What are the transformations and trade-offs that will be needed in a resource-constrained 21st century to reverse our supercharged self-destructive trajectory?
This is the existential question of our times, and answering it will require a departure from existing and simplistic understandings of the world we live in. Imagined technological silver bullets have not and will not materialise in time to prevent environmental and societal upheaval. Rather, we must address the power dynamics in the current world order and ask questions about development and prosperity, the structure of economic models in the globalised economy, the global institutions that dominate and perpetuate the status quo, and the very nature of political systems.
These are macro-scale systemic shifts, and there are three ways to begin addressing them.
1. Global Problems Need Local Solutions
At the moment, the existential threats facing humanity – including climate change, mass pollution, ecosystem destruction and resource depletion – are considered “global challenges”, and therefore there is a great deal of faith in “global solutions” and the ability of existing global systems to deliver on them, albeit with some modifications.
Underpinning this narrative is the superficially appealing idea that combatting these threats will require all nations and peoples to work in unison. This is widely accepted and touted by international leaders and institutions, and is a theme in conferences and high-level reports. This is a comforting thought, but the inconvenient truth is that each country cannot follow the same path – especially large poor countries – as we head into an uncertain and complex future.
We must recognise this. After all, the global population will peak at 10 billion in 2050, and most of this growth will be in majority countries (those countries with lower per capita incomes); there are already more people living in South, East, and Southeast Asia than in the rest of the world put together.
Unlike the global minority (the ~15% of the world population living in rich Western countries), the majority must pursue sustainable development and fundamental national development simultaneously. This is a monumental challenge: in majority countries, population growth outpaces the capacity of governments to provide the basic needs in housing, education, water and sanitation, food, and energy. Development in these countries must grapple with this while still bearing the injuries of their colonial past and at the same time struggling to build the strong institutions needed to navigate these unprecedented demands for change.
2. The Majority Matters
While this might all seem evident and easy to agree with, in practice it is much harder to build consensus around what path countries should take to counter existential threats.
Rich countries are the global minority and main beneficiaries of the current world order. They are often reliant on deep-rooted structures in the way the global economy works – centred around capitalism and democracy – and have actively pushed these systems on others.
This is why the ‘global’ approaches the rich world advocate to solve resource constraints are, at present, developed within the confines of neoliberal market-based economic models. However, this is less a global solution and more of a Western preference. Despite consensus across the world that neoliberal capitalism has led to many of the challenges the modern world faces – particularly from a resource consumption standpoint – there is still a general belief among Western thinkers and institutions that we can improve the existing economic model rather than moving forward with a complete overhaul.
The reality is, rich countries often resist the sorts of global structural transformations needed to enable the global majority, and therefore the planet, to deal with the planetary emergency. Yet abdicating the responsibility of achieving the five turnarounds proposed by Earth4All to free market doctrines is simply not a viable solution – the “invisible hand” will not create optimal outcomes when the current economic model fundamentally under-prices and under-values environmental resources and human labour, and ignores negative impacts on nature and societies.
3. Accepting Plurality
It must therefore be made clear that the rich world should not export its preferred solutions in ways that cannot be mapped onto the global majority. Solutions in the rich world are often non-transferrable to the development economics of the poorer world.
Indeed, the ‘global’ institutions that claim to lead the discourse surrounding climate are all rich world institutions with expectations of economic and governance systems that do not translate into the realities of the political economies of the poorer world. In response to this gap, a few members of the Club of Rome recently set up the Club of Rome China in an attempt to allow for a better appreciation of non-Western viewpoints on developmental issues, existential challenges, and further international cooperation.
The world possesses a diversity of political systems that are important to accept and work with in order for all countries to be willing to demonstrate a lasting commitment to meeting the five turnarounds. This will require major adjustments at the multilateral level; international organisations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum and the World Trade Organisation will all need to reassess the uneven power dynamics within their operations, which continue to uphold governance systems employed in the rich Western world.
Removing the antiquated five-nation veto power, Western-only presidencies, forced trade liberalisation, and structural adjustment programmes for majority countries are important first steps towards accepting plurality and allowing for global equity to flourish in a world confronted by existential threats.
Given that inequity between nations fundamentally pertains to limited access to resources and less influence on the direction of global matters – of which climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss are now central elements – achieving sustainability necessitates decolonising global hierarchies and systems to allow diverse solutions to arise from all nations, and not just the West.