Davos' unrealistic dream

World leaders need to understand that the current model of economic growth in the context of finite resources is unsustainable.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos from January 17 committed itself to “improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” It is essentially a jamboree bringing together many hundreds of extremely rich and powerful business magnates, international political leaders, selected intellectuals and journalists from around 100 countries, “to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world.”

The WEF has set out 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to “transform our world” through economic growth, social development and environmental protection, to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.”

All countries, independent of political ideology, single-mindedly pursue economic development based on GDP growth, which in turn is based upon increasing consumption and trade of all kinds, including armaments.

It pre-supposes endless material growth based upon extraction-manufacture-transport-consumption (EMTC) within the ecological resource base, the finiteness of which most economists are unable to take into account. Every stage of the EMTC mantra is entirely based upon the continuing extraction-refinement-transport-consumption of oil as a fuel. The finiteness of the resource-base is both in terms of being the source of materials and a sink for the polluting outputs of the EMTC processes.

This model of development is pursued worldwide notwithstanding that in the 1974 United Nations Cocoyoc Conference, the combined wisdom of all nations held that, “Our first concern is to redefine the purpose of development. This should not be to develop things but develop man. Human beings have basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health, education. Any process of growth that does not lead to their fulfilment – or even worse, disrupts them – is a travesty of the idea of development.”

However, all nations have quietly jettisoned the jointly agreed purpose of development and adopted a model in which social, economic, political and cultural development of the people is at best secondary. This has caused enormous and growing socio-economic inequality within and between nations, and in India, the richest 1% now own 58% of the wealth.

In the context of sustainable economic growth, aim of one of the SDGs to eradicate poverty is to “...build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP”. Reliance on the GDP-based model of economic development that is responsible for current and growing inequality is paradoxical, since problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

It does not need rocket science to appreciate that economic inequality increasing within a finite and shrinking resource base leads to increase in poverty both in numbers and degree. Thus, the SDG of poverty eradication is impossible with the present economic growth model which is the cause of huge and growing economic inequality.

The SDG to “protect the planet” bet­rays the unrealistic mindset that humans, using technology, can control nature, wh­ereas it is precisely the technology-driven industrialisation by enormous consumption of energy (fossil fuels) that is the threat to humanity, not to the planet.

However, humanity needs protection from the effects of global warming and climate change caused by many decades of huge carbon emissions emanating from fossil-fuel-based, industrialised economic growth. The understanding that humans are a part of the planet's eco-systems that are at the root of all life itself, is absent from WEF thinking which seeks to protect the planet by SDGs.

Prosperity for all would mean that seven billion human inhabitants of our planet would have access to adequate nutritious food, clean water and clean air, and housing, clothing, health care, education and an occupation or job to support a family. In today's unequal world where the top 1% own over 50% of material wealth, this obviously calls for drastic reduction of economic inequality.

But the economic development model generates more money unendingly (since GDP growth percentage every year is based on the GDP generated in the previous year), while production of actual material wealth is limited by the material resource base which gets progressively depleted and degenerated.

Environmental crisis
Ongoing global environmental and social crises are due to the sharp divergence between the dream of unlimited GDP growth and the reality of finite natural and ecological resources and their industrial outputs. Thus, the bulk of limited resources are accessible to the 1% minority who own more money, while basic needs of the “99%” cannot be met, and this only increases inequality.

The 99% will always get short shrift in the current development model, which essentially denies universal access to social, economic and political justice; liberty of thought, belief, expression, faith and worship; and equality of status and opportunity.

Earth’s resources are natural capital which industrialised societies are plundering “for free”. Fossil fuels, which are the life-blood of every economy, have been formed from vegetative growth over millennia by solar radiation and earth's geological processes of perhaps 150 million years.

Extraction of fossil fuels has depleted these reserves by about half in the past 150 years as growth-based economies consume fossil fuels at rates commensurate with or exceeding the rate of growth of GDP. It is this consumption which is the cause of global warming and climate change which are humanity's existential threat.

World leaders need to understand that the current model of economic growth in the context of finite resources is unsustainable. They should understand that this is the cause of the existential problem facing humanity and that WEF’s unachievable SDGs actually propagate dangerous complacency.

The world is surely transforming, but not quite in the manner of WEF’s dream to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all humanity.

(The writer, a retired Major General, is with People's Union for Civil Liberties)

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