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Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Energy imperatives, environmental awareness

In a number of developing countries, energy demand and environmental awareness are both on the rise. This can create tensions among a number of stakeholders. Middle classes may develop new expectations about issues like air pollution and wilderness preservation; but their prosperity depends in part on energy projects that can carry an array of negative environmental consequences. Often it is the poor who suffer these consequences most directly, though the poor are the very people who have yet to benefit from economic development. Governments, meanwhile, though they are keen to encourage development, must also remain mindful of environmental attitudes among their citizens. How can fast-developing nations meet their energy needs and achieve their development goals while also satisfying higher environmental expectations?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

 

Round 1

11/26/2013 - 14:10

Climbing out of the hole

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen
11/27/2013 - 07:01

Tough, but not impossible

Ashish Kothari
12/04/2013 - 07:02

Time to move beyond baby steps

Adnan A. Hezri

Round 2

12/12/2013 - 12:56

Money and politics are the problem

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen
12/17/2013 - 07:56

To change policy, win power

Adnan A. Hezri
12/19/2013 - 09:48

More democracy, and a sense of limits

Ashish Kothari

Round 3

01/09/2014 - 14:06

Conceiving life afresh

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen
01/21/2014 - 11:39

Who can lead?

Adnan A. Hezri
01/29/2014 - 10:55

Making change happen

Ashish Kothari

Round 1

11/26/2013 - 14:10

Climbing out of the hole

In the developing world, the costs and benefits of energy production are rarely shared equitably. A case in point is Thailand's Pak Mun Dam. This project produces only enough electricity to power one large shopping mall in Bangkok, and the World Commission on Dams has judged it economically unjustifiable. But constructing the dam displaced 1,700 families and, by disrupting fisheries, affected the livelihoods of 6,200 households.

It is encouraging that middle classes in developing countries are expressing increased environmental consciousness, but if their environmental consciousness remains superficial, the result is only a not-in-my-backyard attitude. This can produce "green apartheid," with well-to-do areas benefitting from dirty energy projects located far away. Thailand, for instance—a prosperous nation compared to some of its neighbors—increasingly derives its electricity from destructive dams or polluting power plants located in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar (countries with lax environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms). For many Thais, the negative consequences of these facilities remain out of sight, out of mind.

All this makes it seem as if the consuming class benefits unfairly at the expense of the poor. But in Thailand, the reality is that energy investments are increasingly driven by the greed of corporations, not by the preferences of the Thai middle class. Because many of the government's top energy planners sit on the boards of privatized energy companies, planning is distorted and unnecessary projects are churned out. A select few people profit from this corrupt combination of money and politics. Consumers are held captive, underwriting superfluous and destructive energy ventures. So it isn't fair to characterize the middle class's environmental concerns as hypocritical—just as it isn't fair to dismiss as "antidevelopment" the environmental concerns of the poor.

Uneven distribution. The flow of energy from poor areas to rich areas is common—within countries, between countries, and between the developing and developed worlds. But paradoxically, the countries from which energy resources are exported are often energy-poor themselves. In Myanmar, for example, only 26 percent of the population has access to electricity (and even this is intermittent). But according to a 2012 report by the Asian Development Bank, more than half the country's energy supply goes to export.

Globally, decades of economic development have generated a lot of energy and a lot of profit, but neither is distributed evenly. Nearly 1.3 billion people around the world lack electricity access, while 46 percent of the world's wealth is concentrated among the richest 1 percent of people. Energy projects, far from granting poor people access to modern energy services, often leave them displaced, with their natural environments polluted or degraded.

Poverty exists not because the world has too little wealth but because the global economic system is unjust. As Mohandas Gandhi put it, "The world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed." If one were to visualize the global economy in three dimensions, it would look roughly like a pyramid, but with a high, pointy tip and a wide, spreading base. The top 1 percent occupy the upper reaches, and the poor are massed at the bottom. This system works as long as people at the bottom can be soothed by promises of future comfort, convenience, mobility, and novelty. But at some point—because of unbearable inequality, resource scarcity, climate change, or an accumulation of other environmental woes—the globalization party will end.

