Forty years ago, two ideas about humanity’s relationship with the natural world caught the imagination of the richest and most influential people. The first was that the demands of a growing population were taking more from the planet than could be replaced by natural processes. The second, related idea was that there exist natural “limits to growth.” These two reinventions of Malthusianism became the basis of a new form of global politics, which has sought to contain human industrial and economic development ever since.
Fears about the possibility of global environmental catastrophe and its human consequences, as depicted by neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich – author of the 1968 prophecy, The Population Bomb – and the Club of Rome – a talking shop for high-level politicians, diplomats and researchers – became the ground on which a number of organisations established under the United Nations were formed. In 1972, the UN held its Conference on the Human Environment, and began its environment programme, UNEP. In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, aka The Brundtland Commission, after its chair, Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland) was formed, leading to the publication of its findings in 1987 in Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Report, it became the bible of “sustainable development.”
Having established sustainable development as an imperative of global politics, more organisations and programmes under the UN were formed to deliver it. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the first “Earth Summit,” was held in Rio, leading to the Agenda 21 “blueprint for a sustainable planet,” UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNSCD). Since then, an entire ecosystem of global, national, governmental and non-governmental organisations has emerged to advocate and implement the closer integration of human productive life with knowledge about the environment: to observe the “limits to growth.” The most notable of these is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions is being sought.
Forty years on and those predictions of doom have not been borne out. The average life expectancy of a human has increased by 10 years, and the number of infants dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from 134 per thousand to 58. Thus, the human population has nearly doubled, and global GDP has risen threefold. There are more of us, we are healthier, wealthier and better fed. There is vast disparity between what the advocates of political environmentalism have claimed and reality. So why are world leaders set to meet next month in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?
The conference, known as Rio+20, aims to bring together “world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups” to “shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever-more crowded planet to get to the future we want”. But these apparently noble ends belie some shameful means. It is not for you or I to decide what “the future we want” will look like by participating in democratic processes. Instead, “world leaders” from governments, businesses and NGOs are to decide it for us.
What happens then, if we do not believe that an emphasis on sustainability is the best way to approach the problems of poverty and inequity? What happens if we think that progress in the world has been achieved, in spite it not being “sustainable”? And what if we do not think that the Great and the Good are doing anything other than serving themselves by this new form of politics?
There is, of course, no opportunity for the expression of such ideas. The Rio+20 conference will be a meeting to extend the reach of supranational institutions that are already beyond democratic control. By design, the meeting precludes public engagement. And any recalcitrant “actors” who do make it to the meeting can expect to be made pariahs. Environmentalism is a form of politics that exists apart from the demos. It superficially aims to resolve the problems that are putatively beyond the reach of normal politics, such as poverty, by promising to meet the merely metabolic needs of the world’s poorest people.
However, this promise comes at a price. The 1972 Stockholm meeting discussed the “need for new concepts of sovereignty, based not on the surrender of national sovereignties but on better means of exercising them collectively, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the common good.” In other words, the world can be fed, clothed and housed at the cost of autonomy.
This surrendering of autonomy is a price worth paying, according to its advocates, whose argument has been reduced to a neat little slogan: global problems need global solutions. For instance, while trying to understand why scepticism of climate-change policies seems to correspond to a conservative persuasion, the Guardian’s Damian Carrington recently opined: “The problem is that global environmental problems require global action, which means cooperation if there are to be no free-riders. That implies international treaties and regulations, which to some on the right equate with communism.”
The claim is ridiculous for many reasons; not least of which is the fact that one does not need to be “on the right’ to be sceptical of international treaties and regulations. One might also object to the creation of powerful political institutions and far-reaching policies simply on the basis that their construction has not been democratic.
Another reason might be that the concepts of “global” and “sustainability” are at best nebulous. To what extent are “global problems” really global? And to what extent can making and doing things “sustainably” really address problems such as poverty and inequality? Poverty is not, in fact, a problem of too much exploitation of natural resources, but too little. And poverty is not a global problem, but a categorically local one, in which a population is isolated from the rest of the world.
