The anti-environmentalism of results

Image: ColeraAlegria


The current government takes a clear position that it doesn't care about multilateral international relations and that its project is to dismantle the public machinery of environmental regulation at the national level.

The literature explains that the explicit environmental policy – ​​the one that evoked that name when the Special Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA) was created – was inaugurated in Brazil in the 1970s for two reasons: to seek to adjust the country to the agenda international following the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972; and that of trying to divert the attention of public opinion from the actions of the fight against the dictatorship, directing the focus to an apparently new conflict, of an environmental nature, which, in 1973, opposed associations of residents and defenders of the environment to a paper company, responsible for heavy pollution in the Metropolitan Region of Porto Alegre[I]. The dictatorship understood, then, that environmental struggles had nothing to do with political, democratic and class struggles.

Today, fifty years later, the current government takes a clear stance that it doesn't care about multilateral international relations and that its project is to dismantle the public machinery of environmental regulation at the national level. His rejection of the global environmental agenda is part of a broader refusal – the refusal to consider pertinent any supra-individual dimension of social experience – anything that concerns problems experienced in common by groups or countries, those dimensions inevitably shared by different actors in the social world. and biophysical. And this ranges from the viral microbiology of the pandemic to atmospheric events; from oil spills in fishing areas to mercury contamination of rivers that cross indigenous lands. The reference unit of policy is, for this government, sovereign private property – notably that of land and arms owners. On the other hand, at the national level, contrary to the 64 regime that serves as a model for them, the current rulers show signs of understanding the environmental issue as a class issue or a communist thing, as their ideologues say. This discourse does not result from a fine sociological perception, but from his adherence to the project of possessive individualism.[ii] radical and authoritarian: only the individual owner of land, capital and weapons deserves respect.

While the dictatorship was “environmentalized” for pragmatic and pro-forma reasons, the group in power today intends a practical “de-environmentalization” of the State through what we can call an “anti-environmentalism of results”[iii] – that is, a project in which any and all means – staging, manipulation or fraud – are used to establish a “general liberation” in the domination of the territory and its resources by large economic interests to the detriment of rural workers, residents of urban peripheries, peoples and traditional communities. With a degraded public sphere, neo-fascism does not feel committed to the need to provide any justification for its actions – only the result matters. Every discourse and practice serves to stimulate the expropriation of the environment of the dispossessed – to refuse resources from the Amazon Fund; receive land grabbing representatives in ministerial halls; give a medal to a mining boss; buy millionaire equipment to justify the government ignoring INPE data on deforestation; veto an article of law that would guarantee water supply to indigenous peoples during a pandemic, dismantle bodies and say that these bodies “do not have the legs” to carry out their inspection tasks. The literature says that, with the advent of neoliberalism, there is a capture of environmental policies by the interests that are being regulated. With liberal-authoritarianism, anti-environmentalism takes over.

Amazonian and Pantanal policies, for example, are understood as pure psychological warfare, a typical form of military reductionism in dealing with the political field. The general in charge of the Amazon Council calls “our propaganda” the publicity piece paid for and produced by cattle ranchers in southern Pará, saying that “everything is in order in the region, because the large landowners preserve the forests”. This is how the general explained the breadth of his strategic thinking: “they have their propaganda; we have ours”. With the Pantanal in flames, largely provoked, the president of the republic congratulates: “Brazil is to be congratulated; It is the country that most preserves the environment”. Meanwhile, on the ground, the order of mining, land grabbing and burning prevails. In the war – not just psychological – engaged by the government and the ruralists, the enemy is not exactly Leonardo dei Caprio, but the indigenous people, the quilombolas and the small farmers who suffer from land grabbing, burning and other attacks on their rights.

