Our failure to share resources has resulted in severe social consequences which cannot be divorced from any discussion about the environment. The most pragmatic way to address both these crises is to share the world's resources more equitably and sustainably, argues Rajesh Makwana
The following article is based on a presentation by STWR for the World Public Forum ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’ 10th Anniversary Conference, Rhodes, October 2012.
The earth’s ecological problems stem largely from our collective failure to share. That might seem like an overly simplistic statement, but it is now increasingly evident that only by sharing the world’s resources more equitably and sustainably will we be able to address both the ecological and social crisis we face as a global community.
The principle of sharing has always formed the basis of social relationships in societies across the world. We all know from personal experience that sharing is central to family and community life, and the importance of sharing is also a key component of many of the world’s religions.
Moreover, it is becoming apparent through a growing body of anthropological and biological evidence that human beings are naturally predisposed to cooperate and share in order to improve our collective wellbeing and maximise our chances of survival.
In fact, sharing is far more prevalent in society than people often realise. In a recent report, we identified the many emerging and existing forms of what is being popularly termed the ‘sharing economy’. This includes collaborative consumption, knowledge sharing websites like Wikipedia, and many other forms of cooperative and peer2peer enterprises. Although not commonly recognised as such, systems of social welfare can also be considered one of the most advanced forms of economic sharing ever established in the modern world.
Given the importance of the principle of sharing in human life, it is logical to assume that it should play an important role in the way we organise economies and manage the world’s resources. But this is not the case. Instead, we have created an economic system based on ideologies that are entirely opposed to the principle of sharing.
For decades, mainstream economists and policymakers have based their decision-making on a distorted understanding of what it means to be human: that people are selfish, acquisitive, individualistic and competitive by nature – the concept of homo economicus. These notions are still used to justify the exaggerated role that market forces play in organising societies.
As we know, neoliberal ideology continues to dominate policymaking across the world - characterised by the privatisation of public assets and the shared ‘commons’, the deregulation and liberalisation of markets, the endless pursuit of economic growth and the overconsumption of natural resources.
The consequences of our failure to share
As a result of failing to put the principle of sharing at the centre of policymaking, we now face a multitude of environmental crises, from climate change and pollution to deforestation and peak energy – the list is long.
Underpinning these multiple ecological crises is the failure of governments to achieve a balance between consumption levels and the Earth’s life-supporting capacity. As the WWF have painstakingly demonstrated, humanity currently consumes 50 percent more natural resources than the earth can sustainably produce, which means we already require the equivalent of one and a half planets to support our consumption levels.
This calculation doesn’t even take into account the massive growth in consumption that is widely predicted to take place over coming decades, in which the global ‘middle class’ is expected to grow from under 2 billion consumers today to nearly 5 billion by 2030. Clearly, the ecological consequences of increased consumption across the world will be severe. According to research by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, humanity has already transgressed three out of nine key planetary boundaries – climate change, biological diversity as well as nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.
But our failure to share resources has also resulted in severe social consequences which cannot be divorced from any discussion about the environment. Ecological chaos, poverty and inequality are related outcomes of an ill-managed world system, and they require simultaneous attention – a fact embodied in the contemporary dialogue on sustainable development.
There are massive differences in the consumption patterns and carbon emissions of people living in rich and poor countries. A small proportion of the world’s population – around 20 percent – consumes the vast majority of the world’s resources. According to Oxfam, excessive consumption by the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population poses the biggest threat to the environment today.
At the same time, the poorest 20 percent of the world’s population do not have access to the basic resources they need to survive. Around a billion people are officially classified as hungry, and almost half of the developing world population is trying to survive on less than $2 a day. Statistics from the World Health Organisation reveal that over 40,000 people die every single day from a lack of access to those resources that many of us take for granted. This is perhaps the starkest illustration of the human impact of our failure to share.
Overcoming the barriers to progress
Given the urgency of the ecological and social situation, why are we still failing to manage the world’s resources in a more equitable and sustainable way?
Every year, numerous international conferences and negotiations take place, but the international community has not managed to implement binding limits on CO2 emissions. We have failed to curb unsustainable patterns of resource consumption. And we have by no means succeeded in ending poverty or paving the way for more sustainable development.
