Critics of globalization argue that it marginalizes the
majority while exacting too high a toll on the environment. "Sustainable
development" is said to be the antidote to this state of affairs.
If only the poor were let into the global economy and the rainforest left
out the world would be a better place.
Yet, if more aid, debt relief and the opening of rich markets to the exports
of the poor leads down the same path of industrial development that brought
consumer democracies to their present prosperity, the Earth's resources
will be exhausted, not sustained.
True as it is unjust, the fact remains that the poor majority may admire,
envy or resent the rich, but to replicate their lifestyle would be ecocide.
"Sustainability" may be compatible with "development"
in the shifty realm of politics, but not within the natural limits of
The ecological imperative, is, politically speaking, distinctly impractical:
The consumer classes will have to downsize their appetites while the aspiring
must de-industrialize their desires. To enhance well-being while bringing
the Earth into balance, the globalized middle class will have to reduce
their footprint while the advancing steps of the localized poor will have
to become greener. And, much like the logic of nuclear non-proliferation,
what the have-nots are willing to give up will rely entirely on whether
the haves restrain themselves.
The point of convergence between these two is what the authors of the
Heinrich Böll Foundation memo excerpted in this NPQ call "fair
wealth in a fragile world."
Above all, write the authors, a new paradigm of development is required
that secures "livelihood rights" rather than promotes an export-led
strategy to reduce poverty. "Poverty," the authors write, "derives
from a deficit of power rather than a lack of money. Far from being needy
persons awaiting provisions, the poor must be seen as citizens who are
constrained by lack of rights, entitlements, salaries and political leverage.
Any attempt to mitigate poverty will have to be centered on a reinforcement
of rights and opportunities. This is particularly true of women who are
often legally marginalized."
"A livelihood-centered perspective," their argument continues,
"is at odds with the export-led poverty reduction strategies. A strategy
of creating industrial jobs, which under the condition of a borderless
economy must be competitive on the world market, is soon likely to run
out of breath...Under a free trade regime, agriculture and industry in
most countries of the South cannot be simultaneously competitive and job
intensive." Rather than dream of the global consumer paradise they've
glimpsed on the villlage TV, in other words, the poor must make do with
a more ecologically benign local subsistence. No McDonalds, only lentil
Is all this just pie in the ozone layer? Didn't China just join the World
Trade Organization, thus mobilizing its billion people to gloriously pursue
a refrigerator for every kitchen by making trinkets for Toys R' Us and
shoes for Sports Chalet? Absent the totalitarian ?st, is it likely that
the Chinese will give up the icebox and return to the small-is-beautiful
backyard furnaces of Mao's Great Leap Forward-a policy they have spent
the past four decades reversing?
Conversely, can the rich West succeed in portion control any more than
the perpetually backsliding dieter? Outside the monastery, is there any
case in history in which "homo economicus" has voluntarily sacrificed
expectations of more?
Conceivably, as the authors suggest, underdevelopment might prove to be
an asset that enables "leapfrogging" over capital-intensive
infrastructure, toxic dumps, clogged roads and oil refineries to catch
up with the post-industrial retreat from overdevelopment. By linking up
people with information technology in a post-fossil fuel age, the quality
of life can be enhanced without passing through the destructive stages
of industrial development. Think of the "cell phone" ladies
in Bangladesh who have become their own "utility" by purchasing
a cell phone with microcredit, then selling calls in their villages.
Among the global consumer class, new technologies also promise to radically
reduce wasteful inputs. For example, in the rich West, where petroleum
is mainly a transportation fuel, hybrid cars will surely become cooler
as terror related to the oil states of the Middle East heats up. Even
before September 11, the former Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani
warned that oil prices would plummet in the coming decades as consumers
turn to hybrid technology. In the United States SUVs could well go the
way of smoking.
How to jumpstart the transition from development economics to livelihood
politics is the historic calling of the World Summit on Sustainable Development
in Johannesburg in September.
Nitin Desai, the secretary general of that meeting, hopes that a new vision
will emerge in Johannesburg that embraces neither the bottom-line globalization
of "Davos Man" nor the rejectionist mentality of the "Porto
During the age of superpower unilateralism, one should not expect too
much from a United Nations conference. But if it even suggests a new direction
for civilization that might bring fairness to this fragile world, then
it is welcome indeed.
Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ
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