But this authoritarian class anti-environmentalism ends up causing problems for the more modernized sector of agribusiness, indirectly pressured from abroad. These exporters do not seem to be able to keep up with the radical deregulatory action of their representatives within the state. Some would prefer to cultivate a green façade, adhering to the rhetoric of “stakeholder” capitalism that has accompanied the international discourse of the Green New Deal. The President of the World Economic Forum had just announced: "The protection of nature will be part of the 'great reset', including a new social contract and a shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism."[iv]. But, around here, it's hard not to see the logical connection – even if it differs in time – between modern agribusiness, with its shareholders, and the agents of direct expropriation on the frontier of capitalist expansion in the countryside. The invaded areas, the felled and burned forests, at the end and wide, will end up integrating the land market.

The environmental issue is now central to affirming or criticizing the authoritarian extractivism that prevails in Latin America today. There is an elective affinity between the neo-extractivist model of development – ​​namely, the financialized reprimarization of the economy – and authoritarianism. This is because rentier activities do not necessarily have to face the challenges – typical of productive practices – of subordinating workers by trying to motivate them and seeking to associate them, psychologically and disciplinarily, with the employers' business project. It is basically a question of preventing them from hindering your access to sources of funds and the fluidity of the routes for the circulation of materials. Communities are, in general, in the extractive business logic, considered “interferences” in the infrastructure network and flows towards exporting ports. What these corporations expect from the State is that it protect the monopolization of extraction spaces – be it minerals, soil fertility and water sources – and ensure the fluidity of traffic in their networks. The authoritarian logic of such territorial control practices – already expressed in the political technologies developed by large corporations in their areas of implantation, almost naturally infiltrates within the State, when it is taken over by the forces of authoritarian liberalism. The project is to remove or neutralize “interferences” in the way, codifying violence, if possible, in legal forms; otherwise, encouraging the illegal exercise of force or adopting practices called “corporate social responsibility”, which seek, through private social policies, to anticipate and neutralize conflicts in territories of interest.

Throughout the 1980s, a whole legal framework was set up in the environmental field that soon ceased to be applied, given the fiscal crisis in the State and, from the 90s onwards, due to growing pressures for the liberalization of the economy and the flexibility of standards. The question that arose, then, was how to make public policy with what the sociologist Francisco de Oliveira called the “dwarf state” with regard to social, regional and environmental redistributive policies. That's when the expressive vocabulary of the presence of the interests of the agro-mineral extractive complex began to appear within the State: they began to complain about the “rise of regulations”, the “blockage of the economy” and the “obstacles to development”. Liberal reforms and pressures for deregulation emerged, thus, practically at the same time as the assembly of the regulatory framework for the environment was being completed. We can say, therefore, that the process of “environmentalization” of the Brazilian State was truncated, a work interrupted, left incomplete or prevented from being carried out. It resulted, consequently, in the validation of a growing concentration of the use of water resources in favor of large hydroelectric and irrigation projects; earmarked regions rich in minerals for large mining companies; favored the incorporation of vast portions of frontier lands to speculative fronts.

The fact is that the advance of the globalization process has reconfigured the correlation of forces pertinent to the decision-making processes, loosening the conditions of validity of regulations regarding respect for social rights and environmental norms. Liberal reforms concretely favored, for the interests of large corporations, mobility gains that were decisive for capitalist prosperity in its flexible stage to the detriment of the environment of the most dispossessed populations. With deregulation, the cost of moving production units from one point to another in the world's productive space dropped considerably. Large corporations began to choose with greater freedom – or to impose through locational blackmail of investments – the political-institutional conditions that seemed most favorable to their spatial implantation. The more mobile economic agents thus absorbed much of the power formerly held by less mobile social actors – such as local governments and unions, responsible for establishing norms and rights, limits to the market's predatory impulses. The economic strength of large corporations was directly transformed into political strength: they were able to practically dictate the configuration of urban, environmental and social policies, obtaining the flexibility of norms with the argument of their capacity to generate jobs and public revenue. At the same time, national states, emptied of their regulatory capacity, concentrated on ensuring the inflow of capital, monetary stability and financial "sustainability" for banks, offering labor reforms and the relaxation of environmental regulations as attractions. A kind of “Penelope Tapestry” was then configured.[v] – what was done during the day, was undone at night, under the action of pro-deregulation lobbies. The motto was to replace the so-called “command and control instruments” – norms that establish limits to predatory practices – with market instruments, economic stimuli aimed at turning the environmental issue into a business opportunity.

