The Planet as a Patient
The Politics of an Image

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 June 1995


A presentation looking at the forces which have degraded the earth and which now propose to manage its recovery through processes such as “sustainable development”.


Safe In the Hands of Experts

Coming from someone who has spent the last twenty years working to bring the extent and consequences of ecological destruction to the public's attention, it might seem odd to question the image of the planet as a patient. Tropical forests are been ripped down or burned at a rate of a football pitch every minute. Toxic wastes contaminate land, rivers and seas. Fishing grounds are depleted. Global warming is a reality. Farm land is being eroded, salinized, waterlogged and degraded. Millions have been reduced to abject poverty, their livelihoods destroyed. Surely, such destruction justifies the image?

But images -- however graphically they seem to portray an event or a predicament -- can be dangerously misleading. To see a picture of a person is hospital, with tubes coming out of every orifice, machines bleeping in the background, and white-coated doctors hovering in attendance tells us that the person is very ill. But it does not tell us why the person is ill. Nor does it question whether the white-coated doctors are the best people to ensure that the person survives. It takes their role for granted. It assumes that the patient's interests are shared by the doctor. It casts the patient as an "object" whose fate is best left to the experts.

I make this point not to cast aspersions on doctors (though I have grave doubts about the nature of modern medicine) but to draw out some of my misgivings about the image of the earth as patient.

A Bolt out of the Blue?

And the first of those misgivings is that the image suggests that the ecological crisis is something that has come upon us out of the blue -- like a heart attack striking down someone in the street.

But the environmental crisis is not new. On the contrary, from the smokestacks of Victorian Britain to the logged out moonscapes of modern day British Colombia or Sarawak, environmental degradation has gone hand in hand with economic expansion, as commercial interests have sacrificed local livelihoods and environments in order to obtain raw materials, transform them into commodities, market them and dispose of the wastes.

Nor has the destruction gone unchallenged. In the South, local cultures have fought successive attempts -- first by colonial regimes and then by their "own" post-independence governments, acting in consort with commercial interests and international development agencies -- to transform their homelands and themselves into "resources" for the global economy. Timber operations have been sabotaged, logging roads blockaded, dams delayed, commercial plantations uprooted, factories and installations burned, mines closed down and rallies held in a constant effort to keep the forces of destruction at bay.

What's new is that environmental destruction can no longer be denied. Moreover, the opposition to such destruction has forced the previously marginalised discourse of environmentalism into the mainstream, transforming ecological destruction from a side issue that corporation felt able to disregard, into lost markets and lost votes. If timber companies are now making noises about moving towards "sustainable logging", it is not because they have suddenly become aware of the damage they are causing to the environment (in many cases, they still deny the problem) but because timber boycotts and local protests have forced them to respond to growing public outrage over their activities.

What is also new is that environmental degradation -- coupled with tighter environmental standards -- now threaten the throughput of resources in the global economy, denying it raw materials and sinks into which the detritus of industrialism can readily (and cheaply) be put. In the US alone, the cost of cleaning up the country's 2000 most polluting dumps has been estimated at $100 billion. No realistic figures can even be put on the social and economic disruption that will be incurred through global warming and ozone depletion.

For industrial interests, environmental degradation thus threatens to send the global economy into a tailspin. For them, this is what is new about the environmental crisis. For those whose livelihoods are being daily undermined by the growth economy, however, economic contraction is not the threat that the mainstream would have us believe: on the possibility, it brings the possibility for reclaiming control over their lives, for restoring what development has tended to destroy. Indeed as the Mexican social activist Gustavo Esteva notes, the debt crisis of the 1980s liberated many communities in Mexico: farmers began to grow crops of their choice, rather than crops for export; neighbourhoods came back to life as street stands and tiny markets returned to corners where they disappeared long ago; communities began to take decisions for themselves, as bureaucracies crumbled; and people began to realise they could live without development.

Who is to Blame?

This brings me to my second concern. The image of earth as patient tells us nothing about the forces that have caused the "patient" to become ill. It conveys the impression that the sickness is all we need to worry about. It renders invisible the faces of those who are doing the destroying and the faces of those who are suffering the consequences. It plays to the rosy-tinted idea, promoted at the Rio conference and elsewhere, notion of a world where all humanity is united by a common interest in survival, and in which conflicts of class, race, culture and gender are characterized as of secondary importance to humanity's supposedly common goals.

