In a presentation given at the School of Economic Science’s annual colloquium, STWR outlined why the principle of sharing – as practiced in families and communities since the dawn of civilisation – should be placed at the forefront of policymaking in order to address the social, environmental and security crises that humanity now faces.
25th June 2013 – Published by Share The World’s Resources
The following article is a transcript of a presentation given at the School of Economic Science’s annual colloquium by STWR’s Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons. The conference took place in London, UK, on Sunday 23rd June 2013 under the theme ‘One World, One Wealth’, with a range of speakers that considered possibilities for a fairer means of distributing the fruits of production for the benefit of all. An audio recording of the various presentations will be released by the School of Economic Science shortly.
Part 1: What is economic sharing?
The title of our talk asks the question, ‘is sharing a solution?’ You won’t be very surprised to hear from an organisation that advocates for a fairer sharing of the world’s wealth, power and resources that we do indeed think that sharing is at least a major part of the solution to the world’s problems. But in order to explore this further, we first need to explain what exactly we mean by the term ‘sharing’, and also outline the multiple global crises that sharing can be a solution to. We can then come back to the practicalities of how to apply sharing as a solution after we have briefly examined these two broader questions.
So what is sharing? In many ways this is a redundant question as we all know what sharing is. We all engage in the process of sharing on a daily basis within our homes, families and communities. But sharing is actually far more central to life than people often realise, and it is entirely appropriate to talk about sharing as a ‘principle’ in nature.
As you can see from the list on this slide [slide 3], there are of course many examples of sharing in the natural world that have long been studied by scientists. Planet Earth embodies the principle of sharing in the way it produces, renews and distributes the resources required to maintain a state of balance and harmony. Sharing is also clearly evident in the plant and animal kingdom. We could mention how the cells of all living organisms share available nutrients to ensure optimal growth; or how plants and flowers freely share their pollen and seeds with insects, birds and mammals; or how sharing is also commonly observed as a behaviour in groups of highly social animals.
But there is also a growing body of evidence from evolutionary biologists and behavioural scientists that suggests human beings are actually hardwired to cooperate and share. There is a growing consensus that without such traits as sharing and cooperation, it is unlikely that human beings would have survived and evolved as a species. And many anthropological studies of people living in traditional communities have revealed that various forms of sharing and giving often formed the basis of economic life.
But despite the prevalence of sharing throughout the kingdoms of nature, we have largely failed to create a world that reflects sharing in our social, economic and political structures. Instead, drawing on the theories of enlightenment thinkers, mainstream economists and policymakers have fashioned a world based on the assumption that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive, acquisitive and individualistic – assumptions that underpin the concept of homo economicus.
As the slide highlights [slide 4], adopting these assumptions has meant that we have pushed aside the importance of ethics and human values when making economic decisions, and this has led to the creation of competitive economic systems that are inherently unjust and highly unequal.
Globally, this approach is also responsible for creating an extremely competitive international framework that prevents nations from cooperating effectively. As recent evidence of this, we only need mention the repeated breakdown of the Doha trade talks; our failure to limit carbon emissions through UNFCCC negotiations; or the negligible progress made at the Rio+20 talks last year to establish a viable path for sustainable development.
If our collective failure to share is responsible for increasing inequalities and exacerbating many of the other crises we face, then it stands to reason that we need to find ways of reforming our political and economic systems by bringing them more in line with the principle of sharing.
From this perspective, the term economic sharing can be used to describe the application of this principle to how governments organise economies and distribute available resources, which could include everything from wealth and natural resources to knowledge and technology. Furthermore, economic sharing also applies to systems of democracy in terms of how fairly political power is shared throughout society.
Hence the concept of sharing can serve to reconnect human values with economic policy [slide 5]. In economic terms, sharing is concerned with securing basic human needs and rights and is naturally aligned with the concept of social and economic justice. Any effective process of economic sharing therefore requires the implementation of government policies, laws and regulations – it cannot be left to market mechanisms and charitable giving alone.
Relating the concept of sharing with economic policy in this way has important implications for debates around income and wealth inequality, in which it points to the need for long-term structural and systemic solutions that cut to the heart of how we organise societies.
Sharing in Action
It is also important to make the point that economic sharing isn’t just another ‘ism’ related to a specific ideology or set of policies. The principle of sharing precedes the doctrines of capitalism, communism and socialism, and it does not inherently oppose or support any other economic idea.
