This is the 23rd consecutive annual "State of the World" report by the Worldwatch Institute. From cover to cover, the 2012 edition was written in anticipation of Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. This review attempts to summarize the book, and take another look at the results of the conference, now that both are available for analysis.
The Book and the Conference
The book was launched 11 April 2012 in Washington DC. It is a comprehensive assessment of current social and ecological issues, complete with wise albeit "politically incorrect" proposals on how to approach their resolution. In between the very substantive front and back matters, there are seventeen chapters:
Chapter 1. Making the Green Economy Work for Everybody, by Michael Renner
Chapter 2. The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries, by Erik Assadourian
Chapter 3. Planning for Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development, by Eric S. Belsky
Chapter 4. Moving Toward Sustainable Transport, by Michael Replogle and Colin Hughes
Chapter 5. Information and Communications Technologies Creating Livable, Equitable, Sustainable Cities, by Diana Lind
Chapter 6. Measuring U.S. Sustainable Human Development, by Eugenie L. Birch and Amy Lynch
Chapter 7. Reinventing the Corporation, by Allen L. White and Monica Baraldi
Chapter 8. A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance, by Maria Ivanova
Chapter 9. Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion, by Robert Engelman
Chapter 10. From Light Green to Sustainable Buildings, by Kaarin Taipale
Chapter 11. Public Policies on More-Sustainable Consumption, by Helio Mattar
Chapter 12. Mobilizing the Business Community in Brazil and Beyond, by Jorge Abrahão, Paulo Itaracambi, and Henrique Lian
Chapter 13. Growing a Sustainable Future, by Monique Mikhail
Chapter 14. Food Security and Equity in a Climate-Constrained World, by Mia MacDonald
Chapter 15. Biodiversity: Combating the Sixth Mass Extinction, by Bo Normander
Chapter 16. Ecosystem Services for Sustainable Prosperity, by Ida Kubiszewski and Robert Costanza
Chapter 17. Getting Local Government Right, by Joseph Foti
Fittingly, the keynote address at the launching was given by Severn Cullis-Suzuki, now 32 and a mother but having lost nothing of the charisma that led her to become "the girl that silenced the world for five minutes" at the 1992 Earth Summit. The moral urgency of her appeal for ecological sanity continues to resound through deaf ears around the world today, but is now more relevant than ever as population growth, resource depletion, and environmental degradation combine to threaten the viability of human civilization on a global scale. She returned to Rio for the 2012 Earth Summit, and her address to the Green Cross event is worth listening to.
Growth, Stagnation, and Degrowth
Chapters 1 and 2 of the book are pivotal. Chapter 1 provides a clear statement of the problem and identifies the necessary conditions for a global solution, including degrowth. Chapter 2 is about the dynamics of degrowth and shows that these conditions, while indeed necessary, are not sufficient to sustain a consumerist, resource-wasteful economy in a crowded planet.
This is the problem: "Humanity is confronting a severe and complex crisis. Mounting ecosystem stress and resource pressures are accompanied by growing socio-economic problems. The global economy is struggling to get out of a severe recession that was triggered by the implosion of highly speculative financial instruments but more broadly is the result of bursting economic bubbles and unsustainable consumer credit. The economic crisis is sharpening social inequities in the form of insecure employment and growing rich-poor gaps within and among countries."
After reviewing in some detail the causes for the crisis, it is duly noted that the transition from consumerism to sustainability is primarily a social issue and only secondarily a technological one. This had already been noted in the 2010 State of the World report, but is now more forcefully reiterated. The transition will require a radical cultural shift from domination to solidarity, from competition to cooperation, from materialistic development to human development priorities. In a culture of sustainable development, it is no longer acceptable to attain economic development at the expense of nature; but sustainability at the expense of unjust inequality and extreme poverty (with the consequent human underdevelopment) is not an acceptable proposition either. And yet, one or both of these unacceptable states persist throughout the world. Graphically:
Source: State of the World 2012, Worldwatch Institute, Chapter 1, Figures 1 and 2
Rather, a green economy must be a solidarity economy. In other words, "the aspiration is for 'sustainable prosperity' for all - the result of a process of sustainable development that allows all human beings to live with their basic needs met, with their dignity acknowledged, and with abundant opportunity to pursue lives of satisfaction and happiness, all without risk of denying others in the present and the future the ability to do the same." This concept of sustainable prosperity might be a bit utopian, but it is the right goal to pursue, and a number of policy suggestions are offered to facilitate progress in the right direction. However, to keep moving forward, "a new global solidarity for sustainability must take root, ensuring that no one - no country, no community, no individual - is left behind."
