The questions regarding variations in social development, economic progress, and political empowerment have produced a voluminous literature over the past century, and because of the complexity of these issues, much important reflection will continue well into the future. In the early 1980s, a United Nations’ Commission coined the term “sustainable development” as a public statement regarding the deteriorating socio-economic, political, and environmental conditions. Since then, the use and abuse of the term has rendered it dubious and almost irrelevant. This paper proposes Comprehensive Sustainable Development (CSD) as a substitute in the hope that re-conceptualization of the term would incorporate critiques of various manifestations of capital’s hegemony — its control over science and technology, particularly in the contemporary period, by way of restricting homegrown, national technological development. It is argued that, in the pursuit of its interests, contemporary global capitalism, as a continuation of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism/imperialism, is resorting to the policy of imperialism through the implementation of dependent industrialization (imported technology) rather than CSD.
The indices used to measure comprehensive sustainable development are diametrically opposed to those used to measure dependent capitalist development. At the core of the indices of CSD are the contribution to human development, social progress, and radical democracy. It involves the negation of atomistic indices such as rugged individualism, competition, and alienation of people dependently embedded in capitalist development. CSD is a rejection of neoliberal economic policy and its foundation: Social Darwinism. It is in favor of collective wellbeing as measured by indices such as national liberation, human emancipation and progress, social inclusion, and political empowerment. CSD requires an able and willing national political front and a strong public sector. It requires boldness in initiation, innovation in the development process, and an awareness that there will be repercussions and consequences from hegemonic global forces.
The foundations of CSD are social justice, human emancipation, and dignity. Very few developing countries have initiated a development process which contains elements of the CSD outlook. The case of Iranian development, and its nuclear program in particular, demonstrate a clear national desire for CSD. Not surpprisingly, it has provoked typical behavior of the hegemonic powers with regard to the control of science and technology. As a rapidly developing country, Iran has concentrated its efforts on the development and expansion of basic industry while acknowledging with every development initiative the indispensability of social development, social justice, health, and a rising standard of living. To what extent Iran can deliver on the social justice front remains to be seen, but the realization that it cannot comprehensively sustain its development without regard for social justice and respect for the rights of its citizens is a promising departure. It is precisely by delivering some measure of justice and social inclusion that Iran can be an effective player in the process of comprehensive sustainable development.
Sustainable Stagnation: Prelude to the Rise of an Unsustainable Development
The history of the global political economy in various epochs (beginning with the rise of European colonial empires) is a history of hegemonic policies and inter-imperial rivalries on the one hand and the struggle to resist hegemony on the other. From the 19th-century European colonial penetration of Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the context of a multipolar system and its demise by the first inter-imperialist war of the 20th century (WWI), to the rise of the bipolar system of East/West competition, to the present unipolar world system led by Anglo-American corporate empire, the common thread has been an international system based on the hegemonic rule by the economic elites. In the 19th century, colonial powers divided the world amongst themselves. Between 1870 and 1898, Britain added 4 million square miles and 88 million people to its empire. France gained nearly the same territorial area with a population of 40 million. Germany won one million square miles and 16 million people. Belgium took close to one million miles and 30 million people. Portugal joined the race with 800,000 miles of new land and 9 million inhabitants (Heilbroner, 1966:1630). In the first 75 years of the 19th century, colonial empires added to their territories an average of 83,000 square miles every year, primarily for the purpose of economic exploitation. Between the 1870s and WWI, this area of colonial control increased again — to about 240,000 square miles (about 85 percent of the earth’s surface) by 1914 (Magdoff, 1978). By 1900, Britain had fifty colonies and was in control of 450 million people while its own population was no more than 10 percent of that (45 million). France had thirty-three colonies with a population of 56 million, and Germany was in control of thirteen colonies with a population of 15 million people. These extraterritorial gains were to support the development of the colonial metropolis — for the most part at the expense of the colonies. As providers of raw material and agricultural crops, the colonies were the center of an ongoing primitive accumulation. Then as now, accumulation proceeded as an end in itself. The colonialists introduced an ecologically destructive agriculture as a means to that end and as a substitute for traditional agriculture. The German chemist and agronomist Justus von Liebig (1859) documented the case of the British destruction of the Irish environment through surplus extraction by way of intensive agriculture. Liebig referred to this system of taking more from the land than was ever put back into it as the “robbery system.” The English agricultural system imposed on Ireland for a century and half “indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil” (Marx, 1976:638). By relying on the work of Liebig, Marx (1976:637-638; 283-290; 1981:949-950; 1964:112) borrowed the concept of metabolism and subsequently utilized it to illustrate systemic dysfunction within capitalism. “Metabolic interaction” between human beings and nature conveys the realization that we live in a natural system that must be governed by the laws of that natural system itself which involve “systemic restoration.” He went on to suggest that the process of capital accumulation has created an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.” This rift in social metabolism is the excessive accumulation of private wealth at the expense of the earth and the public’s wellbeing, a distortion which causes imbalances in social development. Sustainability requires a symbiotic relationship between humanity and the natural environment.
In the 19th century, concerned scientists in Europe and North America already warned of ecological destruction and in particular soil erosion.1 Today the same rush to increase surplus extraction through intensive agriculture is supported through the privatization of the global commons. The U.S /Mexico border where the maquiladora form of the factory system is destroying the environment; deforestation of the tropics; the worldwide process of corporatization of self-sufficient, family-farm agriculture by agribusiness giants such as ADM, Cargill, and Monsanto are illustrative of modern surplus extraction whereby uneven and unsustainable development is reproduced.
The history of uneven and unsustainable development is at the same time a history of colonialism and imperialism (formal and informal). It is the history of an international system in which public resources were tapped, extracted, and exploited without consent from those whose resources were being taken. National geographic societies which were formed in the metropolitan centers of the colonial empires in the 19th century for the most part were to identify resources for their colonial metropoles. Justifications and rationalizations for colonial expansion included the “civilizing” of the “savages” — “saving” them by “Christianizing” them. Today they are couched in the form of a prefabricated and prepackaged superficial notion of democracy, which invariably means dependent capitalist economy within a denationalized, crony state.
