Buying the present selling the future

28 October 2010

Considerations from Greenaccord’s VIII International Forum on the Protection of Nature in Cuneo, Italy

In Freedom, the latest novel by American author Jonathan Franzen, a character at one point makes reference to the 'Club of Rome'.  The scene takes place in the seventies - the famous Club of Rome report "Limits to Growth" was published in 1972 - and if  the novelist is to be believed, American politicians at the time did not have any idea of the existence of this club and, of course, much less of the issues it discussed.

Now that many researchers, analysts and activists working on environmental issues are talking about 'economic slowdown' as a solution to climate change and the problems associated with it, including pollution and loss of biodiversity, it is impossible not to recall the proposal of the famous Club: from a rational and humane perspective, we must curb the growth that is destroying the planet and leading to the extinction of life on Earth.

It's been almost forty years since that report and not only has growth not slowed, in recent decades prevailing free market ideology and practices have stimulated it exponentially. The environmental degradation that the planet is now suffering at all levels might be called a disaster foretold, which will continue enlarging unless sweeping changes to the current economic developmental model are made.

This was one of the main themes of the forum, entitled, "Building Future People. Boundaries and Values for Sustainable Lifestyles," organised by Greenaccord, an Italian environmental group. With an implied inspiration from the old Club of Rome's concept of 'limits to growth', the forum highlighted, alongside the concept of 'sustainable development', a model that is based not only on eco-efficient practices, but is aimed at gradually reducing the ecological impact to levels compatible with the planet's support capacity.

Today, there exist concrete mechanisms to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the  pollution of seas, rivers, etc. What is still not visible is the political will, especially from the business world, to bring these solutions into practice. On the contrary, the discourse of governments - both North and South - remains committed to the stimulus to growth, whilst environmental considerations remain pure rhetoric.

An illustrative example is the behaviour of governments during the recent push by the mining sector in many regions of the world. How the Canadian government, for example, combines environmental responsibility with the behaviour of Canadian gold mining  multinationals in countries like Colombia, Guatemala and others in Latin America and the world? What government talks about reducing consumption? Even the political parties with a significant green discourse, once in power tend to give up their environmental ideas and make concessions to powerful business for whom the environment is not priority.

As has been evident up to now, governments are not usually likely to put forth a change of course in economic policy that involves a deceleration, taking the foot away from the gas pedal and putting on the brake. Governments prefer to make sure of the present (in terms of positive economic figures) at the cost of environmental degradation, generated by uncontrolled growth, that will become increasingly evident a few years later. There appears to not be a world authority capable of imposing obligations on multinationals to reduce their ecological impact and the extent of their extraction of natural resources. When this does actually happen, it is because a major catastrophe has occurred, as evidenced recently following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the massive spill of toxic waste in Hungary.

Given this authority vacuum, it is important to highlight the environmental initiative of the Bolivian government. Based on traditional values of indigenous communities in the Andes, in the name of  the 'rights of mother earth' and facing the failure of the climate change summit in Copenhagen, last April in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia held a "World Conference" to promote peoples' participation in decision making regarding the use of nature. The views that emerged from this conference will be heard at the next World Summit in Cancun, when the UN will try again to achieve what was not achieved in Copenhagen.

It is also interesting to note that the conclusions from Cochabamba are in line with the proposals of major theorists from the subjects of economics and environmental issues regarding solutions to reduce CO2 emissions and hence reverse the decline of plant and animal species, as well as the general degradation of nature and quality of life. Thus one can understand the description of “planetary boundaries”, as stated by Robert Costanza, one of the participants in this year's Greenaccord forum, that leads to the proposal of new models of development. Or the concept of 'deglobalization' discussed (Greenaccord last year) by Walden Bello, as globalization has become a legal means to appropriate the best spaces on the planet. Or William Rees's proposal of a "planned economic recession”. Or the idea of  ‘dematerialisation’ from Wolfgang Sachs, who proposes a new direction to technological progress. Or the “degrowth” explained by  Prof. Joan Martínez Alier. All are members of the Greenaccord community.

But above all is the idea that progress and social development cannot continue to be measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), but instead in terms of achievement of economic sustainability and equitable wealth. As noted by Professor Aldo Masullo during the last Greenaccord, from his philosophical and ethical perspective we must accept the limits if we want a better future, and within these limits, the only option is a sustainable model.

The year 2010 was declared by the UN as “International Year of Biodiversity." Since the year is almost ending, the question is, what positive is this year leaving in terms of biodiversity conservation? We know that in most mega-diverse countries in the world, this biodiversity is increasingly threatened because of various economic activities that operate with impunity, from which open pit mining is just one example.

The limits to growth and implementation of sustainable models of development are now more urgent than ever. Perhaps in the seventies politicians knew nothing about climate change, but now no one can plead ignorance and continue with impunity to buy the present at the expense of the future.