A fate worse than debt
We are now living in the Anthropocene era during which, since the industrial revolution, humans have become the main agents of change to the Earth’s systems in several areas, not just climate change and the ozone layer.
It is time to finally make decisive progress on ambitions set out 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit in Brazil as the Rio+20 conference looms around the corner.
Several years ahead of the first United Nations conference on environment and development in 1992, a political scientist had already written a landmark book on the human and environmental cost of world financial crises: A Fate Worse Than Debt by French-American Susan George (Transnational Institute) linked abuse of the environment and indigenous peoples in developing countries to the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund, multinational corporations and the defence industry did not escape her gaze. Many books later, in 2010, she was still writing about a finance-driven world created by and for elites.
Governments, companies, civil society and the public are waking up to the knowledge that we are reaching planetary limits, not just of greenhouse gas emissions but also water, land and other natural resources. The World Resources Institute notes that the environmental and social costs of our current economic model are becoming more apparent.
Even as the World Bank continues to strive to tidy up its act, an academic seminar is being held next month tackling land and water grabbing. This follows completion of negotiations on guidelines on land in March by the UN Committee for Food Security, which engaged civil society groups.
In April, the World Bank convened a meeting of economists, government officials and other researchers around the issue of land grabbing. Rachel Kyte, vice-president for sustainable development at the bank, has admitted that the patterns on which economic growth has been achieved so far were unsustainable, because of the amount of environmental degradation involved.
In a compensatory mood, the World Bank called on countries to place a monetary value on their ecosystems last month. Yet some hold on to the fear that identifying natural resources as assets might mean they could be seized by corporations if and when developing countries default on their loans.
The complex web of systems supporting life on this planet is under stress, with climate and species diversity under extreme pressure. Parallels can be drawn with the floundering financial system, and ways must be found to make both more resilient to shocks.
In economics, resilience is about creating responses to hazards to avoid potential losses. Similarly, in social systems, resilience depends on the capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future.
Rubber band stability of an ecosystem (comprising forests, flowers, wetlands, seagrasses and so forth) depends on the time it takes for an ecosystem to approach equilibrium again after a disturbance.
Another type of resilience relies on the capacity of ecosystems to absorb disturbance without collapsing into a different state ruled by a different set of ecological processes.
Ecosystem resilience rests on three pillars: capacity to resist change, the amount of change an ecosystem can undergo and still retain the same control on structure in order to function, and ability to reorganise itself following disturbances.
Diversity (the more species living in natural harmony the better) plays an important part in the sustainable functioning of ecosystems. The ability of socio-ecological systems to provide a wealth of ecosystem services (pollination, landscapes, water and so on) rests entirely on their resilience.
This year’s Global Environmental Outlook report speaks of critical thresholds, some of which have already been crossed. Biodiversity loss is affecting the provision of ecosystem services, bringing about the collapse of a number of fisheries and the loss of species used for medicinal purposes. The United Nations has this year adopted the evolving concept of planetary boundaries to mark out the limits of a safe space for life on Earth.
Defining the global danger zone and setting thresholds to limit carbon dioxide concentration, species loss, biogeochemical changes, ocean acidification, natural land lost to agriculture, freshwater use, ozone, particulates and toxins is complex.
An appeal was made to governments by top scientists earlier this year to scrap GDP as a measure of wealth and end damaging subsidies while transforming systems of governance to set humanity on a new path to a better future.
Countries keep watch over their national income accounts, evaluating economic performance and assessing how effective their development policies and plans are. But traditional indicators like GDP say nothing about long-term sustainability of current growth patterns.
Addressing government ministers from around the world at a UN Environment Programme meeting last February, Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said: “The current system is broken. It is driving humanity to a future that is 3°C to 5°C warmer than our species has ever known and is eliminating the ecology that we depend on...”
Chronic structural flaws in current economic models have led to a search for alternative models. The European Commission recognises the chance for a new future in the concept of a green economy which it has put forward as the solution to Europe’s job crisis.
The World Bank says it is looking at alternatives like GDP Plus, which would attempt to incorporate both traditional measures of gross domestic product and measures of natural capital. This would have to include ways of valuing natural capital.
On the local level, the Ceratonia Foundation contributes to the debate with its recent launch of a useful and timely book, Green Jobs from a Small State Perspective.
EU environment ministers agreed last month that there is no other way out of the economic crisis than through a green economy, strengthening development ofgreener technologies, resource reduction and protecting nature.
Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012 report analyses what steps must be taken to make progress towards sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro next month.