In this 5-part series Dr Abdul Wahid looks at the environmental challenge, their causes and how numerous summits have tried to address the issue. The series will also assess the environmental challenges in the Muslims world and Islam’s unique perspective on the environment.
In this part, we briefly address some of the types of environmental damage that affect people today – and in doing so, will address how these have been made worse in a world dominated by Capitalism. This is not meant as a comprehensive accumulation of the best evidence – but rather as an illustration.
Environmental harms can be seen as:
- On-going harms – Those which have affected people for decades – including those harms caused by, or allowed to continue due to conflict and poor governance.
- Emerging harms – which have been affecting people in recent years like temperature extremes, floods and droughts – all felt to be related to climate change – as well as potential threats – that which is feared to come in future if action is not taken now.
2.1 On-going harms across the world
Many people on the planet have been affected by other forms of environmental damage for a long time, which has been very real for them, yet has drawn less urgency than the threats perceived from climate change.
On a day-to-day basis, these environmental harms manifest themselves as contaminated water – due to either human or industrial waste, polluted air, contamination of the soil, and damage to crops and animals.
These in turn are caused by conflict or poor governance.
It is our contention that global capitalism has made these problems worse because it promotes conflict over resources; supports failing regimes for colonial motives; and promotes wealth inequality.
By contrast, the Islamic solution for all of these issues is via good governance, whereby rulers have to look after peoples’ affairs; security under the Khilafah; and the Islamic economic system that promotes wealth circulation.
Let us consider some of these issues in brief:
2.1.1 The Role of Conflict
The harms caused by conflict include contamination of soil and water supply; damage to crops and irrigation; damage to oil, gas and industrial plants, so leading to environmental fallout; damage to water treatment plants; landmines and explosive remnants.
The world dominated by Capitalism has been a world of war. Wars that used poison gas since World War One; landmines and aerial bombardment since World War Two; Napalm and deforestation since the Vietnam War; Depleted Uranium during the Gulf War in 1991; and White Phosphorus used in Occupied Palestine against the Palestinian people. It is a world that invented and used nuclear weapons twice against civilians.
In more recent years, it is a world that has seen conflict brought to Afghanistan (1979 and 2001), Iraq (1991 and 2003), Syria (2011), Yemen (since 2014), and more places besides – all of which have seen direct killing in the conflict but also morbidity and mortality due to environmental damage.
The Gulf War in 1991 was followed by a rise in the incidence of cancer, particularly in children. The cause has often been attributed to the use of Depleted Uranium, amongst other possible agents.
Whilst the direct link is contested by some, research into the effect of toxic agents on US troops supports the fact that conflict inherently causes environmental harm that would not merely hurt the invading forces but the civilian population.
Such conflicts are inherently linked to Capitalism – which has a militarised colonial foreign policy stemming from its philosophical base. Thomas Friedman highlighted this relationship saying that “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”
Therefore addressing the security situation of people in those regions affected by conflict would alleviate or prevent many such harms.
2.1.2 Issues related to poor governance
Much of the poverty that exists in the world is accompanied by poor hygiene, inadequate sewage, and dirty water. In truth, this is a failure of governance by failing to look after the affairs of people and failing to circulate wealth.
Again, these are environmental catastrophes that people have to live with daily – not something subject to debate or concern about future harms.
For many people today, drinking or bathing in filthy water is the norm, which needs urgent attention but has been neglected. Drinking water is at constant risk of contamination in many places, with life-threatening bacteria such as cholera, typhoid, Shigella, E.coli; viruses such as hepatitis A and norovirus infections of bathing water; protozoa such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia; and other parasites like schistosomiasis.
A World Health Organization report from 2019 estimated that at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces and that contaminated drinking water causes 485,000 deaths from diarrhoea each year.
Separating clean from dirty water was a political action that developed countries undertook more than a century ago, dramatically reducing the incidence of such diseases. Yet, in many countries – particularly ex-colonies – the governance is so poor, that these basic steps have yet to be addressed.
Global inequality has become more extreme in a Capitalistic world – widening the gap between those who lack basic hygiene standards and those who do not.
So, addressing poverty through economic policies that circulate wealth widely, and improving governance to redress some of these effects of poverty, are steps that can be taken to address these real problems of today.
The accumulation of non-biodegradable materials
The massive use of plastic-based products which do not break down in the way organic products do is a huge problem affecting both disposal through landfill sites and the sea, but also in terms of contamination of waterways.
The US environmental protection agency estimated that in 2018 about 146 million US tons of municipal solid waste (132 million metric tonnes) were landfilled. Food was the largest component at about 24%. Plastics accounted for over 18% (24 million US tons).
This is a by-product of the growth imperative and consumer philosophy that Capitalism breeds – and will be discussed in more detail later.
The Islamic economic system, as well as Islamic values, would do much to prevent this. In addition, good governance would address aspects of regulation.
