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.