Last week we concluded our post on climate change with a quote from James Hansen, "the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations." All this year we have been leading up to our collective fin de seicle moment in December, the grand denouement of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol in Paris. At this late date, we are frankly pessimistic for the outcome there.
It isn’t that we expect the parchment won’t get inked, but rather that the document won’t actually accomplish its task even if the conference is a complete success. After more than two decades of negotiating for every paragraph, the Paris Treaty will be two decades out of date and strategically misdirected.
In those 20 years the goalposts have moved. They are not farther away now. They are closer.
The United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt’s singular passion, is showing signs of age, architecturally symbolized by its under-maintained (owing to deadbeat nations who never pay their dues, nudge to the ribs of USAnians) 1950s rusting steel and chipped glass edifice fronting the East River on the New York skyline.
Instead of peering through the mists into a bright but challenging future, the building peers out across the river to Roosevelt Island and back in time to a Rooseveltian utopia with strong labor unions and a chicken in every pot. Actually, a-chicken-in-every-pot was the 1928 campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover, a Republican president who presided over the Crash of ‘29. Hoover advocated "kinder, gentler" capitalism. He said, "We want to see a nation built of homeowners and farm owners. We want to see more and more of them insured against death and accident, unemployment and old age." It would become the mantra of future candidates of both parties, a code for enslaving the working class through health and home insurance, college and mortgage loans while feathering the nest of banks and insurance companies.
This is oddly where we find the United Nations now, making impossible promises to lure the gullible while holding a finger on the scales of justice.
Like a military bureaucracy busily arming with the obsolete weapons of the last war, the United Nations is stuck in the past century, driving a pink Cadillac to the Mall. Here, for instance, is a chart of its projections for world population, which it derives from fertility, life expectancy and demographic trends over the past decades:
Those dash-dotted blue lines at the margins are the range that would be accomplished if there were half-a-child more or fewer births per woman than at present. Half-a-child smaller families is all it would take to move planetary stress out of the red zone.
Another way would be for the entire globe to follow the example of Greece and depopulate immediately, just by starving pensioners and slashing budgets for hospitals, fire departments and other vital services.
One problem is that projecting the past into the future is always a fool’s errand. Consider the UN’s projections for low-lying island nations:
By 2100, if not 2050, most of these low-lying chains will be under the ocean. Are these projected people, still worth counting, presumed to be in refugee camps, waiting at border crossings in places like Calais, or in submarine cities?
Which brings us back to stranded expectations.
Our friend Joe Brewer, a linguist who, with George Lakoff and others developed the concept of "framing," wrote a thoughtful piece on the language of the UN’s sustainable development goals, now scheduled for ratification in September. Just take a moment, though, to consider the embodied ignorance of a term like "sustainable development."
What is it, exactly, that we wish to sustain? Development? What kind? Do we want Donald Trump to build condos for billionaires in Namibia? Or maybe we want more jobs for Namibians assembling smart phones in Chinese factories while former Chinese factory slaves spend their renminbi vacationing in Dubai?
Last month the long laboring UN Open Working Group announced it had formalized 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 associated targets and deemed them “integrated and indivisible.” It submitted a lengthy report for ratification by the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in September. Beaming with pride at its accomplishment, it bragged:
Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda. We are setting out together on the path towards sustainable development, devoting ourselves collectively to the pursuit of global development and of “win-win” cooperation which can bring huge gains to all countries and all parts of the world.
And then, in the next breath, it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
We reiterate that every state has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over its wealth and natural resources.
We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations. In doing so, we reaffirm our commitment to international law and emphasize that the Agenda is to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities.
With these caveats, the UN essentially emasculated its own achievement. It was kind of like saying, “From now on, no-one shall be allowed to shoot heroin or smoke crack. We will accomplish this through voluntary self-regulation by all would-be addicts.”
The simile is not that far-fetched. Neurobiologists and psychologists that have studied the problem of addiction have a much more nuanced picture of crime and punishment than do lawmakers or the public. They know what can reduce addiction — supportive community ties and self-respect, among other factors — and what elevates it — punishment, isolation and disgrace – but they have been unable to make that scientific case in public debate without getting shouted down, and so the criminal justice system stereotypes and victimizes addicts.
How the UN plans to discipline unfettered growth addicts is by loving them. Not tough love. Friendly advice kind of love. A forgive but not forget kind of love.
The UN plan continues:
The new Goals and targets will come into effect on 1 January 2016 and will guide the decisions we take over the next fifteen years. All of us will work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels. We will at the same time take into account different national realities, including capacities and levels of development, and culture. We will respect national policies and priorities and policy space for economic growth, in particular for developing states, while remaining consistent with relevant international rules and commitments. We acknowledge also the importance of the regional and sub-regional dimensions, regional economic integration and interconnectivity in sustainable development. Regional and sub-regional frameworks can facilitate the effective translation of sustainable development policies into concrete action at national level.
The frame of national sovereignty conceals the much more nuanced picture of networked financial assets that are coordinated through a nested shell system of corporate structures—enabling things like the tax haven system and cross-cultural propaganda efforts that shape social norms at scales of regional markets.
The Committee on Sustainable Development:
We are committed to ending poverty in all its forms,including extreme poverty, by 2030. All people must enjoy a basic standard of living, including through social protection systems. We are also determined to end hunger and malnutrition and to achieve food security as a matter of priority. We will devote resources to developing rural areas and supporting small farmers, especially women farmers, herders and fishers.…
We will seek to build strong economic foundations for all our countries. Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity. This will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed. We will work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative and people-centred economies, promoting youth employment and women’s economic empowerment, in particular,and decent work for all. We will eradicate forced labour and human trafficking and eliminate all the worst forms of child labour. All countries stand to benefit from having a healthy and well-educated workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for productive and fulfilling work and full participation in society. We will adopt policies which increase productive capacities, productivity and productive employment; financial inclusion; sustainable agriculture, pastoralist and fisheries development; sustainable industrial development; universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services; sustainable transport systems; and resilient infrastructure.
Lately we have been trying to purge our vocabulary of the word "sustainable" (as offensive to polar bears) in much the way we purged our vocabulary of "rule of thumb" 20 years ago (as offensive to women, even though the origin was a parody, not an actual law, that husbands could beat wives with canes no wider than a thumb).
What we must ask is what we intend to sustain when we speak of sustainability? Is it, as Iowa Congressman Paul Simon famously proclaimed, our God-given right to the American way of life? Is it exponential growth of resource consumption on a finite planet? Is it a sustained rate of whale kill, coal burning, or forest-clearing? What are we talking about sustaining once fossil fuels no longer can give us all those billions of energy slaves?
As one commenter on our post last week said:
The Hansen approach – concentrating on CC [carbon capture] from a ‘we obviously want to continue western civilisation, that’s not the question’ perspective, can be seen as a form of denial.
Joe Brewer, looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, unpacked four foundational weaknesses revealed by their language:
Insight #1: The entire effort rests on a mis-framing of poverty. The SDG documents consistently frame poverty as a disease, which, in contrast to their own promise to eradicate it by 2030, evokes the logic that it should be expected and managed, but cannot go away. When they conceptualize poverty this way, they misunderstand what it is and overlook the essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world. They fail to say how poverty is created.
Insight #2: The language obscures “development as usual”. It ignores this topic entirely and fails to articulate that it is based on a particular, specifically neoliberal and corporatist conception of how the world economy does and should work. Also noteworthy, there is no reference to corporations—the most powerful institutions on the planet, whose influence in development spaces has been growing considerably in recent years, including via this process—an omission that prompts suspicion that an unpopular agenda may sneak through under the radar. This has the effect of neutralizing analysis on the core elements of the development model, and any consideration for the role of power politics or financial influence in development outcomes.