That’s not to say that existing concepts and policies don’t reflect or even embody the principle of sharing, as they do in many cases. In fact, economic sharing already underpins a huge variety of familiar practices, institutions and policies that operate at the local and national level [slide 6]. We could talk about how agricultural land was traditionally managed as a commons, or how saving and sharing seeds has always been integral to farming practices. We can see sharing at work in many local initiatives, from local cooperatives to the management of community gardens and conservation projects. And many of you will also be familiar with the growing ‘sharing economy’ movement, which encompasses everything from collaborative consumption to food banks and gift economies.
But economic sharing is even more fundamental to how we organise our societies than these examples demonstrate [slide 7]. For instance, as mentioned earlier, participatory democracy can embody the principle of sharing as it seeks to share political power more equitably with citizens. And arguably the most advanced form of economic sharing that exists in the modern world is the pooling of a nation’s financial resources to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, social security and other essential public services.
These and many more examples of economic sharing within communities and across entire nations generally work to reduce inequality by improving access to financial resources, public goods and essential services. In this way, economic sharing clearly has the potential to promote social equity, strengthen the social fabric of communities and improve levels of wellbeing across society.
Global Economic Sharing
But what about sharing internationally? [Slide 8]. We live in a globalised world where the crises we face, from wealth disparities to climate change, affect all nations to a greater or lesser extent. Systems of worldwide communication, international trade and globalised finance mean that people in different countries live highly interconnected and interdependent lives. Given these realities, there is no logical reason for any process of economic sharing to take place solely within a national context. In the 21st Century, we really need to start thinking about economic sharing in global terms.
From a worldwide perspective, economic sharing means ensuring that people in all countries, including future generations, can access what they need to survive and prosper without devastating the planet in the process. And global economic sharing is surely impossible without extending the concepts of justice, socio-economic rights and environmental sustainability to include the entire community of nations and the planet as a whole.
Of course, this requires governments as well as individuals to accept that all people are part of an extended human family with the same basic rights and needs, and then to establish policies and institutions at the global level that embody this recognition and ensure that these rights are fulfilled. This holistic understanding of our relationship to each other and our environment also reflects a growing sense of global citizenship and collective responsibility, which is essential if we are to address the planet’s urgent crises.
In reality, systems of economic sharing at the global level are still very much in their infancy, even though there have been some notable exceptions as highlighted on the slide [slide 9]. One of the first real political expressions of sharing globally was the establishment of the United Nations after the Second World War. The UN has been promoting international peace, human rights and better living standards for all ever since, albeit rather ineffectively given the dominance of the institution by vested interests and the world’s most economically powerful nations.
Another example of economic sharing on an international level began in 1948 when the US government, under the presidency of Harry Truman, kick-started a massive transfer of financial resources to a number of European countries as part of the Marshall Plan. This four-year program, which was designed to aid reconstruction and economic recovery in those nations devastated by war, was arguably the biggest cross-border exercise in economic sharing that the world had yet witnessed on such a scale. Since the 1960s, the economically advanced countries have been providing a very small proportion of their income in international aid to developing countries as part of an ostensible program of cross-border sharing, but as we will touch on shortly the current system of official development assistance (ODA) comes with many associated problems and cannot be considered a true or effective form of global economic sharing.
Global sharing still in its infancy…
Some people argue that systems of free trade could be added to this short list, although international trade in its current form is far from an effective model of economic sharing as it is riddled with self-interest and extremely inefficient from an environmental perspective.
Today’s global governance institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund are similarly problematic and don’t reflect global economic sharing as they could and should. As campaigners have long argued, these global financing and rule-making bodies are undemocratic in their administration and highly biased in their ideology as they pursue free market solutions over the need for social and economic justice. Even the United Nations is in need of considerable reform to render it more democratic, inclusive and effective.
The simple point is that the principle of sharing is still not sufficiently expressed in the governance systems and economic structures that underpin the global economy. Hence the huge discrepancies in wealth and income between countries that persist and are still deepening today. According to statistics on global inequality, the world as a whole is far more unequal than even the most unequal country, and the richest 300 people on earth have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion. Indeed the rich nations hold 90% of the world’s wealth and account for just 18% of its population, which highlights the need for a massive transfer of finance from North to South as a correction to existing unjust economic arrangements.
