As we begin to associate Rohingya refugees with environmental degradation we might still not be interpreting the full picture properly. When they arrived our sympathies led us to blame the Myanmar military; yet, when the environmental costs begin soaring, our fingers have turned to pointing them as villains, beginning a blame-game which will ultimately dilute the military's role. It is not that the Myanmar military will eventually escape scot-free from culpability, although that has been the case thus far, but accusing refugees for environmental damage opens a slippery slope in which one negative consequence will be followed by another until, eventually, short-term responses, more precisely, reactions, as against well-thought-out strategies benefiting all sides, prevail in life-betterment decision-making.
Behind this particular episodic interpretation lay many others: Rohingya refugees are not among the five largest uprooted flocks. Afghanis in Pakistan, but particularly Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, rank in the top five, with Gaza and the West bank filling in two of the other top blank spaces. Behind all of them lie an authoritarian start, either ethnic conflict, or dictatorial decisions, while the Palestinians evicted by self-proclaimed 'democratic' Israel also shows authoritarian decisions hold no governance boundaries. In other words, short-term realities keep obscuring the real culprits from any form of recalibration, rethinking, and reforming trajectories. For example, in this case, not just flagging dictators as and when they enter office, but also spreading that correction net wider to non-authoritarian governments just in case of the oddball here or there, or the free-rider in gentleman's clothing.
The negative environmental consequences of military rule can be traced to many countries, the top-five being Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Here, too, we find another anomaly: our immediate efforts pay less attention to the environmental consequences than the humanitarian urgencies, ranging from food, medicine, shelter, and the like, which then depletes the 'aid' kitty to the point that secondary or consequential issues, such as any SDG (sustainable developmental goals) fulfilment, or climate change investments get a short-shrift ending. Not only will there not be much left in the 'public' coffer of each individual, but the patience and other human sentiments necessary to prop up humanitarian-type cases may also want to net social disadvantage.
One disturbing hypotheses: we might witness serious environmental damages/reversals in all of these unfold before our very eyes without even driving us into any remedial action; and if we look deep enough, behind the humanitarian concerns would be the governance structure causing these ripple effects but escaping commensurate correction.
While a dictatorial governmental form ought to be on any environmental watch-list if sustainability is still the targeted goal, the only 'good' news for authoritarian leaders is that they are not the only environmental or humanitarian villains: democratic leaders vie for the same dubious recognition. Mention was made of Israel's relatively more democratic governments driving Palestinians not only from their own homes, but into squalid camps where they will eventually find themselves incapable of thinking of environmental sustainability, let alone welfare of any kind. Even the staunchest and most enduring democratic countries cannot hypothetically qualify as full-fledged environmental saviours.
One reason why democracy is at odds with environmentalism is the private enterprise being given full freedom, or mostly so. Enough evidence has been accumulated to make private industries a bigger environmental villain than dictators, even worse, how they rip apart the very hallmarks of democracy (for example, the cliché, of, for, and by the people, is taken for a ride): by lobbying behind pet, yet damaging production and sales, as well as investment seeking profits far more one-sided than environmental purity, we release the very pests and then run to prepare some pesticide for. Bangladesh's garment and leather industries have wreaked havoc on ground-water and river-water, for instance, but even in developed countries, cattle-ranches, for example, have reduced forest-levels and denuded soil of routine nutrients by inviting fertilisers to boost grass or injecting pesticides, harmful to the very bees upon whom life depends. Coal-mining, a small but robust sector even in environmentally conscious countries, like the United States, is worse, but even more extreme is the institutionalised sale of adulterated food, a practice as old as the agriculture-manufacturing profit-making combo (late 19th century). Community energy needs in particularly quasi-democratic and less developed countries have accented easily-available coal over solar or renewal sources, leaving contaminated consequences, just as individual human energy needs from food also leaves a distastefully damaging bug in the body.
Both dictatorships and democracies require central government, even if the democratic government is federal: after all, democracy is measured by the net country governance format rather than how one unit of that democratic country functions, while centralisation just happens to be the very platform of dictators, if only to show complete power-control over others. Perhaps environmentalism is surviving inefficiently because of the central level of governance is being so dominant. This is not to say provincial levels are, ipso facto, more environmentally sensitive or beneficial, but evidence does support that. The more local the governance, the more likely key local issues will be preserved; and since less developed countries have agriculture dominating at the local level more than any other employment-outlet, quite likely the silent environmental-friendly traditional practices still influence rural dwellers today. May be this was the road less travelled after acquiring independence, with the immediate search for identity and development truncating the future sustainability shadow.
In other words, the more local the governance, the more the environmental benefits, especially when it is under the microscope, as it probably was not until perhaps only two or three generations ago. Grassroots guardianship may then be the most recommended form of environmental governance. Sure there have been refugees and other disturbing migratory flows, not to mention burn-and-slash practices of historical invaders, but the global-level environmental scorecard, along with its ozone-level, were resilient enough to overcome these periodic shocks. That is not the case anymore, as violent spasms seem to be unleashing a vicious cycle when they occur: not only have refugee flows recorded new heights, for example 25.8 million in 2018, thus overtaking the previous 25.4 million peak, that too in 2017 (Emi Suzuki, "The number of refugees has increased 70% since 2011," World Economic Forum, Newsletter, September 05, 2019), but the Amazon forest fire also alerted us that our 'lungs' may be vulnerable wherever else we live.
If we are nearing the end of the 'earth overshoot' lease (that is, our consumption overtaking the earth's production capacities), perhaps we may also have to look at the form of government and the governance level most emphasised in our recovery analysis. As it is we have too many major life-style changes, from water-conservation, automobile reliance, and food consumption, but now putting the government, any one, on the line, may be the evolving demand. If it does turn out that way, we will be able to rise above ideologies, the scourge of the 19th and 20th centuries: rather than the form of government, the level of governance, however defined, becomes the key, dragging with it, the greater sovereignty need at the grassroots.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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