Yes, the world must do a better job of meeting the basic needs of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. But in a finite world, these needs cannot be met by continuing on a path of endless economic growth and ever-higher demand for energy. In fact, fossil fuel consumption must decline precipitously—in developed and developing nations alike—if humanity is to avoid climate catastrophe.

But breaking away from fossil fuels will be tremendously difficult. These fuels, in addition to providing energy, have become essential inputs in everything from synthetic fertilizers to plastics. Fossil fuels are engines of capital generation and accumulation. They are time savers, labor savers, conveyors of international trade, yardsticks of progress, supposed guarantors of national security, and addictive drugs disguised as providers of convenience and comfort. They have allowed production facilities to relocate anywhere in search of cheap labor. They have enabled the creation of mobile, dispensable work forces. They have made geography an abstraction, with resources anywhere now fair game for multinational corporations. They are the necessary precondition for accumulating capital on the basis of exploiting global labor and resources. Fossil fuels are so entrenched in the global economy that reducing dependence on them will require radical change.

Unfortunately, the solution to climate change cannot be as simple as switching to alternative forms of energy. Renewable energy sources and conservation technologies should be exploited to their maximum potential wherever doing so makes economic sense. But though some countries are embracing green energy, few so far have made a meaningful dent in their carbon dioxide emissions. And often green energy is given only lip service—or is met with outright resistance. Simply put, green energy does not provide a silver bullet for the world's climate problems. Nuclear projects, meanwhile, are too expensive, present too many environmental and proliferation risks, and take too long to build. Nuclear energy should be off the table.

So how does the world lift itself out of the fossil fuel hole it has dug? By building a global economy based on meeting people's basic needs, including those of future generations. Governments, prodded and held accountable by publics and nongovernmental organizations, can engage in a number of steps that would help create such an economy.

Immediately, governments should abandon policies that further entrench the fossil fuel economy. No new coal- or gas-fired power plants should be built. Plans for superhighways should be abandoned. Auctioning of petroleum concessions should cease. Subsidies and tax privileges should be withdrawn from any energy-intensive industry that primarily serves export markets. Support should also be withdrawn for energy- and chemical-intensive agriculture.

Next, taxes should be imposed or increased on carbon emissions—and also on capital gains, speculative financial flows, and inheritances. Taxes on labor, meanwhile, should be reduced. Overall tax revenues would increase, and these funds should be invested in green energy, health, education, community empowerment, and reorienting economic infrastructures toward self-sufficiency, sustainability, and meeting basic needs.

A long-term goal of all this would be economic relocalization. Investment would be locally directed and consumption would be locally sourced. Natural resources would fall under local stewardship. Profits would come in the form of improved health, stronger communities, and a cleaner environment. People would work not so much to amass money as to address real needs—their own needs, other people's, and those of everyone's children and grandchildren.

11/27/2013 - 07:01

Tough, but not impossible

The industrialized world bears the greatest historical responsibility for ecological destruction. But as nations previously "left out" of the economic growth story race to catch up, they are also catching up in ecological destruction. In countries such as China and India, natural ecosystems and agricultural land are being diverted for industry, infrastructure, and power plants. Extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, carried out on an enormous scale, is creating pollution of various kinds. Fast-developing countries are emerging as major emitters of greenhouse gases, even if their per capita emissions may still be small compared with those of industrialized nations. With the developed and developing worlds alike now making enormous demands on the planet's resources, human beings are beginning to cross dangerous ecological thresholds.

Serious socioeconomic impacts come in tandem with all this ecological harm—in industrializing countries, large numbers of people are directly dependent for their survival on the natural and modified ecosystems. In India, for instance, about 700 million people depend directly on farms, forests, pastures, wetlands, and marine habitats for their livelihoods, and environmental degradation takes a serious toll on them. According to a World Bank study, the economic cost of environmental degradation in India is equivalent to 5.7 percent of the country's gross domestic product, with a disproportionately high cost borne by the poor. The production of energy and the extraction of resources can also lead to displacement, cultural disruption, and disease.

