Thursday, October 14, 2010

Market leaves planet on life support

Yet another report highlights an unprecedented species collapse, with the worst outcomes in tropical areas. It is the only latest in a series of warnings about the dire state of the planet.

The World Wildlife Fund’s biennial Living Planet report, produced with the Zoological Society of London, measures the health of almost 8,000 populations of 2,500 species. It shows a 30% decrease since 1970, but in the tropics the decline is 60%. Populations of tropical freshwater species, for example, have fallen by nearly 70%.

“Species are the foundation of ecosystems,” said Jonathan Baillie, conservation programme director with the Zoological Society of London. “Healthy ecosystems form the basis of all we have – lose them and we destroy our life support system.”

Planetary life support is no concern of the market, however, and the demand for raw materials and energy has doubled since 1966. The world’s carbon footprint has increased 11-fold in the last five decades – at the same time as high-level summits and empty promises have failed to cut emissions or protect eco-systems.

The 31 OECD countries, the richest economies, account for nearly 40% of the world’s ecological Footprint. But twice as many people live in the rapidly developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China .And the report shows that these are now on a trajectory to overtake the OECD bloc if they stay on the same development path.

To carry on at the present rate, we would need two planet earths by 2030. The obscene credit-fuelled globalisation of the world economy has left humanity with an ecological, as well as a financial, overdraft.

Jim Leape, director general of WWF International said: “Somehow we need to find a way to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly prosperous population within the resources of this one planet. All of us have to find a way to make better choices in what we consume and how we produce and use energy."

But this approach is problematic, since the issue of individual choice does not arise in today’s crisis-ridden reality. Ordinary people are not in control of the processes that, for example, use raw materials to produce goods which are obsolete within months. Here in Britain, we are not control of a government that is backtracking on every commitment on renewable energy.

And the unemployed worker in Detroit who has lost her home and lives in her car does not feel she is involved in any kind of “over-consumption”. She certainly can’t make choices about “diet and lifestyle”, as the report recommends.

The real problem is the structural impossibility of curbing the excess use of raw materials and energy within the capitalist model, with its demand for continuous growth and increaed profits whatever the cost in human and ecological terms.

However, the report does point part of the way forward. It seems that high levels of consumption do not necessarily lead to healthier, more successful populations. The UN Human Development Index, which looks at life expectancy, income and educational attainment, can be high in countries with only a moderate carbon footprint.

Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network, says: “Those countries that are able to provide the highest quality of life on the lowest amount of ecological demand will not only serve the global interest, they will be the leaders in a resource-constrained world."

To offer such leadership – to be able to make choices about what we produce and consume – requires that the majority take control of economic resources and political decision-making. The aim would be to plan an economy that meets real needs: good health, social life, culture, and meaningful work. Not wanted on this voyage will be a new mobile phone every four months, or a dozen brands of the same washing powder.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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