Envisioning An Equitable Global Commons

Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, there are several reasons why it is in the best interest of developed nations to radically narrow the gap between rich and poor. First, it will help the global South to protect what remains of its vast reservoirs of biodiversity, whose destruction affects at least two major elements of carrying capacity. The need for wild plants and microorganisms, which already supply the active ingredients in more than 25 per cent of modern pharmaceuticals, may become acute, as the human population grows more susceptible to disease.68 Biodiversity is also critical to maintaining crop resistance to pests and drought, supplying the raw materials for genetic engineering, and thus hopefully permitting a future phenomenal boost in agricultural yields required to feed an exponentially growing population.

Second, developing nations have advanced far in demonstrating their power to severely degrade the entire planet's life support systems simply by following development paths taken by the rich. Elementary calculations indicate that the mobilization of coal reserves to fuel even a modest increment of development could overwhelm any efforts by industrialized nations to compensate by reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, a further large increase in methane and nitrous oxide releases would accompany the currently planned expansion of agriculture and the continued destruction of tropical forest. It has long been recognized that the rapid deployment of less-damaging technologies, such as solar-hydrogen energy technologies, in developed nations and their transfer to the rest of the world is required to secure just this atmospheric element of the global commons.

Third, the ever-growing disparity between rich and poor carries severe implications for social carrying capacity, including intensifying economic dislocation and social strife as the transfer of capital, labor, and refugees across steepening gradients of social and economic difference accelerates. Political challenges also loom large as the ranks of those with little to lose increase, nuclear capability proliferates in the developing world, and vulnerability to terrorism increases.

In short, the lesson and moral of the story here is that there is no escape by lifeboat possible, even for the rich. All nations will have yet to come to grips with the planet's limits to carrying capacity, acknowledging that there are not merely socially created scarcities or "social limits to growth," but also absolute scarcities or ecological limits to growth.69 Unless measures are taken by the rich to facilitate sustainable development, the continued destruction of humanity's life support systems is virtually guaranteed. However, it is the premise of this book that civilizational and ecological collapse is not a fait accompli; a world catastrophe is not inevitable, and a sustainable and socially just society is both technologically and economically possible. As sociologist Anthony Giddens proposes, humanity ought to be "looking for a theory of society which is a globalizing society, where markets (are) very important, but can be reconciled with social cohesion and a measure of social justice as well as with an open, cosmopolitan community."70

For environmentalists, one crucial task should be to examine the ways in which institutions define and foster different conceptions of interests. Individuals' preferences and conceptions of their interests need to be the end point of analysis, not its starting point.71 Economics needs to move away from concern about commensuration and prices - either real or "shadow" -and "towards an inquiry into the institutional conditions under which individuals are enabled to nurture a concern for the environment and treat it in a rational and sensitive way."72

Some central questions to be asked are: what institutional frameworks develop a concern for future generations and the non-human world? What frameworks encourage rational argument and debate about environmental matters? What are the institutional conditions of sustainable economic practices? What institutions and power relationships undermine such conceptions? Inquiries of this type, while they are ignored by neo-classical economic traditions, are a crucial part of an older, Aristotelian tradition.73 Environmental philosopher John O'Neill notes that one task of this tradition is:

... to craft political and social associations which enable every person to act virtuously and live happily, while limiting the power of institutions of the market, which encourages unlimited acquisitiveness and thus the vice of pleonexia, the desire to have more than is proper.74

Despite the claims of orthodox economists, such associations would treat individual wants with a great deal more respect than bureaucracies based on cost-benefit thinking. Ecologically sound institutions would acknowledge, for example, that problems of mass extinction, flooded wetlands, or polluted oceans can be properly understood or dealt with only by taking into consideration the economic history and the irreducible plurality of social practices and locally rooted communities. The next few decades present humanity with a window of opportunity for laying the institutional foundations for an equitable global commons. Crucial here is the "freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters," as Immanuel Kant put it.75

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