We can only account for poverty and inequality in the terms preferred by environmentalists if we accept the limits-to-growth thesis and the zero-sum game that flows from it. In other words, that there are limits on what we can take from the planet and we can only solve poverty if we divide those limited resources more equitably. Such an argument for reducing and redistributing resources has the reactionary consequence of displacing the argument for creating more wealth.
But to date, the arguments that there exist limits to growth, an optimum relationship between people and the planet, and that industrial society is “unsustainable,” have not found support in reality. The neo-Malthusians’ predictions in the Sixties and Seventies were contradicted by growth in population and wealth. And now there is a growing recognition that the phenomenon most emphasised by environmentalists – climate change – has been overstated. The scientist who proposed that life on Earth may function as a self-regulating system, James Lovelock, has distanced himself from the more extreme implications of his hypothesis. Where Lovelock once predicted “Gaia’s revenge,” he has reflected in a short interview for MSNBC.com on his alarmist tome, and criticised others such as Al Gore for their over-emphasis on catastrophic narratives. This is a remarkable volte face in itself, but reflects a broader phenomenon: the coming to fruition of environmentalism’s incoherence.
Issues such as genetically modified foods and nuclear power have caused friction and factions to form within the green movement. Prophecies of doom, such as sea-level rise, melting glaciers and ice caps, wars for resources, mass extinctions and economic and social chaos have been deferred from the imminent – first by decades, then centuries, and now perhaps even millennia, depriving the movement of its urgency and forcing its members to seek (and fail to find) more pragmatic formulations of environmentalism. Meetings to find a global agreement on climate change have ended in disarray and bitter recriminations rather than harmony and a bright green future. So can the Rio+20 meeting buck the trend, and settle on coherent objectives for global environmental politics?
It seems unlikely that it can. Although the meeting intends to deliver “the future we want,” it turns out that what “we” want is more difficult to identify than the UN had hoped. Even when we – hoi polloi – were excluded from preparatory meetings to determine the conference’s agenda, negotiators from 193 countries failed to settle on what they wanted. Just as with the climate negotiations, it turns out that different countries have different interests and want different things. And those other actors – the unaccountable, unelected and undemocratic NGOs – look ready to throw their toys out of the pram. For example, development charity Oxfam whinged that “governments are using or allowing the talks to undermine established human rights and agreed principles such as equity, precaution, and ‘polluter pays.’”
This is no surprise. “Sustainability” is not about delivering “what we want” at all but, on the contrary, mediating our desires, both material and political. Accordingly, the object of the Rio meeting is not as much about finding a “sustainable” relationship between humanity and the natural world as it is about finding a secure basis for the political establishment. The agenda for the Rio +20 conference is the discussion of “decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.” Again, noble aims, perhaps. But is the provision of life’s essentials, and the creation of opportunities for jobs and the design of cities, really a job for special forms of politics and supranational organisations?
The idea that there are too many people, or that the natural world is so fragile that these things are too difficult for normal, democratic politics to deliver, flies in the face of facts. It would be easier to take environmentalists and the UN’s environmental programmes more seriously if millions of people were marching under banners calling for “lower living standards” and “less democracy.” Instead, just a tiny elite speaks for the sustainability agenda, and only a small section of that elite is allowed to debate what it even means to be “sustainable.” We are being asked to take at face value their claims to be serving the “common good.” But there is no difference between the constitutions of benevolent dictatorships and tyrannies.
Sustainability is a fickle concept. And its proponents are promiscuous with scientific evidence and ignorant of the context and the development of the sustainability agenda, believing it to be simply a matter of “science” rather than politics. The truth of “sustainability,” and the meeting at Rio next month, is that it is not our relationship with the natural world that it wishes to control, but human desires, autonomy and sovereignty. That is why, in 1993, the Club of Rome published its report, The First Global Revolution, written by the club’s founder and president, Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider. The authors determined that, in order to overcome political failures, it was necessary to locate “a common enemy against whom we can unite.” But in fighting this enemy – “global warming, water shortages, famine and the like” – the authors warned that we must not “mistake symptoms for causes.” ”All these dangers are caused by human intervention in natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy then is humanity itself.”
Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.