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Interview: 'We need prosperity without growth'

Published: 17. 04. 2012

Dominique Bourg, Philosophy professor in Lausanne, is a specialist in sustainable development questions. In the following interview he outlines why he expects so little from the Rio+20 Summit, and the approach that would really have to be taken to solve the earth's critical problems.

Alliance Sud News: The decisions of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit have hardly been implemented. Where do you see the main problems?

Dominique BourgDominique Bourg (Photo: Michel Egger)

Dominique Bourg: Rio had two major objectives, namely reducing poverty, in other words better distributing wealth, and reducing the global environmental threats. Twenty years on, the result is pathetic. Social inequality has reached unprecedented proportions, and the exploitation of resources such as petroleum, fresh water or minerals and the degradation of the biosphere have increased massively. We have crossed dangerous thresholds when it comes to destroying the biodiversity, disrupting the nitrogen cycle, and climate change. The forthcoming conference should focus first and foremost on the seriousness of this situation.

What exactly are you expecting from Rio+20?

Frankly, nothing. There are indeed some interesting approaches. But given the scale of the problems, what is in the pipeline is completely inadequate. It seems headed towards a soft result that does not challenge anything fundamental. We are not really tackling the root causes of the mess. Create a world environmental organization – why not! But it must then also be given the power to impose environmental criteria on organizations like the WTO. Unfortunately no such prospect is in sight.
There are also proposals for concrete sustainability goals, known as Sustainable Development Goals.

It would be no bad thing to establish concrete sustainability goals and indicators as proposed by Colombia and Guatemala. However, the experience with the Millennium Development Goals, which these sustainability goals would replace in 2015, is not really encouraging. What is needed above all, are effective instruments and strong regulations to finally lay neo-liberalism to rest. Consumption patterns must be changed, income disparities reduced, and international mechanisms created for equitable access to natural resources. And we must prepare for the time when a barrel of oil will cost $250 or more.

One of the main topics of the conference is the «Green economy».

One would have to be pretty naive to believe that global environmental and unemployment problems as well as issues of fairness and justice could be solved by means of «green growth». This illusion is rooted in an erroneous understanding of sustainability. The notion was ambivalent from the start and was further broken down to produce «sustainability light». It stands for an environmentally detrimental development model that has dominated so far and which it is hoped to perpetuate in the form of the «green economy». We then pretended that there could be some spontaneous harmony between the economic, environmental and social dimensions, and completely overlooked the balance of power between those three poles. One tended to forget that the term «sustainable development» came about at the beginning of the 1980s – as if by chance – simultaneously with the wave of neoliberalism, which effectively defined the term. The economic rationale is very dominant, even imperialistic. Strong political instruments are needed to make it more environmentally and socially sustainable.

You seem to think little of reforms, and to favour a veritable paradigm shift instead.

Absolutely. The development model we have practised up to now is leading humanity and the biosphere to disaster. Let's take global warming: here the elites have in fact already «decided» to jettison the 2-degree target as the cap for global warming vis-à-vis the pre-industrial era. As things stand, one may at best manage to achieve 2.5 degrees if expeditious and drastic steps are taken, but this is not very realistic. The latest, very credible studies expect warming to reach 3 or 4 degrees if not more by the end of the century. This will trigger an unpredictable chain reaction, involving the collapse of ecosystems and the breakdown of food production, and deaths in the hundreds of millions. One could cite other problems such as the depletion of key resources, the disruption of the nitrogen and the fresh water cycles, etc.

It is illusory to believe that technological progress will enable us bring the problems under control, as proponents of the «green economy» would have us believe. It is not just a matter of better production and consumption, we must produce and consume less. There was talk of decoupling economic growth and resource consumption. But it is clear 20 years later that in absolute terms, we have decoupled nothing. We have indeed managed to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by about 30 per cent since the early 1970s. But harmful greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 80 per cent. We can only conclude therefore that technological progress – which is absolutely necessary – must be embedded in effective policy and economic regulations. Unfortunately, however, we prefer to focus on technology rather than the issues of how we live, which are politically much more sensitive.

Poor countries must think little of declarations of renunciation. They too have a right to development and growth.

The North-South question is decisive. Because the biosphere is limited, the world's rich must change their lifestyle, and consume less matter, energy and resources so that the poor can consume more of them. This is indispensable if all people are to live in dignity. And that should be the aim of all policies.

How would you describe the new paradigm that you wish to see?

The challenge is to achieve well-being without growth. There is still no overall model for this, but there are many suggestions as to how this could be gradually achieved. New measurement and steering mechanisms are needed to complement the traditional monetary indicators (gross domestic product). These would include human development and welfare indicators, or others that gauge the handling of natural resources and the biosphere. Also needed is a new form of accounting that also measures the natural and human capital when valuing a company. The tax system should no longer be based on work but on resource and energy consumption. A fair system is needed for individual CO2 consumption quotas. And states should again have the privilege of creating money through the central bank for long-term investments.

How should governments enforce this new paradigm?

This requires changes in personal behaviour (which cannot be decreed, of course) and in that of institutions. If we are to empower our democratic systems effectively to tackle the long-term challenges, new elements must be added to them. A special chamber could be created in the parliamentary system, and empowered to propose legislation and to send problematic submissions back to the parliament. A supporting panel of experts could provide it with the necessary expertise to make well-founded decisions.

We are now at a crossroads. The seriousness of the situation no longer allows for half-measures. The plutocratic elites, who are benefiting from the current system, will either leave most of humanity to their own fate, which leads to disaster, or they will show themselves to be capable of a moral change of course leading towards a practicable path of civilisation. There is not much time left for such a change, however.

Interview: Michel Egger, Alliance Sud



Dominique Bourg

me. The French philosopher Dominique Bourg (59) is a professor at the Institute of Land Use Policies and Human Environment of the University Lausanne. He was one of the co-drafters of the Charter for the Environment, which was incorporated into the Preamble to the French Constitution in 2005. Dominique Bourg is Vice President of the Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l’Homme and has published numerous books on sustainable development.

Article published in: Alliance Sud News No. 71, Spring 2012

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"We need prosperity without growth"

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