Colonialism and neocolonialism are a violent enterprise, which has always involved existential questions — a clash of cultures, worldviews, and philosophies of life. European colonialism thus degraded culture as well as the environment. In the U.S. context, native Americans were described as uncivilized because they held land in common and generally lived in harmony with nature, while the conquest of the earth and its private acquisition meant civilization (Rogin, 1991:114). In India, degradation began with the introduction of commercial cotton cultivation on a large scale in the 1850s and 1860s, linked to British colonial networks of production. Expanding global markets motivated increases in cotton cultivation, which in turn raised the demand for agricultural land including wetlands. This process led to deforestation, causing a decrease in rainfall and availability of water. The ultimate goal was to minimize costs of production and maximize profits even if it resulted in such social catastrophes as the devastating famine of 1899-1900 and more ecological devastation (Satya, 2004). Similarly, the European colonization of Africa drastically altered the traditional farming and herding practices that were very adaptable to changing environmental conditions. The agricultural policies of the colonial states centered on the shift to cash crop cultivation, deforestation for the grazing of export cattle, and destructive logging practices and forest product extraction (Jarosz, 1999). African famines for the most part continue to be social rather than natural disasters. Brutal colonial histories, underdeveloped infrastructures, post-colonial indebtedness, and heavy dependence on cash crops for debt-service payments have resulted in widespread hunger and desertification. Most other regions that fell under European colonial control have suffered similar fates.
Colonial state policies were of course heralded as “modernization” and ‘progress,” and this concept of “civilization” wreaked havoc on the colonized. Embedded in defense of these policies was a paternalistic and condescending view of the colonized as uncivilized, childlike and incapable of fending for themselves. Western social scientists and natural scientists constructed political and biological theories covertly predicated on the supremacy of the white race in general and the Anglo-Saxon race in particular. Racism, social Darwinism, militarism, and imperialism were the leading ideologies of the day at the service of the empires. The ownership claims over colonial territories reached the point where the territories of defeated nations had to be legally transferred to the victor nations without any say by the inhabitants of the colonies. The control of the colonies for the sole purpose of economic exploitation and the desire for greater access to the riches of the colonies produced hostile inter-imperialist postures leading to WWI — the first inter-imperialist war of the 20th century. The First World War ended with the defeat of weaker empires (i.e., Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian) leading to greater consolidation of power in the hands of the imperialist powers. After a short period of deceptive calm, once again the advanced capitalist countries turned their imperialist rivalries into another bloody conflict — WWII. The economic arrangements in the post-WWII era were designed to aid the developed capitalist countries striving to secure resources and markets in the context of the Cold War. In addition to the role of the provider of resources, the colonial and ex-colonial regions were drawn into the global conflict between the West and the East as tools of geopolitical realignment. Economic development as a by-product of the new global order proceeded unevenly and its scope was determined by the Cold War necessities. The regions closer to Soviet influence received substantial help from the West. Some were provided with an influx of foreign investment and technology (the East Asian economies of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) as showcases of capitalist success. This type of development, which I call defensive capitalist development, was not possible outside the zone where East-West competition for proxies existed. Others had access to only outmoded technology and remained primarily as the provider of raw materials in the global division of labor. It is in this context that containment of communism along with the crushing of revolutionary movements took center stage in the foreign policy of the West.
Dependency and cronyism remained a structural cause of backwardness well into the 1960s. From the 1960s onward, various countries in some regions benefited from the expansion of multinationals. But technology was to be controlled by a handful of countries, notably in the West, and to this date major research and technological development remains in their hands. Big science (military and all advanced non-military research) is a monopoly of the biggest powers — that is an indisputable reality. Countries, imperial or otherwise, have the right to control what they have developed. The issue, however, is the prevention of others from developing new technologies for use in the form of the comprehensive sustainable development. The CSD process would not be detrimental to a healthy global economy, international relations, and ecological conditions. Yet, international systems structured on hegemonic principles, whether unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar, will work to the detriment of the people and their environment.
Hegemony is a multifaceted set of relations in which the prevailing political force perpetuates its domination by various means. Gramsci (1996) noted that hegemony of a class is assured when that class succeeds in persuading the other classes to accept its authority — accept its “moral, political, and cultural values.” In this regard, the “historical bloc” as the hegemonic bloc has a long history of fabricating national consensus for imperialist policies. This hegemony is manifested and implemented in various ways, from indebtedness to the brain drain, but none is perhaps more effective than the (overt and covert) control of technology. Hegemony is reproduced when science serves the aim of dependent social development. Perhaps the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not merely for immediate military purposes, but also for retarding subsequent industrial redevelopment of Japan as a potential challenger in the post-war global economy.
Hegemonic policies range widely. Assassinations of potentially counter-hegemonic groups and leaders; invasions, bombings, and threats of bombing; internal disintegration, such as coups d’état and other subversions of democratic governments; and proxy wars are among the means to stop progress. The crushing of national liberation movements through them has prevented numerous non-Europeans from taking control of their own socio-economic and political lives. A few examples — Che, Mossadegh, Arbenz, Allende, Lumumba, Biko among others — are so infamous that they hardly need to be mentioned; Algeria, Palestine, Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba, and many others have been targets. Eventually, the costs of colonial control, the rising level of consciousness of the colonized, and their struggle to end colonial rule put an end to colonialism in many places. But the anti-hegemonic struggle (both formal and informal) is today entering a new phase. Hegemonic behavior and policies are not based on the rights of humanity, but the rights of a few whose behavior renders them anything but human. Since the rise of colonial empires and their expansion throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ensuing bloody wars have been fought for control of resources. Alan Greenspan (2007) spelled out that “the Iraq War is largely about oil” — an extension of historical Western involvement for the control of Persian Gulf oil, such as the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadegh and the aborted efforts by Britain and France to take over the Suez canal.
The West’s control of technology, especially maritime and military technology, enhanced its control of the resources of the world. Seyyed Jamal and others in the 19th century called for a unified Islamic front equipped with technology and science which Jamal believed were the instruments of the West’s hegemonic success. He pointed out, however, the corrupt leaders in the subjugated countries are also responsible for the reproduction of hegemony. Today, this hegemony is threatened due to cracks in the fortified regions of technology control. The possibility of a comprehensive sustainable development process requires an understanding of its vulnerabilities and, given its foundation in social justice, its appeal.