As we will go on to outline, our failure to share and thereby correct these growing inequalities is responsible for a broad range of global crises, which include and are connected to the massive wealth disparities that the previous speakers have discussed this morning. The question to ask is whether a more equitable sharing of the world’s wealth, power and resources has relevance to the other interrelated crises that we face today, in particular the environmental and climate crisis, as well as the escalating conflicts over access to land and other natural resources.
Part 2: Sharing as a solution to global crises
To begin with, we’re all well aware of the alarmingly high numbers of people who now live in poverty in the economically advanced regions, with unemployment hitting record heights in many countries while social spending cuts are amplifying the effects of the economic crisis. Newspapers are filled with these sort of statistics about growing unemployment, poverty and the skyrocketing number of people who can’t afford enough food to eat [slide 11].
Nothing describes the dangerous shift away from the practice of sharing within societies more than the growing levels of hunger, poverty and needless deprivation in rich nations. But as the anti-cuts coalition of trade unions and campaign groups make clear, it doesn’t have to be this way; even without a major restructuring of monetary or tax systems, governments in the Global North could make different policy choices and at least preserve the state’s important role in redistributing financial resources and providing universal social protection.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that the impact of extreme poverty in the Global South remains far more severe than in Northern countries [slide 12]. The true extent to which life-threatening deprivation devastates the lives of millions of families in poorer countries is commonly ignored by the mainstream media, and is often unknown among affluent society. According to the World Bank’s figures on global poverty, 95% of people who live in developing countries survive on the equivalent of less than $10 a day – comparable that is to what $10 would buy in the United States, which is an impossible task for someone living anywhere else in the world. And yet the majority of the developing world population still lives on less than $2.50 a day.
The emergency of poverty
But even less discussed is the true extent of the emergency of needless poverty-related deaths, which is far greater than all of the deaths related to conflict, natural disasters or climate change. You may have read about the new figures just released by The Lancet which estimate that hunger is responsible for 600,000 more child deaths each year than was previously thought, a figure that accounts for almost half of all deaths among children under the age of five. Overall, however, we calculated from the World Health Organisation’s mortality statistics that at least 15 million people die in low- or middle-income countries each year, mainly as a consequence of a lack of access to sufficient food, clean water, adequate shelter and medical assistance – the basic essentials that most of us in affluent countries have long taken for granted.
So this is where we can talk about the need for international sharing in its most immediate and critical aspect, in terms of the emergency measures required to end life-threatening deprivation as a foremost global priority. Yet this is far from the radar screens of our world leaders today. The best commitment we currently have is the first Millennium Development Goal which, even if it’s met as promised by the World Bank, will still leave around a billion people living in extreme poverty in 2015 [slide 13].
There may be a new commitment now to completely eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 as enshrined in the post-2015 development agenda, but even this leaves us with some very uncomfortable questions. For example, can we really say that we’ve made poverty history if billions of people still live on less than $2.50 a day in 2030, or even $5 a day? And is this a morally-acceptable standard of living if it means that the children living just beyond the $1.25 a day threshold may still face a 1 in 3 chance of dying before their fifth birthday, notwithstanding the millions of needless poverty-related deaths that will continue each year until then?
Even besides these moral questions, we also to need to ask whether the planet itself can withstand the global economic growth that will be needed for the poorest people to raise their incomes above a minimum poverty line of $465 a year. As the economist David Woodward demonstrates, the existing ‘growth first’ approach to poverty reduction will require global GDP per capita to rise by more than 12% a year until 2030, and global production and consumption will have to increase by a factor of 12 [slide 14]. There are obviously serious doubts as to whether we could increase the global economic pie by this amount without triggering truly catastrophic climate change.
What this suggests is broadly two things. Firstly, as the quote suggests, it would be a dangerous mistake for governments to continue in their attempts to address global poverty without also tackling global inequality, which as we mentioned has risen to an extraordinary level over recent decades. And secondly, it suggests that the need for a fairer sharing of wealth and resources is not only essential for ending poverty and inequality, but it’s also central to the other great challenge of our time – which is to drastically reduce carbon emissions and manage consumption levels within environmental constraints.
