Earth in the balance

Perhaps the biggest threat to our world is the idea that humanity’s immediate needs must be satisfied by whatever means and that the future can go hang.

This week the world’s biggest environmental lobby group, the IUCN, complained that the environmental agenda has been largely sidelined at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The South African government and the African National Congress bear some responsibility for this, with their insistence that the summit is centrally about poverty relief, and their caricaturing of environmentalists of the North as anti-poor tree-huggers bent on preserving economic privilege.

It is simply wrong to suggest the green lobby is indifferent or hostile to development. The IUCN takes a much harder line than South Africa on aid targets, suggesting donations by wealthy states should be monitored and even enforced by the United Nations, rather than being purely voluntary.

But the crisp point is that the summit is about sustainable development — development the environment can carry. The environmental lobby is not saying animals and plants come before people. It is saying that the human and natural worlds are inextricably linked, and that our species will not survive if it destroys the natural resource base on which all economic activity rests.

Of course world poverty must be tackled and not just for moral reasons. Economic desperation is a direct spur to unsustainable energy production, water use, agriculture and fishing. The poor are most vulnerable to the effects of environmentally unsound practices. But the stark fact is that resource constraints, and the environmental fallout, will not allow every human being to live like the average European or North American does now. The countries of the North have built their prosperity on untold damage to the environment. If the Third World takes the same developmental route — and the Indians and Chinese show every sign of doing so — sooner or later we are all doomed.


The challenge of the summit is to place the world economy on a sustainable path. For poor nations, this implies a primary focus on small business and subsistence or semi-subsistence agriculture, rather than the grand smokestack projects and large-scale, high-input commercial farming beloved of our government. It implies a shift, with set targets and timetables, towards renewable energy sources. For the developed nations, it implies transcending narrow nationalism and acknowledging their special responsibilities, born of their wealth, technical sophistication and long record as environmental wreckers. They cannot take the view — espoused by the Bush administration — that what is good for business is good for the world. Corporate environmental practice must be subject to international oversight. Globalisation, and in particular the market upheavals it has brought in its wake, must be managed to ensure it does not deepen the economic plight of the Third World.

Above all, the North must accept that there can be no answer to the world’s deepening woes without the international rebalancing of consumption and wealth. It is a grotesque indictment of the global market “architecture” that an estimated $300-billion bleeds from the Third World to the United States each year, and that the US digests 40% of the world’s raw materials. Key redistributive mechanisms are debt relief and much enhanced Aid flows — subject, of course, to governance guarantees aimed at preventing corrupt self-enrichment by Third World leaders.

The World Bank estimates that improved market access will be six times as beneficial to poor nations as all development aid put together. Europe is said to pay $1-billion a day in agricultural subsidies to its farmers. It is morally repugnant and environmentally indefensible for countries like France to encourage unsustainable farming to the detriment of the world’s most downtrodden.

Stop the war talk

There is an alarming incoherence to the talk of war against Iraq coming from United States President George W Bush and leading members of his administration. Alarming because it seems premised on the notion that it is possible to invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, then withdraw — and all will be well in that benighted country without a lengthy and large security and political commitment to it. Because there is evidently little, if any, appreciation in the Bush administration of how such a war would heighten still further hatred of things American in the Muslim and Arab world, so playing into the hands of the Osama bin Ladens of this world. Because war against Iraq would destabilise an already dangerous situation in the Middle East. Because this unilateralist war talk rests on the view that what is deemed good for the US is a universal value the rest of us should accept. Because Bush and his key Cabinet members are willing to stretch beyond credulity mandates granted by the United Nations to overthrow a foreign government, albeit an odious one. And because war would seriously upset the already ailing world economy.

Happily, more sensible voices are now making themselves heard within the US, significantly from from its less Neanderthal wing of Bush’s own Republican Party. Happily, too, those in Britain who had earlier indicated support for Bush’s war plans — Prime Minister Tony Blair was one — have fallen silent.

This talk of war must stop. There is no justification for it.

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