Chapter 1 ends as follows: "From growing the economy at all costs, the central focus instead becomes an economy that permits ecological restoration and enables human well-being without materialism." Chapter 2 is about degrowth, specifically with regard to overdeveloped countries: "Degrowth is the intentional redirection of economies away from the perpetual pursuit of growth. For economies beyond the limits of their ecosystems, this includes a planned and controlled contraction to get back in line with planetary boundaries, with the eventual creation of a steady-state economic system that is in balance with Earth's limits." With a reasonable dosage of social solidarity, hopefully this process can unfold mostly on a voluntary basis. Conversely, it is conceivable that, as ecological factors become limiting, humans will have no choice but to compete less, and cooperate more, in order to prosper by "doing more with less." But is it likely that the pressure of "limits to growth" might actually contribute to more equitable society?
It would be unwise to disregard the human capacity to adapt but, most probably, the transition from growth to degrowth will come to pass neither quickly nor smoothly. Growth may be followed by stagnation during a period of time that may be more or less extended depending on short-term economic adjustments and technological fixes. Such adjustments and fixes may induce oscillations (short-term "recoveries" and "recessions") but will not make perpetual growth possible. In the long-term, barring miraculous breakthroughs in the commercialization of as yet poorly understood natural resources such as 'dark energy', and even more improbable advances in social relations, the book is right on target, especially as it pertains to "overdeveloped" countries: a sustainable future includes degrowth in terms of both human demographics and the consumption of goods and services. This is the long-term "prediction" at the end of chapter 2:
"In the end, whether societal leaders accept it or not, the natural limits of the Earth - brought into view by increasing numbers of a population of 7 billion striving to live as consumers - will shatter the myth of continued growth, most likely due to dramatic changes to the planet's systems. Thus degrowth is part of humanity's future. Will people pursue this agenda proactively? Or will earth and its limits drive the contraction of the global economy"?
Dimensions of Sustainable Prosperity
Chapters 3 to 8 explore "sustainable prosperity" in more specific contexts such as urban development, the transportation sector, corporate culture, and global governance.
It would be impossible for any book - or, for that matter, any encyclopedia - to cover all possible dimensions of sustainable development, for nothing is unrelated to the process of attaining sustainability. With 59% of the global population projected to be living in cities by 2030, urban development is certainly a key dimension. Megacities are energy inefficient, inflate transportation and environmental costs, and isolate people from nature, among other things. In fact, many experience loneliness in cities even though they are surrounded by millions of people, as everyone is too busy running around, or hurrying to catch the next train, or trying to absorb the incessant bombardment of artificial stimuli, to pay attention to anyone else. It would be so much better to have networks of smaller cities surrounded by farms and green areas.
Transportation costs continue to rise under the current system of "unmanaged motorization." The American addiction to cars (and SUVs, and trucks) is now spreading worldwide and is both a major component of energy consumption and a major source of air pollution as well as a useful indicator of income inequality and middle-class emergence. Newly built roads become congested in short order as the number of registered motor vehicles increases even faster than the number of drivers. Information and communications technologies, which could be used in so may positive ways (such as teleconferencing pursuant to reduced traveling) are instead used to capacity for trivial chatting and every conceivable kind of useless traffic, a significant percentage being pornography, while people struggle to remain sane in the midst of a frenzied lifestyle.
Chapter 7, on "reinventing the corporation," is outstanding. It identifies the (mostly colonial) roots of modern corporations, describes the emergence of transnationalism and globalization, the lack of "intergenerational responsibility, environmental stewardship, and social justice" priorities in corporate culture, and the "proliferation of exotic and risky derivatives" in conjunction with financial manipulations devoid of any useful purpose while contributing to make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the planet warmer. Six "principles of corporate redesign" are proposed for corporations to become tools of sustainable prosperity for all:
"Principle 1. The purpose of the corporation is to harness private interests to serve the public interest.
"Principle 2. Corporations shall accrue fair profits for investors, but not at the expense of the legitimate interests of other stakeholders.
"Principle 3. Corporations shall operate sustainably to meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meets their needs.
"Principle 4. Corporations shall distribute their wealth equitably among those who contribute to its creation.
"Principle 5. Corporations shall be governed in a manner that is participatory, transparent, ethical, and accountable.
"Principle 6. Corporations shall not infringe on the right of natural persons to govern themselves, nor infringe on other universal human rights."
