Worldwatch Institute: Economic System No Longer Works for People or the Planet
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
By Press Action
The Industrial Revolution gave birth to an economic growth model rooted in structures, behaviors and activities that are unsustainable, according to the Worldwatch Institute. In this bold pronouncement, Worldwatch, a mainstream environmental research organization, essentially is linking the ongoing destruction of the planet to the dominant economic system.
Mainstream environmental organizations have strong ties to the global economic elite, either through their relationships with foundation grant funders or the makeup of their board of directors. These factors, combined with the conventional thinking of the people who fill the groups’ leadership positions, typically result in policy prescriptions that, at best, offer only Band-Aids, not legitimate remedies, to the environmental crisis.
In an April 3 press release announcing the release of Worldwatch’s latest State of the World book, Michael Renner, a senior researcher with the group, said, “Mounting ecosystem stress and resource pressures are accompanied by increased economic volatility, growing inequality, and social vulnerability. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the economy no longer works for either people or the planet.”
Instead of letting a failed economic system continue to destroy the planet, Worldwatch says the world needs to pursue what it calls “sustainable prosperity.” Worldwatch incorporated the catchphrase into the title of its latest State of the World book, the 29th in a series that it began in 1984. In State of the World: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, the think tank defines sustainable prosperity as “development that allows all human beings to live with their fundamental needs met, with their dignity acknowledged, and with abundant opportunity to pursue lives of satisfaction and happiness, all without risk of denying others in the present and the future the ability to do the same.”
Worldwatch explains that attaining sustainable prosperity will require a dramatic redirection of the global economy, shifting distribution of wealth and moving away from a growth-centric system. “While this is a daunting task, failure will lead us to an ecologically degraded future where the vast majority of humanity will never be able to be prosperous, but will simply eke out an existence on a hot, unstable planet,” Worldwatch says.
Once again, Worldwatch, in explaining what will happen if the world does not address the environmental crisis, uses the word “prosperous” to describe an ideal future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Based on the messages conveyed by the nation’s mass media and the lessons taught in the nation’s classrooms, though, most Americans would liken prosperous to being successful in material terms, such as owning a well-appointed house, two cars, and a country club membership.
But Worldwatch appears to be going in a different direction by defining the word as having one’s fundamental needs met. The think tank, though, also throws in “satisfaction” and “happiness” into its definition of sustainable prosperity. Satisfaction and happiness, of course, are relative terms. The opportunities and material goods that make a human satisfied and happy in Dallas are likely going to be different than what makes a human satisfied and happy in Dhaka.
On the surface, the message in the latest edition of Worldwatch’s State of the World book seems radical, delivering a stern rebuke of the grow-or-die capitalist system that is playing a major role in destroying the planet. Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at Worldwatch and co-director of State of the World 2012, says, “If we do not radically change our consumer culture and collectively re-prioritize sustainable living, we will be the agents of our own undoing.”
But when dealing with established, mainstream organizations such as Worldwatch, one must be mindful of rhetoric versus reality. Worldwatch’s publications and official statements may offer an analysis that strays to the edges of acceptable discourse in dominant political circles. As an organization that relies on grants from foundations and wealthy donors, though, Worldwatch must be careful not to tread too far outside the box when offering solutions. The proverbial devil is in the details, not in the bold pronouncements of senior officials at Worldwatch.
Worldwatch takes the position that “overdeveloped countries” must begin to engage in “economic degrowth.” This is certainly not a term one hears every day in mainstream political and economic discourse. But this is the only honest position a true environmental group can take, given the rate at which the environment is being decimated to sustain the mega-economies. Worldwatch should be praised for adopting the “degrowth” mantra. But let’s take a look at how Worldwatch suggests overdeveloped nations should embark on a degrowth movement?
Worldwatch says, “This can be achieved by a mix of tax shifting, shortening work weeks, denormalizing certain types of consumption, and de-marketizing certain sectors of the economy, such as food production and child care.”
In other sections of this year’s State of the World, Worldwatch explains that transnational corporations, or TNCs, often go unchecked, with no limits placed on their impacts on society, the environment, or the economy. What is Worldwatch’s proposed remedy? “TNCs must adapt if sustainability is to become a reality, including shifts in their purpose, ownership, capital investment, and governance,” Worldwatch says.
Worldwatch also calls on mobilizing the business community to be more green, inclusive and socially responsible. Such an effort “will take a combination of business-led voluntary initiatives reinforced by new corporate structures and strong government policy and public oversight,” the group says.
Here we have a mainstream environmental group with the courage to publicly endorse rolling back economic growth and its attendant energy use. But, unfortunately, Worldwatch follows up its astute analysis with a set of feeble proposals. Incremental reforms such as tax shifting and urging corporations to change their purpose and governance are already occurring in some parts of the over-developed world. And many of the recommendations in State of the World, including the passages that focus on shifting toward denser cities that require less motorized travel and support healthy communities by enabling walking and cycling, could have been written by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or other big city officials.
Unlike big environmental groups, Worldwatch does not make the assumption that economic growth, as opposed to the planet itself, is what needs to be saved. The group’s president, Robert Engelman, states plainly that “perpetual economic and demographic growth aren’t possible on a finite planet.” He calls for a “good life” for humans based on “enough” rather than “ever more.”
But Worldwatch’s timid measures would do little to stop, let alone slow down, the destructive forces of the global industrial economy, which is barreling forward like a runaway train threatening to run over everything that gets in its way.
Worldwatch and other environmental groups now appear to favor the catchphrase “sustainable prosperity” over “sustainable development,” given their recognition that development is what’s causing so much harm to the natural world.
Worldwatch’s new State of the World book could easily serve as a companion to the United Nations High Level Panel on Global Sustainability’s new report, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing,” which was released in January.
In its book, though, Worldwatch takes a deeper and more critical look than the UN panel in analyzing the relationship between the dominant global economy and the environmental crisis. Coincidence or not, Worldwatch’s State of the World and the UN report highlight the importance of “prosperity.” In its report, the UN panel said its mission “was to reflect on and formulate a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity, along with mechanisms for achieving it.”
The UN panel argued that the “international community needs what some have called ‘a new political economy’ for sustainable development.” According to the panel, this means, for example, recognizing that with climate change, there is “market failure”, which requires both regulation and what the economists would recognize as the pricing of “environmental externalities”, while making explicit the economic, social and environmental costs of action and inaction.
The UN report also stresses “the importance of innovation, new technologies, international cooperation and investments responding to these problems and generating further prosperity.” None of the panel’s recommendations would help to stop the dominant culture’s destruction of the planet. In fact, most of the UN panel’s recommendations, including its call for “generating further prosperity,” would only worsen the health of the planet.
According to environmental writer Jeffrey St. Clair, “The environmental movement has become freighted with more and more deceptive terms. Let’s begin by banishing the tiresome phrase sustainable development. Coined by NGOs in the 1970s, this discreditable term has been used to put a green gloss on everything from mega-dams to rainforest logging. Endless development is a more accurate description.”
Bravo for Worldwatch for labeling the dominant grow-or-die economic system as the reason for the environmental crisis. But its recommendations, on the other hand, are watered down and clearly don’t reflect the urgency merited by the worsening condition of the air, water and land.