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Originally appeared in Issue No. 4



Intricate Energy

Steven Best reviews Allen Hammond's Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century: Global Destinations, Regional Choices and Tom Athanasiou's Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor

Which World?
Divided Planet

As the planet spirals ever deeper into social and natural disaster, with all things becoming ever more tightly knit into the tentacles of global capitalism, there is an urgent need for new maps and compasses to help steer us into a viable mode of existence. Karl Marx's 1843 call for a "ruthless criticism of everything existing" has never been more urgent and appropriate, but all too often today critique is merely academic, stratospheres away from concrete action and progressive social policies. Yet, social critique and change in the slaughterhouse of capitalism needs to be guided and informed by powerful descriptions of what is—the degraded forfeiture of human potential in a world where over a billion people struggle for mere existence—but also by bold new visions of what can be, imaginative projections of how human beings might harmoniously relate to one another and the living/dying earth.

Where some people concede defeat, some declare this the best of all possible worlds (I'd hate to see the worst one), others announce the end of history (Fukuyama and Baudrillard), and others still continually settle for lesser evils (i.e., the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party), one of the first conditions of change is the realization that things could be otherwise, that humanity has choices, and, indeed, that we are currently at a crucial crossroads in the history of the earth where what we do or fail to do in the next few decades might decide the ultimate outcome of all advanced life on earth. One of the major crises today is a crisis of the imagination. In the tradition of neo-Marxism, and the work of thinkers like Murray Bookchin, it has been recognized that so-called "utopian" visions are not, when authentic, starry-eyed dreams of (soy)milk and honey meadows, but rather are empirically grounded in actual social tendencies and potential for a rational, egalitarian, and compassionate mode of life. For such utopians, the "ought" can become an "is."

In his new book, Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century, Allen Hammond offers some significant visions of such future worlds. Hammond is a senior scientist and director of Strategic Analysis for the World Resources Institute, which bills itself as a non-profit and non-partisan policy studies center based in Washington, D.C. A prolific writer of books and scientific articles, Hammond received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard. For such a quantitatively trained thinker, he is to be commended for his ability to integrate science and theory, facts and politics, and analytical and visionary thinking.

Which World? stems from Hammond's involvement in a the "2050 project," a five-year-long research program of ecology and sustainability organized by the Brookings Institute, the World Resources Institute, and the Sante Fe Institute, involving dozens of scholars from around the world. The project advanced a "systems theory" view which sees societies as systems that interact with one another and the earth in complex ways, the effects of which ultimately are unpredictable. The project attempted, in physicist Murray Gell-Mann's phrase, "a crude look at the whole," studying the interactions of numerous factors—demographic, technological, political, cultural, and environmental—that constitute societies and shape their future outcomes.

Drawing from this project, Which World? attempts to map how such dynamics currently operate in various regions of the planet, how they interact in the global economy, and it seeks to project various possible outcomes of current social processes. The emphasis here is on possible because, in line with his systems theory approach and the science known as "chaos theory," Hammond insists that while current trends may predispose societies to certain outcomes, these futures are too complex and contingent on uncertain variables for exact prediction.

This means that however things are presently constructed, they can be deconstructed and reconstructed by human beings in different ways. It means, moreover, that whatever futures might be likely or probable, such as one of global social and environmental collapse, it can be anticipated and prevented in favor of quite different results. The important point is that unless we first imagine various futures, both good and bad, and utilize socially progressive and ecological visions as ethical and institutional maps, we will have nothing to guide us in the constitution of a viable future, and we will travel in time like lost seafarers. To begin marking the signposts, Hammond argues, our first task is to examine long-term trends in various regions and the globe as a whole.

Hammond is a sharp, dialectical thinker able to hold simultaneously in his mind both the negative and the positive, seeing how we are barreling down the road to hell, but also how other paths open at our current developmental crossroads. Specifically, Hammond envisages three main possibilities for humanity: we can journey into the Market World of untrammeled capitalism, the Fortress World of social collapse and authoritarian control, or the Transformed World of benign capitalism that prioritizes social justice and establishes a rapproachment with nature. If the menu of options seems slightly limited, something like what a steakhouse offers a vegetarian, it is, for it fails to consider a Left or anarchist vision of a revitalized socialist economics.