Certain countries are predominantly responsible for environmental harm; other countries suffer the most because of environmental harm. But this sort of inequity operates just as much within countries as it does among them. As of 2007 (the most recent year for which these calculations are available), the wealthiest people in India were responsible on a per capita basis for carbon dioxide emissions 4.5 times greater than those of the poorest. About 150 million Indians, again on a per capita basis, were responsible for annual carbon emissions higher than the 2.5 metric tons that are considered consistent with limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees.

India frequently witnesses large protests against power plants, mining operations, and the like. The protesters are often farmers, fishers, pastoralists, or adivasi (indigenous communities) opposed to using farmland, forests, water, or other resources for development projects that don't actually benefit them. Several dozen mining, hydroelectricity, nuclear, and industrial projects in India are stalled due to such protests. (Even in a less democratic country such as China, thousands of protests against land takeovers are recorded annually.) A segment of the Indian middle class has joined in such movements, and a burgeoning civil society sector centers around environmental and human rights. Many people, both from directly affected communities and from the middle class, find themselves fundamentally questioning economic growth models and searching for alternatives.

Sustainable consumption. Can poverty be alleviated without breaking the bond between human beings and the environment in which they live? Policy initiatives and grassroots efforts in a number of countries demonstrate that pathways for doing so exist. India alone can offer hundreds of encouraging examples—of sustainable agriculture projects that provide food security, decentralized methods of water harvesting that ensure sufficient water supplies even in areas with low rainfall, and small-scale manufacturing and craftwork initiatives that support dignified, non-polluting jobs. Decentralized energy initiatives, meanwhile, are proving their suitability for a wide range of applications (and can reach the poor much faster than can conventional, large-scale energy projects, which depend on inefficient centralized grids). All these approaches directly address people's basic needs and aspirations—in contrast to conventional development initiatives, which mostly try to spur rapid growth in the hope that some benefit will trickle down to the poor.

But mitigating climate change and addressing other environmental concerns also requires that consumption be limited. Enormous waste, for example, plagues energy supply chains, so efficiency improvements are necessary. Adequate systems of public transportation must be established to end the domination of the private vehicle. Construction methods and materials should become much less energy-intensive.

And excessive personal consumption must be reined in. One way of achieving this would be to establish a "sustainable consumption line" beyond which consumption would be discouraged or prohibited. With a sustainable consumption line in place, not all consumption would be treated as legitimate—instead, consumption would be limited by the supply constraints that nature imposes. A sustainable consumption line might form part of what I have elsewhere called radical ecological democracy—a sociocultural, political, and economic arrangement allowing all people and communities the right and full opportunity to participate in decision making processes that would turn on the twin fulcrums of ecological sustainability and human equity.

Establishing radical ecological democracy would present political, social, economic, technical, and cultural challenges. It would require that today's dominant values—individualism, consumerism, accumulation of wealth, maximization of gains, ostentation, and so on—be abandoned. These values would be replaced by a different set of ideas, such as that rights come with responsibilities, that resources are part of a global commons, and that happiness can be delivered by improved social relations, deeper spirituality, an understanding of "enoughness," and nature itself.

Only through such a fundamental restructuring of human activity can the needs of the poor be addressed and the planet be saved. Such a restructuring will be a difficult, long-term project. But not an impossible one.

12/04/2013 - 07:02

Time to move beyond baby steps

Sociologists have observed since the 1970s that people's values shift from the material to the post-material as societies become prosperous. That is, when people begin to believe that their economic and physical security is guaranteed, they devote greater attention to things that would have been considered luxuries before, such as autonomy and self-expression. The same process has helped produce developed-world environmental movements. These movements, which may have begun with local concerns about air and water quality, now include global issues such as climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.

In developing countries, on the other hand, environmental activism is often the product of poverty instead of affluence. The struggle that Chico Mendes led to conserve Brazil's rain forests, the Chipko movement in the Himalayas to save forests and protect soil and water resources, and the Penan people's efforts to prevent logging in Malaysia are examples of how poor people in rural areas have fought to protect their livelihoods. But in recent years, post-material environmentalism and environmentalism-of-the poor have begun to converge in some developing countries. In nations such as India and Kenya, educated middle-class people who are motivated toward environmentally responsible behavior have come together with the poor to address sustainability issues.

