Environmental Challenges Linked to Global Economics
BYLINE: MELANIE GOSLING
IT may seem downright perverse to say I was heartened by the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Living Planet report released last week.
Who could be encouraged by a document which shows that humanity is still firmly on its course of wrecking the planet, only doing so a little faster and more ruthlessly than before?
Climate-changing carbon emissions have increased, species are declining, fish stocks have collapsed, the world's forests are being hacked down faster than they can re-grow.
We are polluting, consuming and destroying at a such rate that many ecosystems can no longer function properly. Our human footprint has become too big for nature to cope with; we are in "ecological overshoot".
If we continue on this reckless path, the report says, we would need a second planet Earth by 2050 to provide us with the resources we gobble up so fast.
Nothing but grim news in all that, certainly. But what struck me as encouraging was a comment in the foreword written by WWF International's director-general in Geneva, James Leape. After pointing out that, if we did not balance our consumption with the natural world's capacity to regenerate and absorb our waste, we risked doing the planet irreversible damage, he added: "We also know, from this report, that the challenge of reducing our ecological footprint goes to the very heart of our current models for economic development."
And that is the core of the problem.
The sentiment is not new, but coming from WWF, a highly respected but conservative organisation, which relies on the corporate sector for much of its funding, it is heartening indeed.
Current development models are based on endless economic growth. Conventional wisdom sees this as the panacea for solving the world's ills, and anyone who does not believe this is either a loony or a heretic.
Yet it is so obviously destined to fail. One doesn't have to be an economist to see that infinite growth on a finite resource base is physically impossible.
Economist David Korten maintains, in When Corporations Rule the World, that no single idea - however misguided it is - "is more deeply embedded in the modern political culture than the belief that economic growth is the key to meeting most important human needs, including alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Anyone who dares speak of environmental limits to growth risks being dismissed out of hand as an anti-poor doomsayer".
Korten, who comes from a conservative economic background, having taught at the Harvard business school and worked with USAid, once believed as an MBA student that global corporations could help sort out the problems of poverty and human conflict. He later came to realise how wrong this was, and concluded that, to avoid "collective catastrophe, we must radically transform the underlying system of business to restore power to the small and local".
"We are experiencing accelerating social and environmental disintegration in nearly every country in the world - as revealed by a rise in poverty, unemployment, inequality, violent crimes, failing families and environmental degradation. These problems stem in part from a fivefold increase in economic output since 1950 that has pushed human demands on the ecosystem beyond what the planet is capable of sustaining," Korten says.
The problem is not business or the market itself, but a "badly corrupted global economic system that is gyrating far beyond human control".
Governments seem unable to respond, largely because economic globalisation has shifted power away from governments, responsible for the public good, towards "corporations and financial institutions driven by a single imperative - the quest for short-term financial gain".
Gross domestic product (GDP) is no indicator of the environmental well-being of a country. …