What do you reckon? Is the cause of today’s environmental challenges over-population? Over-consumption? Apathy? Greed?
Various writers claim that our industrial system of economic development is the reason for our planetary malaise. Is the economic structure of the so-called democratically “free” world guilty?
If so, how on earth can we transform a system whose global reach is ever-expanding? If poverty, like population, is a key player in our environmental challenges, surely a system established to generate prosperity is more of a help than a hindrance?
The bad news is when you dig below the surface, the values and ideologies which underpin the “developed” world’s system of economic growth fail to stimulate prosperity worldwide. Instead, many writers argue that modern economic development leads to urbanisation, ethnic strife, cultural breakdown and diminished sustainability.
Conventional wisdom, however, says that the only way to reverse both the population and poverty explosion is through more economic growth – for the less-industrialised parts of the world to catch-up with the industrialised “west”. Sounds fair. Equitable. Just. Surely everyone deserves the chance for a flat-screen TV and oversized SUV. Surely…
The problem, unfortunately, is not just the environmental nightmare of this scenario. The problem is also mathematical. The fact is – and this is a fact – the numbers just don’t add up. According to Norberg-Hodge & Goering in The Future of Progress, the “developed” world’s prosperity is only possible because “its inhabitants, one-fifth of the world total, consume roughly four-fifths of the earth’s resources…What’s more, the biosphere is already under serious threat from current levels of human activity: it is inconceivable to imagine that the Earth could sustainably absorb the 16-fold increase in economic activity that would be needed” for consumption levels (akin to western economic development) to equalise across the globe (p.18).
It’s perhaps no surprise that many commentators argue for a sharp turn-away from the modern development model. The alternative, they say, is a realistic framework for sustainable development. But what does this look like?
Is it not reasonable to assume that sustainability varies from one location to another, from one culture to another? Different horses for different courses, and all that. One thing is generally agreed: sustainable development requires simultaneous and balanced “progress” (whatever that word means) in four dimensions – social, economic, ecological and political. Importantly, sustainability recognises the interdependence of these dimensions – one cannot thrive in the long-term without supporting (and being supported by) the health and prosperity of the other domains.
The question is: In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges (poverty and population growth being the tip of the proverbial iceberg), and given the diverse interpretations of our assorted problems and solutions, what on earth are we to do? Perhaps education is the key? Perhaps our salvation resides in reorienting our learning (life-long that it is) to help us achieve the social, economic, political and ecological sustainability to which we aspire (once we figure out what those aspirations look like). But despite our shared intention to “think global and act local”, the global keeps getting in the way. Perhaps globalisation is a critical challenge to achieving sustainability? Certainly, the impacts of globalisation set the context for international decision-making that reaches beyond our personal lessons in sustainability, our household actions and local initiatives.
A political issue, globalisation is rarely debated in terms of its social, cultural and environmental impacts. Instead, it’s touted as an economic success in which the internet and free-trade make the world smaller and accessible to all. Hailing globalisation as the shining light for sustainable development, the doctors of spin espouse a well-formed rhetoric that the consuming masses lap up with every cheap imported purchase. The flipside, of course, is that the rhetoric of globalisation has allowed powerful elites to “maintain their access to the world’s resources and waste sinks” (Huckle, 1996). This in turn widens the gap between rich and poor…which kinda makes poverty kinda difficult to solve.
Well…anyone would think the world was about to implode! The challenges seem so massive and overwhelming, how can we humans possibly find our way? For every single one of us, creating a social climate for sustainability (in which real change is possible) is no mean feat. One thing is certain. As a species, human beings cannot afford to give up. We cannot afford to see the problem as insurmountable. We created it, afterall. If we had the power to build it, we have the power to tear it down, brick by brick, and make a new house for us all. We need to recognise that the solution wins out in the end, because we are innately creative and driven by the will to survive. As human beings, we must not give up.
We must work – together, steadily, surely, with urgency – to build the shared capacity that grants us a future in which sustainable development is a reality…and not just a couple of complicated words.
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