The greatest environmental challenge facing the world today is climate change. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, economic growth has been powered by fossil fuels—but from extraction to processing to transportation to end use, fossil fuels produce carbon emissions that the world can't afford much longer. It is clear that energy systems must become more sustainable. Future energy systems should be built around—in addition to energy efficiency—greatly expanded use of clean, renewable energy technologies. National energy policies, and the changes to markets that these policies imply, are central to achieving such a shift.

In reorganizing energy systems, the developing world faces a quandary different from that which faces industrialized nations. Energy and economic growth are tightly coupled, and this presents problems for countries where development levels remain low. Developing countries must simultaneously guarantee access to the energy that is necessary for economic development, manage transitions to low-carbon energy systems, and help the most vulnerable deal with the effects of climate change. This, essentially, is the well-known "energy trilemma" of energy security, environmental sustainability, and social equity. Addressing each element of the "trilemma" is imperative, but addressing all of them successfully is very complicated because the three are interconnected.

Over the coming decades, fast-developing nations are likely to account for an ever-increasing share of global carbon emissions—particularly China, India, and Brazil. But in the poorest countries, the biggest challenge continues to be energy access itself. Even the world's biggest carbon emitters haven't yet fully incorporated climate change into their energy policies—so it should come as no surprise that, in the poorest countries, transformation of energy systems is usually not even a fringe consideration.

Still, if developing countries are to progress economically and provide social equity to their citizens, they will sooner or later have to embrace a new kind of thinking—an attitude according to which climate mitigation, sustainable energy systems, and economic development proceed hand in hand. Some developing countries have already decided that building greener economies is an attainable goal.

China, for instance, in the five-year plan covering the period 2011 to 2015, identifies clean-energy industries and related technologies as "pillar industries" (along with information technology and biotechnology). The Chinese government is reported to be spending more than $1.7 billion on these industries and technologies over the five years, with this investment representing a market "push" toward green energy, and efficiency measures representing a market "pull." But the green-economy dimension of climate mitigation is not exclusively a Chinese idea—similar policy framings are seen in, for example, Thailand and my own nation of Malaysia.

The journey toward sustainable energy systems is under way, but nations have taken only baby steps so far. The pace could be accelerated if existing sustainable projects were scaled up and if regulations better encouraged market forces. Also, it is important for governments to encourage short-term interventions that can demonstrate to publics the advantages in creating sustainable energy systems—in Ghana, for example, goals for renewable energy generation have been paired with the goal of providing universal electricity access by 2020. This sort of trust-building is crucial. During the financial and economic crisis of the last few years, attention for global environmental problems flagged among governments, businesses, and publics. The window of time in which green energy investment might pay off for the climate may be shrinking—and if it closes, the implications would be extremely serious.

Round 2

12/12/2013 - 12:56

Money and politics are the problem

In Round One, Adnan A. Hezri proposed that nations address climate change and economic inequality primarily by establishing sustainable energy systems. That would be a step in the right direction. But given the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the global economy, renewable energy cannot reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as the threat of climate change demands—not even close. If renewable energy (with the help of efficiency measures) eliminated all the emissions produced in fossil-fuel–based electricity generation, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by only about 17 percent. Emissions associated with everything else, from air travel to plastics to deforestation to livestock, would remain unchanged—or, because of the emissions associated with the production and distribution of solar cells, wind turbines, energy-efficient appliances, and the like, they would even increase.

If nations are to achieve the emissions cuts that climate scientists recommend, consumption must decrease. It is excessive consumption that primarily explains the yawning gap between scientists' recommended emissions cuts and actual emissions cuts. To avert climate catastrophe and leave adequate resources for the poor, wealthy people in the developed and developing worlds alike must reduce their consumption.