Comprehensive Sustainable Development and Its Nemesis
As indicated above, the term “sustainable development” was originally used by the Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The Commission Chaired by G. H. Brundtland was convened by the United Nations in 1983. With the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, political organs such as the United Nations and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and others (e.g., the International Finance Corporation and the Agency for International Development) invented several similar commissions to gloss over the chronic contradictions within the hegemonic neoliberal world order. The Brundtland Commission was to address the deteriorating conditions of human life and environmental degradation. With all of its good intentions, the Brundtland Commission failed to tackle the key structural causes of unsustainability in part because of its connection to the centers of power at the service of global capitalism, and in part due to its inadequate political and ideological capital. Some of these structural causes are rooted in production for exchange value, exchange value assigned to the environment and to labor, and consumers’ commodity dependency. Kathleen McAfee (2008) asks, “[D]oes the commodification of ecosystem functions tend to redistribute resources upward (toward classes and enterprises with greater purchasing power) and away (toward distant sites of capital accumulation and regional growth poles) as markets of other sorts have often done?” What is critical is that comprehensive sustainable development is predicated instead on social justice and equity, production for human need, and respect for labor and the environment, above and beyond market values.
Countries such as China and India, in spite of their impressive commodity production growth, suffer from negative environmental conditions which threaten all of their gains. They are criticized for contributing greatly to global warming and are being pushed to curb their pollution. Countries that are struggling with industrial development under conditions of dependent sustainability find it impossible to access cleaner sources of energy and the corresponding technology. CSD must demand access to those types of technology that can encourage forms of human activity that can provide the greater good for the greatest number — without brutally exploiting the ecosystem. Comprehensive sustainable development may be thought of as a reasoned response to the crises caused by the uneven distribution of resources, uneven access to energy, and the consequences of using traditional commodified economic strategies with regard to the planet and people. It is also a long-term approach to the earth and its inhabitants. Comprehensive sustainable development is an intergenerational issue — socialized conduct for sustainable abundance that does not jeopardize future possibilities or deny future generations these resources. The literature often refers to sustainable development in terms of socio-economic, political, and environmental issues. Lately the cultural factor has been added. If it is to have an effective, far-reaching impact, however, it must include anti-hegemonic concerns as well. Sustainable stagnation, in contrast, is reproduced through lack of access to technology, brain drains, inadequate research and development, indebtedness, and the primacy of an expanding and unbridled private sector with considerable global support from supranational organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank. Reproduction of stagnation also requires corrupt and denationalized local political and economic elites in alliance with international capital.
Fossil Fuel, Hegemony, and Unsustainable Development
Dependency on fossil fuel is neither a matter of brute necessity nor of unquestionable desirability. The underlying causes of this dependency are to be found in the power of the global petroleum industry: its control of technology for alternative sources, high profit margins, subservient political orders, and the policy of petrodollar recycling which makes the petroleum industry the only industry which benefits immensely from what it imports. This dependency has created an untenable situation for the global economy and the environment in general and for the global south in particular. The debate within the corporate media suggests that the verdict on global warming, environmental degradation, and pollution is not a forgone conclusion. With the aid of well-paid scientists, politicians, and pundits, the powerful petroleum lobby has been trying to raise doubt regarding the consequences of fossil fuel use. And when confronted with indisputable evidence, it shifts the blame to the countries of the global south (with China and India topping the list) which are said to be causing the damage. Or it has attempted cooptation of environmental concerns in the form of new profit-seeking subsidiaries and investments dealing with environmental “cleanup” and “waste management.”
The increase in petroleum prices is exacerbating the already dire financial situation. Hard currencies are needed to pay debt service, and additional hard currency is required to purchase oil. This increases indebtedness further. Indebtedness has a long history in the global south. Once colonialism ended, the newly independent countries were forced by their circumstances to borrow substantial amounts at very high rates of interest. This placed them at the mercy of finance capital and watchdog institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and their brutal austerity measures. The entire spectrum of economic decision-making came to be predicated on the situation of indebtedness. Most of these debtor nations relied on their cash crops (primarily agricultural products) and, given the increasing demand for these crops on the international market, this led to the abandonment of crop rotation (an ancient and effective practice of preserving and replenishing the soil by varying crop production). This cash-crop-for-debt-service situation exacerbated the already chronic food shortages and destroyed the soil; hence desertification and intensified global climate change. The debt trap created by colonials/imperialists, in collaboration with the comprador local groups, continues to adversely affect the global environment and in particular the global south.
Recent increases in the price of oil have created difficult choices for the countries of the south. For example Tanzania’s oil imports rose from $190 million in 2002 to about $480 million in 2006. Nicaragua spent $717 million in 2006. The increases in the price of oil have been adding to already critical situations. Oil has become so expensive that rural populations have been forced to cut trees and brush as sources of energy, inadvertently aiding the process of desertification. In this context, the destruction of the environment, global warming, and the greenhouse effect caused by the industrial north has made matters worse. For example the poor of Bangladesh deforesting the hillsides, natural barriers to the destruction caused by monsoons have been removed; this creates mudslides that kill thousands of poor people every year in rural areas. Already, 97 percent of natural disaster deaths occur in developing countries (Watkins, 2007:17). By the year 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture will be reduced by up to 50 percent (Watkins, 2007:18).
In the advanced industrialized countries, notably in North America and Western Europe, the petroleum industry commands considerable economic power — and this is the basis of its political power. In the United States, the fossil fuel industry (particularly the oil and gas industries) spent more on the 2004 election than ever before — $16.7 million in congressional campaign contributions, 80 percent of which went to Republicans. And in 2006 they poured $20 million into that year’s congressional elections (Kretzmann, 2007:20). Of course the return has been tremendous. U.S. oil companies reported an average profit of $40 billion for large companies in these same years while the economy was suffering from recession. This was a repeat of the capital accumulation through commodity inflation of the 1970s when a Kissinger-orchestrated oil embargo led to high oil prices and record profits. In spite of these windfall profits, the fossil fuel industry enjoys immense subsidies. At least $61.3 billion in international money has gone to subsidizing the oil and gas industries worldwide since 2000. This amount is in addition to the $150 to $250 billion in domestic subsidies that national governments provide to their oil and gas industries (UNEP: Energy Subsidy Reform and Sustainable Development, 2008).
