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Beyond the limits of sustainable growth

Earth on the market

(Le Monde Diplomatique)

Despite all the hype, the UN-sponsored world summit on sustainable development in South Africa in August could not introduce any real constraints because they would have meant re-examining globalisation. So could sustainable development just be a pretext for maintaining a growth that must be, by nature, destructive to the environment?


THE dogma of sustainable development is inherently misleading, and now deludes us the way that the flat earth theory once did, but with implications far more dangerous for our future survival. Despite all the rhetoric about basic needs and poverty alleviation, the number of people in extreme or absolute poverty increases over several decades officially dedicated to development. Sustainability has become a pious invocation, rather than the urgent call to action it should be.

Those who promote sustainable development often do so while pretending to provide benefits to the poor nations of the South. Yet 80 countries now have per capita incomes lower than they had a decade ago, and the number of people living in poverty, defined as under a dollar a day, is stuck stubbornly at 1.2bn, while almost 3bn earn less than two dollars a day. On a daily wage of a dollar would take 109 years to earn what an international footballer receives in a day.

Sustainable development has been diverted by business, which has equated it with sustainable growth - an oxymoron that reflects the conflict between a mercantile vision of the world and an environmental, social and cultural vision. It has become a mantra for big business and multi-national corporations, unwittingly encouraging the gradual take-over of the environment movement by "corporate realists". Terms like environmentalist or conservationist are now used even to describe those who indiscriminately clear forests or kill animals for their skins; these activities are obscured by dubious euphemisms such as "yields", or the "harvesting" of natural and wildlife resources.

Sustainable development has also evolved into "sustainable use" - a euphemism invented by the "wise use" movement to hide activities which are the very reverse of wise. The formulation facilitates destructive use, and it has infiltrated key international events, including the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). So sustainable use of marine resources means killing whales and sustainable use of native wildlife has created a multi-million dollar bushmeat industry, particularly in Africa. Those who believe in it hope to convince impoverished Africans and Asians not to kill wildlife for the equivalent of several years' wages, while rich European and American trophy hunters kill the same animals for fun.

Some conservationists who consider themselves serious and scientific have distanced themselves from ethical causes such as fur and circuses, which are reserved for emotional idealists. But whaling's economic sustainability does not make it desirable or ethically acceptable. In a speech to IWC delegates, the assistant director general of Japan's fishery agency - who is also Japan's IWC commissioner - revealed that Japan had fishing agreements with eight countries and has spent $400m in aid: fishing for votes.

Every year, businesses from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries pay huge amounts to win friends, influence and contracts. These bribes are conservatively estimated at $80bn a year, roughly the amount that the United Nations has suggested is needed to eradicate global poverty. The trade in banned animal products is second only to that in illegal narcotics, and has become a lucrative and low-risk sideline for international crime syndicates, as enforcement is lax and discovery rarely involves more than a nominal fine. Already the trade has pushed species such as tigers and rhinos to the verge of extinction. Sustainable development fosters the corporate takeover of governance.

He who pays the lobbyist

Perhaps the new maxim is he who pays the lobbyist calls the tune. Just look at the corporate quid pro quo exacted after George Bush's election as United States president. Richard Parsons, head of Time-AOL, speaking at the world economic summit meeting in New York, declared (with no hint of anything worrying in the statement) that: "Once the church determined our lives, then the state, and now it's corporations." We hear constantly of the advantages of a market-based response to the world's ills - philanthropy, self-regulation, corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct. None of these is an acceptable proxy for state responsibility, policy and control.

Even the UN has acceded to this through initiatives such as the global compact with 50 of the world's biggest, most controversial corporations (1). As the Guardian commented, the UN "appears to be turning itself into an enforcement agency for the global economy, helping Western companies to penetrate new markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the UN is declaring war on the powerless."

The sustainable development philosophy has also fostered the abhorrent notion of "sustainable consumption", which is sustainability as redefined in Orwellian newspeak. After the Brundtland Report (2), sustainable development means not a continuation of present growth patterns, but a five to ten-fold acceleration of it.

Eight hundred million people suffer from malnutrition while a small percentage of the world's population crams fast food. The food industry is a good example of consumerism, global disparities and the breakdown of governance. The opening of a great world market in the name of free trade, the rules of the World Trade Organisation and the disposition of grants, all promote the consolidation and centralisation of the food industry: 60% of the international sector in food is controlled by 10 companies dealing in seed, fertilisers, pesticides, processing, manufacture and shipment.

There are now more than 200 treaties on the environment, three-quarters of which have been ratified during the last 30 years. But the commitments made with such publicity in Rio and elsewhere mostly remain a dead letter. Worse, the effectiveness of these agreements is too often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement.

I wonder if it is not already too late for sustainable development. Many processes underway are probably irreversible. Climate change won't wait while we procrastinate for conclusive scientific data. Perhaps the time has come to impose a moratorium on new scientific or technological innovations that have potentially negative implications for the planet and people.

Science, or what we should increasingly call corporate science, always seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough which, however ominous it may sound, will be accompanied by reassuring noises about its potential to cure cancer, reverse climate change or end world hunger if only we keep the research grants flowing.