers in the global North in the face of competition from new producers in the SOuth, especially China and India… a further consequence was companies … were forced to look to new production bases in a broader range of countries if they wished to take advantage of the increasing opportunities to supply Western consumers… the full effects of the MFa phase out… leading to significant job losses as factories closed in export bases such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. In the Dominican Republic, one in three factories closed and 70,000 jobs were lost in the garment sector between 2004 and 2007, while South Africa saw the value of its garment exports to the EU and USA crash by 75 pc over the same period…. within the first year alone, Kenya recorded job losses in the garment sector of almost 10 pc, Lesotho of 26 pc and Swaziland a catastrophic 43pc. Women were particularly affected … in Mauritius, 88 of the country’s 292 garment factories closed between 2004-2009, with a loss of over 17,000 jobs … the unemployment rate for women soared to 16.5pc… IN Cambodia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the differential between women’s and men’s wage widened in the immediate post-MFA period, surging to a 55pc gender gap in the case of Sri Lanka. Even while total employment in the garments sector increased in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Pakistan after 2004, working conditions were found to have declined for women in all four countries.”

p. 106 ” aggressive cost-cutting by brand buyers has been a dramatic decline over the past two decades in the unit price of clothes leaving the factory floor. The factory price for cotton knit shirts, for instance, was driven down by over 20 pc in Mexico, El Salvador, Pakistan, Peru, Turkey and Bangladesh during 1994-2004, by over 30pc in Haiti, Guatemala, Domitian Republic and Egypt, and by over 50pc in Honduras and Nicaragua. … as sales began to be hit by financial crisis and recession from 2008 onwards, Western retailers embarked on their own discount campaigns in an attempt to offset declines in consumer spending… in Bangladesh, according to the country’s Export Promotion Bureau, the average price for woven and knitted garments fell another 3 pc between 2010 and 2011 as a result of this downwards pressure from retailers, while production costs increased by around 10oc. … to consumers in the West, this meant ever cheaper clothing over a sustained 20-year period, defying inflation and gibing rise to a throw-away fashion culture unknown to previous generations.In the USA, the price of women’s clothing fell by over 17 pc between 1992 and 2010, compared to a 55pc rise in the consumer price index as a whole. The UK clothing sector experienced significant price deflation in the first decade of the 21st century, as supermarket tripled their share of the clothes market and other ‘value’ retailers such as Primark burst on to the scene, leading to a 23 pc fall in the retail price of clothing and footwear in the 10 years to 2008 (and a 38pc fall in the case of women’s clothes. Brands and retailers at all points of the spectrum have seen vastly increased profits … Gap for instance posted sales of around $14.5 billion in both 2002 and 2010, but saw its profits increase two and a half times from $478 million to $1.2 billion in the same period. Nike’s profits more than tripled from $663 million in 2002 to $2.1 billion in 2011, with its profit margin increasing in the same period from 6.7pc to 10.2 pc. .. Primark … increased sales from £654 million in 2002 to £3 billion in 2011, and profits from £72 million to £309 million. The world’s largest fashion retailer Inditex… quadrupled its profits from 438 million euros in 2002 to 1.9 billion euros in 2011.”
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Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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