Subsidies on oil, gas, and coal are meant to help the poor by lowering the price of energy, but the United Nations’ report on environment (2001) suggests that they often mainly benefited wealthier people. The study estimated that energy subsidies, almost all for fossil fuels, totaled about $300 billion a year or 0.7 percent of the world gross domestic product. Since 2000, the United States is the top provider of aid to the oil industry worldwide, with some $15.6 billion in oil aid distributed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Maritime Administration. European institutions spent a total of $16.5 billion, slightly more than the U.S. in the oil and gas industries. U.S. subsidies for oil are global in scope — from Azerbaijan to the Andes, Nigeria, and Colombia. The world spends about 0.7 percent of GDP on fossil fuel subsidies. The cost of curtailing carbon emissions to meet scientific goals by 2050 has been estimated at 1 percent of GDP. The cost of not curtailing carbon emissions, measured in weather calamities, mass migrations, and the like, could be 5-10 percent of GDP. The world is spending $300 billion every year to subsidize fossil fuels that pollute the air, wreck the climate . . . and ruin the world’s economy. If the world stopped spending $300 billion on coal, oil, and natural gas, and started spending it instead on wind, sun, and water as alternative sources of energy, things could improve. Russian fossil fuel subsidies at $40 billion annually are the largest on the planet, according to the U.N. report. Others that top the list include Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, the Ukraine, and Egypt. Still, the U.N. report is clear: the cost of transforming an economy to run on renewable fuels always seems daunting, so ingrained are our dependencies on fossil fuels. But if you consider how much is spent to make those fossil fuels affordable in the first place, the price tag doesn’t look so daunting.
The highly developed seats of empire have one fourth of the world’s population but consume three fourths of the world’s energy. Annual per capita consumption of energy exceeds 300 million BTU in North America, 100 million BTU in Western Europe as compared to 25 million in most LDCs (World Energy Resources, 2007). In 1973, 74 percent of U.S. oil was sourced domestically; this was reduced to 40 percent in 2003 and it continues to shrink. Demand for oil will grow to 116 million barrels a day by 2030, an increase of 37 percent on 2006 usage (according to World Energy Outlook 2007). The gap between global production and supply of oil in the late 1960s was between 3 to 5 million barrels and now is close to twenty million barrels per day. This in part is explained by the increase in alternative sources of energy (Energy Information Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy, International Petroleum Monthly, April 2008, cited in John Bellamy Foster, 2008). The Persian Gulf and North Africa remain the principal locations of oil reserves, with 61 percent of the world’s total, followed by Africa with 11 percent, South America and Europe (including the whole of the Russian Federation) with 8 percent each, and North America at just under 5 percent (2007 Survey of Energy Resources — Executive Summary, World Energy Council 2007:6).
Major cities in the developing world are challenged by suffocating smog, noise, and overpopulation. One major reason for this, of course, is the reliance on fossil fuel that has undermined the health of millions around the globe. From the first Industrial Revolution that relied on the steam engine, to what might be called the second Industrial Revolution’s dependence on fossil fuel, massive social problems have ensued, at the same time as commodity production has been enhanced many times over. While the climatic changes associated with the use of fossil fuel and the pollution of air, water, and food are ultimately a global problem, some areas have it worse than others. There is no good reason to rejoice if the air in Chicago, Paris, London, and Tokyo appears less polluted than the air in Cairo, Tehran, Beijing, Mexico City, Bombay, or Jakarta. For the fragile ecosystem, it does not matter where the pollution originates; what matters is that it is occurring within an interconnected system which does not recognize national, regional, and ecological boundaries. Even if we assume an infinite supply of fossil fuels, the consequences of continuing to use fossil fuel to the extent that it is currently being used are unimaginable. For those countries endowed with sufficient supply, the problem of access to these sources is not an issue, but for those countries which are dependent upon import, the problem is much more serious. As in the case of commodity inflation (gas prices) in the industrial world, the additional burden of low income can inflict serious damage on these people. It is estimated that worldwide there are 20,000 deaths due to air pollution. In a frenzy of profit seeking, foreign-investment-attraction strategies are causing hardship to the environment of the global south. Environmental problems, such as water, air, and land pollution “contribute to 40 percent of deaths worldwide each year . . . ,” and according to Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel’ estimation, “62 million deaths per year can be attributed to organic and toxic pollutants” (cited in Thompson, 2007).
Rapidly growing countries in the Global South such as China and to a lesser extent India are blamed for contributing to the global pollution (Economy, 2006, 2004). Elizabeth Economy for instance cites an IEA prediction that by 2009 China will surpass the United States as the World’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses (Economy, 2006). A Chinese official, Pan Yue, accused the developed economies of “environmental colonialism” by transferring pollution-generating industries to China (Globalization and the Environment, 2006). Here is a New York Times article that exemplifies how responsibility for the current environmental crises is portrayed. Titled “Pollution from Chinese Coast Casts a Global Shadow” (June 11, 2006), it is a typical reflection of the attitude that China, India, and other rapidly growing economies cannot handle industrial growth.
Advanced capitalist economies, notably North America and Europe, have been promoting carbon trading as an “incentive” to curb pollution. The allotted space to pollute is based on a variety of factors, such as the size of the company. If a company does not pollute to the extent to which it is allowed, it can sell the unused portion of the pollution quota to another company in need of a greater pollution space. Carbon trading reached $30 billion in 2006 and it is growing, but to what extent it has made a difference is unclear (States of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy).