Sharing the planet’s finite resources
This challenge is endlessly debated now in the discourse on sustainable development, and as this quote from Bolvia’s submission to the Rio+20 Earth Summit last year suggests, the central question is not how to grow the economy forever, but how to achieve an equitable distribution of the wealth that is possible within the limits of the Earth system [slide 15].
It’s often repeated that humanity is currently consuming natural resources at a rate 50% faster than the planet can replenish them, which means we already require the equivalent of one and a half planets to support our consumption levels. Yet demand for resources of all kinds is increasing exponentially, especially for food, oil, land and water. Hence the issues of resource scarcity and environmental limits have risen up the global agenda in recent years, and are becoming ever more pressing due to both a growing population and rising affluence in emerging economies.
But the challenge of sharing the planet’s finite resources sustainably is complicated by the huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world [slide 16]. Currently, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of global resources and are therefore responsible for the vast majority of climate change and environmental destruction. Meanwhile, the poorest 20% of the population lack sufficient access to essentials such as food, clean water and energy, and account for just 1.3% of global resource consumption. The poorest people are also the most likely to suffer from the harsh effects of climate change and resource depletion.
This leads to serious issues of fairness and equity in the discussions around planetary boundaries and sustainable limits. If the world’s finite resources are to be made accessible to all people but consumed at a sustainable rate, then the greatest reductions in the use of natural resources has to come from the world’s richest consumers. There’s no doubt that more efficiency is needed in transforming natural resources to meet human needs, but the issue of resource scarcity also demands that the high-income countries drastically reduce their ecological footprints, assuming that poorer nations are to be allowed to grow their economies and improve their material standard of living. In other words, a socially just solution to the environmental crisis necessitates a far greater sharing of resources on a global scale.
You can see in this slide some examples of different formulas or frameworks developed by campaign groups, all of which highlight the need for global equity in the access to and use of natural resources, both within and between countries [slide 17]. Yet as anyone who is at all familiar with the politics of international negotiations will tell you, most governments have no interest whatsoever in the wholesale reorganisation of the economy that is needed to ensure that all countries can live sustainably and equitably within environmental limits. Of course, the very idea of global economic sharing is anathema to those governments who are hell bent on competing for the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves and other energy sources.
Conflict over natural resources
So this leads on to a last point: if the planet has finite resources, and nation states are continuing to compete for control of these ever-diminishing resources, then there are clearly grave future implications for peace and security – especially in a world that’s awash with nuclear weapons. Resource wars are perhaps the most dangerous consequence of our failure to share in economic terms, even if they are nothing new; historically the powerful have always waged war to gain control over land and resources [slide 18]. Between 1965 and 1990, 73 civil wars over resources occurred in which more than a thousand people a year died, and at least 18 international conflicts have been triggered by competition for resources since then, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The possibility of future conflict is ever growing as nations race to control oil and gas reserves in the Arctic, in the East and South China Seas, around the Falkland Islands and elsewhere. Put simply, it’s clear that unless nations find ways of sharing rather than competing over scarce resources a number of factors all but guarantee a further escalation of resource wars in the near future – including, as we just alluded to, a rising world population; soaring global consumption rates; rapidly disappearing energy supplies; and climate change that is already constraining access to food, water, land and other vital resources [slide 19].
What this means in the 21st Century is that any viable security strategy for ensuring sustainable and universal access to resources for all nations must be based on governance systems that facilitate international cooperation and economic sharing on a global scale. This is well recognised by many progressive analysts such as Professor Michael T. Klare, who is quoted here from his well-known book ‘Resource Wars’ [slide 20]. He says: "It seems reasonable to ask whether a resource-acquisition strategy based on global cooperation rather than recurring conflict might not prove more effective in guaranteeing access to critical supplies over the long run. And such a strategy would call for the equitable distribution of the world’s existing resource stockpiles in times of acute scarcity…"
But of course, such an epic transformation in geopolitics can only happen if nations overcome their competitive and nationalistic tendencies and put the needs and rights of all people before the interests of any one nation. While such a framework might seem idealistic or even utopian within the current paradigm, it is also inevitable if humanity is ever to end centuries of warfare over access to resources, and instead create a more peaceful and sustainable future world.
So what we’ve tried to do here is explain in very simple terms why the concept of economic sharing should inform policies that seek to address the urgent social, environmental and security crises that humanity now faces. As this slide demonstrates, it requires little imagination to see how the principle of sharing can play an important role in mitigating these crises [slide 21]. From this commonsensical perspective, the need for an entirely new economic direction based on sharing resources can be seen as a pragmatic and necessary response, albeit a seemingly radical one in light of the current economic and political paradigm. It’s therefore obvious that no existing policy option that embodies the principle of sharing is likely to be taken seriously without huge public support.
But this is still to talk in rather general terms, so can we be more specific about what economic sharing could mean in practice, especially on a global level?
Part 3: Re-ordering global priorities
Together, the crises that we’ve just outlined constitute what can only be described as a global emergency. Even though there are seemingly insurmountable barriers to addressing these planetary crises, placing sharing at the centre of any program to reverse current trends clearly makes sense from any rational perspective. As we mentioned earlier, advocating for economic sharing is essentially a call to put human values, rights and needs at the forefront of policymaking. By definition, we could say that economic sharing means to act cooperatively as a global community of nations; it means recognising the environmental limits that we have to work within; and it means reforming the structures and institutions that perpetuate the global crises we face.
But this still tells us very little about economic sharing as a policy framework, so let’s examine a bit more closely some of the measures needed to address this global emergency, and even sketch out very broadly what the necessary reforms for sharing the world’s wealth and resources more equitably and sustainably could look like.
The first question is: what should be our immediate priority as an international community? Even before we attempt to address the structural causes of the inequalities mentioned earlier, it is clear that governments must place much greater emphasis on preventing the immediate humanitarian impacts of this global emergency [slide 23].
The humanitarian crisis
To recap on some of the points made earlier, every day that we fail to act an additional 40,000 preventable deaths will occur from a lack of access to adequate food, clean water and essential healthcare. At the same time, ecological turmoil is triggering natural disasters that are already devastating communities and escalating poverty, displacement and deprivation. According to some estimates, climate change is now contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people every year. And these figures don’t even include the harsh impacts of austerity and the effects of the financial crisis, which as we know are widening inequalities and causing further hardship for millions of people across the world.
If sharing means anything in a world of plenty, it must surely mean preventing needless deprivation and ending all instances of poverty-related death as a leading international priority. Government rhetoric might convince many that policymakers are doing a great deal already to help prevent unnecessary hardship both at home and abroad, but this is far from the reality. We already mentioned how unambitious the Millennium Development Goals are, and how they certainly don’t embody the concept of economic sharing from the perspective of social and economic justice.
In fact, governments first committed to providing a mere 0.7% of GDP in international aid some 45 years ago, yet at current trends donors will not collectively hit this target for a further 50 years. As campaigners often argue, Official Development Assistance (ODA) has long been linked to political and financial restrictions that dramatically reduce its effectiveness. In light of the humanitarian impacts of the global emergency, it is clear that government priorities are wholly distorted and that we are simply not doing enough. We don’t have to wait until 2030 to end extreme poverty when we have the means to achieve far more then this within an immediate timeframe.
Bringing everyone above the global absolute poverty line only requires 0.2% of world income, and ensuring that the poorest people have enough food, energy and income could be achieved with little additional demand on resources. There are some other figures on the slide that help to put into perspective how comparatively little financial resources are needed to mitigate hunger and address other global crises [slide 24].
Financing the global sharing economy
In a recent report entitled Financing the Global Sharing Economy, we illustrated how governments could mobilise more than enough money to reverse austerity measures, prevent life-threatening deprivation and mitigate the human impacts of climate change. One of the key aims of the report was to demonstrate that governments could mobilise these resources within the framework of the current economic system and even before initiating the more complex and lengthy process of restructuring the global economy. We calculated that by implementing 10 policy recommendations, governments could mobilise over $2.8 trillion every year to strengthen and scale up systems of sharing and redistribution, both within and between nations. You can see a list of the policies that we highlighted on the slide [slide 25].
These figures are only broad estimates, but they demonstrate the potential for governments to collect and redistribute huge quantities of additional public finance for critical human needs – often money that policymakers have led the public to believe does not exist or cannot be found.
It is also important to note that the institutional structures, mechanisms and expertise needed to utilise these additional financial resources have long been in place. These include numerous humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross, many UN organisations including the World Food Program and the World Health Organisation, thousands of NGOs, as well as established global funds to help facilitate climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.
