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The Future That Won't be Denied

By Keith Kloor
Jun 27, 2012 6:00 PMNov 19, 2019 9:14 PM


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Of all the postmortems on the recently concluded (and much maligned) Rio +20 Earth Summit, this observation strikes me as the smartest takeaway:

"I think the expectation that there is one document or one approach that can solve one of the major questions of our time "” how do you maintain economic growth and protect the environment? "” there's not one paper that can do that," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones.

Going forward, if greens are going to play a meaningful role in debates and policies that address global environmental problems, then they are going to have to take this question seriously (instead of dismissing it), and come to terms with economic growth. Many eco-minded commentators vaguely blamed the world's governments for the failure of Rio +20, but that's a gross oversimplification. For as Jeff Tollefson reported in Nature:

Throughout the meeting, the developing countries that make up the Group of 77 negotiating bloc (G77) objected to language that they felt might constrain their ability to grow and lift citizens out of poverty. In one case, the G77, along with the United States, blocked a European proposal to acknowledge the existence of global environmental thresholds that should not be surpassed. Such "˜planetary boundaries' could include levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and acidification of the oceans. Developing countries also fought against commitments to pursue a green economy unless they were phrased in the context of economic and social development. For such nations, "inclusive growth and a rapid increase in per capita income levels are development imperatives", declared Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his conference address.

You would never guess that such a development/environment gap existed if you read this hyperbolic essay by George Monbiot, which starts off:

It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth's living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations "“ the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia "“ could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue "sustained growth", the primary cause of the biosphere's losses. The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it.

This narrow, earth-centric mindset, combined with a hostility to economic growth, is marginalizing environmentalism. When I touched on that in this piece, some critics complained I was painting with a broad brush. I disagreed. In fact, the notion that economic growth can be compatible with environmental protection is, if anything, scorned by prominent figures in the environmental movement. In a recent interview (do listen to the whole thing), Stanford's Paul Ehrlich flatly said:

Growth is the disease, not the cure.

In the aftermath of Rio +20 , angry environmental groups and NGOs signed a petition called, "The Future We Don't Want." What they have failed to come to grips with is that there is a future that won't be denied.

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