Constant references to "humanity's common resources", for example, neatly obscure the fact that the vast majority of people have no access to those resources, which they neither own nor control, and which are selfishly exploited for the narrow ends of the few. (In Brazil. for example, multinational companies own more land than all the peasants put together. In Britain, just nine per cent of the population owns 84 per cent of the land). Likewise, the flows of resources from Humanity's supposedly "common resource base" are grossly unequal. In the last 50 years, the US has single-handedly consumed more fossil fuels and minerals than the rest of humanity has consumed in all recorded history. The US beef industry alone consumes as much food as the populations of India and China combined, an orgy of consumption that is possible only by starving other people.

It is a an image that gives currency to the view that all humans share a common responsibility for environmental destruction, either because of the demands they are currently placing on the environment, or because of the demands they are expected to exert in the future. Thus instead of ozone depletion being blamed -- as it should be -- on specific corporate interests (Dupont, for example) using their global reach to globalized sales of ozone-depleting chemicals regardless of their known environmental impact, responsibility for the ozone hole is pinned on the future demand for fridges in the Third World.

Obscuring the Political

This brings me to my third concern. For the "Earth as Patient" is an image that depoliticises destruction.

It tells us only about destruction in the abstract. It tells us nothing about the millions who have been marginalized as a calculated act of policy, their commons dismantled and degraded, their cultures denigrated and devalued and their own worth reduced to their value as labour.

It is an image devoid of political institutions. It tells us nothing about the existence of multinational companies or multilateral development banks, bureaucracy or patriarchy. And it tells us nothing about the historical changes in society and economy that have brought about such structures. They are rendered invisible.

And, because such forces are painted out of the picture, we remain oblivious to the shifts in power that have created the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Dupont or MacDonalds. We learn nothing about the process of the processes that now go under the rubric of "development", "nation-building", "economic growth", and "progress" -- processes that are first and foremost processes of expropriation, exclusion, denial and dispossession. In a word, of "enclosure".

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a general definition of enclosure -- to "insert within a frame". Enclosure tears people and their lands, forests, crafts, technologies and cosmologies out of the cultural framework in which they are embedded and tries to force them into a new framework which reflects and reinforces the values and interests of newly-dominant groups. Any pieces which will not fit into the new framework are devalued and discarded. In the modern age, the architecture of this new framework is determined by market forces, science, state and corporate bureaucracies, patriarchal forms of social organization, and ideologies of environmental and social management.

Enclosure inaugurates what Ivan Illich has called "a new ecological order." It upsets the local power balance which ensured that survival was "the supreme rule of common behaviour, not the isolated right of the individual." Instead, it transforms the environment into a "resource" for national or global production -- into so many chips that can be cashed in as commodities, handed out as political favours and otherwise used to accrue power.

Enclosure reassigns control over those resources to those who are not responsible to the community. Most obviously, land -- and in particular, the best-quality land -- is concentrated in proportionately fewer and fewer hands.

Enclosure generates scarcity and conflict. Large-scale irrigated plantations, for example, deny water to local farmers who work outside the plantation system. In cities, people without motor-cars are progressively shut out from access to the street.

Enclosure cordons off those aspects of the environment that are deemed "useful" to the encloser -- whether grass for sheep in 16th century England or stands of timber for logging in modern-say Sarawak -- and defines them, and them alone, as valuable. A street becomes a conduit for vehicles; a wetland, a field to be drained; flowing water, a wasted asset to be harnessed for energy or agriculture. Instead of being a source of multiple benefits, the environment becomes a one-dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose -- the benefit of the encloser.

Enclosure reorganizes society to meet the overriding demands of the market. It demands that production and exchange conform to rules that reflect the exigencies of supply and demand, of competition and maximization of output, of accumulation and economic efficiency. Economic activity is cordoned off from other spheres of social life, bounded by rules that actively undermine previous networks of mutual aid.

Enclosure redefines community It shifts the reference points by which people are valued. Individuals become "units" whose "value" to society is defined by their relationship to the new political entity that emerges from enclosure. Increasing numbers of people do not have access to the environment, the political process, the market or the knowledge they need.

Enclosure thus ushers in a new political order When the environment is turned over to new uses, a new set of rules and new forms of organization are required. Enclosure redefines how the environment is managed, by whom and for whose benefit. Old forms of environmental management are forced into redundancy or vilified, derided or outlawed.