In its interesting design, Hammond's book begins with the importance of constructing stories or "scenarios" as critical maps of the present and guideposts for the future. He then broadly describes the nature of the three worlds/roads he believes face us in the current crossroads of social evolution. Finally, he applies each scenario to various regions of the world, always with a close eye on how each region interacts with the global economy as a whole, and how social development is inextricably bound to the ecological systems of the earth. Specifically, Hammond studies crucial regions such as Latin America, China and Southeast Asia, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe, North America, Europe, and Japan.

Thus, the regional and the global, the social and natural worlds, are theorized together as one system, but with different outcomes available to society and nature, depending on the wisdom and effects of human choices. In each region, Hammond advances an empirical analysis of current trends relating to issues such as population, economics, and technology, and from there imagines three possible futures such trends could foster. The scenarios are highlighted with italics and read with the immediacy of vividness of the morning paper. In confronting these imaginary outcomes, one can easily imagine being in a different future, with all the repulsion or joy (or skepticism) this experience may bring.

The first scenario Hammond investigates as one possible future is the Market World. As championed by entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and political conservatives and liberals alike, this world is an extension of current capitalist globalization dynamics. The idea here, as trumpeted ubiquitously in the media, is that free markets and technological innovation can bring peace, prosperity, and stability to nations around the globe. With the development of NAFTA, the loans of the IMF, and the computerization of the planet by IBM and Microsoft, this capitalist utopia will bring the dream to as many people as possible.

This scenario asks us to believe in trickle-down economics theory on a global scale, even though so far it has not worked in any single country. Conspicuously absent from the Market World vision is a keen appreciation of the environmental toll global consumerism and prosperity would involve. To the extent such problems may be anticipated, thinkers from this paradigm hold they will disappear with a wave of the magic technofix wand, whereby some technology or "revolution" or other (like the celebrated "green revolution") will save the day—and hopefully the whales too.

Should this future fail to materialize, should its technofixes, tepid reforms, and free market voodoo prove unable to solve the world's problems, Hammond shares the fear of many others that something like a Fortress World will come about instead of the Happyville of the Market World. On this scenario, tracing another possible outcome of contemporary dynamics, Hammond projects how the growth of the market might fail to bring greater prosperity to anyone but the elite, such that the intensified class differences and social insecurities could bring a Hobbsean war-of-all-against-all. This would be an inverted Market World characterized by "islands of prosperity, oceans of poverty" (Madhav Gadgil). As social insecurities advance, armies of the disaffected would arise. Here, as Hammond describes, the dark side of global capitalism would emerge, leading to greater worldwide poverty, a growth in social instabilities and violence, and environmental ruination and collapse. In such a volatile state, society may become militarized, where the elite use whatever means necessary to defend their property and privileges. Looking at countries such as China and India, Hammond finds that current trends make this scenario possible.

But if, for Hammond, the PR of the Market World is too optimistic, the autopsy on the Fortress World is too pessimistic. Hammond believes that current trends could lead to still another possible future—the Transformed World. Here too, capitalism makes good on its promises for greater peace, prosperity, stability, and environmental protection. The main difference between the Market World and the Transformed World is that this third future is created out of the realization that an unfettered marketplace and unregulated technological innovation alone cannot bring social and environmental progress. Rather, on this vision, progress requires some form of deliberative and democratic shaping of economics and technology, more participation from citizens, and a different set of values that overcomes the pathologies of competition, individualism, and greed in favor of more communal, cooperative, and "spiritual" outlooks. Sheer quantitative change alone—more production and more technology—cannot bring about the kinds of qualitative changes Hammond thinks are necessary for a truly Transformed World.