Other forms of industrial pollution
Water: Aside from the aforementioned problems of hygiene, drinking water can be contaminated by chemical pollutants from factories, fertilizer run-off from farming, and sewage. Heavy metals, harmful chemicals, microplastics, and even radioactive isotopes are harmful pollutants. Pollution that is disposed of in rivers and into the sea is returned back to humans in the food we eat. The Fukushima nuclear disaster contaminated water as well as air. Similarly, the Chernobyl disaster allowed radioactive water to spread through the soil of the surrounding area.
Water Quality Facts:
● One in nine people worldwide uses drinking water from unimproved and unsafe sources
● 2.4 billion people live without any form of sanitation
● Lack of sanitation is one of the most significant forms of water pollution.
● 90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into water bodies
● Every day 2 million tonnes of sewage and other effluents drain into the world’s water
● Industry discharges an estimated 300-400 megatonnes of waste into water bodies every year
● Non-point source pollution from agriculture and urban areas often greatly increases the total pollutant load together with industrial point source pollution
● A reduction of about one-third of the global biodiversity is estimated to be a consequence of the degradation of freshwater ecosystems mainly due to pollution of water resources and aquatic ecosystems
● Re-use of wastewater in agriculture is important for livelihoods, but is associated with serious health risks
Source: https://en.unesco.org/waterquality-iiwq/wq-challenge (last accessed 26.9.21)
Air pollution: The WHO estimates that 7 million people a year die from air pollution. They estimate that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. It is estimated that air pollution contributes to 25% of adult deaths from heart disease and stroke, and that 29% of lung cancer deaths and 43% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Sadly Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are considered the countries with the worst air pollution – a matter which is an indictment of the system.
All of these require good governance in terms of setting, monitoring and enforcement of standards – something sadly lacking in many parts of the world.
2.2 Climate Change
This is the most topical issue discussed today. It is feared that supranormal temperatures could cause harm to human health, as well as mass displacement of populations and food insecurity due to rising sea levels and flooding.
The preponderant view of scientific experts today is that the average temperature of the earth is rising at nearly twice the rate it was 50 years ago. It is argued that this cannot be explained merely by natural cycles – and that contribution of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by human societies is culpable for this recent direction. These GHGs, which trap heat within our atmosphere, include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They argue that they are currently higher than at any point over the past 800,000 years. This trapping of heat and subsequent temperature rise can be harmful in many ways such as destruction of delicate ecosystems, freshwater and biodiversity loss and extreme weather events including droughts and hurricanes.
This dominant opinion supports the understanding of human-induced planetary degradation. It is summarised in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 42-page document known as the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ published in August 2021.
The IPCC 2021 report’s headline points are that:
- Global surface temperature was 1.09C higher in the decade between 2011-2020 than between 1850-1900.
- The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850
- The recent rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared with 1901-1971
- Human influence is “very likely” (90%) the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea-ice
- It is “virtually certain” that hot extremes including heat waves have become more frequent and more intense since the 1950s, while cold events have become less frequent and less severe.
It is argued that this is a matter that cannot be addressed by one country alone. Rather, states have to come together to cooperate to address matters, because climates, air and waterways cross borders.
Nonetheless, this is not an opinion that is wholly unchallenged.
Firstly, there are some who see the IPCC as an ‘establishment voice’. It currently comprises 195 Member Governments and 134 observer organizations. Its funding is via some member governments as well as the EU and UN agencies. This in itself casts doubt on its ‘independence’.
Secondly, science is rarely unbiased. Even if one excludes conflicts of interest, debates around climate change are so polarised, it is hard to unpick personal bias.
Thirdly, science is rarely absolutely certain (qatai). The more variables in any given issue, the less precise the science. So there are some who would say that, given that climate change is one of the most complex phenomena addressed by science, it makes even the strongest opinions relatively uncertain. Thereafter, understanding the contribution of human behaviour is even less certain; and hence the proposed solutions (for example, in terms of major changes in terms of targets for CO2 emissions) are even less certain.
Regardless of either opinion, there are a few important points to be borne in mind in this discussion:
- The primary focus on targets ignores the need to manage demand for material products in a capitalist system that clearly has no intention to challenge consumerism and an endless quest for economic growth.
- The international negotiations about targets are about powerful nations competing to act in their own interests – each trying to achieve an outcome in negotiations that favours itself. There is no powerful voice for the Muslim world in these negotiations, or indeed the developing world.
- Poor governance and a lack of strategic thinking means that, as the developed world rushes to make technological changes to place them ahead in the global economic race, much of the world will continue to lag behind.
Climate change and global warming are argued to be linked to Capitalism due to the excesses of consumerism that fuels demand for material things, as well as unregulated industrialisation to meet consumer demand. We will consider this in more detail in the next section.
However, what is apparent is that few policy makers will propose policies to address these excesses that are felt to be responsible for the harms presumed to be affecting the global climate.
The current climate change debate is fundamentally about geopolitics. It is about states competing with each other for economic dominance and energy security. It is about defining the agenda, each for their own interests – not about helping the planet.
- COP26 is a cop-out and not a sincere effort to help humanity
- COP26: moment of truth… or cop-out?
- Capitalism Frustrates Serious Change on Climate
 Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity,’ BBC Online, 9 August 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-58130705