Enclosure redefines the forum in which decisions It redefines whose voice counts. In order to place management in the hands of "others", whose allegiances and sources of power lie outside the community, it cuts knowledge off from local ethics. Enclosure opens the way for the bureaucratization and enclosure of knowledge itself. It accords power to those who master the language of the new professionals and who are versed in its etiquette and its social nuances, which are inaccessible to those who have not been to school or to university, who do not have professional qualifications, who cannot operate computers, who cannot fathom the apparent mysteries of a cost-benefit analysis, or who refuse to adopt the forceful tones of an increasingly "masculine" world.

Enclosure is thus a change in the networks of power which enmesh the environment, production, distribution, the political process, knowledge, research and the law. It reduces the control of local people over community affairs. Whether female or male, a person's influence and ability to make a living depends increasingly on becoming absorbed into the new policy created by enclosure, on accepting -- willingly or unwillingly -- a new role as a consumer, a worker, a client or an administrator, on playing the game according to new rules. The way is thus cleared for cajoling people into the mainstream, be it through programmes to bring women "into development", to entice smallholders "into the market" or to foster paid employment.

Those who remain on the margins of the new mainstream, either by choice or because that is where society has pushed them, are not only deemed to have little value: they are perceived as a threat. Thus it is the landless, the poor, the dispossessed who are blamed for forest destruction; their poverty which is held responsible for "overpopulation"; their protests which are classed as subversive and a threat to political stability. And because they are perceived as a threat, they become objects to be controlled, the legitimate subjects of yet further enclosure.

Foxes in Charge of the Chickens

This is the reality of the development process. Yet it is a reality that is obscured by the image of the "Earth in Intensive Care".

We see the earth on the operating table. But we do not see what the doctors are doing. Nor are we invited to challenge their right to be deciding the "fate of the earth".

Instead we are presented with an image that legitimizes the status quo, that gives the powerful their biggest object for management yet, the entire planet.

Indeed, by portraying environmental degradation as a global problem requiring global solutions, the image of the Earth in Intensive Care has given added impetus to those multinational interests who would extend their global reach. By definition, they argue, only international institutions and national governments are up to the task in hand.

We now see the powerful attempting to frame environmental problems in terms of "solutions" which only the "developed" world (and its allies among elites in the Third World) can provide. Underpinning Agenda 21, the action programme agreed at the Rio Earth Summit, for example is the view that environmental and social problems are primarily the result of insufficient capital (solution: increase Northern investment in the South); outdated technology (solution: increase Northern investment in the South); a lack of expertise (solution: bring in Northern-educated managers and experts); and faltering economic growth (solution: push for an economic recovery in the North). The prior questions of whether money can solve the environmental crisis, of who benefits from capital and technology transfers, and of whose environment is to be managed and on whose behalf, are simply sidelined.

The development process -- the process of enclosure -- is thus left unchallenged. The need for action is deemed more important than settling differences as to what action should be taken, by whom, on whose say-so and with whose interests paramount.

The dangers of such a "crisis management mentality" are great. Few environmentalists would argue that environmental degradation has reached critical proportions -- destroying local livelihoods, condemning species to extinction, blighting landscapes and (if climatic disruption occurs on the scale predicted by some climatologists) possibly threatening the very future survival of humans and other mammals.

But increasingly the critical nature of such threats is being used to justify giving those currently in power still more authority: to legitimize programmes that would remove control still further from local people; and to sanction more management, more top-down development, more policing, still greater control of people, and still more manipulation of the environment. With crisis management comes "war room environmentalism". The environmental crisis, it has even been argued, should be treated as if it were "a military threat to national security" requiring "fast acting intervention instruments, such as an international environmental police force which should intervene whenever and wherever ecological threats are posed in or by a given country for the international community of nations."

That such thinking has gone unquestioned by mainstream environmental groups -- indeed, in many instances, it is part of their rhetoric too -- reflects the degree to which elites have been able to capture environmentalism and use it as a tool to increase their power.

Sustainable development is now being used to legitimize an agenda that, if unchallenged, threatens a new round of enclosure as devastating to the interests of ordinary people as anything that has gone before -- and just as destructive to the environment.

The priorities of the new environmental managers is clear. What is to be "managed" are those aspects of the environment that have value to the global economy -- from germplasm for biotechnology to pollution sinks and other commodities to be traded.

Whereas in the past, "crown sovereignty" and "poverty alleviation" were used to legitimize the appropriation of local resources the dismantling of local cultures, today it is "the environment" that is used to justify enclosure.

This time the goals are not simply to provide raw materials, cheap labour, and markets but to supply "environmental services" to mitigate the problems that the system itself continues to create. Carbon-dioxide-absorbing tree farms will supplant peasants' fields and fallows to "compensate" for pollution caused by factories thousands of miles away. The option of moving away from an industrial economy is not even being considered.


Enclosure has never gone unchallenged. Yet the image of "Earth as Patient" -- by removing people (other than managers) from the picture, gives us no inkling of such resistance.

Throughout history, commons regimes have resisted the enclosure of the forests, rangelands, fields, fishing grounds, lakes, streams, plants and animals that they rely upon to maintain their ways of life and ensure their well-being.

It is partly through such resistance that the ideology of economic growth as the only concrete solution to poverty, inequality and hardship is slowly being dismantled. Millions of people in both the South and the North who know first-hand of its false promise need no convincing. They know, as Gustavo Esteva puts it, that "development stinks".

And whilst most participants in the UN and similar forums have been interested only in "solutions" that will permit industrial growth to continue, movements that have been spawned through resistance to enclosure are carving out a very different path.

Their demands centre not on refining market mechanisms, nor incorporating text-book ecology into economics, nor on formulating new treaties, but on reclaiming the commons; on reappropriating the land, forests, streams and fishing grounds that have been taken from them; on reestablishing control over decision-making; and on limiting the scope of the market.

For some groups and communities, the focus of the struggle is the defence of existing commons regimes against enclosure: for others, the reclaiming of those commons that have been enclosed; and in still others, the building of new commons.

What begins as a fight against one form of enclosure -- a proposed incinerator, perhaps, or a plantation scheme -- often becomes part of a wide struggle to allow the community to define its own values and priorities.

The search is generally not for "alternatives" in the sense that Western environmentalists might use the term: rather it is to rejuvenate what works, to combine traditional and new approaches and to develop strategies that meet local needs. In that respect, the debate is not over such technocratic issues as how to conserve soil or what species of tree to plant - for those who rely on the commons, the starting point for addressing such questions is usually "Let's see what has worked in the past and build on that" -- but rather over how to create or defend open, democratic community institutions that ensure people's control over their own lives.

If there is a common denominator to the initiatives that have evolved from such struggles, it is not that they share a uniform "vision" of the future, or adhere to a single "blueprint" for change, but rather that they are all, in their many and various ways, attempts by local people to reclaim the political process and to re-root it within the local community.

The central demand made by group after group is for authority to be vested in the community -- not in the state, local government, the market or the local landlord, but in those who rely on the local commons for their livelihood. As such, the struggle is for more than the mere recognition of rights over the physical commons: critically, it is also a struggle to restore or to defend the checks and balances that limit power within the local community.

Key to the struggle is increasing the bargaining power of those who are currently excluded or marginalized from the political process and eroding the power of those who are currently able to impose their will on others. Only in this way -- when all those who will have to live with a decision have a voice in making that decision -- can the checks and balances on power that are so critical to the workings of the commons be ensured.

For those who are used to imposing their will and languages on others, or who see the threats facing humanity as so overwhelming that only centralized decision-making by cliques of experts can meet the task in hand, the call for community control is at best a threat to their power, at worst a recipe for indecision and muddling through to disaster.

But the evidence is overwhelming that local-level institutions in which power is limited and the common right to survival is the preoccupation of all, are the best means of repairing the damage done through enclosure.

One cannot legislate the commons into existence; nor can the commons be reclaimed simply by adopting "green techniques" such as organic agriculture, alternative energy strategies or better public transport -- necessary and desirable though such techniques often are.

Rather, commons regimes emerge through ordinary people's day-to-day resistance to enclosure, and through their efforts to regain livelihoods and the mutual support, responsibility and trust that sustain the commons.

Images of the Earth in Intensive Care do not tell us of such struggles. Nor do they invite us to join them. They do not tell us of initiatives being taken by grassroots groups across the world to protect and sustain their patch of forest, their fishing ground, their field or marsh. They rightly tell us of the suffering of the earth -- but they do so only in order to tell us of the need for expert management.