There is no question that dependence on fossil fuel has created an untenable situation for the global south in all respects, including but not limited to their inability to purchase the increasingly expensive fossil fuels. There is, however, a larger issue with regard of use of fossil fuel. With the price of oil exceeding $100 a barrel, there is disproportionate and negative impact on the poor and developing economies. Impoverished nations pay a much higher price, financially, socially, and ecologically, brought on by the world’s dependence on fossil fuel (Watkins, 2007:15). Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal in an October 2006 column in the Washington Post, warned that Sub-Saharan Africa is faced with “unfolding catastrophe that could set back efforts to reduce poverty and promote economic development for years” (cited in Watkins, 2007:15).
Large ethanol production led by agribusinesses such as ADM (a $44-billion-a-year company) is one of the world’s largest buyers, sellers, and processors of grain and corn for conversion into ethanol. In 1995, 43 percent of the company’s profit was from products heavily subsidized by the United States federal government, and every dollar of profit from the production of ethanol costs taxpayers $30.60 (Magdoff, 2008:14). Each gallon of biodiesel blended into regular diesel for export from the United States cost one dollar of subsidy. This has led to the following ridiculous “splash and dash” situation: “Splash and dash is where biodiesel is carried to the U.S. by ship sometimes from Europe — purely to add a drop of ordinary diesel and take advantage of public money being handed out on any refining in America” (Guardian, April 9, 2008, cited in Magdoff, 2008:14).
Biofuel has caused massive increases in the price of food for millions of ordinary people around the world already suffering from food shortages. Biofuel production relies heavily on fossil fuel. The environmental crisis is not limited to the shortage of food; it also includes air pollution and a serious crisis with respect to water. Asia has 66 percent of the World’s population, but it has only 33 percent of the fresh water. (In contrast, Europe has only 8 percent of the world population but has 13 percent of fresh water.) Mexico City’s water usage causes a sinking of its buildings due to the loss of its underground aquifer. Sydney, Australia, is one of the world’s driest cities. Australia is faced with the greatest droughts. Palestinians under occupation suffer from a chronic shortage of water, for the water from the occupied territories is piped out by Israel. Israel also continues to occupy Golan Heights (a Syrian territory) ostensibly for defensive and strategic purposes, but the water resources of the area are a much more compelling reason. Currently, most of the Middle East is suffering from a drought that could render some hydroelectric dams (particularly in Iran) useless. For the regions with water, the problem is water pollution. Water pollution is one of the most dramatic impacts of fossil fuel consumption. This is perhaps more serious than the air pollution. The reason is that water is a scarce resource, and its pollution is magnified by this scarcity factor.
Alternative Sources of Energy
Current dramatic increases in the price of fossil fuel are making the search for alternative sources more urgent. In particular, nuclear power has become an attractive alternative for many countries. Countries with no available nuclear generating capacity or with declining nuclear capability have revived an interest in nuclear development (Survey of Energy Resources: 10). There is, however, a serious problem with uranium mining and the ability to supply the needed uranium for a growing number of reactors. Shortages of uranium coupled with speculation in the market are adding to its overall price. Since the 1990s, the uranium supply has not kept up with the rising demand, therefore a variety of secondary supplies of reactor fuel are also derived from “warheads; reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel; recycling of uranium to produce reprocessed uranium; re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails (left over after enrichment)” (Survey of Energy Resources: 10). The cost of generating electricity from nuclear power plants is competitive with the cost of generating electricity from fossil fuel, and even more so when the price of fossil fuel rises. As with all other production processes, geographical and geopolitical factors are important elements in calculating the costs of production. Nuclear energy is also very competitive when we take into account the social and environmental costs of producing electricity from fossil fuel. The European Commission study in 1991 showed the cost per kwh of electricity from nuclear sources to be 0.4 cents/kwh, similar to electricity generated from the hydro sources. Coal was over 4.0 cents (between 4.1 and 7.3). Natural gas ranged between 1.3 and 2.3 cents.2 Only wind showed remarkably less cost at 0.1 to 0.2 cents/kwh. Half of the cost for nuclear energy is due to the enrichment and fabrication costs and the cost associated with nuclear waste management. Uranium however has the advantage of being easily and cheaply transportable (see “Transport of Radioactive Materials,” World Nuclear Association). The Finnish study in 2000 also quantified fuel price sensitivity to electricity costs, showing that a doubling of fuel prices would result in the electricity cost for nuclear rising about 9 percent, for coal rising 31 percent, and for gas 66 percent (see “The Economics of Nuclear Power,” World Nuclear Association).
The application of nuclear science and technology is not limited to the production of electricity, and it has many major industrial and social applications. As an advanced science, it requires a set of preconditions and prerequisites to be met, and once it is mastered, it can influence the development of other technologies. It can improve the quality of tools in major industries, increasing the reliability of gauges, and machines; it can diagnose metabolic abnormalities and treat cancer; it powers spaceships, making space exploration and space travel possible. Given the diversity of applications in agriculture, medicine, and space, there is a clear need for concentrated nuclear energy. Today, about one-third of all procedures used in modern hospitals involve radiation or radioactivity. An estimated 10 to 12 million diagnostic and therapeutic procedures are performed each year in the U.S. alone involving some form of nuclear medicine. For several decades, non-food irradiation technology along with cross-linked polymers has been in use in automotives, wire insulation, printing, films, and sterilization (about 50 percent of all medical disposable materials). And recently, a great variety of consumer products such as cosmetics, baby bottle nipples, teething rings, and so on are being sterilized using irradiation.