Then again, excessive focus on consumption might assign too much blame to consumers while ignoring the larger forces that drive ever-greater consumption. Unbridled capitalism allied with unaccountable political power is the real climate culprit. The marriage of money and politics results in energy investments that benefit only a select few, pillage natural resources, and impoverish the people who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. Consumers foot the bill for these projects.

Any realistic solution to climate change must disrupt the cozy relationship that unrestrained capitalism enjoys with politics. Disrupting this relationship will not be easy—no off-the-rack method for doing so exists. But a suite of actions might do the job. Political systems should be reformed through measures that enhance democracy and increase transparency and accountability. Economies should be fundamentally reoriented toward decentralization, localization, sustainability, and equitable distribution of wealth.

New attitudes. Meanwhile, the concept of economic development needs redefinition (and perhaps a new name). Real development does not proceed from increased consumption; wealth accumulation is not even a desirable goal. Globalization, which produces unbearable inequity and inspires resource grabs that further impoverish the poor, represents a form of colonialism rather than a means of development. In any event, healthy communities that live within their means and in harmony with the environment should be admired, not regarded as needing development. If the wealthy took lessons from these "poor" communities, everyone would benefit.

A change in attitude toward environmentalism is needed as well. In Round One, Hezri described environmental consciousness in prosperous countries as something that "would have been considered [a] luxur[y]" in less prosperous times. He acknowledged that environmental activism in less prosperous countries often springs from poverty rather than affluence—but still, any notion that environmentalism might be a luxury belittles and disempowers the poor. Such an attitude toward the environment is part of what coerces poor people into accepting the negative environmental impacts that accompany "development." Clean air, clean water, and so forth are the fundamental basis of human well-being. They are not some luxury that only the rich can afford.

A true unaffordable luxury is fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Monetary Fund, global energy subsidies are equal to 8 percent of the world's government revenues (once the negative externalities of energy use are factored in), and most energy subsidies support fossil fuels. Nations would be much better off if they redirected their monetary resources toward education, public health, environmental protection, and safety-net programs.

12/17/2013 - 07:56

To change policy, win power

Two of the solutions most frequently offered for addressing the "energy trilemma" of energy security, environmental sustainability, and social equity are to decrease overall consumption and to reform political systems. In this Roundtable, Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen and Ashish Kothari have in their own ways argued for these two approaches. But solving the "energy trilemma" will require more than these approaches can achieve on their own.

Calls for reduced consumption can often miss an important point—that economic activity and use of natural resources do not always march in lockstep. In Japan, for example, gross domestic product increased by 42 percent between 1977 and 1987 but energy demand increased by only 14 percent. But beyond that, overzealous focus on household energy consumption can lead to the conclusion that individual behavior is the key to environmental sustainability. In most developing countries, this represents a utopian attitude. Growing middle classes in much of developing Asia, for instance, see automobiles and household air conditioning units as potent status symbols. Expecting newly prosperous individuals to foreswear technologies to which they attach high importance is bound to end in disappointment.

Individual consumption is governed by what individuals perceive as desirable and economically rational. Only government policy is strong enough to override these forces. Through policy, it may be possible to restructure consumption patterns so that they are environmentally rational—not just economically rational. But governments are not likely to produce such policies simply because of "measures that enhance democracy and increase transparency and accountability," measures for which Greacen advocated in Round Two. Rather, environmental movements must win greater political power.

So far, environmentalists have won many battles but seem to be losing the war. They have successfully lobbied for thousands of pieces of environmental legislation but the degradation of Earth's ecosystem continues apace. This is true in part because environmental movements are often characterized by weak organizational structures, limited vision, and incremental approaches to change. These problems must be overcome if environmentalism is to become a powerful political force instead of a protest movement.

Green parties in Western Europe have made some progress in this direction, with a number of protest movements having evolved into meaningful political parties. These parties have become parts of governing coalitions in countries such as Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and Finland. For a time in 2004, Latvia had a green prime minister. In East Asia, on the other hand, a region that should be fertile ground for environmentally focused politics, green parties are generally unable to gain traction against competitors that champion prosperity through economic growth. But even if environmentalists do gain greater mainstream political power, they must remain vigilant against capture by market forces. The alliance of money and politics will continue to represent a danger for the planet unless the entire world collectively and decisively embraces a vision in which the goals of ecological sustainability and human well-being converge.

