The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 56.0°F | Light Rain Fog/Mist

COLUMN

Toxic Colonialism

Lawrence Summers and Let Africans Eat Pollution

Guest Column
Basil Enwegbara

On December 12, 1991, Professor Lawrence Summers, then the chief economist and vice president of the World Bank, now Harvard University President-Elect, surprised the world when he queried why the Bank shouldn't encourage the dumping of toxic waste in Africa in a memorandum he sent to some colleagues. Here is what the new president of Harvard University said in that memo:

"Just between you and me, shouldn9t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries? I can think of three reasons:

  1. The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
  2. The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles ... Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high to prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
  3. The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than where under-5 mortality is 200 per thousand. The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization."

What Summers is suggesting is that bearing the ecological and social consequences already caused by the western extractive industries that forced most countries in Africa to environmental devastation in their efforts to produce raw materials for the western industries are not enough. He believes that African countries should go further and become the backyard for toxic waste generated in the west.

The question this raises is why should the poverty-and debt-ridden African people that have been globally marginalized and discriminated be further forced into giving up their universal right to health and life in order to ensure that their "civilized" western counterparts are not harmed by the toxic waste generated by their own civilization? With most African countries struggling to meet their so-called foreign debts, debts imposed on them by the World Bank and IMF as their economic remedies, they must, based on Summers's economic logic of toxic waste dumping, be ready to accept western toxic waste as another condition for loan and debt swap, even though they lack both the human resources and technology vital for the handling and storage of the toxic waste.

As far as Summers is concerned, so far as market forces drive toxic waste export and dumping, they should be encouraged by the Bank regardless of equity and morality implications. Unfortunately, he also refuses to see through his free market lens, that not only will this become an avenue for profit-hungry and pollution-driven industries to increase toxic waste production and uncontrolled waste exports to Africa, but will also trigger environmental inefficiency, non-internalization of negative externalities, and an unprecedented increase in ecological footprinting in the west. In short, within his neoclassical argument, Summers flatly overlooks the broader economic, social and political systems that generate and perpetuate inequalities and injustice between the north and the south. Shouldn't Summers therefore be made to appreciate that while the property of the rich should always be protected from the poor, as Aristotle believed, the rights of the poor and the weak to exist alongside the rich should deserve equal protection, as Lincoln believed? Summers also fails to understand in his argument on the health impact of toxic waste that the danger on humans is more than the cancer effect. He fails to appreciate that the bioaccumultion of toxins can also lead to neurotoxicity, respiratory infections, and chronic pulmonary diseases, besides instant death.

Lawrence Summers may be considered the brightest economist of his time, or the most overrated. Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, was also considered ahead of the thinking world during his time at the height of the slave trade. But at the same time he believed in the impeccability of the shipment of millions of able-bodied African men and women to Europe and the Americas as slaves (probably President Summers has forgotten that Africa's loss of millions of men and women to the five centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade, caused its under-population). Here are Hegel's reasons to justify the impeccability of the wicked and inhumane traffic of Africans as commodities of trade: "The Negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality all that we call feeling if we could rightly comprehend him: there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in his type of character [Africa] is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to show."

So the two men were/are both "great thinkers" but at the same time their "great wisdom" lacks morality and respect for the humanity in Africans. They both saw them as an inferior and uncivilized race. But was it not Abraham Lincoln, who during his battle to free Africans as slaves in the United States, who queried the type of wisdom and humanity a man could claim to possess when he lacked morality and respect for another man? Unlike Hegel, who was grossly shortsighted, Professor Summers would, besides being an economist, require rigorous lessons on the impact of slave trade on African history. Doing so no doubt would help Summers appreciate the pre-slavery history of Africa, a history full of great achievements and great hopes before the forces of the European trans-Atlantic slave trade struck the continent. He would also come to the appreciation that unlike what Western historians painted Africa to be, Africans in the pre-slavery period were quite busy putting the continent on the road to industrialization. Summers would be surprised to discover that no race, no matter how advanced it had been, would be free from being declared inferior, if it suffered what Africans had suffered under the European forced slave trade, especially when those who stick to this propaganda of inferior race have no other intention than to degrade and proscribe African race.

The questions to ask at this juncture are: Why did Harvard University fail to consider the implications of Summers's memo when selecting him as its chief executive? Was the content of the memo not considered morally offensive enough to disqualify him as the next president of Harvard, or was it perhaps that it was all about the so-called uncivilized 770 million people of Africa? It seems all these years of efforts by many Africans to seek a Harvard education have not brought a change in the minds of those who "propagate" human knowledge and civilization. In other words, have Africans for so long wasted both their time and scarce resources seeking a Harvard education? Why shouldn't we fear that President Summers would encourage racist policies at Harvard during his presidency? Or why should we believe that his views about these "primitive people," 20 percent of whom die before they reach the age of 5, would suddenly change? In sum, why shouldn't we therefore be concerned that this center of excellence will soon become yet another center for anti-Africans? One thing is certain; Africans and particularly African students will begin to witness diminished opportunities at Harvard University. In fact, as an environmental policy analyst, I am outraged that a man who holds such beliefs (regardless of other qualifications) should be allowed to lead one of the world's foremost universities. Could anyone within a just and fair mindset think otherwise; that is, that President Summers's policies will not discriminate against Africans? Anyone who believes that must defend his or her belief. In doing so, however, that argument must come to terms with the damage already done; that is, that while Hegel's authoritative position reinforced the trans-Atlantic human traffic, putting millions of African into slavery, Summers's under-population and under-polluted economic thesis has justified the ongoing annual trans-Atlantic shipment of millions of tons of western toxic waste in Africa. South Africa and Nigeria are today among the African countries increasingly paying heavily with the health of their citizens in this growing illegal dumping of western toxic waste in Africa.

Basil Enwegbara SM 901 was a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Volume 121, Number 16
Copyright and distribution information

Other options:

  • Read other stories in this issue.
  • Return to our home page.