Andreas Späth

Trashing nature for good

2014-02-24 12:22

Andreas Wilson-Späth

"Collateral damage" may be a term most of us became familiar with during the Gulf Wars, but I'd suggest that it’s a well established concept (in practice, if not in name) in other aspects of human behaviour, too, including the way in which we relate to the natural environment.

Military spin doctors will use the phrase when they want us to understand that even in a "just war" (the only kind our side will engage in, of course) there are unavoidable and regrettably painful consequences for some people who are not the intended recipients of our aggression.

It's important to note that this damage is not accidental, but incidental. Regardless of how surgical modern missile strikes and drone attacks are supposed to be, collateral damage will happen. It’s an acceptable accompaniment to war - a side-effect - and it won't do to call it what it really is: the murder of innocent bystanders.

In a global political and economic system that's fundamentally based on inequality between those who own and issue orders and those who earn and obey, collateral damage is similarly par for the course. To keep the economy going (read: profits flowing), strategic decisions from austerity measures and resource allocation to infrastructure development and bank bailouts are routinely aimed at aiding the health/wealth of corporate citizens above that of actual human beings.

In the environmental arena, collateral damage is widespread and typically involves the economy and even the military. Depleted uranium munitions leave battlefields radioactive and dangerous to soldiers as well as local inhabitants. Attempts to increase profits by short-cutting safety measures result in catastrophic oil spills.

Another closely related and useful phrase when considering collateral environmental damage is that of "sacrifice zones". We're willing to offer up whole geographical regions at the altar of progress and perpetual economic growth.

Chernobyl and Fukushima, the Exxon Valdes and Deepwater Horizon, Bhopal and the Niger Delta, our own uranium-contaminated Wonderfonteinspruit, acid mine drainage headache, foul air in eMalahleni (Witbank) and a future fracked Karoo - all of them collateral damage creating long-term sacrifice zones.

For me, this is fundamentally an issue about means and ends.

The logic applied by the dominant culture is simple: in the fight to win the good wars some people will perish, just as in order to maintain economic growth, innocent people and ecosystems will suffer.

To make an omelette you have to break eggs. The ends justify the means.

It's what has to happen to allow us to sustain our way of life. Presumably the victims are supposed to take solace from the fact that they bear the brunt of this violent philosophy for a good cause.

I couldn't agree less. Shouldn't the means we use to accomplish something be compatible with the ends we hope to achieve? I think so.

We can't exploit our way to equality and we can't pollute our way to a healthy environment.

If we want to arrive at an economically and ecologically sound future, we have to do so using equitable and sustainable methods. We can’t burn every last dreg of oil, coal and gas left in the ground just because it represents potential profits for a few and the resulting environmental consequences are acceptable side-effects. The path we choose will crucially affect where we end up.

On a psychological level, perhaps the most severe collateral damage happens when we allow parts of our personal ethics and our hearts to become sacrifice zones by choosing short-term material gains over our own lasting well-being and that of the world we live in.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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