Geographies of oppression and the politics of pollution

The manner by which social relations are produced and reproduced spatially under capitalism has never been spatially egalitarian.  The planetary of labour, commodity production, distribution and consumption, have always presupposed uneven patterns of development across spaces and geographies, both locally and across the globe.  Politically, this inequality has been and continues to be expressed in multiple forms of oppression: slavery, colonialism-imperialism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and so on.  If the expansion of capitalism has rested upon the extension and intensification of commodity production, with their its freedom of movement, the creation and sustaining of the conditions for the same (primitive accumulation: land appropriations, enforced imposition of salaried labour, destruction and/or appropriations of the many commons, hierarchical sex-gender and race categorisations, etc.) and the extraction of profit, by contrast, have always demanded the restriction and control of movements of people and their hierarchical organisation in increasingly global economies and politics.

The immediate costs and benefits of these social relations are thus not equally shared.  In like manner, and perhaps less commonly observed, are the unequal distribution of costs that are typically not calculated monetarily, what economists “objectively” or “bloodlessly” call “externalities”.

We share below in a partial translation a short article that originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2017) and which speaks of one such externality: pollution and the politics of its unequal distribution.

The Politics of Pollution

Pierre Rimbert

One can decimate the population with toxic gases without being bombed by cruise missiles or incurring international condemnation, but on one condition: proceed on a large scale and in a continuous manner.  “In 2015”, estimates a team of researchers in an article published in the medical journal The Lancet, “the long term exposure to atmospheric particulate matter (less than 2.5 micrometres), caused the death of 4.2 million people and the loss of 103.1 million years of healthy life.” (1)  The toll of this essentially industrial air pollution does not cease to increase.  But not for everyone.  “These premature deaths occur in 59% of the cases in South and East Asia”, notably in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In this last country, the atmosphere contains on average ten times more particulate matter than that of the United States.

One suffocates in the workshops of the world so that one may breath at ease in the shopping centres of Paris or Los Angeles without the risk of fouling one’s lungs.  This audacious hypothesis, which makes of free-trade one of the principal causes of death on earth, does not originate in a radical booklet, but from a second article, published this time in the scientific journal Nature. (2)  Region by region, the researchers evaluated the deaths due to particulate matter, as they arise from the production of goods and services, consumption or from the atmospheric displacement of pollutants.  They estimate that out of the 3.45 million premature deaths due to particulate matter recorded in 2007, “22%, that is, 762,400 deaths, were tied to the goods and services produced in a region, but consumed in another”, thus linked to international trade, against “12%, that is 411,100 deaths, due to pollutants originating in a region different from that where the deaths occurred”, in other words, as a consequence of the movement caused by winds of particulate matter from one country to another.

For example, “the pollution emitted by China in 2007 resulted in more than 64,800 premature deaths in other regions of the world, including 3,100 deaths in Western Europe and the United States.  But on the other side, the consumption in Europe and the United States of Chinese goods is tied to more than 108,600 premature deaths in China”.  Because they corrupt their atmosphere to produce at home sneakers and smartphones that others consume elsewhere, the Chinese find themselves exporters of goods and services, but net importers of deaths due to polluted air.  Reciprocally, when they import merchandise, the rich countries export the mortality associated with particulate matter.  “If it turns out that the cost of imported products is lower because of less strict atmospheric pollution controls in the producing countries”, conclude the scientists, “then the consumers economise to the detriment of lives lost elsewhere.”

  1. Aaron Cohen et al., “Estimates and 25-year trends of the global burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution: An analysis of data from the Global Burden of Diseases Study 2015”, The Lancet, London, vol. 389, nº 10078, April 15, 2017.
  2. Qiang Zhang et al., “Transboundary health impacts of transported global air pollution and international trade”, Nature, London, vol. 543, nº 7647, March 30, 2017.


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