In spite of the universalization of the phrase “sustainable development,” there remains a tendency in the North to see the issue of ecology in a form that is isolated from the neocolonial reality of the Third World. This is a consequence of two factors. (1) The historic segmentation of popular movements in the United States, retarding the development of integral forms of thinking. (2) The pervasive “colonial denial” of the cultures of the North (see “Overcoming the colonial denial” 7/29/2013). In contrast, in the Third World, anti-colonial popular movements have been formed that integrate issues that emerge from the excluded vantage points of various popular sectors, including workers, peasants, students, women, blacks and indigenous persons. This gives rise to integral forms of thinking, in which the understanding of ecological issues is intertwined with other issues. At the same time, Third World governments that have been captured by popular movements must struggle to transform structures of neocolonial productive, commercial, and financial penetration in order to address the social and economic rights of the people, thus giving rise to the view that ecological needs must be balanced with other overwhelming needs of the population.
An example of the segmented thinking of the North may be the position taken by Mitchel Cohen, who in 2013 called upon Cuba to abandon its experiments in genetically-modified agriculture. Mitchel has impressive left-wing credentials. In 1967, at the age of 18, was a leader in the student anti-war movement at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was one of the founders of the Red Balloon Collective in 1969, and he has written numerous political pamphlets. He currently is a member of a number of organizations of the Left, and he hosts a weekly internet radio show.
In his criticism of the Cuban experiments in genetically-modified agriculture, Mitchel cited a Cuban scientist who stated that in Cuba the needs of the people must take priority over the environment. Mitchel considered this to be “a surprisingly un-dialectical view.” But in my view, it is a common and necessarily balanced view, a reflection of neocolonial reality.
Following Mitchel’s presentation at a conference in Cuba, he and I had a brief debate on the theme in the discussion list of the Radical Philosophy Association. I maintained that Cuba sees its approach as a centrist position between two extremes in the North. On the one side, there are the large corporations that engage in genetically engineered agriculture for the sake of profit, without concern for ecological consequences. On the other side, there are the ecologists, who call for the abandonment of genetically-modified agriculture, concerned for its ecological consequences. Cuba, seeing the enormous benefits of genetically-modified agriculture with respect to food production, is conducting experiments under carefully controlled conditions, ensuring that the genetically modified seeds do not mix with conventional crops (which of course also have been modified from natural plants for ten thousand years by virtue of human participation in the process of natural selection).
From my apartment terrace, I have a wonderful view of the city of Havana. I can see across the bay a smokestack, which every morning spews smoke into the air to mingle with the clouds. The smokestack is part of the infrastructure of an oil refinery. The national assembly, the highest authority in the land, has enacted laws with respect to environmental protection, and the oil refinery every month is in violation of the law. But no state entity takes action against the state company that owns the refinery. The reason, of course, is that the state petroleum company has a contractual obligation to manufacture a given quantity of oil each month in order to respond to the productive and transportation needs of the nation, and enforcement of the law would mean that the productive quota could not be met. So the smokestack does its thing, in contradiction to the expressed political will of the people, and in conformity with the needs of the people.
It is not that the city of Havana suffers from air pollution. The air of the city is in far better shape than many metropolitan areas of the North. The reason for the relatively clean air is that there are fewer cars. The great majority of people use public transportation in the form of city buses and collective taxis, which are cars that follow regular routes on major avenues, collecting and discharging passengers, carrying up to five passengers at a time. It is an ecological approach to urban transportation, born of necessity.
I enjoy looking every morning at that smokestack on the other side of the bay, for it is a daily affirmation of the common-sense intelligence of the Cuban Revolution.