Looking at current trends, Hammond finds evidence that present tendencies could evolve into the Transformed World. Among other things, he cites the emergence of a variety of local democratic cooperatives and grass roots organizations, numerous projects for urban renewal, a peaceful transition of power from whites to blacks in South Africa, the spread of the Internet and new possibilities for communication, new partnerships between environmental organizations and corporations, a new concern for "sustainable development" and the environment in the corporate sector, increased philanthropy, world environmental conferences such as occurred in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, and a more effective U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hammond makes it clear that he intends these three possible futures to be ideal types. "In reality," he argues, "the world in 2050 is likely to contain elements of all three scenarios ... [b]ut the scenarios nonetheless provide a convenient shorthand for widely held but contrasting visions of human destiny." While the future is yet to be invented, Hammond usefully underlines the available resources for progressive social change, for a world in relative harmony with itself and its natural surroundings. Whatever happens in any country or region, Hammond is quite clear that different national and regional fates are intertwined; in the world of NAFTA, the economic and political systems of all countries is so interlocked that "global destiny depends on regional choices."

Hammond is well aware that current dynamics could unfold in catastrophic ways. He points, for example, to gradual destruction of the rainforests; the reality of global warming; the impending doubling of the human population; the growing diminishment of useable land and water supplies; the aging and economic strain of advanced industrial societies; in addition to the rise in crime rates, the global arms market, and the number of diseases afflicting human beings. To Hammond's list we could add the resurgence of fascist ideologies in the U.S. and Europe, the technocratic takeover of universities and resulting instrumentalist myopia, ecological troubles in China (as a fifth of the world's population begins trading in its bicycles for cars, its rice paddies for hamburger patties), a portentous economic unravelling of Russia, attacks and counter-attacks in the "new war" of terrorism, nuclear saber rattling between India and Pakistan, and the worldwide rise in meat consumption that exacts a huge toll on animal life, human health, and the world's environment.

Most likely, I am not alone in being unconvinced that the current global dynamics are unlikely to carry us very far toward anything but the Fortress World, and that our salvation does not lie in "green capitalism," the "green revolutions" of mechanized agriculture, genetic engineering, or Bill Gates' "road ahead." Despite the useful empirical analyses and the value of his scenarios, Hammond's book ultimately represents a massive collapse of critical thinking and a stupendous failure of the utopian imagination.

It is outrageous, for example, to see progressive value in alliances between McDonald's and the Environmental Defense Fund in order to achieve better waste recycling, while saying nothing about the relation between cattle grazing, rainforest destruction, and global warming, all of which dwarf the ludicrous insignificance of better packaging of Happy Meals. Such alliances do more harm than good, and this particular relation is symptomatic of a new stage in the history of American environmental movements, a "third wave" premised on forming close ties with corporations and the subsequent cooptation of mainstream environmental movements (see Mark Dowie, Losing Ground ). Similarly, the world environmental conferences in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and Kyoto, Japan, accomplished very little except to provide vehicles for corporate propaganda. In general, Hammond is totally blind to the phenomenon of greenwashing (see below) and takes the environmental propaganda of Shell Oil and the like as facts rather than lies and disinformation. He offers no critical analysis of institutions like the EPA, which is notorious for its ineptitude and corporate-friendly policies. The EPA protects our environment about as well as the USDA protects workers, animal welfare, and the health of consumers (see Gail Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse).

Hammond's blindness to institutionalized exploitation of human beings and the earth, to the blatant lies of corporate PR industries, to the failures of government reform and monitoring agencies, as well as to the inadequacies of mainstream environmental movements, is very clear if we turn to Tom Athanasiou's Divided Plant: The Ecology of Rich and Poor, which offers a far sharper analysis of our social and environmental problems.

Like Hammond's book, Athanasiou's is organized around empirical and political analysis of both social and environmental problems, but Athanasiou covers a wide body of literature and issues outside of Hammond's limited scope. Athanasiou effectively demolishes the naive optimism of the Market World future, the "ecorealism" of Gregg Easterbrook (A Moment on the Earth) and others that assure us environmental problems are fixable, and even Hammond's Transformed World vision, which itself proves too optimistic under critical scrutiny.

