A Missed Opportunity

by Ashish Kothari.

In August 2010, the UN Secretary General set up a ‘High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability’, to formulate a “new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity” for the world (‘Beyond the Benchmarks, Hindustan Times, 14.10.2010). Co-chaired by the Presidents of Finland and South Africa, the panel submitted its detailed report in January 2012. The report is under consideration in the Secretary General’s office, and will be a key input to the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (the so-called ‘Rio+20’ event coming up in June in Rio, Brazil).

How ‘new’ is the Panel’s new vision, and how much does it break away from the current model of development that is clearly leading humanity towards massive ecological, social, and economic breakdown?

The Secretary General gave the Panel a very broad mandate; it had the opportunity to redefine notions of human well-being, progress, and development. The Panel comprised mostly of heads of state and ministers, or former ministers, with the odd scientist (connected to government) thrown in.

And so we have a report that goes a certain distance in critiquing the current pathways of development, and recommending measures to ‘green’ them, but stopping well short of the fundamental rethinking that is so desperately needed. In this sense it fits well into the current negotiations towards what governments will come out with at Rio+20; a push for a ‘green economy’, and for increasing reliance on market mechanisms to solve environmental and developmental problems.

The Panel report has many positive elements. It admits that the “current global developmental model is unsustainable”, notes the growing inequalities between the poor and the rich, and minces no words when it states such failures are a result of lack of political will. As part of its recommendations, it repeatedly stresses women’s and youth empowerment, which is most welcome. It urges full respect for human rights, a move towards green and dignified jobs, universal education access, integrated governmental planning, regular reporting on sustainable development using multiple indicators, combining food, water and energy for sustainable agriculture, the spread of relevant technologies, the greening of finance, doing away with environmentally destructive subsidies (like India’s for chemical fertilizers) and a close interface between science and policy. It stresses that governments must fulfill their responsibilities in all this, while seeking ‘stakeholder’ participation.

So far, so good, but unfortunately, simply not enough. While it talks about the need for democratic governance, it does not stress that this should mean devolution of powers to each local settlement, to decide on their issues. It does not advocate even partial delinking of the local from the global, though it is now widely known that communities are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of national and global markets and politics, and though it is also widely known that they can, at least for many of their basic needs, be self-reliant. It does not explicitly challenge the obscene power of the private corporate sector, nor even demand that this sector be strictly regulated; rather, it talks of involving businesses more in a voluntary way. As if the corporations ripping off the planet are suddenly going to become moist-eyed on reading this report and suddenly become ecological heroes. Concomitant with this, the report gives a great deal of space to financial and market solutions to the multiple crises, even though again, there is so much accumulated evidence that these often don’t work, and certainly don’t work to empower the poor.

Here’s an interesting set of statistics. The term ‘private sector’ appears over 50 times in the report; add to this the word ‘businesses’ and ‘corporations’, and it crosses 70. The term ‘local communities’ appears only 7 times; perhaps extended to about 20 where the word ‘communities’ is used to mean the same. The term ‘indigenous people’ appears only once, that too to simply point to their continued marginalization; they don’t come anywhere in the recommendations. Of course, the term ‘civil society’ and ‘stakeholders’ comes several more times, but these generic terms don’t mean much, and could easily be interpreted by governments as anything.

The complete failure of the Panel to acknowledge the importance of empowering and learning from indigenous peoples (about the only people who have shown long-term sustainability in their living) is astounding. Not only this, the report does not even once mention traditional or indigenous knowledge; all its attention goes to modern science. It gets worse; it gives a list of people who were assistants to the Panel members, calling them “Sherpas”; this is an insult to a distinct indigenous people in Nepal who are proud bearers of ancient traditions of living in relative harmony with the earth, but whose name is used synonymously with ‘porters’ by insensitive mountaineers.

An unprecedented opportunity for a very high-level focus on an alternative vision of human well-being has been missed. In a way, this is not a surprise, given the composition of the Panel. No independent civil society members, no indigenous people’s or local community representatives. This is not to say that ministers are not capable of thinking out of the box; but this team did not quite manage it, and the governments where there is some really innovative thinking happening, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba, were not represented. Nor did the Panel hold widespread consultations with civil society, indigenous peoples, though it did consult with some critical thinkers and practitioners.

India’s Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh, was a member of the Panel. At a very early informal meeting when he joined it, some civil society members had given inputs on how the Panel could learn from the thousands of pathbreaking, innovative initiatives in India and elsewhere, showing that there are fundamentally different ways of achieving human well-being, while respecting the Earth. But then, when he and his government are not learning from these within India itself, its pointless to expect to expect a Panel comprising ministers who are pushing the ‘economic growth’ line in their own countries (with some honourable exceptions), to do something very different. If the UN Secretary General is serious about conceiving a vision of the future that will be truly sustainable and equitable, he needs to look elsewhere.


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5 Responses to A Missed Opportunity

  1. This situation is no longer deniable. Opportunities like the one offered at RIO+20 cannot be missed. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are facing now, but only a few ‘voices in the wilderness’ were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present ‘Unsustainable Path’ has to be abandoned in favor of a “road less travelled by”. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

  2. “If we agree to “think globally” about climate destabillization and at least one of its consensually validated principal agencies, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more seemingly perpetual GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, ‘the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth’ fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people and pollutants. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are soon to become no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    Problems worldwide that are derived from conspicuous overconsumption and rapacious plundering of limited resources, rampant overproduction of unnecessary stuff, and rapid human overpopulation of the Earth can be solved by human thought, judgment and action. After all, the things we have done can be undone. Think of it as ‘the great unwinding of human folly’. Like deconstructing the Tower of Babel. Any species that gives itself the moniker, Homo sapiens sapiens, can do that much, can it not?

    “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainbly. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities. If we choose to review the perspective of a ‘marketwatcher’ who can see what is actually before our eyes, perhaps all of us can get a little more reality-oriented to the world we inhabit and a less deceived by an attractive, flawed ideology that is highly touted and widely shared but evidently illusory and patently unsustainable.


  3. http://www.countercurrents.org/salmony310712.htm

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

  4. “…..the essence of this human-driven tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.”

  5. If we keep on doing what we are doing now and repeating past mistakes by continuing not only to recklessly overconsume, relentlessly overproduce and righteously overpopulate in our planetary home but also to deny science, little that is new and sustainable will occur in a timely way.Without an acknowledgement of ALL the root causes of what is ailing humanity, how are we to move forward meaningfully to raise awareness of the global predicament humankind appears to be induced?Once awareness is raised among a critical mass of people, it becomes possible to organize for the purpose of formulating policies for humane and sustainable collective action.
    The willful denial of science has kept us and continues to keep us from gaining momentum needed to reasonably address and sensibly overcome the human-driven challenges that threaten future human wellbeing and environmental health.The tasks at hand for scientists are to freely acknowledge, skillfully examine and carefully interpret evidence as well as to encourage that all evidence regarding the population dynamics of the human species be thoroughly reviewed.It is irresponsible and harmful for professionals with appropriate expertise to remain silent rather than speak out for necessary change, change that is fair and humane in the development of population policy and programs of action.

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