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Globalization and the Environment
By James Gustave Speth
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2003 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Two Perspectives on Globalization and the Environment
James Gustave Speth
To the social scientist, "globalization" refers to the compression of the world and the tightening of all the linkages—economic, political, social, environmental—between developments here and events in far corners of the world. Thomas Friedman says that globalization "shrinks the world from a size medium to a size small." It is a process of integrating not just economies but also cultures, environments, and governments.
Proponents see globalization as helping to cure a multitude of the world's ills. Critics see it as a "false dawn" driven by the "manic logic of global capitalism." But all agree that it is happening, and most believe that it is unstoppable.
Interestingly, a decade before the word globalization became fashionable in the late 1980s, the environmental community both in and out of government was realizing that environmental problems were increasingly transboundary in nature and were reaching global-scale proportions. The early 1980s saw the emergence of an international environmental agenda, and what ensued over the next two decades in response to that agenda can be thought of as the first attempt at global environmental governance. The first part of this chapter discusses environmental globalization, including the emergence of global environmental governance and its effectiveness to date.
Perhaps the only concept as heavy laden with multiple agendas as globalization is "sustainable development." Former President Clinton, a recent convert to sustainable development, has remarked that it is "Aramaic to most people." But within environment and development circles, the words "sustainable development" have become mots d'ordre since being popularized by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The commission offered this now-famous definition: Sustainable development is development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Most analysts now agree that from an environmental perspective, sustainable development requires living off nature's income rather than consuming natural capital. In the terminology of the economists, it implies non-declining natural assets, at a minimum.
The call for sustainable development was born of conflicting realities. On the one hand, economic expansion will surely occur on a grand scale in the decades ahead. In most countries, rapid economic growth is essential to attack the problem of widespread poverty. On the other hand, environmental quality has been everywhere deteriorating as economic activity has expanded. Conscientious observers have little choice other than to seek a development path that simultaneously sustains environmental resources and alleviates poverty.
Today, the transition to a globalized world is progressing rapidly, but the transition to a sustainable one is not. Some believe that globalization is a prime reason for the failure to realize sustainable development. Others argue that globalization can and should advance the transition to sustainability. The second part of this chapter examines those issues.
The expansion of the human enterprise in the twentieth century, and especially since World War II, was phenomenal. Most familiar is the population explosion. It took all of human history for global population to expand to a billion and a half people by 1900. But over the last century, 1.5 billion people were added, on average, every thirty-three years. Over the last twenty years, global population increased by 50 percent, from 4 billion to 6 billion, with virtually all of the growth occurring in the developing world.
Population may have increased fourfold in the past century, but world economic output increased twentyfold. It took all of history to grow the world economy to $6 trillion by 1950. It now grows by this amount every five to ten years. Since 1960 the size of the world economy has doubled and then doubled again.
Ecologist Jane Lubchenco, in her 1998 address as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted the significance of these developments:
The conclusions ... are inescapable: during the last few decades, humans have emerged as a new force of nature. We are modifying physical, chemical, and biological systems in new ways, at faster rates, and over larger spatial scales than ever recorded on Earth. Humans have unwittingly embarked upon a grand experiment with our planet. The outcome of this experiment is unknown, but has profound implications for all of life on Earth.
Humanity has entered a new period in its relationship with the natural world. Human influence on the great life-support systems of the planet is pervasive and deep. Human society is now in a radically new ethical position because it is now at the planetary controls. Ecologist Peter Vitousek and his coauthors stated the matter forcefully in a 1997 article in Science:
Humanity's dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet. Our activities are causing rapid, novel, and substantial changes to Earth's ecosystems. Maintaining populations, species, and ecosystems in the face of those changes, and maintaining the flow of goods and services they provide humanity, will require active management for the foreseeable future.
Scientists are a cautious lot, by and large, so when the most respected issue a plea for "active management of the planet," we must take notice. Indeed, the plea of Vitousek and others is but the latest in a long line of pleas from the scientific community urging that governments and others get serious about the task of protecting the global environment. Starting in the 1980s, governments and others did take notice and began the process of assuming responsibility for planetary management.
What emerged over the past two decades is the international community's first attempt at global environmental governance. The fact that Vitousek and others are still pleading twenty years on suggests that all is not well in this new arena. But it is important to note what has been accomplished to date in the area of global environmental governance:
An agenda has been defined—an agenda of the principal large-scale environmental concerns of the international community.