Insight #3: The poison pill is growth; specifically undifferentiated, perpetual growth as represented by GDP as a measure of progress. An awareness is acknowledged of the deep problems and contradictions when relying on GDP growth to tackle poverty. It is then deliberately kicked into the long grass and left as the prime operative of economic development. Indeed, the only thing the SDG framework has to offer on this is that it has nothing meaningful to offer; instead it passes this challenge to future generations.
Insight #4: The language is self-contradictory and conflicted on the relationship between nature and the economy. There is a clear and laudable intent to connect development and the environment—indeed, calling themselves the Sustainable Development Goals they could not make a bigger signal about needing development to be sustainable—but then the logic repeatedly demonstrates a confused and contradictory understanding of whether the economy is something linked with or separate from nature; there to dominate or work within. No credible use of the word sustainable would perform this way.
These insights lead to a simple antidote that can heal the SDG process and move us closer to real sustainability—tell the story of poverty creation that reveals systemic and structural causes of “development as usual.”
Brewer’s key point is that poverty is not a disease, something you catch by being born in the wrong place or choosing to be a slacker. Poverty is institutionally created.
The rules of the system are set up to extract wealth from the economy and hoard it in the hands of the few who control the money supply. This is done through unfair trade agreements, regressive tax structures and tax evasion, structural debt relations, land grabs, privatization of public utilities, and other widely used business practices. When the SDG framework conceptualizes poverty as a disease, it misunderstands what it is and overlooks this essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world.
Part of the problem, Brewer suspects, is that we like to break large, unmanageable problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces. In this case, the UN is putting different issues — rights of women and children, indigenous peoples, unsustainable agriculture, deforestation and desertification, energy costs and climate change — into issue silos, rather than treating them as part of a larger pattern of our human relationship to nature. Brewer says the two competing systems — environment and development –
“are treated as separate and distinct, which artificially divides humans from nature—an untenable position that ignores the foundational knowledge of physics and biology for living systems.”
He points out that mischaracterizing poverty as a disease leads to a complete disconnect when wealthy countries are confronted with the need to scale back or pay reparations –
Those countries that are “less developed” could be reframed as “more pillaged” and those that are “more developed” are countries that have “reaped the benefits of pillage.” – and also when under developing countries are told they should no longer try to imitate the West and think that some day they will be able to consume and hoard on a comparable scale.
What enabled the wealthy nations to pillage was the presence of natural wealth – human, plant and mineral – that could be brought under the sword or cross and systematically extracted. Where now do emerging economies like China, Brazil, India and South Korea turn to find such wealth? How does the aristocracy of the overdeveloped world keep its high-entropy investments secure without finding somewhere new to recharge them?
The UN working group is silent on these points because it has accepted without challenge a Neoliberal world view and ignored the over-consumption, financial destabilization, and enlarging inequality that demands.
Australian rancher Darren Doherty is fond of saying that sustainability is a weak ambition to begin with. “You are treading water. Is that all you want to do, tread water?”
Regeneration is a much more hopeful and ambitious term: Civilization 2.0. The goal is not to sustain high entropy habitation and extend it to 7 billlion or 12 billion people, but to redesign habitation to be low-entropy and biodiverse, letting nature heal, and to gradually bring human numbers down to something that is more (watch out, almost said sustainable) manageable within ecosystemic limits.
A couple years ago the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a report to address the subject of whether provision of minimum food support is a human right. The only practical way that could be achieved without overexploiting all the available arable land, the report said, was by transition to what they termed "eco-agriculture" but was really permaculture – primarily tree-crops and perennial grasses with some aquaculture. As we described here last week, this approach is also much more adaptive and mitigating in the climate change context, as our ancestors discovered several thousand years ago.
We are training ourselves to use "resilience" and "regenerative" in place of "sustainable" wherever possible. We particularly loathe "sustainable living" which always brings images of zombies to our mind. Ultimately nothing sustains, and any attempt to attain that end will fail. If sustainability is treading water, resilience is swimming forward against the current. And actually, once you get the hang of it, the current shifts and flows with you.
Photo credit: "20110629 Old man hit by Riot Police in demonstrations in Athens Greece" by Ggia – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.