Close to 500 nuclear power plants operate in over 30 countries. In 1999, nuclear energy represented about 75 percent of total electricity production in France, 58 percent in Belgium, 47 percent in Sweden, 43 percent in South Korea, 38 percent in Hungary, 36 percent in Switzerland, 31 percent in Germany, 36 percent in Japan, 33 percent in Finland, 30 percent in Spain, 29 percent in the United Kingdom, 20 percent in the Czech Republic, 19 percent in the United States, 13 percent in Canada, 5 percent in Mexico, and 4 percent in the Netherlands (World Energy Council, 2007). Typically a doubling of the uranium market price would increase the fuel cost for a light water reactor by 26 percent and the electricity cost about 7 percent, whereas doubling the price of natural gas would typically add 70 percent to the price of electricity from that source (World-nuclear, 2008:13). Nuclear power is cost-competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels. Fuel costs for nuclear plants are a minor proportion of total generating costs, though capital costs are greater than those for coal-fired plants. In assessing the cost-competitiveness of nuclear energy, decommissioning and waste disposal costs are taken into account (OECD; European Community Studies, various years; U.S. Department of Energy; studies in Finland, Spain, the UK, and elsewhere). If the social, health, and environmental costs of fossil fuels are also taken into account, nuclear power is an outstanding alternative. And as long as carbon emissions are cost-free and not included in the calculations, the true cost of fossil fuel consumption will not be known. These are important considerations even without attempting to estimate the total costs of consequences of global warming. The concerns over the dangers associated with nuclear waste, radiation, and storage, however, remain legitimate and urgent ones. Nonetheless, if nuclear power held a significant share of hydroelectric generation capacity, it would provide an effective hedge against the volatility of fossil fuel prices. The trend will only be reinforced when the environmental costs associated with carbon dioxide emissions are fully internalized in the trading system. Safeguards must be put in place before the planet is faced with further dilemmas as it is faced with the dependency on fossil fuels. Unfortunate experiences at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and other problems with the nuclear energy apparatus must be warning signs of things to come if proper measures are not put in place. Moreover, the safe storage of nuclear waste for many countries is a monumentally expensive task.
The sun and wind are two of the most abundant sources of renewable energy. As with nuclear technology, solar and wind energy is also controlled by a handful of countries. Every minute of the sun shinning on one square kilometer surface of our planet, 1,400 megawatts of solar power is generated. Luckily “only half of that amount reaches the earth’s surface. “The total radiation power (1.4 kilowatts per square meter, called the solar constant) varies only slightly, about 0.2 percent every 30 years,” and any major “variation would alter or end life on Earth” (“Solar Energy,” MSN Encarta). As is well known, wind energy can be converted into mechanical energy for performing work such as pumping water, grinding grain, and milling lumber. The amount of kinetic energy within the earth’s atmosphere is equal to about 10,000 trillion kilowatt-hours, which will remain available for what amounts to eternity. Societies have taken advantage of wind power for thousands of years. The first known use was in 5,000 BCE when people used sails to navigate the Nile River. Persians had already been using windmills in 200 BCE in order to pump water and grind grain. The Dutch were responsible for many refinements of the windmill, primarily for pumping excess water off land that was flooded. The windmill was further refined in the late 19th century in the U.S.; some designs (with inefficient wooden blades) from that period are still in use today. Over the next century, more than six million small windmills were erected in the U.S. in order to aid in watering livestock and supplying homes with water during the development of the West.
Since 1999, global wind energy capacity has been doubling every three years, reaching 72,000 megawatts by the end of 2006. This is approximately 120 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to provide electricity to approximately 70 million people (Survey of World Energy Resources, p. 18). An efficient windmill can produce approximately 175 watts per square meter of propeller-blade area at a height of 25 meter. As technology for harnessing wind energy evolves, new turbines installed on less than 1 percent of land area can produce close to 20 percent of its electricity (Survey of World Energy Resources, p.18). Billions of kwh of electricity produced by America’s wind machines annually would eliminate the need for millions of barrels of oil and all of its consequences (smog, greenhouse gas, and acid rain) for the planet. If a household used wind power for 25 percent of its needs, it would spend only $4-5 per month, and the price is still dropping. Compare this to 4.8 to 5.5 cents per kwh for coal or 11.1 to 14.5 cents per kwh for nuclear power. Germany (34 percent), the U.S. (20 percent), Spain (23 percent), Denmark (8 percent), and India (28 percent) are among the world’s leading nations in the production of wind energy (“Executive Summary,” Survey of World Energy Resources). Wind power is now the world’s fastest growing energy source. In 2006, an estimated $52 billion was invested in wind power, biofuels, and other renewable sources. This is up 33 percent from 2005 and it is estimated that it will reach $66 billion in 2007(State of the World 2008). The only pollution that wind farms cause is noise pollution. Due to skyrocketing oil prices, many Southeast Asian countries are intensifying efforts to tap alternative sources of energy. Even oil-producing countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei are investing in renewable energy (Asia Times, 2008). Some regional initiatives have been put in place. In Africa, with the help of Senegal’s President Wade, the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association (PANPP) with 13 member countries have taken steps toward alternative sources of energy (Watkins, 2007:16). It is through these initiatives that the global south can offset the impact of hegemony.
CSD as a Counter-hegemonic Strategy: Is Iran a Viable Model?
Diversification of energy sources could ultimately reduce dependency, and the elimination of dependency is one of the requirements of CSD. Even if the global south received a small percentage of its energy needs from new and renewable sources, it could encourage the rise of home-grown companies operating alongside the public sector. Since antiquity, Iran has regarded itself and has been considered by others as a civilized country. Its national culture has long considered that it had a duty to transcend the interests of isolated private individuals in favor of the collective public interest. Today Iran wishes to develop as a model culture of collective empowerment having the goal of national (and indeed universal) human liberation from the yoke of hegemonic powers. Iran possesses great possibilities in its people, culture, and history as well as its physical landscapes to narrow the gap between the potential and the actual development. Domestically, it must transcend any narrow economic development which aims at private wealth generation for the comprador elite through collaboration with the leaders of capitalist globalization. Its national policy must reject the requirement, imposed by globalizing agents to enhance privatization, for the labor force to make sacrifices without requiring the rich to do proportionately more. It must strive instead to create an environment in which the traditional Iranian civic ethos is reinvigorated.
Its regional imperative is cooperation; it is essential that a regional integration plan devotes a large portion of its attention to meeting the rising demand for energy resources which are easily transportable, efficient, equitable, and environmentally sound. It is within this context that mutual security in all respects is assured. Indeed, as CSD requires, a regional alliance must be the basis and the context, since sustainability is not merely a national issue and cannot be implemented independent of its immediate surroundings. It is to be nourished through its ability to transcend individualistic approaches.
