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

E-Newsletter

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

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • 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.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • COP21 Will Get Agreement With Teeth: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Bloomberg

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • 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 www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
Other

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 2016