In the meanwhile, endless reports are published that recommend a sensible path for reforming the global economy, but are not taken seriously by policymakers. Nothing seems to change. Humanity is at an impasse; we seem unable to overcome the vested interests and structural barriers to progress that we face.
For too long, governments have put profit and growth before the welfare of all people and the sustainability of the biosphere. Public policy under the influence of neoliberalism has created a world economy that is structurally dependent upon unsustainable levels of production and consumption for its continued success. Overcoming the vested interests that continue to block progress on restructuring the world economy has long been regarded by campaigners as the most significant challenge of the 21st century.
Given the scale of the task ahead and the extensive international negotiations these reforms would involve, it is impossible at this stage to put forward a blueprint of the specific policies and actions governments need to take.
But in order to inspire public support for transformative change, it is imperative that we outline a bold vision of how and why these reforms should be based firmly on the principle of sharing. Sharing the world’s resources equitably and sustainably is arguably the most pragmatic way of simultaneously addressing both the ecological and social crises we face.
Envisioning a global sharing economy
Two basic elements remain fundamental to the proper functioning of a ‘global sharing economy’. The first element is for the international community to recognise that natural resources form part of our shared commons, and should therefore be held in trust for the benefit of all. This important reconceptualization would enable humanity to move away from today’s private and state ownership models, and towards a new form of resource management based on non-ownership and trusteeship.
A precedent for sharing natural resources is already well established. An existing principle in international law known as the ‘common heritage of humankind’ enables certain cultural and natural resources to be protected from exploitation - from both the state and private sector - by holding them in trust for future generations. This principle is an important feature in a number of international treaties that have taken shape under the auspices of the United Nations.
There are of course many options available for how such a trust could be organised on a global level to incorporate the full range of renewable and non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels. For example, a number of proposals already exist such as those outlined by James Quilligan, Peter Barnes, or Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver in their book ‘Right Relationship’, among others.
Essentially, a Global Commons Trust would embody the principle of sharing on a global scale, and it would enable the international community to take collective responsibility for managing the world’s resources.
With resources held in trust for all, it would be much easier to implement the second element required to establish a global sharing economy, which is to equalise global consumption levels so that all human beings can flourish within ecological limits. To achieve this, over-consuming countries need to significantly reduce their resource use, while developing countries must be able to increase theirs until a convergence in global per capita consumption levels is eventually reached.
The real challenge is reducing consumption levels in industrialised nations, and many proposals already exist for how to achieve this. For example, it is clear that resource management would need to be at the forefront of policymaking, and consumption-led economic growth can no longer be the goal of government policy. Much would also need to be done to dismantle the culture of consumerism; and investment must shift to building and sustaining a low-carbon infrastructure.
With both of these key elements in place (trusteeship of shared resources and reduced global consumption), natural resources would be accessible to people in all countries, consumed within planetary limits and preserved for future generations.
The key to change is the rise of the people
But how will these changes happen? Regardless of the specific policies employed, the world still lacks a broad-based acceptance of the need for planetary reconstruction. Without a global movement of ordinary people that share a collective vision of change, it will remain impossible to overcome the influence of neoliberal ideology and the vested interests mentioned above.
However, the historic events of 2011 provided concrete evidence of the potential power of a united ‘people’s voice’. The world witnessed millions of people in diverse countries declaring their needs and highlighting issues of social and economic inequality, greed, financial corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government.
The Arab Spring demonstrated the awesome power of a focussed and directed public opinion. And in city squares across the developed world, Occupy, the Indignados and a host of other people’s movements focused the world’s media on the plight of the ‘99%’ and gained widespread public support in the process.
The rapid spread of these mass demonstrations reflects a growing recognition of humanity’s innate unity and propensity to share, and they pay testimony to the combined power of engaged citizens. But if public opinion is to make transformative change a reality, a crucial next step is to adopt a common and inclusive platform for change on a global scale. In other words, we need a planetary Tahrir Square.
Social injustice and ecological crises must be recognised as inextricable parts of the same problem: our failure to share the world’s resources in a way that benefits all people and preserves the biosphere. A universal call for sharing has the potential to unite both environmentalists and those campaigning for global justice, paving the way to a more just, sustainable and peaceful world.