Ultimately, though, I would argue that economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering. Environmentalists must accept that life is for living.

12/19/2013 - 09:48

More democracy, and a sense of limits

The ideas that have emerged in this roundtable for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing other environmental and equity-related problems include decreasing consumption, challenging prevalent models of development, ensuring that governance is centered on people, and shifting national energy policies toward renewable energy. Adnan A. Hezri in Round One focused mostly on the last of these. I would support such transformations—but because social equity is as important as environmental sustainability, it is crucial that renewable energy projects be decentralized.

Centralized renewable energy sources such as wind farms, big hydropower projects, and large solar installations—in addition to carrying significant environmental impacts—are inherently resistant to democratic control. It is all too common for the energy they produce to go to wealthy urban areas or industrial complexes, while the rural poor continue to lack energy access. Energy from decentralized renewable sources tends to be more quickly and directly accessible to the poor, especially if these projects are supported by governments and civil society.

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen, meanwhile, has mostly emphasized reduced consumption. Reducing overall energy demand is certainly required—especially in industrialized countries, but also among rich people in less industrial nations. Reductions can be achieved through efficiency, but also by reducing frivolous energy uses such as neon advertising signs and all-night lighting in shops. Eliminating unnecessary goods such as fashion products would decrease consumption, as would changes in public transportation policy. But in practical terms, how are these reductions to be achieved?

Generating public awareness can play a role; behavior will change to an extent if people understand the suicidal nature of current energy pathways. But deep reductions probably require that environmentalists gain greater political power, as Hezri has suggested. Only through the exercise of political power can the externalities of fossil fuels be internalized, making these fuels economically unviable. Political power is required to levy taxes on or impose prohibitions against luxury consumption, and to use tax revenues for subsidizing decentralized renewable energy options. Political empowerment of citizens is likewise necessary if rural communities are to gain the ability to protect their natural resources from powerful urban and industrial forces. But at the same time, one should not underestimate the ability of radical, decentralized movements to change things on a large scale. In India, for example, it was a decentralized movement—not a direct takeover of government—that made the country's Right to Information Act a reality.

Political transformation has to be accompanied by an economic paradigm shift: The world must break its addiction to economic growth. Hezri's Round Two assertion that "economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering" misses the important point that humanity is already overstressing the planet. Activities that are causing humanity to break through Earth's ecological limits must be curtailed.

Curtailing these activities does not require de-growth everywhere. It is people in the Global North and the wealthy in poor countries who must drastically shrink their environmental footprint. Meanwhile, radical economic redistribution would ensure that the Global South has the resources it needs to generate livelihoods and meet people's basic needs.

Taking steps such as these would not end economic growth. Rather, growth would become sustainable instead of limitless. Most important, the world as a whole would achieve a "steady state" in which continuing improvements in well-being would not be predicated on ever-growing consumption of energy and materials.

Round 3

01/09/2014 - 14:06

Conceiving life afresh

Adnan Hezri, Ashish Kothari, and I agree on at least one point: that climate change poses a massive threat to humanity. But many people, myself included, have difficulty facing up to what climate science demands of them—difficulty imagining and embracing the radical changes to economies, consumption patterns, and political systems that are necessary if emissions of greenhouse gases are to be sufficiently reduced (while the basic needs of the world's poor are nonetheless met).

Why does imagination fail in this way? One underlying reason is suggested in the last paragraph of Hezri's Round Two essay. Hezri wrote that "economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering" and that "environmentalists must accept that life is for living." Hezri recognizes that carbon emissions must come down—but prosperity and economic growth, according to his framing, are inviolable. Whatever threatens them threatens to make life not worth living.

