Sustainable planet: will the dance go on?

Secretary-General of the OECD

The world is a living biological organism, not just a planetary rock with life somehow superimposed on it. This is the so-called gaia hypothesis developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. In a recent interview Mr Lovelock noted: “Life clearly does more than adapt to Earth. It changes Earth for its own purposes. Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners.”

Since the industrial revolution, the rate of economic growth and the concomitant creation of wealth have been unprecedented. Sadly, the bulk of the benefits seem to have fallen to a privileged few. As we look about us in the material world of the OECD some might assume that we have attained nirvana. That would be understandable, but foolish. Not only does poverty continue to afflict large numbers of people in many OECD countries, it remains the plight of billions of our companions on planet earth.

Poverty is to my mind the major challenge on the path to sustainable development. Why? Because poverty is about need – it is a condition in which, to survive from day to day, individuals and families will exploit any available source of food and energy. Efficiency, conservation, the need to leave resources for future generations: these are “luxuries” which the poor often feel they cannot afford.

Of course as history in the OECD countries testifies, poverty is not the only cause of waste and despoliation of the environment and the planet’s natural resources. Short-term gain, indiscipline, even willful ignorance of the consequences of our system of development, as well as a sorry lack of determination to take corrective action, are also culprits. The litany of our damaging practices is long: our poisoning of fresh water, our overfishing, our use of pesticides like DDT and our pollution of the atmosphere through dependence on fossil fuels only begin the list. In a sense, one could say that OECD countries have indeed sought short-term gain, the trade-off being long-term pain.

So while our growth model has brought some of us remarkable benefits, in wealth and in health, we humans have dangerously altered the balance of life here on Earth, on what Carl Sagan described as our “pale blue dot”. Poverty was not our excuse; nor is ignorance of the consequences really a convincing argument for a race that has walked on the moon, split an atom and mapped its own genome. We cannot get off the hook easily. Homo sapiens is a smart species, but we have generally failed to act.

For much of the developing world, however, there is no long term, only hunger and misery. Even exploitation of tropical rain forests is a matter of survival for many. These people cannot take into account that those forests contribute importantly to the world’s capacity to absorb CO2 emissions, a major contributor to global warming. Nor indeed can they see such forests as home to threatened varieties of plants and animals whose properties, as Professor E.O. Wilson warns us in this Observer, may even be life-saving.

Poverty is not the only challenge to sustainable development. After all, most forestry companies are not owned by poor people, but belong to OECD-based concerns aiming to satisfy demand in OECD markets. Most of the responsibility for deforestation and therefore for change must lie with us. Nevertheless, there is no way that this planet can be placed on a path of sustainability for humankind without addressing the plight of those who live in poverty and despair.

A global distribution of the benefits of economic growth that can be stimulated by the liberalisation of trade, as Mike Moore and Michel Camdessus argue in this edition, as well as investment, will address that challenge in the most effective way we know. Evidence of this is growing every day. That OECD development aid budgets have fallen (except in a handful of countries) hardly helps the development goal. But while trade and aid can alleviate poverty, we now know that growth cannot be pursued at the expense of our planet. The OECD countries have to act because we produce most of the pollution, but the share of emissions generated by poor countries is projected to rise. We must all break the link between economic expansion and despoilment, and development programmes too must decouple growth from the environment.

Sustainable development is not a political choice. We simply must make a serious effort. Perhaps polluter-pays policies or new technology will help; biotechnology may one day enable us to cut pesticide use and alternative energy sources may become more prevalent. But history will judge us harshly if we fail to use the opportunities that are so available and so visible to us to address poverty. If we do not, sustainable development of the planet will remain beyond reach. The gaia dance between Earth and life may well continue, though homo sapiens might not be there as partners.

©OECD Observer, No 226/227, Summer 2001

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019