Yet not since The Brandt Commission’s proposal in 1980 for an ‘emergency program’ of assistance to developing countries have policymakers seriously considered a large scale transfer of resources to the Global South as the first part of a programme of international economic restructuring. The necessary political will to implement Brandt’s program of economic sharing was lacking at the time, but the scale of the humanitarian emergency is far greater today. If governments are ever to end this moral travesty, we simply cannot afford the same level of complacency again.
Our shared commons
Let’s be clear; any such program to redistribute the world’s vast financial resources will not address the underlying causes of poverty, inequality or climate change. At root, the real causes of these problems are structural in nature as they are determined by the ideologies, policies, and institutions that govern economies on both national and global levels.
Addressing these systemic causes presents a huge challenge that will ultimately require substantial reforms to our economic systems, from the way we extract, produce, distribute and consume resources to the influence that multinational corporations wield over society and policymaking.
These urgent reforms cannot occur until governments move beyond the self-interest and aggressive competition that characterises domestic and foreign policy, although there is still little indication that politicians are willing to consider such reforms. Nonetheless, in order to inspire public support for transformative change it is possible to outline what economic sharing means in terms of structural reform on a global scale.
Perhaps the most essential step towards implementing any systemic form of global economic sharing is for the international community to recognise that natural resources form part of our shared commons and should therefore be managed in a way that benefits all nations. Such an approach, although seemingly radical within the current framework, would finally enable humanity to take collective responsibility for stewarding the planet’s finite resources sustainably.
A precedent for sharing natural resources is already well established [slide 26]. An existing principle in international law known as the ‘common heritage of humankind’ enables certain cultural and natural resources to be protected from exploitation – from both the state and private sector – by holding them in trust for future generations.
As you can see from the slide, this principle is an important feature in a number of international treaties that have taken shape under the auspices of the United Nations. And there are many options outlined by progressive thinkers for how trusteeship over the world’s natural resources could be organised on a global level. For example, you could refer to the work of James Quilligan or Peter Barnes, or the broad concepts put forth in the book ‘Right Relationship’ by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver, as well as the book ‘Stewardship Economy’ by Julian Pratt.
Drawing on the ideas put forward by these writers, this slide simply outlines a possible model for how such a trust could work [slide 27]. Essentially, a global commons trust would set a cap on a particular resource to ensure it is used sustainably and protected for future generations. Businesses could rent a proportion of the resource from the trust rather than own it, and the rent paid for the resource could be used to fund social or environmental needs.
Harmonising consumption patterns
Regardless of how such a trust is organised, it stands to reason that if resources are managed in the interest of all nations it could be possible to harmonise the world’s hugely unequal consumption patterns, even though achieving such a balance is obviously a tremendous challenge in a world driven by consumerism. The basic premise of this adjustment would obviously necessitate the world’s over-consuming countries to significantly reduce their resource use, while less developed countries increase theirs until a convergence in global per capita consumption is eventually reached. This broad concept of ‘contraction and convergence’ is already widely discussed in relation to tackling climate change, as originally proposed by Audrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute.
Of course, any ground-breaking international framework for managing natural resources would be impossible without also implementing more democratic, inclusive and effective forms of global governance. And the United Nations, although in need of significant reform and democratisation, would clearly have an important role to play in this process.
At the national level the real challenge is reducing consumption levels in industrialised nations, and again many proposals already exist for how to achieve this [slide 28]. Among the many reforms needed, it is clear that resource management would need to be at the forefront of policymaking, and consumption-led economic growth can no longer be the goal of government policy. Much also needs to be done to dismantle the culture of consumerism through restricting advertising, implementing better trading standards, ending planned obsolescence and other measures; and of course investment patterns must shift to building and sustaining a low-carbon infrastructure, alongside a vast array of energy and resource efficiency measures.
This is just a very quick snapshot of the immense changes that would be needed if economic sharing really was implemented as a solution to global crises. Needless to say, all of these reforms remain entirely off the radar for most policymakers given the unwillingness of politicians to even accept the need for global economic reform, let alone implement any worthwhile structural changes. But if we are serious about creating a sustainable future, such reforms are clearly urgent and essential. And given the current trends related to inequality, climate change and resource depletion, such deep-rooted transformations will ultimately be inevitable if we are to safeguard planet earth for future generations.
