Throw off the shackles of the so-called ‘debate’ on climate change – environmental problems are real, and they are here to stay.
Forget about global warming for a second. By the middle of the current century, human population will have grown to reach the 9,000,000,000 mark. On a planet where starvation, drought and poverty are already remarkably prevalent, ‘unsustainable’ suddenly looks like quite a mild term of description. Almost 800,000,000 people lack access to clean drinking water and many more serve annual victim to disease and famine. Driven in part by such necessity, people are now working on a new policy mix in which ideas of ethics, ecology and economics are becoming increasingly inseparable.
Now reintroduce global warming. Imagine the effects on global food supplies, for example, that even a 1 or 2 percent increase in global temperature might have. Imagine if tropical diseases, suddenly released from their equatorial holding cells, were permitted to travel further afield, coming in time to afflict the affluent global north. Perhaps then the apathy which greets the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), preparing to meet next week, might too be thrown off. All of these issues are environmental. They are all economic. They leave all of us in the harmful state of uncertainty.
Several publications this week have led with the news that the Prime Minister is not scheduled to attend the summit. In a land of relative affluence, the absence of Britain’s political leader arguably goes some length in representing the absence of the rest of us from this debate. Our thoughts, it might be said, lie elsewhere.
Such indifference might be misplaced. Running in tandem with the main conference are a host of other ‘Rio+20’ events (they began on the 4th of this month and will last until the 27th). A look at this wider agenda reveals an insight into what kind of summit organisers have in mind. Events, seminars and presentations include: World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities; Trade Union Assembly on Labour and Environment; Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development; Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and the New Economy; World Summit of Legislatures; World Summit on Green Tourism and Creative Economy; Indigenous Peoples Global Conference on Sustainable, Self-Determined Development; Gender, Water and Preparing for Climate Change: Implications for Food, Health and Human Rights…The list goes on and on. It is, essentially, a meeting on progressivism. If the ‘green economy’ signals the way forward, then the United Kingdom appears reluctant to embrace any such change. Our absence from the main event betrays a contentedness to remain glued to convention. So much for that hitherto illusive ‘voice on the world stage’…
That’s perhaps being unkind: a host of government ministers and officials are in attendance. But let’s get away from the notion that modern human life remains incompatible with environmentalism. Dealing with environmental problems and embracing change shouldn’t provoke apathy. Such defeat – or misanthropy – is dangerous in its hopelessness. [For some reason, Christopher Hitchens’ berating of Mother Teresa for glorifying poverty comes to mind here.] In all but the last century of human existence, it has been the norm for the majority of people to live their entire lives in unbroken hardship. However, since the industrial revolution gathered pace in the 19th century, this sad reality has slowly been reversed. In a world where climate change threatens that position, work, obviously, remains to be done. Enter the good people gathering in Rio.
In the afterword to his 1958 classic, The Affluent Society, the great Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers some sage advice for society going forward. He writes: ‘I leave the reader with two pleas. One is to resist the tendency of recent times, which is, as so often before, to find social doctrine that limits or rejects the social claims of the poor. Instead let us put elimination of poverty in the affluent society strongly, even centrally, on the social and political agenda. And let us protect our affluence from those who, in the name of defending it, would leave the planet only with its ashes. The affluent society is not without its flaws. But it is well worth saving from its own adverse or destructive tendencies’.
A global, sustainable, equitable increase in affluence – real affluence – would be one of the great human achievements. Redressing the balance of this affluence (from the more wasteful consumer goods towards public goods), while paying particular respect to the environment that we depend on is an admirable place to start. Certainly, after Kyoto and Copenhagen, the apathy we might feel towards another summit is understandable; but hopefully – just hopefully – the UNCSD might through up a surprise or two. On a more trivially humane note, it’s nice to see global leaders agreeing to meet where finance, militarism or the search for unfettered economic growth aren’t the prime movers.
The battle between conventional wisdom and progressivism recommences in Rio de Janeiro, this Wednesday, June 20th. You can follow the wider ‘Rio+20’ events on Twitter here: @EarthSummit2012 and the conference itself here: @UN_Rioplus20.