by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero (Second of 3 parts)
Beyond sustainable development
Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission and the documents that came out of the Earth Summit did not question the basic assumptions of Western-style development, it merely offered some policy safeguards and technological fixes. According to Chatterjee and Finger, “none of the (Earth Summit) documents displays any new or original way of looking at environmental and developmental issues”. One of the strongest critiques in this respect was “Whose Common Future?”, a 1993 document written by the staff of the UK-based The Ecologist magazine.
By the 1990s it was becoming increasingly evident that the economic systems of so-called developed nations are inherently unsustainable, given that they are based on never-ending cycles of growth in supply and demand, which in turn require a correspondingly ever-increasing use of natural resources. Inevitably this leads to a quest to secure unlimited and unrestricted access to such resources abroad, not only causing environmental destruction but also infringing on those other countries’ right to development. In other words, sustainable development is not enough, the whole development endeavor must be put into question if a global catastrophe is to be averted.
Wolfgang Sachs sums it up thus: “The Western development model is fundamentally at odds with both the quest for justice among the world’s people and the aspiration to reconcile humanity and nature”, and sustainable development is no more than “the assimilation of environmental concerns into the rhetoric, dynamics and power structures of developmentalism”.
These insights are especially relevant and timely in light of the rise of the emerging economies. Leading these are the BRICS countries, which have 40% of the world’s population, and according to Goldman Sachs reports they will surpass the G-7 to become the global economy’s leading powers by 2050. Goldman Sachs has similar forecasts for the so-called Next Eleven emerging markets, which include South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt.
The ecological implications of the emerging countries’ growth ambitions should be cause of great concern. The industrialization of Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries was achieved in a planet whose natural resources and ecosystems were practically virgin and unexploited. But we are in a very different world now. To demonstrate this point, three references will do. First of all, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the collective work of over 1,300 experts who appraised the state of the world’s ecosystems. Second, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. It is the largest report on climate change ever undertaken, written by thousands of experts from dozens of countries. And third, the State of the World reports of the non-governmental Worldwatch Institute, one of the world’s leading environmental think tanks. These documents show that the natural systems and resource stocks which make human life as we know it possible are under threat of collapse. If nature were a bank account, it can be said that we are not living off dividends but rather eating into the principal.
The reality is inescapable: this planet cannot endure a second industrial take-off. The natural resources and ecological spaces are now too scarce. This warning is not new. A number of outstanding thinkers and visionaries in both the North and the South had already seen this coming:
“It is obvious that the world cannot afford the USA. Nor can it afford Western Europe or Japan. In fact, we might come to the conclusion that the Earth cannot afford the ‘modern world’… The Earth cannot afford, say, 15 per cent of its inhabitants- the rich who are using all the marvelous achievements of science and technology- to indulge in a crude, materialistic way of life that ravages the Earth. The poor don’t do much damage… Virtually all the damage is done by, say 15 per cent… The problem passengers on spaceship Earth are the first class passengers and no one else.”
These words were uttered by environmentalist E.F. Schumacher in 1973. There is also the famous Indian ecofeminist, author, environmental educator and activist Vandana Shiva, who has dedicated the last couple of decades to warning that if the South insists on imitating the industrialized North’s development model the result would be catastrophic. And before her, her compatriot Mahatma Gandhi had made warnings to the same effect. He once stated that “Should India ever resolve to imitate England, it will be the ruin of the nation”. Gandhi was not only a champion of non-violence, his observations on economic development and proposals for local self-reliance made of him an important pre-ecologist thinker ahead of his time.
He had differences with his modernist counterpart, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, precisely around this issue. According to Wolfgang Sachs:
“Gandhi wanted to drive the British out of the country in order to allow India to become more Indian; Nehru, on the other hand, saw independence as the opportunity to make India more Western. An assassin’s bullet prevented the controversy between two heroes of the nation from coming into the open, but the decade-long correspondence between them clearly demonstrates the issues.”
Years after Gandhi’s death, his thinking exerted a decisive influence on Schumacher, one of the most important predecessors of modern environmental thought and the politics of Green parties. His book “Small is Beautiful”, a frontal attack against the premises of modernity and the rule of productivist economism, is a classic of environmental literature.
Next: New beacons