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.