Next year’s UN conference in Rio de Janeiro should mark the beginning of a new era of environmental and economic cooperation. Rio +20 is not only the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, it is also Stockholm+40 – marking the UN’s first major environmental conference, and, somewhat ominously, it is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring. As we prepare for 2012, we have 50 years of environmental history to bear in mind.
We all welcome the recognition of the need to change directions toward sustainability. But, we must also recognize that, for most of modern history, we assumed we were living sustainably. Our doubt about that – as economists, ecologists, policy-makers or industrialists – has arisen only in the last few decades. It’s come as quite a surprise that our energy system is unsustainable; that our food chain is breakable; that our environment is eroding and that our water is running out.
So, as we embrace the “old” concept that a “new,” sustainable, and green economy is possible, we should also acknowledge our past failures, our current self-doubt and our realization that our future is not easy to predict.
There cannot be one new green economy. Rather we need new green economies – in the plural – that are local, diverse and participatory. Green economies must be built from the ground up, firmly rooted in our different cultures and contexts.
Recent history makes it clear that globally we are not good at predicting the needs of green economies:
Four years ago, almost all of our intergovernmental institutions failed to see the food price crisis on the horizon: the World Bank admitted that it had neglected agriculture for three decades; and the International Food Policy Research Institute was reduced to reading decade-old tea leaves for data about farm numbers, size and productivity. As a consequence of our misunderstanding, 170 million people more than ever before went hungry.
Three years ago, most governments convinced themselves that agrofuels (“biofuels”) wouldn’t pit cars against people. The overwhelming consensus now is that – for most countries – agrofuels increase hunger and we’re still being told that the new, more sustainable generations of these technologies are imminent. Those with cars can be patient; those without dinner cannot.
Two years ago, as we began talking about a new green economy, we found that sovereign wealth funds and speculators were buying up massive amounts of land – and the aquifers underneath – in Africa, Latin America and even in my country, Canada. In UN meetings, we were told that this was a “win-win” for everybody. Today, we know this is not true.
Earlier this year, some governments maintained nuclear energy was the clean answer to climate change. Today, the world’s third and fourth largest economies are retreating from that assumption and the other major economies have new respect for precaution.
Today, we are being told that exciting new and sustainable technologies are near, which will let us convert our planet’s biomass into food, fuel, pharmaceuticals and plastics. We are told that less than one quarter of annual terrestrial biomass has thus far been commodified, so that we have three-quarters of our biomass available for commercial use.
What if we are wrong? What if there is not enough biomass for all the uses that are being contemplated?
What if we need not new techno-fixes but structural changes and new social policies?