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: -9.8% Q2/Q1 2020 2020
Consumer price inflation: 1.3% Sep 2020 annual
Trade (G20): -17.7% exp, -16.7% imp, Q2/Q1 2020
Unemployment: 7.3% Sep 2020
Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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