Views And Reviews

Mortgaging the Earth

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6953.548a (Published 20 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:548
  1. D Logie

    Bruce Rich Earthscan, £14.95, pp 376 ISBN 1-85383-221-8

    This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, two of the century's quintessential institutions, founded at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire in 1944 in the wake of economic collapse during the second world war. Their aim was to encourage global economic growth, smooth out financial fluctuations, and finance international relief. Bruch Rich of the US Environmental Defense Fund finds no cause for celebration. In Mortgaging the Earth he harshly criticises the social and environmental effects of many of the World Bank's projects and views this agency as a “prime accomplice in a quiet war against the diversity of human cultures and our planet's biological inheritance.”

    The founders of the bank saw it feeding off limitless natural resources to bring ever increasing economic prosperity to all corners of the globe. Instead, obsessed with grandiose projects, pressurised into turning money around quickly whatever the consequences, centralised, bureaucratic, and highly secretive, the bank has been responsible for environmental destruction on a vast scale, catalysing widespread deforestation in the name of “economic progress.” Whether building a polluting coal fired power plant in India, burning rainforest in Brazil, or moving populations in Indonesia, the bank has to answer for the involuntary uprooting of tens upon tens of millions of people - the poor, the illiterate, and the voiceless. Vast agricultural expanses have been removed from the hands of small farmers and consolidated into enormous holdings for the export trade. Dams, which destroy untold biological species, also breed illnesses such as schistosomiasis and malaria.

    Doctors should be especially aware of the bank's role in reversing social welfare during the 1980s. By creating a reverse negative flow of funds from poor South to rich North the bank has failed in its role as a “development agency.” To prevent debt meltdown and provide quick fixes of foreign exchange, it has exacerbated the debt crisis with its “structural adjustment” programmes, which reduce public spending on social services and health. This has particularly affected Africa, where a slowing down, or even reversal, of the decline in infant mortality, plus deteriorating nutrition and reduced access to health and education are reality for most people.

    This book is, however, more than just a critique of the World Bank. Rich uses the bank as an example of a wider global environmental sickness, one of lack of accountability and lack of attention to local knowledge. He sees hope in the growth of grassroots communities, increasingly intercommunicating, such as the Indian Chipko movement and the Brazilian rubber tappers' resistance.

    For most of the world “development” has simply failed to materialise, and this failure encourages the spread of ethnic and regional nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Rich's eminently readable book questions the post Rio philosophy of centralised “sustainable economic development,” epitomised in the bank's new Global Environment Facility. This important book contributes significantly in the struggle to save our human habitat. I hope that the bank will spend its 50th birthday considering its criticisms.

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