Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Orienting society towards "enoughness, not moreness"

Development can be sustained if it is inspired and guided by principles based on Nature's design strategy. Growth, on the other hand can never be sustained over time. There are many paths available for development which are limited by our creativity and compassion. Growth can proceed in only one direction.

Achieving true sustainable development will require radically altering our concept of what we mean by development and progress. Technology is a big part of this, but plays a secondary role to our values that determine how we choose to relate to one another, other living creatures and the planet itself. (GW)

Sustainability easier said than achieved

By Op Rana
China Daily
December 8, 2009

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is optimistic. So are some other world leaders. Optimism, however, will not produce an agreement at the Copenhagen climate change conference. If optimism alone could clinch a deal, we should have seen one a full two years ago in Bali, for optimism then was certainly higher.

Let's be honest, the environment is still not even half as important as the economy for policy- and decision-makers across the world. The simple fact is that the economy has to keep growing at the cost of everything. Nature (including human beings) is not important for economists and a large number of environmental economists.

To keep the economy growing, economists have come up with the slogan of "sustainable development". The problem is that sustainable development is an oxymoron if development means unlimited growth in production (which is what economists want) and consumption of materials. That's because nothing can keep growing forever in the universe, except perhaps the universe itself. So, is sustainable development at all possible?

Interpretations of sustainability are divided into two distinct categories: "weak sustainability" and "strong sustainability". Weak sustainability does not forbid economic growth. It "sanctions a slower rate of growth as a political principle predicated on an inter-generational responsibility". This means present needs should be met without compromising the needs of the future generation.

Strong sustainability, according to Debal Deb, one of India's leading environmentalists, means "changing the economic demands made on the Earth by radically altering the view of 'development', incorporating inter-generational equity of environmental goods and services in economy and changing consumption patterns".

But mainstream economists abuse the holiest of the holy sciences in their attempt to show that sustainable development is possible even otherwise. Mathematics has become a dangerous tool in the hands of economists. They use it to tell us that the cost of fighting climate change is astronomically higher than letting it happen. So we go on our lives the way we are used to, and just sit back and watch as climate change devastates the world and misery keeps piling up on the poor and the less-privileged.

We've seen what this fiddling around with figures did on Wall Street. We've seen how the rest of the world, especially poor countries, has been swept by the tides of the financial tsunami that the rich and powerful in the West generated. And if we believe in the climate change theories of the same "soothsayers" then we should to be prepared for the ultimate catastrophe.

Climate change has wreaked havoc on agriculture, especially in poor countries, but economists won't let us believe it. They blame it on those countries' failure to adopt the Green Revolution. India is cited as a shining example of the Green Revolution, which they say lifted it from a food-deficient to a food-surplus country. They say the combination of "miracle seeds" and agrochemicals has worked wonders. What they do not tell us is that the Green Revolution (apart from population control) was the most important part of the North's campaign to inseminate development in the South through rapid industrialization to stave off the risk of a communist revolution in what was then called the Third World.

Moreover, food production in India increased because more areas were brought under cultivation and better irrigation facilities (especially wells) were created. The real achievements of the Green Revolution, however, began unfolding only a few years ago: Growth in cereal production but drop in non-cereal crops (like pulses), decline in soil fertility, soil erosion and salinization, groundwater depletion and contamination because of the use of fertilizers and pesticides, crop contamination, loss of biodiversity, build-up of resistant pests and super weeds, and direct economic and social losses.

All this has had a huge impact on the environment, and made poor farmers dependent on highly expensive seeds (which till even a few years ago they could get it for almost free) and pesticides. Many have been driven out of their land and survive as paupers.

Humans domesticated cereals and plants about 10,000 years ago. That was the first, and perhaps the only, agricultural revolution. And since they did so with the sole purpose of getting a steady supply of food, the evolution of agriculture took a course as close to nature as possible.

But food is no longer grown only to feed people. Food is economics. The balance and benefits tilt drastically toward the negative when we factor in the ecological destabilization that has come with the generalization of market-oriented industrial agriculture. Daniel Imhoff, co-author of Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, says: In the US, for example, "the average food item journeys some 1,300 miles (2,092 km) before becoming part of a meal. Fruits and vegetables are refrigerated, waxed, colored, irradiated, fumigated, packaged and shipped. None of these processes enhances food quality but merely enables distribution over great distances and helps increase shelf life." In industrial agriculture "between production, processing, distribution and preparation, 10 calories of energy are required to create just one calorie of food energy". The impact of such activities on the environment is not difficult to fathom.

But that is what economic growth and profit are all about. That is what happiness has come to mean in today's consumerist society. "The fantasy world of economic growth and happiness propels the entire process of development towards disaster for the natural world and human economy in the long run," says Deb.

It is this concept of happiness (the happiness of having more) that has to be changed if we want to save our planet from doom. That cannot happen if we keep depending on mainstream economists to lead the world forward, because, for them, development does not mean protection of nature, but accumulation of more capital. And as Marx said: "Capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature (Thus) for the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility."

To establish a truly sustainable society, says Deb, "a complete reversal of the understanding and processes of destruction of the natural and the human worlds both is required". In reality, only a zero growth economy can ensure sustainable development. That will improve everyone's quality of life by ensuring conservation and equitable distribution of natural resources. That, however, is not possible in today's market-dominated world.

But we can at least try to build a society that is oriented toward "enoughness, not moreness", because only that can prevent the Earth from hurtling toward ultimate disaster. And for that, governments of the world cannot be driven by growth economists' theories of profit. Heads of state and government may not be able to reach a deal in Copenhagen, but they can take at least one step away from "moreness". But will they?

The author is a senior editor of China Daily


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