The anti-environmentalism of results, which was installed with the arrival of the extreme right to power, has a liberal aspect, which today seeks to deconstruct the public issue of the environment, and a racialized authoritarian aspect, which aims at the expropriation of indigenous peoples and quilombolas. Such a project seeks to respond to the pressures for the radical liberalization of the practices of the large agricultural and mining business, through the administrative punishment of those who apply the laws, through the massive liberation of the use of pesticides, through the reconstitution of the conditions in force in the original liberal capitalism — the State guaranteeing the exercise of unequal relations of power in the use of common spaces of water, air and living systems and in the subordination of the most dispossessed.

Through its discriminatory discourse and its practice of deconstructing rights, the government recognizes what social movements for environmental justice have been pointing out for a long time: the profitability of agromineral businesses depends on the degradation of the environmental conditions of life and work of rural workers, small producers, residents of urban peripheries, traditional communities and indigenous peoples. There is no opposition, but convergence between social and environmental struggles. The much-criticized instruments of command and control, previously demonized by the ideologues of environmental deregulation, are now used internally by the State to dismantle the public machinery for protecting the environment. The anti-environmentalism of results – and of class – is now part of this kind of Penelope Tapestry in the light of day, which seeks to achieve the set of civil, political and social rights, enshrining environmental inequality by favoring the exclusive right to private property, placed above everything and everyone.

Environmental inequality is a condition resulting from the action of a number of unequal mechanisms – the operation of the land market, decisions on the location of polluting and dangerous installations, the unavailability of safe housing for low-income social groups, a large proportion of whom are non-residents. whites. These mechanisms that allocate the evils of wealth production to blacks, indigenous people and residents of urban peripheries are constitutive of liberalized capitalism throughout the world. Lawrence Summers, chief economist of the World Bank, had already written in an internal memorandum to the Bank in 1992: from the point of view of the dominant economic rationale – that is, the dominant ones – it is rational to transfer all harmful practices to locations inhabited by low-income people, where the cost of life and death is lower[vi]. It is, therefore, a political economy of life and death operated from the decision-making centers that configure the global locational architecture of liberalized capitalism.

In order to combat situations of environmental inequality, what is required are public policies that provide, as in the terms of the Brazilian Constitution of 88, equal protection for all – transforming the environment into a “good for the common use of the people”, and making “healthy environment” is a right for everyone, without discrimination based on class or skin color. The movements for environmental justice argue that while it is possible to allocate the sources of risk to the most dispossessed, nothing will change in the development model, from the point of view of technical and locational choices and the unequal dynamics of the land market[vii]. That is, predation will continue as long as those who suffer its effects are the least represented in the spheres of power. To combat environmental degradation in general, therefore, one would have to start by protecting the most dispossessed in the countryside and in the cities.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR-UFRJ).



[I] Roberto Guimarães, Ecology and Politics in the Brazilian Social Formation, Data: Journal of Social Sciences, 31 (2) June 1988.

[ii] CB Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism – from Hobbes to Locke, Peace and Earth, Rio de Janeiro, 1979.

[iii] Similar expressions have already been used to qualify pragmatic dynamics of another order, as in the notions of “results unionism” or “results ecologism”.

[iv] Klaus Schwab, Presentation of the report “The Future of Nature and Business”, World Economic Forum, Geneva, 17/7/2020.

[v] In Greek mythology, Penelope, without news of her husband Ulysses, was urged to marry again. Faithful to her husband, she decided to accept the court of suitors to her hand, setting the condition that the new marriage would only take place after she finished weaving a rug, which she sewed during the day and unstitched at night.

[vi] Let Them Eat Pollution. The Economist, February 8, 1992

[vii] Robert D. Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices From the Grassroots. South End Press, Boston, MA, 1993.


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