The global imperatives are not only the sharing of technology with the rest of the global south but also extending the life of the current proven oil reserves, no matter what the size of potential reserves may be. A diversification of energy sources must be at the top of the agenda. Diversification reduces vulnerability, dependency, and deprivation. It is through diversity of energy sources that a nation such as Iran can sustain other production processes. Comprehensive sustainable development can make a great contribution to human liberation and development only if it begins and ends with social justice as a guiding principle. On the political front, CSD would incorporate radical democracy as a force directing the process. Only through a social justice orientation can environmental degradation be reversed, basic necessities be provided for, and a culture of collective wellbeing be reinforced. It is in this context that racism, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, and dependent development/industrialization — the building blocks of hegemony — are removed. It is through CSD and its regard for the environment that the monopolization of technological knowledge can be broken and the right to technological invention and innovation is re-claimed. But what are the components of a strategy that can retrieve these rights to a CSD-oriented technology? Let’s examine the case of Iran’s nuclear program — often equated in the propaganda organs of hegemonic powers with a “nuclear weapons program.” Iran’s nuclear case has brought to the surface the hypocrisy of international agencies in thrall to the powerful few on the global stage.
Nuclear energy is essential in the Iranian context as indeed in all places where concentrated energy is needed. But it has to be part of a comprehensive and long-term energy program. Alternative (non-fossil) sources of energy are at the moment — with the exception of nuclear and hydroelectric power — in their early stages of mass production and consumption. Solar, wind, tidal, and biomass sources continue to evolve, though the magnitude of production along with transportability and the initial capital costs have made nuclear and hydro more appealing. For instance, even if Iran gets a small percentage of its electricity from each of these renewable sources, it will be in a position to diversify home-grown energy sources while removing enormous dependency and restrictions in confronting hegemony. Iranians are the pioneers of wind energy as seen in various cities, but notably Yazd and Kashan. Today, its drive toward diversification of energy (even if criticized with good intentions) must continue. The private sector in Iran is not yet conducive to spearheading the drive toward alternative sources of energy. Public ownership must initiate this and can hasten its development.
James Howarth (2008) argues that for the most part Iran’s energy policy is determined by political concerns. Iran is said to be making a mistake in pursuing nuclear rather than solar and wind energy and traditional fossil fuel. Iran has the world’s second largest gas reserve (measurable amounts) and perhaps in terms of potential reserve (amounts that are not discovered but thought to exist). It has the fourth largest oil reserve and perhaps much greater potential reserve. Current world oil consumption is at the rate of over 25 billion barrels per year. With a proven petroleum reserve of one trillion barrels, this will last 40 years at the current rate, and consumption is likely to increase greatly. Adding to this eventuality is the very uneven distribution of this resource and the consequences for the planet. Iran will continue to suffer three problems that it is suffering from now: pollution/carbon emissions which have increased by 240 percent since 1980 from 33.1 metric tons to 80 metric tons in 1998 and to 139 metric tons in 2000 (Karegar, et al., 2004:1); reliance on fossil fuel as a source of earning foreign exchange; and greater demand for energy due to population growth. Iran’s domestic oil consumption is about 1.2 million barrels per year and exports 2.3 million barrels (cited in Karegar, et al., 2004). It is estimated that if Iran’s domestic demand for oil continues to rise, by year 2010, its export of oil will decrease by 50 percent. Iran heavily subsidizes the price of electricity, and given its reliance on revenue, it is absolutely essential to develop its renewable energy sources more vigorously. Since 1994, when Iran installed its first modern wind turbines, particularly in Roodbar and Manjil, Iran has been expanding its capacity to increase electricity from renewable sources including solar and wind, as well as through its planned building of more nuclear reactors. Iran’s geothermal potential, particularly in Damavand, Khoy, and Maku, are promising sources of energy with adequate infrastructure.
Iran has been carrying out a set of expert-level studies to set up seven wind power plants in three northwestern provinces.
If the results of the studies confirm that the target regions are fine for the purpose, the projects will be immediately started under private sector management.
Arastou Sadeqi, the director of the wind and water energies department in the Iran New Energies Organization had earlier said that “the government has removed basic problems on the way of investors and therefore several domestic and foreign companies have applied to subcontract these projects.” (“Alternative Energy Iran: Windpower for the North West,” February 15, 2005)
With a youthful population of 70 million and a fast-growing economy, energy consumption is rising by around 7 percent annually. Iran estimates that it may need capacity to generate some 90 GW by 2020, from about 31 GW at present. About three quarters of current electricity needs come from gas-fired power stations, and the rest from hydroelectricity or oil. What Iran does not want to see is the reversal of its position from an exporter to an importer of oil as was recently experienced by Indonesia. Indonesia withdrew from OPEC this year as it became a net importer of oil.
Canceling subsidies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but fossil fuel subsidies are in some cases necessary until other means of energy are made available. Iran, for example, heavily subsidizes fossil fuel, particularly gasoline, for domestic consumption. A large percentage of Iranians cannot purchase gasoline without subsidies. Recent attempts at conversion to natural gas as a substitute for gasoline are the first step toward alternatives. For the most part, though, fossil fuel subsidies around the globe are a political decision to favor a very prosperous sector of the economy — the petroleum industry and related fields. For instance, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidies in India, aimed at getting fuel to poor households, totaled $1.7 billion in the first half of 2008. But the LPG subsidies are mainly benefiting higher-income households. Smarter subsidies such as tax breaks, financial incentives, or other market mechanisms could generate benefits for the economy and environment if properly targeted according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The UNEP’s examples include subsidies promoting wind energy in Germany and Spain aimed at helping to shift from fossil fuels. Well-devised subsidies in Chile spread rural electrification from 50 percent to 90 percent of the population in 12 years, the organization said. Subsidies could help the rest of the global south in confronting their environmental problems (though nations such as China, India, and Brazil have so far benefited most from the 3,500 Clean Development Mechanism projects to offset greenhouse gas emissions by funding alternative/renewable sources of energy).