Part 4: Barriers to progress and the rise of ordinary people
In response to this broadly-outlined vision for global economic sharing it is still possible to view such propositions as pie in the sky considering the political underpinnings of our world, even despite the urgency of the world’s ecological and social situation. This is especially true at a time when government policies are increasingly geared towards serving corporate interests, overexploiting the environment, and cutting back on social welfare and public services. So we’d just like to end this presentation by briefly discussing the barriers to progress, and what’s preventing us from applying sharing as a solution to the crises we’ve discussed [slide 30].
At present, the dominant trend is still towards the centralisation of state and market power, and the shifting of real power away from ordinary people and communities towards largely undemocratic global institutions and multinational corporations. This not only serves to uphold the present system based on unsustainable consumption and growth, but it ensures the continuation of negative social and environmental outcomes.
As we all know, private interests with economic power comprise a social minority, but they are over-represented in dominant institutions and maintain the full support of most government leaders elected to office. And through the dynamics of the ‘revolving door’, the same political leaders of today become advisors to the boards of major companies tomorrow. Even the United Nations, which was established as a forum for people’s representation and the protection of our universal rights, is now hijacked by the growing influence of large corporations and business lobby groups.
The inevitable result is that private interests are increasingly prioritised over public interests in both national and international forums, and viable solutions for the world’s multiple crises are effectively blocked or at best weakened. Instead of searching for comprehensive responses for threats related to climate change, food production, water supply, land use, biodiversity loss and so on, false solutions are promoted that protect wealth and profits and fail to tackle the core of global problems. And as each critical year passes by, we are paying witness to the further concentration and control of private interests over land, resources, and all aspects of peoples’ lives.
Humanity at an impasse
It’s almost as if humanity has reached an impasse, in which we seem unable to overcome the vested interests and structural barriers to progress that we face. For too long, governments have put profit and growth before the welfare of all people and the sustainability of the biosphere. Public policy under the influence of neoliberal ideology has created a world economy that is structurally dependent upon unsustainable levels of production and consumption for its continued success. Hence overcoming the vested interests that continue to block progress on restructuring the world economy has long been regarded by campaigners as the most significant challenge of the 21st century.
Yet what’s clear is that non-governmental organisations and campaigning groups are not sufficiently united or strong enough to challenge these immense forces of profit, power and control. There’s a quite significant literature that discusses the limitations of large civil society organisations to affect transformative structural change, as most of the mainstream CSOs work within the same business-as-usual political context as governments, or else they focus on single issues and short-term wins, or remain constrained by a narrow policy-oriented approach.
You may have heard about the controversy surrounding the IF campaign just recently which revealed some very divided views within the NGO community here in the UK, and which has emphasised once again that reformist or ‘within-the-system’ changes can never be enough, and may not even generate the small wins or incremental changes that are sought.
So if it is clear that governments, private institutions and civil society organisations acting alone are not capable of steering the world onto a just and sustainable course, perhaps the question is: can we imagine a new movement of ordinary people that can fill the vacuum in global leadership? Is the growing power of the people’s voice capable of being organised into some kind of implacable countervailing force that no government or vested interest can withstand? And if this is even a plausible scenario, then what would such a movement look like? How will it be coordinated? What would be its values, its nature, its global issues of shared concern? [Slide 31].
A global Tahrir Square
This is a question that is actually being asked by a number of campaigners and intellectuals who are now talking about the need for a global citizens movement. As many of these thinkers point out, an upsurge of public awareness and engagement is dependent upon a profound shift in values among a significant segment of the world population. James Gustave Speth, a prominent writer about the need for a global citizens movement, has called this the rise of a ‘new consciousness’ which for some is a kind of spiritual awakening – a sense of life’s interconnectedness and deeper meaning – while for others it is a more intellectual process that comes to appreciate our present unsustainable modes of being, and embraces a new ethic of ecological and social awareness that necessitates fundamental changes to our collective human behaviour.
Here’s a quote from Speth, who says: "I have come to the view that what’s needed now is a massive, in-the-streets citizens protest – a global Tahrir Square. I fear that governments will procrastinate unless unprecedented numbers of people across the world continue to put it all on the line with non-violent demonstrations, marches, and protests and move with determination from protest to movement to power before it is too late." [Slide 32].
