Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Witches Brew of Global Challenges

By Gary Berg-Cross

I got an email recently about a MeetuP to talk about What are the challenges we face before 2100, and what can we do about them? It’s a good question and they asked for ideas. Just looking at the related Meetups provided a few obvious items like environment and energy. With gas prices high one thinks of Peak Oil (Fossil fuel and mineral resources rapidly depleting ) along with pollution (Topsoil is disappearing and with it the land’s ability to produce nutritious food). To these we might add interlocking challenges like:

  • Personal & institutional debt ( from man-made capital) which has spiraled out of control
  • Divisions between the rich and the poor are wider than ever before
  • Fresh water supplies are drying up (natural capital)
  • Clean air, untainted by pollution, in urban centers is becoming a distant memory
  • Fish stocks in our oceans are critically low
  • The population, increasingly poor, has increased beyond the point where the planet’s resources can support it
  • With stress and pollution and expensive health care rates of illness– both physical and mental – are rising
  • Values of many people in the developed are less humanistic and more consumeristic
  • Political systems are locking up.
One has to put down climate change as a big challenge in a long line of nested challenges. In January, the U.S. Agency for International Development released a climate change strategy called Climate Change & Development: Clean Resilient Growth . It’s blueprint addresses impact that climate change might have on global development and hence AID’s assistance programs such as climate smart agriculture to feed growing populations. The world’s population edged over the 7 billion threshold and while slowing the rate is slowing the number has been projected to reach 9 billion by around 2050. With a billion people already hungry, this raises the question– how can we feed them and the billions still to come? Based on input from multiple U.S. agencies and NGOs, the document “paints a picture of the threats climate change poses for development – calling it “among the greatest global challenges of our generation” – and commits the agency to addressing both the causes of climate change and the impacts it will have on communities in countries around the world.” Two other challenges make the climate mitigation effort challenging. One is that the global community faces fiscal and economic challenges in a dismal political climate. Fiscal constraint puts aid and development assistance under pressures scrutiny. And fiscal problems point to deep problems in our economic system. Can we grow ourselves out of our immediate problem or do we move on to a more "sustainable” and less growth oriented economic system? Sustainability, as shown in the previous Figure, is an inclusive concept that focuses on the linkages between three key pillars: environmental, economic and social.) In Britain Conservative PM David Cameron argues that they need the type of thing we hear from American conservatives deregulate business and cut back on spending, trim the safety net in order to "promote growth". This the type of thing discussed at the recent G20 global economic summit. President Obama, reported that the discussions there had revolved around the question:

"How do we achieve greater global growth?"

But not everyone agrees with this 1% consensus. Recently a few economists have advanced a no growth view. They argue that we have lived in a growth economy for a while, with an underlying assumption that growth makes us richer. But now we see that only 1-5% have gotten richer and now the has slowed with loss for most and bonuses for the people who seem somewhat responsible. If the global economy stops growing as predicted by a Limits to Growth idea (GDP growth is impossible to sustain over the long run anyway because we live on a planet with limited natural resources), will everything fall apart unless we change the structural relations and value sustainability? Herman Daly (Professor Emeritus, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland who also worked at the World Bank, says that we can and need to. But this requires that we change our values. He falls on a general notion beyond what he calls chance and natural selection, which I could see in a Humanist tradition.

Other economists like France’s Serge Latouche have argued that growth is not always (usually??) good for the environment including the deep health of communities who need more sharing of resources (urban farms, green open spaces, communal housing). The commons is a new way to express a very old idea – that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the greater good. A more commons-based society would shift values and policies away from a narrowly focused on private wealth achieved via the market-based system that has dominates modern society since WWII and has more recently morphed into what seems like a mixture of speculation, crony capitalism and crony government.

This introduces another factor - the political environment which along with climate change skepticism and free market ideology makes progress on things like climate change legislation and financial reform unlikelyIndeed each of these makes it difficult to attack a range of social problems like population and immigration challenges.

1 comment:

Edd.Doerr said...

Superb column, Gary. Too bad is does not appear where conservatives can see it.