Athanasiou's key premise is that the "environmental movement" (to use that abstraction) is itself experiencing a crisis, and is in a key transition between the past and the future. Something clearly is wrong if, despite all the efforts of the last four decades, the overall environmental situation is rapidly worsening. To use Mark Dowie's terms in his book, Losing Ground, Athanasiou sees contemporary environmental politics to be beyond the "first wave" of Nineteenth-Century preservation and conservation movements, past the "second wave" that institutionalized the environmental movement during the 1960s and 1970s, and over the "third wave" that tried to harmonize environmentalism with free markets during the 1980s, to comprise a "fourth wave." This new form of environmental politics is comprised of grass roots movements that renounce alliances with corporations and, often, mainstream environment groups, to pursue a more radical anti-bureaucratic and anti-capitalist politics, such as do many "environmental justice" groups. "The old environmentalism has hit its limits," Athanasiou argues, and he calls for a "new ecology" that is similar to Murray Bookchin's social ecology—which seeks to link social and environmental problems from an anarchist perspective—only much more vague.

Athanasiou's book is far-ranging, covering environmental issues and debates in the industrialized "West" and "North," the developing "South," and the communist and postcommunist countries in the "East." Eschewing the ecorealism of Easterbrook, Athanasiou advances a "realist" and qualifiably "apocalyptic" position which insists, against Easterbrook, that the ecological crisis is all-too-real, as apparent with global warming, rainforest destruction, species extinction, overpopulation, and other grave problems. Following Bookchin, Athanasiou argues that such change will not come until forceful and direct links are made between environmental and social issues. Among other things, Athanasiou sharply rejects Malthusian positions that reduce the social dynamics behind overpopulation to a mere biological problem of overbreeding, targeting the world's poor instead of the consumption habits of the middle and upper classes. In addition, he vituperates against the misanthropic positions of Earth First! (known to chant "Four Legs Good! Two Legs Bad!"), and any apolitical deep ecology position that claims itself "neither Left nor Right, but Forward."

For Athanasiou, new articulations have to be made between traditional Left issues and environmental problems, without succumbing to the flawed legacy of Left politics, such as factionalism and bureaucracy. This means we cannot adequately solve or even formulate environmental problems until we draw the connections to issues of social justice, class, redistribution of wealth, land reform, poverty, unemployment, corporate hegemony, and so on. As Athanasiou argues, "It is folly to believe that a realistic environmental and development agenda, one that seeks peace rather than new kinds of war, will not be compelled to take up the unfinished business of the old left movement."

Athanasiou's book is rich in empirical analysis and statistics, and it is worth examining some of this to underscore his point that socio-economic conditions today are worse than ever, and that high levels of consumption and poverty alike take a huge toll on the environment. According to Athanasiou's figures, the gap between the world's rich and poor doubled between 1960 and 1989, "by which time the richest fifth of the world's people received 82.7 percent of the world's total income and the poorest fifth received only 1.4 percent — a ratio of 60 to 1!" In addition, "the North, with a fourth of the world's people, consumes 70 percent of the world's energy, 75 percent of its metals, 85 percent of its wood, and 60 percent of its food." Between 1981 and 1987, wages throughout Latin America fell 41 percent. "By 1990 over 1.3 billion people lacked access to safe drinking water, 880 million adults could not read or write, 770 million had insufficient food for an active working life, and over a billion lacked even the most rudimentary necessities. Today, as then, an estimated 13-18 million people, mostly children, die from hunger and poverty each year. That is about 40,000 people per day, or about 1,700 people an hour."

Given these shocking statistics, Athanasiou hinges the fate of the earth on whether or not the ever-widening gap between the world's rich and poor can be bridged in a politics of social justice. For Athanasiou, the environmental crisis stems from a crisis in democracy that allows an privileged elite to control the world's resources and devour them in their insatiable consumer appetites, while the poor die in droves. Hence, as the title of the book suggests, one needs to study the ecological problems that stem from an economically "divided planet." In addition, new definitions of "progress" and "development" have to be articulated that break with the unlimited logic of growth and competition, and measure these terms according to advances in overall human and ecological well-being.