The dramatic series of events since late 2010 have provided concrete evidence of the potential power of a united ‘people’s voice’ to effect wholesale, systemic change. The world witnessed millions of people in diverse countries declaring their needs and highlighting issues of social and economic inequality, greed, financial corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government. In particular, the Arab Spring demonstrated the awesome power of a focussed and directed public opinion. And in city squares across the developed world, Occupy, the Indignados and a host of other people’s movements have focused the world’s media on the plight of the ‘99%’ and gained widespread public support.
What’s interesting to note is that these various protests and mobilisations are all calling for greater economic sharing in one way or another, and what connects them is their revulsion against an economic system that has caused huge inequalities in wealth and income [slide 33]. Many of the Arab uprisings may have mobilised to oust repressive dictatorships, but they also reflected a worldwide reaction to enormous and growing socio-economic divisions. There are also massive calls now for an end to austerity measures, or for more progressive taxation, as in the UK and US-Uncut actions; or calls for an end to greed and inequality, as in the Occupy protests; or calls for the sharing and conservation of natural resources, as in the Idle No More uprising in Canada.
There’s also the recent mass protests in Turkey that were sparked by a call for sharing public spaces or in resistance to the financial enclosure of the commons, as symbolized by Gezi Park. And among so many other mass demonstrations across the world, we’re now we’re witnessing these huge rallies across Brazil which were initially mobilised in favour of less expensive public transportation, and have now spiralled into a nationwide cry for better schools and health services, the right priorities in public spending, and an end to corruption and inequality.
So there’s an implicit understanding common to all these demands which is that governments are better able to secure basic human needs for their citizens through the provision of more effective welfare and social services.
A collective demand for sharing
The question that remains is whether the need for sharing and redistribution can be recognised at the international level where the unequal distribution of power and resources manifests in extreme differences in living standards between the richest and poorest people. So far, the priorities of the new wave of protesters still tend to be national in their focus, or else they remain concerned with social justice in the context of the rich, industrialised nations.
For example, the brilliant slogan ‘We are the 99%’ applied mainly to income inequality in the US, but not to global levels of inequality. In global terms, you would only need a net household of around £30,000 to be in the top 1%, which might include many of the protesters that occupied Wall Street, St Pauls and other city squares in 2011. And few of the activists calling for justice within the context of Western Europe and North American countries are themselves struggling with very basic issues of access to food, water, healthcare and shelter, which is common for the poorer two-thirds of the world’s population [slide 34].
This is in no way to denigrate this rapidly emerging voice of the people, which is arguably the most important political event of our time and the greatest source of hope for initiating worldwide repair and renewal. But it’s to suggest that only a collective demand for a fairer sharing of the world’s wealth and resources is likely to unify citizens of the richest and poorest nations on a common platform, one that recognises the need for global as well as national forms of redistribution as a pathway to ending poverty and extreme inequality. And central to this focus is the wealth and income differences between the poorest and richest nations, which remain the greatest economic divisions that persist today [slide 35].
What we’re postulating here is that perhaps a necessary process of economic restructuring and world rehabilitation can only begin with a united people’s voice that speaks on behalf of the poorest and most disenfranchised, and gives the highest priority to the elimination of extreme deprivation and needless poverty-related deaths. If this is a prospect that we can take seriously, then we need to ask if it’s possible to envisage a vast swathe of the world population, in the rich world as well as the poor, rising up to demand a more equal distribution of the food, raw materials and energy sources of the planet. Can we foresee masses of ordinary people who genuinely identify themselves as brothers and sisters of one human family, and who therefore demand that all the resources, technology and scientific know-how of the world are freely shared among everyone?
If so, and if the case for global sharing captures the public imagination as quickly as the calls for distributive justice within individual countries, then perhaps an end to global poverty and injustice may finally become a realistic possibility.
As a final word, what we’ve hopefully conveyed in this presentation is just how versatile and important is the principle of sharing to the great transition that this world is going through. The reason that we, as an organisation, focus so centrally on the concept of economic sharing is because it presents a way forward that can help connect progressive campaigners, as well as provide a practical tool and an overarching policy framework for influencing political and economic reform [slide 36].
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