In response to this agenda, a huge upsurge of international conferences, negotiations, action plans, treaties, and other initiatives has occurred. New fields of international environmental law and diplomacy have been born. There are now over 250 international environmental treaties, two-thirds of them signed in recent decades.
There has been a vast outpouring of impressive and relevant scientific research and policy analysis.
An ever-stronger international community of environmental and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has launched increasingly sophisticated campaigns. Initiatives have spanned from global to local, from civil disobedience to restrained think-tank publications.
National governments as well as multilateral institutions from the United Nations to the international development banks have recognized these concerns and have created major units to address global-scale issues.
While many multinational corporations are still in denial, many others have moved ahead with impressive steps, often ahead of their governments.
In the academy, international environmental affairs have become a major subject of academic inquiry and teaching in political science, economics, and other departments. A large body of scholarly analysis now exists.
The United Nations has sponsored an extraordinary series of milestone events: The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment was followed by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
These developments unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the emergence of an agenda of global-scale environmental concerns. Much as the predominantly domestic environmental agenda of 1970 was forming in the 1960s, the global environmental agenda was quietly taking shape in the 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, a steady stream of publications took a planetary perspective and called attention to global-scale problems. Most were authored by scientists with the goal of taking their findings and those of other scientists to a larger audience. The efforts of Paul Ehrlich, George Woodwell, and John Holdren were notable in this regard. Among the pathbreaking publications of the 1970s were the following:
1970 Man's Impact on the Global Environment, Report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (a scientific group assembled at MIT)
1971 This Endangered Planet, Richard Falk
1972 Exploring New Ethics for Survival, Garrett Hardin
1972 The Limits to Growth, Dennis Meadows et al.
1972 Only One Earth, Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos
1978 The Human Future Revisited, Harrison Brown
1978 The Twenty-Ninth Day, Lester Brown
Also in this period were numerous reports from scientific groups, especially panels and committees organized by the International Council of Scientific Unions, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). These reports included the now-famous 1974 study by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina explaining the potential of CFCs to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. (This remains the only environmental research ever to win the Nobel Prize.) And these reports also included the first effort of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on the problem of global climate change, the "Charney Report" in 1979, which said most of what one needs to know about climate change to take action. The steady stream of publications from Lester Brown and his team at the Worldwatch Institute added to the effort to lay out the key issues.
Then, around 1980, a second generation of reports appeared that sought to pull the issues together into a coherent agenda for international action. These included the World Conservation Strategy, by IUCN and UNEP (1980); "Environmental Research and Management Priorities for the 1980s," by an international group of scientists organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (published in Ambio in 1983); The World Environment: 1972–1982, by a UNEP scientific team (1982); and The Global 2000 Report to the President (1980) and its follow-up report, Global Future: Time to Act, by U.S. government teams organized by President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality (1981). These syntheses, predominantly scientific efforts, were designed to bring global-scale challenges forcefully to the attention of governments.
Collectively, these reports stressed ten principal concerns:
1. Depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer by CFCs and other gases.
2. Loss of crop and grazing land due to desertification, erosion, conversion of land to nonfarm uses, and other factors.
3. Depletion of the world's tropical forests, leading to loss of forest resources, serious watershed damage (erosion, flooding, and siltation), and other adverse consequences.
4. Mass extinction of species, principally from the global loss of wildlife habitat, and the associated loss of genetic resources.
5. Rapid population growth, burgeoning Third World cities, and ecological refugees.
6. Mismanagement and shortages of freshwater resources.
7. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution in the marine environment.
8. Threats to human health from mismanagement of pesticides and persistent organic pollutants.
9. Climate change due to the increase in "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere.
10. Acid rain and, more generally, the effects of a complex mix of air pollutants on fisheries, forests, and crops.
Clearly, this new agenda was very different from the mostly domestic one that sparked Earth Day in 1970.
* * *
Parallel with these efforts to set an agenda for intergovernmental action were a series of stage-setting developments. Political scientist Keith Caldwell has noted that two developments were needed before the international environmental movement could be born: Environmental policy had to be legitimized at the national level, and the life-sustaining processes of the biosphere had to be perceived as a common concern of all peoples. