Twenty years after the initial
Rio summit, which rightly proclaimed the need for global sustainability, the world will be meeting again to assess the progress made in the past 20 years, as well as to recommend a way forward from our current position.
For this occasion, the UN has prepared a report, which details the successes and failures of the past 20 years. It also contains a set of 56 recommendations, meant to achieve sustainability.
After reading through the report, I have to say that I could not help but shake my head in disbelief. I will deal with some of the details of the report in a moment, but first I want to sum up what the UN is recommending as a formula for success. It is the same approach we already used to achieve 20 years of failure. I should also add that some of the approaches are even less likely to have an effect today, given the economic realities we face, namely the increased pressure faced by governments to give in to increasingly obscene demands made by private enterprise in order to hold on to their investments, and that includes concessions on environmental and human rights protection.
Of the 56 recommendations made, not one of them contains a mechanism meant to deal with the economic advantage that is automatically to be gained by non-collaboration with these recommended policy changes. All of the recommendations rely on goodwill and self sacrifice for success. It is no surprise therefore that one of the 56 recommendations is a call to promote education about sustainability awareness (recommendation 13). There is also a recommendation to enhance the ability of the consumer to choose between products that we made in a more or less sustainable fashion (recommendation 11). There are recommendations for governments to do a wide range of things, including promoting technological innovation, advance human rights, and promote carbon trading. All of it is stuff that has already been recommended. The one thing that seems to escape the panel’s considerations is that it is precisely the nations which made some effort to adopt these recommendations in the aftermath of the initial Rio summit, which are currently on the brink of economic collapse, while the nations which shunned these ideas, like China, are set to become the new masters of the world. Keeping this in mind, do they really expect these ideas to take hold, or should we recognize that they are in retreat, and come up with a more realistic approach?
There is of course also the renewed recommendation of reaching voluntary global consensus on action on most of our sustainability related issues. There is no reason to believe that this can be done, because the same things that prevented consensus in the past 20 years are the things that stand in the way currently. The main stumbling block is the fact that sustainability is a public good, and like any public goods, they can only be built through a form of coercive enforcement of participation, no different than government taxation to build sidewalks, or other public infrastructure. This all leads me to question whether any of the members of the panel responsible for preparing these recommendations, even have a basic understanding of basic economic theory.
Then again, perhaps it is not the knowledge that is lacking, but the inability to go beyond individual ideological conviction, which prevents people from reaching appropriate conclusions, and therefore offer viable solutions. The fact that after 20 years of failure, following the original
Rio summit, we are presented with the same recommendations is a testament to the power of ideology to cause collective intellectual stagnation. We most certainly cannot be any more stagnated than we are currently, and the consequences are already being felt. The intensity of the pain experienced due to our failure to promote a sustainable economic path, will intensify in time
Many will remember 2012 for many different reasons. For myself, I have to say that in the absence of a great apocalyptic disaster, which so many prophesized to be upon us this year, I will remember a different kind of calamity. I will remember this year as the one in which collective human failure has condemned us and many generations hereafter, to a bleak future. That precise moment of failure will happen when the
Rio+20 conference will be completed, with many pledges of goodwill declared from across the planet, while the consequences will take a while to become clear. Few realize this, but the main aspects of our future will not be determined by our endless, left & right arguments over national policies of taxation, spending, and regulations. It will be decided when this summit fails to implement a global mechanism for sustainability. The effects of the above mentioned left & right squabble, that everyone seems to be so heavily invested in emotionally, will be secondary in comparison regardless of the political outcome.
It is a future that we already see unfolding before us. Failure to promote true sustainability has led to the economic difficulties we experience today, and have been experiencing since 2007 already, and yet few people talk about it in the event’s appropriate context. Record high energy prices, as well as spikes in food prices, caused by shortages, have been a part of our global reality for about five years now, but listening to our elites, one would think that it is all part of just some temporary technical glitches in the global financial market’s performance. Facts which are publically available, such as the IEA’s admission in 2010, that conventional crude production has reached a plateau since 2006 already, and it will remain on a plateau at best in the near to midterm future, are never contemplated in the mainstream media.
We needed to have a mechanism in place to promote global resource efficiency within the economy, at least a decade before this event. Five years after conventional crude plateaued, we still lack such a mechanism, which is reflected in the fact that even as the economic recovery or better said non recovery is taking hold; we have near record petroleum prices. I explained the effect of the event of the peak in conventional oil production that happened half a decade ago, in a previous article.
It seems to have shaved more than 1% out of the world’s potential capacity to expand GDP. In the years and decades to come, the oil situation will get worse, as conventional petroleum will move from the current plateau in production, to an eventual permanent decline. The much hyped unconventional sources will not be enough to fill the void. Other resources, will reach their maximum yields, and some even start declining, ranging from minerals, to ocean based protein harvests. Each one of these resource constraints will negatively impact our ability to expand the global economy, which in turn will intensify the ferocity with which systemic risks will hit us, until we reach a global breaking point. In the absence of an agreement to implement a global mechanism to promote sustainability this year at the Rio summit, similar to the one I proposed in my book, this will be our future, because with every year that passes, it becomes harder to change course, because most of us will be too busy dealing with the immediate symptoms of our unsustainable path.
As the conference will close, no one will notice any immediate significant changes, so few will remember the significance of failure at this summit. We will move on to the next stories and issues, which will seem more important, because they will appear to be more immediate. The effects of failure to promote true sustainability will take the shape of symptoms, which we will in most cases fail to identify correctly to the source, and thus we will deal with these symptoms, which will progressively become more severe, in the years and decades ahead, without realizing the importance of having in place a mechanism to promote global sustainability, and thus prevent the intensification of the symptoms. Even when our global economic system will be on its death bed, we will fail to recognize the disease, so unfortunately, we will become witnesses to the beginning of the worst human disaster on record, because unlike other failed societies from our past, this one, for the very first time, is a global society.
The summit will take place in June, and I intend to write an article related to this subject every month leading up to the event, in order to do my small part in trying to raise awareness of the need for success, as well as explain what should be considered real success. I hold no illusions of making a great deal of difference on my own. The best I can hope for is to reach a few people, and thus help reshape the argument into a direction that is more relevant to our needs. The last article centered on this particular summit, I will write in July as a follow-up and sum-up of the results. I hope those of you, who decide to read them, as well as my other weekly articles and perhaps even my book; will find the material to be informative and perhaps even persuasive enough to change your view, not only about the need for sustainability, but also on how this can be achieved.