Doughnut can ease birth pangs of the green economy

Green economics is in deep trouble, at the very moment when its fresh shoots should be straining to burst out all over the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June.

The tragedy is that almost everyone agrees with the core diagnosis of the environmental crisis. We are flirting with our planetary boundaries because contemporary market economics knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Injecting environmental values into public and private sector transactions makes good sense.

Ironically, this consensus may have contributed to the resistance to reform. Advocates of the green economy have been too casual in their work, overlooking that the current model has failed people as well as the planet.

Superimpose this oversight on countries which have not yet enjoyed the good times of market liberalisation – countries damaged by past economic prescriptions imposed on them by the tools of globalisation – and you are confronted with a wall of intergovernmental suspicion.

To put it another way, enthusiasm for low carbon technologies, organic farming and pro-environmental subsidies is all very well but what matters more to poor countries is the attainment of living standards which we would all recognise as a basis for dignified living.

The impasse can be seen all too plainly in the green economy section of the The Future We Want, the draft outcome document now on the table for Rio+20. Although the green economy is supposed to be one of the two central themes for the June summit, every clause is either defensive or qualified.

The result is considerable clarity in the text on what the green economy must not be, and no clarity at all on how it works, let alone its implementation. That represents a missed opportunity of gargantuan scale.

These sensitivities will make life difficult for next month’s Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference to be held in London. As a gathering of scientists concerned about environmental limits, its mood will almost certainly be one of desperation for the promised land of green economics.

Sure enough, recommendations published in advance of the conference fall into the trap of presenting the bells and whistles of a green economy without explaining how it will overcome the shortcomings of the old – too much inequality and too many shocks.

By contrast, the conference programme of workshops and seminars goes out of its way to examine the perspective of the world’s poorest countries. Any London-based scientists interested in the global dimension of their profession should go along.

The conference is not unreasonably priced and includes sessions on land-grabbing, community-based climate adaptation, social cash transfers, the potential of digital technologies to transform social and environmental politics, and a presentation of the 2011 UN Human Development Report. This is lateral thinking for a science event.

There is one snag. I struggled to find speakers or facilitators from the NGO community, those who might be actively engaged in the politics or implementation of global development programmes.

This would be understandable were it not for the stated conference aim “to provide scientific leadership towards the 2012 UN Rio +20 conference.” As we’ve seen, anything to do with Rio+20 has everything to do with development.

In this context, I was amused to spot the name of Chee Yoke Ling, Co-Director of Third World Network, listed as one of the convenors of a backroom session on the governance of synthetic biology.

I think it’s fair to say that Chee Yoke Ling is one of the world’s most experienced observers and commentators on the tortuous politics of intergovernmental negotiations on sustainable development issues. And her work is conducted rigorously through the lens of the poorest countries.

The Planet Under Pressure 2012 organisers might enrich their event by dragging Ms Chee out of Room 4 on to the plenary platform to exchange a few blows with the learned but rather apolitical speakers.

Whilst in the mood for dispensing unsolicited advice, I would also recommend that copies of Kate Raworth’s Oxfam discussion paper “A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut?” be prominently scattered around the conference rooms.

In essence, the paper chews up the achievement of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and spits it out in the starker language that must now be adopted in light of the political prevarication of the last two decades.

In 1992 the message was that environmental concerns should not be tackled in isolation from development issues. Now it’s the sexy idea of planetary boundaries that must get into bed with the messy social boundaries of unacceptable poverty and hunger. Never talk about one without reference to the other.

As Ms Raworth says: “Between the two boundaries lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which represents an environmentally safe and socially just space for humanity to thrive in. It is also the space in which inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place.”

The Oxfam doughnut illustration bridges the global divide that the Rio+20 green economy debate has so regrettably created. It should be on every wall and every desk at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK