Economy and technology have become the dominant religions

by Mario Osava

Porto Alegre (Brazil), 26 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- The capitalism prevailing in the world today has as its weapon an economic theory that is pure ideology - one that equates scientific advances with human development and science with technology - in order to serve its interests, concluded a World Social Forum panel held here Friday.

Its interests are in opposition to those of humanity, according to the participants in the panel on “How to Translate Scientific Development into Human Development,” organised as part of the six-day Forum [], which has brought thousands of delegates from 123 countries to this southern Brazilian city.

The event, a gathering of primarily left-leaning non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academics, seeks to serve as a counterbalance to the World Economic Forum, running concurrently in the Swiss alpine city of Davos, where corporate executives, financiers and government leaders are discussing policies that seek to deepen the globalization process.

The dominant economic theory is “a new, messianic religion” that has achieved a level of global “evangelisation” that far surpasses consumerism and the leading religions, charged Jose Lutzenberger, a former environment minister of Brazil.

In his presentation on the panel, Lutzenberger added that measuring economic performance only by the results of gross domestic product (GDP), in which everything is added and nothing is subtracted, is absurd. The crash of a passenger airliner represents growth instead of loss because of insurance payout settlements and purchase by the company of a new aircraft, he stated as an example.

Also in that vein, the destruction of the environment - humanity’s “natural capital” - is not discounted from the GDP.

If such a methodology were applied to corporations, there would never be another bankruptcy, even if costs surpassed revenue, because what matters is the total, added Lutzenberger, currently a leader of the Gaia Foundation, an NGO based in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state.

“It is a contradiction to categorise the destruction of natural capital as development” when it is a fact that a company will not survive if it spends all its start-up capital on inputs, agreed Chilean economist Rayen Quiroga Martinez, an environmental official for the Chilean government - though he stressed he was speaking on his own behalf.

“Economicism” is an ideology that denies empirical evidence by maintaining that only economic growth can produce well-being, reduce poverty and preserve nature, stated Quiroga. He emphasised the need to change the paradigms of economic development, proposing instead a social-ecological economy that takes into account the finite nature of the earth’s ecosystems, which are the basis of production.

Meanwhile, Lutzenberger insisted that the market could serve as a mechanism for balancing competitive forces but that in its current form, it is not serving that function. Today’s market, “totally manipulated” by the major economic and political powers, “is blind to the poor, who have needs but do not represent demand, blind to the future generations who are not present, and blind to creation, to life,” he stated.

Confusing science with progress is another ploy of the current dominant ideology, stimulated by capitalism, said Jacques Testart, a French biologist who heads his country’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research, and serves as president of the Sustainable Development Commission. The threat is the “techno-science that seeks to spread its influence over the whole world, while science itself seeks only knowledge,” he explained.

Social control over techno-science is essential, he said, especially because it is proffered as “a common good”, as for example, genetic therapies; but techno-science can cause death, as in the case of “mad cow disease.” Uncertainty arises without anyone being held responsible for its negative effects because “it is perpetually in the experimental stage.”

Testart proposed a widespread “citizens’ conferences” as a way to mitigate the power of experts and to control and democratise techno-science. These conferences, involving 10 to 20 volunteers who are consumers, not experts, would  gather information and discuss the pros and cons of new technological breakthroughs for products and services. The results of collective knowledge have been “impressive” in the experiences already organised in some European countries, according to the French biologist. “Common people have the advantage of not being specialists, of having a more general, independent and objective vision,” he said.

Lutzenberger also underscored the need to distinguish science from technology. The first is “a clean dialogue (that requires) an ethical decision” to work based on fact, while technology is “the politics of using the technique, and is full of fraud.” One example is the production of goods of “planned obsolescence,” such as vehicles made such that the body is destroyed by rust within a few years, forcing the purchase of a new one. This dynamic “does not attend to human needs, but to the interests of the powerful,” said the environmentalist.

Genetically modified organisms, or transgenics, are another example of technology serving “neoliberalism” under the false pretext of producing enough food for everyone, commented Elvino Bohn Gass, a state representative for Rio Grande do Sul. The world is already capable of producing enough to feed all humanity, he maintained. The obstacle is unequal distribution and the lack of access to food because of limited income.

Bohn Gass pointed to the struggle of Rio Grande do Sul to remain a “transgenic-free territory” despite pressures from the national government and from the transnational seed and agrochemical companies, such as the US-based Monsanto. With transgenics, the companies are attempting to spread soya farming throughout Brazil, as part of the “green revolution” developed in past decades with the same promises of food for the world, he stated in his panel presentation at the Forum.

The result was an increase in hunger, the expulsion of thousands of peasant farmers from their land, and greater social inequality. – SUNS4824