This post is the script of my contribution to a podcast album that a team of Open University academics have recorded in the run up to Rio+20. There will be contributions from across humanities, social and natural sciences and technology. It’ll appear within the next few days on iTunesU.
Ian McEwan’s protagonist in his novel Solar, Nobel physicist Michael Beard, summarises how many people feel when at the receiving end of a lecture on climate change:
‘Beard sank into a gloom of inattention, not because the planet was in peril — that moronic word again — but because someone was telling him it was with such enthusiasm’ (McEwan 2010: 36).
Perhaps it shouldn’t puzzle us that that the promise of rapid environmental and social change is greeted with a ‘gloom of inattention’. For forty years these debates have played with the highest rhetorical stakes. But despite Rio+20 being the biggest political gathering on these issues for twenty years most people are barely aware that it is happening. Why is that? The reason might be precisely that the stakes have been set so high, with talk of limits, boundaries and human survival. The balancing concept has always been a utopian vision of a dramatically transformed human economy and society.
This time around, Rio sets out to ‘renew political commitment to sustainable development’. I want to suggest that if it wants to do that then the international community needs to stop conjuring large-scale threats and lurid images of the end of times. We need to turn down the rhetorical heat. Instead we must look in a cool calm way at how we can understand risks better and how we can respond to them in ways that also make the world a better place to live for humans and our companions on planet Earth.
These UN gatherings have a habit of inflating the urgency of our situation and the scale of the challenge, while failing to implement simple practical steps to improve it. It’s a habit that was established right back in 1972. That first UN environment summit in Stockholm forced a contrast between developed world environmentalists and the ambitions of the developing world for economic development.
The Earth summit in 1992 sought to square this circle with the magic bullet of sustainability. The goal of ‘global sustainability’, of integrating environment, society and economy sounds something like pursuit of a ‘global Sweden’. In other words a stable democracy, robust economy, generous welfare system, food on the table – perhaps plenty of cycle lanes and argon filled triple glazed windows.
It sounds like an imaginary place a long way away. But its not just that it doesn’t sound plausible – with apologies to Swedes – it doesn’t sound all that attractive either. My guess is that a more sustainable global society is going to be far more messy, argumentative and diverse than the formal rhetoric of sustainability implies.
The dour rhetoric of planetary boundaries being crossed also tends to disguise the progress that has been made in recent years. In terms of awareness, things are more advanced than one might have expected. New knowledge about biodiversity and climate change is difficult. It demands that we think in new ways about time, responsibility and the future. Environmental science and policy is run through with complexities and uncertainties. Yet after only a couple of decades of being considered at international level, around 70% across the planet are ‘concerned or very concerned’ about climate change.
We are at a pivotal point where most people on doorsteps, in boardrooms and in faith communities think about the natural world in new ways. The great majority of the world’s government’s have signed up to agreements on climate change, biodiversity and human development. These are signs of solid progress, and, in terms of the long sweep of human history, they’ve happened in the blink of an eye. But continuing with the same refrains about enormous and urgent global problems may make it harder to pick up pace.
Instead I suggest UN talks should concentrate on some well-focused tasks. Here are four that I would pick.
First, agree on a global carbon tax, to be balanced with locally identified reductions in other taxes. Bind this together with means of rewarding countries and communities that protect eco-systems and carbon sinks.
Second, revise trade rules such that the principle of fair trade shifts from being a consumer choice to an embedded function of the economy.
Third, chase an urgent expansion in investments in women’s access to education and health services, and in food security: these are the only routes to stabilizing population growth, and they are all a spur to economic development.
Fourth, throw weight behind a global financial transactions tax. This would generate funds for improving healthcare and food security, and make the banking system a little more stable in the bargain.
All four measures are about taxing bad things and investing in good ones. These moves don’t trash the capitalist system but instead revise the rulebook in ways that make every exchange more fair and sustainable. They mean that every transaction in the economy can reflect a good guess at their full social and environmental costs.
Sustainable development is a tired old phrase, possibly moribund. Rather than trying to resuscitate it every few years with a global shindig we should draw strength from one very important insight that sits at the heart of it: the economy is a human artefact that we make, and can remake, according to changing priorities.
The measures I’ve sketched out here won’t deliver a global Sweden but they do greatly increase the chances of humanity coping decently and reasonably well with the challenges we face. In place of a shouty mix of utopian and dystopian statements we need to just get on with our To Do list. By giving up on the tired rhetoric of eco-disaster, and instead aiming for a handful of ambitious but specific and achievable practical goals, we can convince people that the place we’re going could be so much better than the place we are now.