The lie of limitless economic progress

The tension between the state’s duty to protect the environment and its duty to promote economic development often plays out as an unhelpful binary opposition characterised by the idea that if you are for the environment, you must be against development. In fact, this narrative obscures the fact that limitless economic development is incompatible with the continuation of human life on Earth. 

On 21 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that the Covid-19 pandemic presented South Africa with an opportunity to ask important questions about the type of economy it wanted after the pandemic had passed. In his words, the government was “resolved not merely to return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy … founded on fairness, empowerment, justice and equality”. 

To do so, he observed that a new “social compact” would need to be created between business, labour, communities and government to create a more “inclusive” economy. His comments weren’t unique, with leaders and institutions from across the globe apparently championing a new post-coronavirus economic dispensation more focused on equity and fairness than profits.  

Welcome as these assertions are, it is curious they had not already been made considering the deepening environmental crisis which in the long term utterly dwarfs the appalling impacts of the pandemic. 

Development vs the environment is a zero-sum game

One reason why politicians have not drawn attention to the obvious link between the environmental crisis and the current economic system is because of the persistent belief that being for the environment means that you must be against development. This either-or narrative is a zero-sum game. 

This narrative is currently playing out in the ongoing legal battle over the right to mine coal in the Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga.

The previous MEC for agriculture and the environment in the province stated that the mine should go ahead over the interests of environmentalists trying to protect the strategic water source located in Mabola because “people cannot eat grass”.

It clearly serves the interests of those proposing to extract resources to claim that environmentalists are against development. But are decisions around developments like the one proposed in Mabola, and elsewhere in the world, reducible to such simple binaries? They are not. 

Jeopardising South Africa’s long-term water security

The proposed coal mine will be situated within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, one of South Africa’s 22 strategic water sources. Given that South Africa is a water-stressed country (the 30th-driest in the world), these water sources are rightly described by the department of water and sanitation as “national assets”. The water source feeds water to Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and, critically, Gauteng. 

The supply of water to Gauteng is particularly important because even at current rates of supply it is predicted that the province could face its own Day Zero within the next 10 to 20 years. Francois Engelbrecht, professor of climatology at the University of the Witwatersrand and lead author of a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, recently stated that the threat of Day Zero in Gauteng was the most serious climate threat that South Africa faces in the short term. 

It is well understood that water is not only essential for survival but is also a vital ingredient that enables economies to flourish. As the UN observes: “Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socioeconomic development.” Any collapse in water supply in Gauteng, which is responsible for a third of South Africa’s GDP, would have a tremendously negative impact on “development”. 

It is true that people can’t eat grass but then they can’t drink coal either.

The need for a far-sighted and holistic approach

The needs of development in one area cannot be divorced from the possible negative impacts this development will have elsewhere. 

The proposed coal mine in Mabola not only endangers critical water supplies locally and nationally, but it will also contribute to South Africa’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the mining, transportation and burning of coal. 

This threatens South Africa’s ability to meet its GHG emission targets, but also potentially threatens development as it increases the likelihood that South Africa’s exports will fall foul of carbon taxes on imports, currently being seriously considered both by the EU and the US. While it is clear from a record of decisions that some officials in the department of minerals and energy understood this and recommended against the mine, they were overridden by more senior officials.  

‘Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings’

Debates around the balance that between the need to protect the environment and the need for development provide a good opportunity to reflect on the economy that we currently have, which creates such fundamental tensions and contradictions. While our leaders have spoken about needing to “forge a new economy”, there appears to be no clear vision of what this economy looks like, how it will function, and for whom. 

It is important to remember that the economy is not actually a tangible thing. Rather, it is a social construct, just as capitalism, its current driving force, is a social construct. The economy as it is currently constituted has been created by humans, and as such, it can be changed and remade by humans. As political economist Lorenzo Fioramonti reminds us: “The economy can be whatever we want it to be.” 

How the economy is formed, how it functions, and for whom it works are all choices. And despite what its champions claim, it can be fundamentally changed. As the late American author Ursula Le Guin reminds us: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

The systemic problems with the current growth-focused economy were pointed out by the Club of Rome in their seminal The Limits to Growth in 1972. Despite this, little has changed in nearly 50 years, with economic growth — measured primarily through GDP — still being seen as the litmus test of how well a country is doing, even though this economic model means that we are “digging our own graves” according to António Guterres, the UN secretary general. 

There is no shortage of ideas of how to reforge the economy to make it compatible with planetary limits: there is the steady-state economy, which recognises that resources are finite and proposes a balance between supply and demand; there are circular economies, which propose a closed loop whereby resources are constantly recycled and reused so as not to exceed planetary limits; degrowth economies abandon the concept of economic growth altogether and focus their energies on economic contraction in rich countries to allow development to take place in poorer countries in the interests of achieving social justice and ecological balance. 

The value of a circular economy

Amsterdam in the Netherlands recently adopted the principles of the circular economy, while the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has confirmed that the country will abandon the endless pursuit of economic growth in favour of the overall wellbeing of its citizens. She stated: “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is failure.”

It is true that in countries like South Africa far too many people lack access to basic services and proper homes, but can we seriously claim that new coal mines in environmentally sensitive areas will solve these problems when it is clear that inequality worsens despite rampant coal mining elsewhere on the Mpumalanga Highveld? 

South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, in a world becoming more unequal year on year. And this inequality is another result of our growth-obsessed economic system that champions individual accumulation above society as a whole. South Africa’s developmental challenges will be overcome by the redistribution of income via progressive tax regimes and effective government policies grounded in social solidarity, not by more economic growth that favours the few. 

Back to the proposed coal mine in Mabola. Who will benefit from it? How will it, if at all, address South Africa’s developmental challenges? Do the benefits that the mining of coal will bring to a few, outweigh the risks it poses to the many?

Given the environmental damage that the coal mine will cause, and specifically given the threat to our water security that coal mining in our strategic water source areas will pose, these are critical questions that must be asked by those making decisions about its future. 

Answers to questions such as these will determine whether we build our communal resilience to climate change or accelerate the speed at which we move beyond our planet’s ability to sustain us.

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Catherine Horsfield
Catherine Horsfield joined the Centre for Environmental Rights in 2012 and heads up its mining programme, which promotes transparency, public participation and accountability in the mining industry.
Neil Overy
Dr Neil Overy is an environmental researcher, writer and photographer with a particular interest in the intersection between environmental and social justice issues.

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