A report titled “The Price of Power” by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) states that the costs of natural disasters linked to global warming reached $60 billion in 2007, with the warming triggered by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas. The report says a single year’s worth of World Bank spending on fossil fuel projects could be spent instead on small-scale solar installations in sub-Saharan Africa providing electricity for 10 million people. And a year’s worth of global fossil fuel subsidies could “comfortably” pay off sub-Saharan Africa’s entire international debt burden, leaving billions of dollars to spare. The report says that these subsidies amount conservatively to about $235 billion a year and that they distort the global economy, damage the environment, and hold back the development of renewable sources. Andrew Simms of NEF points out, as long as dependency on fossil fuels continues, “corruption and violence,” climatic changes, and increasing poverty are expected. And the solution to these problems lies in the removal of that dependency. If indeed the world is serious about reducing the greenhouse gasses and further destruction of the environment, then renewable energy and the technology of harnessing it must be made available to all. Sharing the technology for an abundant source of energy would reduce hegemony and move the world closer to achieving CSD. More wars for the control of fossil fuels will be fought, and environmental degradation and the subjugation of people will continue, until there are unified forces equipped with technical know-how and homegrown technology.
Nuclear Testing and the Environment: The Non-Fossil Means of Environmental Destruction
On July 16, 1945, the United States tested the first nuclear weapon in the desert of New Mexico, at the Trinity site. Between 1945 and 1996, the world’s nuclear powers tested over 2,000 nuclear devices (the U.S. conducted 1,032 between 1945-1992; the Soviet Union 715 between 1945-1990; England 45 between 1952-1991; France 210 between 1960-1996; China 45 between 1964-1996; India and Pakistan have conducted two tests (CTBTO Preparatory Commission, “Nuclear Testing 1945-2006”). Several tests have been conducted by Israel, which possesses up to 200 warheads; it also has a second strike capability via German-supplied submarines (dolphins) capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads. Israel is the most secretive nuclear state whose relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and other WMDs goes back to 1948. The French conducted their first atmospheric nuclear test, Gerboise Bleue (Blue Jerboa), on February 13, 1960 in the French Sahara, during the slaughter of Algerians (1954-62). This took place at 40 km south of the Sahara in Mali. France tested a hydrogen bomb in French Polynesia. France possesses the third largest stockpile of nuclear warheads (350).
The international concern over the contamination of the planet by the countries equipped with nuclear weapons goes back to the 1950s, beginning with the radiological disaster caused by the hydrogen bomb test in Marshall Islands. The Bravo test had many victims including U.S. servicemen and a Japanese fishing trawler. Even though there have been nuclear test ban treaties, France and China refused to join. France conducted its last atmospheric test in 1974. Radioactive contamination, nuclear waste disposal, and the use of depleted uranium in a weaponized form continue to be global threats.
In 2006 Jacque Chirac declared that as a matter of policy the French would use nuclear weapons against states using terrorism against France. The United States has used the bomb and now is developing a new class of smaller nuclear weapons for tactical use. Israel has likewise publicly threatened that it would “turn Iran into a nuclear wasteland” and “bomb them back to the stone age.” Novel ideas of dealing with an imaginary threat! Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain arrogantly rephrased the Beach Boys’ song “Barbara Ann” to “bomb Iran” (bomb bomb bomb eye-ran), and he was sadly and pathetically cheered by a gang of Iranians serving the same interest as Senator MacCain and feeding from the same trough, the Israel Lobby and some Arab States of Persian Gulf.
On February 1, 2007, President Chirac of France commented on the nuclear ambitions of Iran, hinting at possible nuclear countermeasures from Israel: “Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed” (Sciolino and Bennhold, February, 1, 2007).3 As long as the NPT maintains a double standard in this regard and moreover has no power to enforce its rules on its signatories, let alone non-signatories, proliferation will continue. How else do we account for the fact that there are “new generation” nuclear weapons, even if these are said to be for deterrence or for “limited” use?
These are the difficult contexts in which Iran could use an effective public relations aimed at preserving what the Iranian people have accomplished and expanding their future opportunities.
Globalization, militarism, colonialism, imperialism, and the structure within which these forms of violence are taking place — contemporary capitalism — have created a tragic human and planetary condition. Measures taken to remedy these problems must delve into the causes. There are tens of millions of land mines around the world (80 countries in Africa and Asia alone) killing and maiming people around the world. The price of food has increased by 83 percent in the past three years. Over 1 billion people live on one dollar a day. One billion suffer from hunger and close to one billion are malnourished. Most surface water on the planet is polluted. Two to three billions have tuberculosis; half a billion suffer from malaria every year, mostly in Africa (worldwide, 700 people die of malaria every hour); and respiratory diseases along with the destruction of the environment kill millions. As the advanced countries of the global north march forward, they devour resources much beyond their real needs and pollute the planet. Those who are lagging behind will continue to suffer a worsening condition. This process can be reversed only if the global south reaches a certain level of internal solidarity, values social justice, and practices radical democracy, avoiding excessive finger-pointing and forging alliances to overcome hegemony. A healthy future world requires a global strategy for comprehensive sustainable development and all of its prerequisites.
1 Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism (1986) documents the colonial destruction of indigenous people by the expansion of Europe (900-1900). The link between capital accumulation, imperialism, and environmental degradation is delineated, with significant references to the work of Marx, by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism,” Socialist Register (2004), and Brett Clark and Richard York, “Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biosphere Rift,” Theory and Society 34.4 (August 2005): 391-428.
2 The European Commission launched the project in 1991 in collaboration with the US Department of Energy. Nuclear energy averages 0.4 euro cents/kWh, much the same as hydro, coal is over 4.0 cents (4.1-7.3), gas ranges 1.3-2.3 cents, and only wind shows up better than nuclear, at 0.1-0.2 cents/kWh average. NB these are the external costs only (Comparative Cost of Energy Production, 2005).
3 Precisely for this reason Iran would be the first to attack not in any shape or form. The fact is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has never attacked anyone, though the Iranians will never forget the savagery of Macedonians, the brutality of Arabs, and the ruthlessness of Mongols just to name a few.
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The following provides a tentative list of Iranian companies (public and private) engaged in the development, production and export of alternative sources of energy.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to my colleagues Dr. Charles Reitz and Dr. Stephen Spartan for their helpful comments and suggestions.
Mehdi S. Shariati, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Economics/Sociology at Kansas City Kansas Community College. This article is adapted from the article that first appeared in Payvand News on 2 October 2008.