Sunday, November 29, 2015

Call me a pessimist, but... (On Sustainable Development)

The idea of "sustainable development" is not radical, crazy or hard to understand. Most anybody would have a hard time arguing against it, in theory. It just means economic development today that doesn't happen at the expense of future economic growth. Some people have called unsustainable development a "tax on the future" because it's indeed stealing prosperity from the young and generations that haven't been born yet. 

The obstacle to sustainable development is not a lack of know-how or technology. By and large, we know what to do. But it does require trade-offs and sacrifices; and the pain won't be equally distributed. And that's the rub. 

The obstacle to sustainable development is politics -- to be more precise, power. Those with power don't like it. (As an aside: I posit that those in power, among them some very "smart" and "visionary" thinkers, rarely think seriously about the future, alas.) 

The people seriously concerned with sustainable development are by and large powerless: scientists, professionals in the "biz," activists, mid-level bureaucrats and such. They say and do and write enough to force those in power to pay lip service to their arrived at consensus. But that's about as far as it goes. 

No, I'm not talking about an opposing global conspiracy. Real conspiracies are rare, and they're usually stupid, for stupid, shortsighted aims.... 

The real obstacle to change is that power is concentrated in a few hands, yet separated by nations, cultures and geographies, with few formal nodes of interdependence, where common aims can be realized.... 

An attendant obstacle is certainly capitalism. More broadly, the obstacle is our global political economy, with its capitalistic innovations tacked on to feudalistic holdovers and narrow nationalistic structures. 

"There is a lack of global leadership," we hear again and again. True. But from where are the necessary global leaders supposed to emerge? It's asking too much from our global political economic systems. 

Ideally, democracy should save us. The good ideas should convince the majority of what is needed, and republican leaders should pay heed to their wishes. Ideally, yes. But that's naive.

First, we don't have real republican democracy in most countries, either by force of regimes or by failed states of many stripes. Second, even where there is formal democracy, concentrated power (read: wealth) still trumps democracy by various well-understood technical means. (Again: there is no conspiracy here; secrecy is not at all necessary for concentrated power to subvert democracy; the facts are are all well-documented for those who take the time to pay attention.)

So where does that leave us? Up the proverbial creek, I'm afraid. 

The richest nations do tend to be democratic. And democratic polities can exercise their power -- when dramatic events move them. But unfortunately, the world -- and sustainable development -- cannot wait for dramatic events to awaken the confused and slumbering giant of democratic public opinion. By the time the giant comes to, it will be too late.

Yes, I'm talking about global warming. And the death of our oceans and fisheries. And water shortages. And new global pandemics. And massive extinctions. And die-offs of millions if not billions of people. -- And for those ensconced in the relative safety of the developed, democratic world, something beyond mere discomfort and inconvenience, but drastic cuts in standards of living and overall well-being. 

By nature I'm not a pessimist. But I simply do not see how our current political economic system can react -- or should I say, fail to react -- otherwise. Everyone is to blame -- and hence no one. I hope I'm wrong and that smarter, more visionary and leadership-worthy individuals will prove it.

This post was inspired by this book review :

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