Adherence to these principles would be a refreshing improvement over the current corporate culture of short-term profit maximization regardless of long-term consequences, disregard for quality and environmental laws (let alone voluntary standards such as ISO-9000 and ISO-14000), firing people who are not willing to lie to auditors, lobbying to evade financial speculation taxes and ecology taxes, and instead contributing huge sums to political campaigns, among other things. The chapter on corporate redesign is followed by a chapter on global sustainability governance. This chapter is basically a history of UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) initiatives, but no new proposals of principles or practices are offered. The principle of subsidiarity, which would be instrumental for any viable form of global governance, could have been mentioned.
Policy Tools for Sustainable Prosperity
Chapters 9 to 17 suggest a number of policy tools to support sustainable prosperity. The most important issue is how to help couples behave in a sexually responsible manner and make sensible reproductive decisions. In this regard, fostering gender equality is the most effective path toward the socially responsible regulation of births; and no other method will sustainably work for the common good as long as gender inequality persists. Several other policy issues of practical significance are discussed in these chapters, such as the need for "green" building construction, improving business practices, enhancing food security, conserving biodiversity, managing ecosystem services, and making local governance more participative and more effective. But nothing may work if the current projection of population growth to 9 billion people by 2050 turns out to be accurate.
It is well known that having sex is the consolation of the poor. This, together with the patriarchal culture of women's domination by men, is
the root cause of soaring human population. It is no accident that fertility rates decrease as the standard of living improves and the fundamental equality of men and women is recognized. Indeed, the right to life is sacred. But sanctimonious condemnations of abortion and contraception do little to improve the situation, especially when they fail to concurrently denounce the relegation of women to second class citizenship in both society and religion. In chapter 2, it is duly noted that "80% of the people in the world identify themselves as religious," so religion has a huge influence on human behavior and social ethics.
However, as long as religious institutions persist in disguising pre-biblical patriarchal misogyny as God's divine plan, it is legitimate to suspect that organized religion is, at least to some extent, an obstacle to sustainable development in general, and
integral human development in particular. The responsible transmission of human life, and the dignity of the human body, undoubtedly point to abstinence as the most virtuous and effective method to regulate fertility rate; but as long as we live in a religiously sanctioned patriarchal culture where men go around getting women pregnant, and then disappearing to avoid responsibility, it is understandable that most people keep turning around, and walking away with fingers in their ears, in response to religious moralizations.
More generally in the secular arena, it seems like "humanity has been acting as if fresh resources were always waiting to be discovered, as if ecological systems were irrelevant to human existence, as if an Earth 2.0 were waiting in the wings in case we finally succeed in trashing this planet" (Chapter 1). This is an apt analogy to the software development process, where it is often taken for granted that Version 1.0 is "throw-away software" to be discarded as soon as Version 2.0 becomes available with all "fixes" done. Actually, what generally happens is that 2.0 is
a complete rewrite of 1.0 based on a new software architecture that is still evolving and begins to converge only in 3.0 and beyond. To think that we can re-architect the planet, let alone the cosmos, is at best temerary and at worst insane; but it is humanly possible to re-architect human civilization, and hopefully Rio+20 was one more step in the right direction.
Sustainable Prosperity after Rio+20
The much anticipated Rio+20 conference is now history, and there is no shortage of opinions about what went right, or wrong, or somewhere in between. Understandably, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared that it was a success: “In Rio, we saw the further evolution of an undeniable global movement for change.” Other observers are deeply disappointed at the lack of specific commitments to action, while others try to assess both the positives and negatives of this historical event. Had Walter Cronkite been reporting from Rio, he simply would have ended by saying "that's the way it is." Indeed, politics is "the art of the possible," and politicians will not move a finger to do anything that is politically incorrect. Global citizens (all 7 billion of them, or a significant percentage thereof) must rise to the occassion and demand from politicians a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability. This book is a significant contribution to this process, and is wholeheartedly recommended to all who already know themselves to be global citizens. Who knows, this lucidly written book may even help some climate change deniers and infinite growth economists to reconsider.
"Out of the sighs of one generation are kneaded the hopes of the next." Thus wrote Brazilian poet Joaquim Machado de Assis over a century ago. Granted that Rio+20 failed to deliver a global commitment to sustainable development (or "sustainable prosperity") as understood in this book, despair is not an option. Rather, we must keep muddling through the transition one day at a time, one year at a time, one decade at a time, while always keeping in mind the common good of humanity in the long-term: our common future, the future we need and the future we want, is a new civilization of solidarity with the entire community of creation.
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