A La Trobe University anthropologist has been invited to develop and teach a unit for a major initiative by UNESCO to promote peace and sustainability. The four-week intensive on sustainable development and the environment will focus on human conditions – poverty, inequality and how they relate to environmental problems. It is a unique approach developed by Dr Alberto Gomes that challenges the dominance of free market economics in the world eye.
‘Our everyday lives have become dominated by economic calculus,’ Dr Gomes says. ‘This needs to be challenged. We need to move to different ways of managing our lives like tribal people – on the basis of ecological principles and green values.’
Dr Gomes draws on thirty years of work with the tribal peoples of Malaysia. They have been compelled to give up environmentally sustainable practices to adjust to modern economic principles. They used to manage the forests communally. Now they are engaged in commercial agriculture which promotes individualism.
The important role anthropologists can play in framing new ways of looking at the world situation is highlighted by Dr Gomes’ appointment. He is teaching the course for the UNES CO International Master in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at Unversitat Jaume I, in Castellõn, Spain during November and December.
Political ecology is one of the new ways of looking at these development issues that takes into account the social and political conditions of communities.
‘If you want to understand the impact of the extraction of oil in Africa, political ecology says that it’s not just a matter of looking at the environmental aspect but also the complex underlying political economic conditions. For example, how do power relations – the dominance of certain groups over others – impact on people’s relations with the environment? A lot of the conflicts that have emerged in Africa are somehow related to resource extraction. If you analyse them deeper they are to do with unequal distribution of resources.’
Free market economics is a Western concept that does not sit well with communities in less-developed countries, Dr Gomes says. ‘Such a type of economics promotes competition whereas many traditional societies adhere to a communal and egalitarian lifestyle with a strong sharing ethic. Free market capitalist economics promotes a hierarchical structure. Inequality is an integral part of the system.’
Dr Gomes is also taking a tough line on the issue of population control in an approach he calls the Malthusian spectre. ‘I challenge the conventional view that the depletion of resources is primarily due to increasing human population,’ he says. ‘You can have small populations that consume a lot more than larger ones. One US person, for example, consumes 40 times more energy than a Bangladeshi.
‘If we are concerned about environmental issues we should curtail growth of high-consuming groups. Why do we promote population control in the developing world?’
Low consumption in developing countries is often labelled as poverty by Western economists. ‘The issue is not about poverty but inequality,’ Dr Gomes says. ‘People are condemned to be poor because they don’t have equal access to the resources that would allow them to escape poverty.
‘High economic growth in India and China has increased the rate of inequality. The free market benefits people unequally. If you take India for example, an economist would say the country is progressing. Per capita incomes in India have increased but it is only a small percentage of people who have contributed to the increased per capita figures.’
Judging economic success by per capita income is a very narrow way of looking at the issue, he says.‘If we speak about environmental problems, they tend to affect those in poverty much more than rich, affluent societies because of the transfer of pollution to marginal rural areas. Flexible capitalism promotes the placement of polluting industries in poor areas where labour demands can be filled.