An important chapter of Athanasiou's book thoroughly examines "greenwashing" and its "professionally organized systems of appearance management." Greenwashing techniques substitute image management for crisis management, involving the corporate world's various attempts to present itself as environmentally friendly, while in fact they are hastening ecological collapse. Corporations like Exxon, Du Pont, Chevron, and Waste Management are notorious for their "green" advertisements, but perhaps the most sustained propaganda barrage is the ads that Mobil Oil regularly place in the New York Times editorial page. Greenwashing is a multi-billion dollar industry that involves not only images and PR onslaughts, but also powerful lobbying forces that dominate the political process, and the use of "junk science" that disseminates disinformation about environmental problems (as groups like the Cato Institute try to assure us that the chances for global warming are "ludicrously small"). Unfortunately, Athanasiou claims, "even crude greenwashing works surprisingly well," not only in its Orwellian logic that transforms the rape of Gaia into a love fest, but also in its demonization of environmental groups and activists as "anti-progress" or even as "terrorists." Athanasiou sees greenwashing as here to stay, and as a major obstacle to social and environmental regeneration.

Divided Planet is written on the cusp of a paradigm shift in social-environmental thinking in relation to which Hammond's book lags far behind. The book smashes various myths, such as the poor are the problem, markets or technology alone can save us, more aid will end the crisis in the South, or that "sustainable development" (vague enough to be caught in any greenwashing net) is the way forward. Like Hammond, Athanasiou argues that the various modes of Panglossian optimism that envisage only win-win scenarios obscure the fact that humanity now faces some tough choices and problems. After a read of Athanasiou's critique of corporations and mainstream environmentalism, however, Hammond's vision of a Transformed World looks timid and implausible. But Athanasiou fails to offer concrete alternatives to the various capitalist models he assails, and on this point Hammond's visionary approach is superior, however limited.

At best, Athanasiou has a vague notion of a global "New Deal" that involves a massive redistribution of wealth within nations and across hemispheres. In the end, despite his glimmer of hope for change, Athanasiou offers a variation on the Fortress World scenario, a vision of a Tragic World that cannot come to grips with the enormity of its problems and enact viable solutions:

    Our tragedy lies in the richness of the available alternatives, and in the fact that so few of them are ever seriously explored. It lies in the rigidity of the war machines, the legacies of colonialism, the inflexibilities of the industrial tradition, the solaces of consumerism, the cynicism born of long disappointment, the habits of power. No wonder, given this, that our age seems not merely tragic, but tragic in the classical sense, that despite all possibility, we seem trapped in the that remorseless 'working of things' that the Greeks saw as the core of tragedy.

It is quite possible that the Tragic World is our future, that homo sapiens may follow the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals into oblivion, taking other advanced life forms with us. But, as Hammond and others are trying to rise the third wave, the fourth wave emerges as a hope for more substantive change, for a social ecology that challenges capitalist logic and institutions on all fronts, advancing a new alliance politics among, say, social justice, environmental, animal rights, and health groups. Hopefully, the fourth wave will rock this world, but we still need the vision, maps, and compasses of a new world, one that begins by saying "ya basta!" to the tired, oxymoronic illusion of a "green capitalism." We need visions of and struggles for a Postcapitalist Green World that rebuilds political and economic institutions for participatory democracy, as it harmonizes social and natural evolution.


Steven Best is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas, El Paso. His recent book (with Douglas Kellner), The Postmodern Turn, won the Michael J. Harrington Award for Best Social Theory Book of 1997-1998. Together, Best and Kellner just published The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies. Some of Steve's various writings can be accessed at www.drstevebest.org.
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Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century: Global Destinations, Regional Choices

by Allen Hammond

   Shearwater Books
   March 2000
   360 Pp.



Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor

by Tom Athanasiou

   University of Georgia
   March 1998
   385 Pp.


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