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Reconciling Economic Security, Environmental Protection And Social Justice

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By Bipasha Baruah

I was an undergraduate student in 1992 at the time of the first Rio Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit. The World Commission on Environment and Development -- chaired very ably by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway -- laid the groundwork for the convening of the 1992 Earth Summit, the Rio Declaration, the adoption of Agenda 21 and the establishment of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

At the time, global multilateral solutions for environmental protection and economic security seemed possible, or maybe I was just young and foolish. Agenda 21 identified clear roles for governments, civil society institutions and the corporate sector in the building of a global governance regime for environmental, social and economic sustainability. It also called for limits to growth and consumption. Some critics did describe the goals that emerged from the 1992 conference as idealistic and unrealistic. And they may well have been so. But they also raised unprecedented awareness about environmental issues and motivated many young people to pursue academic and professional careers aimed at reconciling global economic security, environmental protection and social justice.

The world changed quite dramatically in the years after Agenda 21 was framed. Neoliberalism -- with its signature policy prescriptions of privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, financialization, structural adjustment, welfare cutbacks and monetarist shock therapy -- became the drug of choice or necessity for much of the world. The growing clout of the corporate sector in environmental decision-making is evident from the language of the post-1992 world conferences on sustainable development. "Public-private partnerships" was the buzzword in Johannesburg in 2002. This was replaced unabashedly by "business takes the lead" in Rio+20 in 2012. Any remaining delusions about the feasibility of multilateral solutions had for all intents and purposes been done away with!

The international development community needs to look very closely and critically at the social, economic and political fine print undergirding the "green" economy instead of naively endorsing it.

Indeed, the major takeaway message from the Rio conference in 2012 was that we could have both "green growth" and "inclusive development." Although it is patently obvious that overproduction and overconsumption by the wealthy in all global settings is the biggest environmental problem facing the planet, we are told that there need not be any limits to consumption as long as it is "green" or "greener" than before. While economists have often neglected or ignored ecological concerns, those of us who pride ourselves on engaging with the environment-economy-social justice trilemma have also not sufficiently critiqued growth paradigms and the many tools and instruments that have emerged of late to economize and commodify nature. The mainstream green economy concept is a management-oriented paradigm that envisions continued growth and maximization of efficiency in resource use -- why buy one gas-guzzling SUV when you can buy three hybrids and feel smug about being environmentally conscious?

Green economy concepts give preference to market and technological efficiency over social justice and ecological sustainability. Power relations are never taken into account. The market is presented to us as the panacea for economic and environmental problems. Governments, we're told, must enable corporations to succeed instead of taking stewardship and redistribution into their own hands. Vandana Shiva, who I haven't always agreed with, justifiably called the 2012 Rio Conference the "Rio minus 20 Conference."

I urge the development community to question this overwhelming focus on market instruments as the only feasible response to global ecological and economic problems.

The international development community needs to look very closely and critically at the social, economic and political fine print undergirding the "green" economy instead of naively endorsing it. International NGOs like World Wide Fund for Nature, Rainforest Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, among others, have already joined the bandwagon that seeks to save nature by selling it. On the other hand, civil society groups linked to indigenous people, forest-based communities and small-scale farmers have been very critical of market-based strategies such as carbon trading, the Clean Development Mechanism, Payment for Ecosystem Services, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and REDD+.

They have argued that market-based solutions (the green revolution was a good cautionary example) can end up entrenching rather than subverting social inequalities. They are concerned that far from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the concept of carbon trading, for example, simply advances the commercialization of the atmosphere and the creation of new sources of accumulation and speculation for finance capital while passing the responsibility to mitigate from typically more powerful entities to less powerful ones. Instead of asking markets to adapt to nature, market instruments ask nature, human rights and social reproduction to adapt themselves to a rationale of prices, efficiency and profitability.

Within such a framework, gender equity and social justice aren't intrinsic goals in and of themselves, they are simply "good for business," a means for meeting economic goals. Issues of gender and social justice -- which have material and ideological dimensions -- are effectively reduced to income, employment and entrepreneurship. I urge the development community to question this overwhelming focus on market instruments as the only feasible response to global ecological and economic problems.

A regressive brand of Malthusianism that dredges up tired alarmist tropes of population explosion in the developing world has also been recently resurrected within the environmental movement. Instead of wasting our time talking about the environmental impacts of economic development and population growth in the Global South, what we need to focus on is sustainable de-growth, particularly in the Global North. By de-growth I mean an equitable scaling down of production and consumption that increases human and ecological well-being.

The Global North must take the lead on de-growth because of its historical role in the expansion of capitalist development, emissions of greenhouse gas, and the exploitation of natural and human resources in the Global South. A defining feature of a de-growth philosophy should be a refusal to further externalize social and ecological costs to the global South, to nature, and to the weakest sections of all societies (it isn't a myth that single mothers living in rented basement apartments were the group most severely affected by the Toronto floods in 2013). Instead of asking whether we are reaching the limits of our productive capacity and how we can consume more smartly and greenly, we should be trying to create a paradigm shift where a good life is not based on just wanting more.

On a recent panel at the University of Ottawa, I was asked whether we can "afford" to continue to grow the economy. My response is that the care economy, provision for basic needs, public services, social security as well as environmental protection and natural regeneration -- sectors that have been eroded and diminished significantly at the present time -- have to grow pretty much everywhere in the world. We have to simultaneously shrink and reverse the obsessive industrial drive towards energy- and emission-intensive superfluous expansion and growth: the arms industry, the automobile industry and consumer goods -- the "stuff" that people are socialized to want more of every passing year, and the planned obsolescence that it encourages and perpetuates.

Bipasha Baruah is the Canada Research Chair in Global Women's Issues at Western University, and an associate professor in the Department of Women's Studies and Feminist Research.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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