Modern humans have walked the earth for about 200,000 years. Fossil fuels began revolutionizing industrial production only in the last 200 years or so. It is remarkable that, in such a brief time, fossil fuels have become so entwined with human life that many people struggle to imagine the latter without the former. The petroleum industry (as detailed by Matthew Huber, a geography professor at Syracuse University) has worked to remind Americans that petroleum products saturate their lives. The industry has attempted to shape cultural politics in the United States toward neoliberal values such as privatism, individualism, and freedom of choice. Petroleum has become the material and energetic basis for people's aspirations toward home and automobile ownership, an entrepreneurial lifestyle, and even a nuclear family. Today, the success and affluence of a mythical American type, the self-made individual, seem inconceivable without petroleum and the petro-economy. The petroleum industry has successfully equated opposition to limitless petroleum consumption with opposition to cherished national ideals. Unfortunately, this insidious view of the good life is not confined to the United States. In developing countries, many who belong or aspire to belong to the middle class have embraced this imported vision.

To adequately address the challenges of climate change and energy access for the poor, it is vital to recognize that the neoliberal ideal of life, with its focus on selfish, individual advancement, creates a number of undesirable conditions. These include planetary and social destruction, loneliness, dissatisfaction, and an environment of cut-throat competition. Fortunately—as argued by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley—humans are hard-wired to be caring, kind, and compassionate. Healthier visions of the good life—visions that emphasize love, community, solidarity, compassion, and generosity—have been cherished in many cultures through much of human history. These visions and values must be nurtured to vitality and must serve as a counterweight to the dominant survival-of-the-fittest narrative.

Achieving this will be easier said than done, of course. For many people, in the developing and developed worlds alike, the crushing weight of neoliberal economics and politics can make it very difficult to reconceive attitudes toward life and pursue new ideals accordingly. That is why climate solutions such as a carbon tax must be accompanied by safety-net programs that address the needs and fears of the vulnerable.

Humans are social beings with a deep yearning for empathy, connection, and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. By acting on this yearning, people can unleash their compassion, creativity, and brilliance. These qualities provide all that is needed, even in a world of limited resources, for humanity to blaze a healthier trail, care for all living things, and heal the planet. It is only when people's values, communities, and economies come into harmony with nature that human beings will experience the lasting fulfillment of lives well lived.

01/21/2014 - 11:39

Who can lead?

Human beings' complex and problematic relationship with their environment is becoming only more complex and problematic. Indeed this roundtable, which began as a discussion about how to meet energy needs and development goals while also satisfying higher public environmental expectations, has evolved into a broader discussion of what human beings must do to reestablish a harmonious relationship with nature. My colleagues have explored several ideas that might, if implemented, do exactly that. The problem, as is so often the case with policy questions, is how to turn ideas into reality.

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen has championed a suite of economic reforms including localization and redistribution—and has also delved into questions such as what constitutes the good life and what human beings should aspire to when they structure their economies and societies. Greacen's ideas fit in fairly neatly with an emerging movement known as social and solidarity economy. The UN Research Institute for Social Development defines social and solidarity economy as consisting of "organizations such as cooperatives, women's self-help groups, social enterprise, and associations of informal workers that have explicit social and economic objectives and involve various forms of cooperation and solidarity." Inherent in the movement are a critique of capitalism's emphasis on endless accumulation and a search for values that can underpin alternative forms of development.

Ashish Kothari, meanwhile, has emphasized Earth's ecological limits and the danger that mankind through excessive economic activity will break through them. His prescription is selective economic de-growth: For Kothari, the people of the Global North and the wealthy people of the Global South "must drastically shrink their environmental footprint and adopt sustainable lifestyles." Poor people's basic needs would be met in part through economic redistribution. This, in large measure, is the green economy paradigm that, with its emphasis on low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially-inclusive development, has attracted increased attention in the years since the onset of the global financial crisis.

Greacen and Kothari offer progressive visions whose chances of implementation are constrained by political realities. Any major reorganization of markets, institutions, regulations, norms, and decision-making procedures, such as my colleagues' visions would necessitate, requires a popular mandate. No such mandate exists today. More specifically, changes that touch on energy are always difficult to enact because energy is not an ordinary policy area. Rather, it is the lifeblood of economies. Nations such as Japan, Australia, and Canada, far from embracing the thoroughgoing progressive changes that Greacen and Kothari advocate, are backtracking on their emissions pledges. Publics in most developed countries feel ambivalent about climate change, which they perceive as far removed from their lives, and their governments' policies reflect that ambivalence.

What the world urgently needs is a realistic model for a thriving green politics. But who can produce such a model? Who can provide the leadership necessary for achieving planetary sustainability?

Hope lies in informed, engaged citizens. Only they have the power to reconfigure capitalism; only they can embrace the transformative changes that ecological sustainability requires.

01/29/2014 - 10:55

Making change happen

Participants in this roundtable broadly agree that human beings must reorganize their activities in fairly radical ways if life on Earth is to become sustainable and equitable—but Adnan A. Hezri raises two important questions. Who can lead the way toward enacting the necessary changes? And how are changes to be achieved in an adverse political climate?

Before I address those questions, however, I'd like to clarify one point. Hezri characterizes the positions I've expressed in this roundtable as aligned with the "green economy" paradigm that is espoused, for example, by the United Nations Environment Programme. In fact I am critical of the green economy model. It does not sufficiently challenge the dominance of private capital and the nation-state. It retains a focus on economic growth rather than on radical de-growth. The green economy model does not stress the full political empowerment of people and communities. And it gives inadequate emphasis to the cultural and spiritual aspects of human existence.

My beliefs, as I've discussed in previous rounds, center on a radical ecological democracy in which communities are the locus of decision making; ecological sustainability and social equity are prioritized; basic needs are met through the localization of economies and social services; and the point of globalization is establishing sociocultural and political linkages rather than ensuring the free flow of capital. I don't wish to "reconfigure capitalism," to use Hezri's language. Rather, I would like to see fundamental changes in economic and political relations so that the dominance of private capital and the nation-state is replaced by an emphasis on communities and collectives.

But to return to Hezri's questions, I would identify five forces that can enable humanity to restructure its activities toward equitability and sustainability. The first is civil society resistance. In recent years a number of countries, India among them, have seen growth in mass movements that oppose destructive development projects. These movements have often sprung from displaced or dispossessed communities and have gained the support of civil society groups. Resistance of this type is a crucial element of the transition to a sustainable future.

A second force is the enactment of progressive reforms that civil society groups advocate or individuals within the state initiate. Germany's movement toward renewable energy and Ecuador and Bolivia's constitutional and legal reforms—these and similar developments can prioritize sustainability and equity, decentralize governance, and make states more accountable. In addition, a number of countries are carrying out or considering reforms in macroeconomic and fiscal policies. These include reducing income disparity, subsidizing ecologically sustainable practices instead of ecologically destructive ones, and instituting tax structures that reflect the true value of the natural resources that urban and industrial-scale consumers use.

A third is the emergence of practical initiatives toward sustainable and equitable forms of well-being. Thousands of programs along these lines, such as the local food initiatives promoted by the International Society for Equity and Culture, demonstrate that it is possible, sustainably and equitably, to meet human needs and aspirations. Further linkages need to be established among these initiatives in order to build strong political formations—both of the party and the non-party variety.

A fourth force is the sort of technological innovation that makes human life not only less dreary but also more ecologically sensitive. These innovations, often falling under the rubric of appropriate technology, can emerge in industrial and agricultural production, energy, housing and construction, transportation, or household equipment. An appreciation is also growing that traditional technologies, for example in agriculture and textiles, continue to be relevant in today's world. Developing countries have the unprecedented opportunity to leapfrog toward economies based on blends of new and traditional technologies.

Finally, ecological awareness has risen exponentially in the last two or three decades (even if awareness remains low among decision makers and business elites). A massive campaign to increase awareness of the environmental crises that humanity faces—as well as a large effort to build the capacity that will allow meaningful solutions to spread—can help the transition to sustainability and equity succeed.

The transition is already under way. Peoples' and workers' movements are gaining power in some parts of the world (even though the forces of unsustainability and inequality remain dominant for now). In any transformation, the first steps tend to be modest, the struggle long and painful, and the need for perseverance enormous. But I believe that, over the next two to three generations, the world will witness significant progress toward achieving radical ecological democracy.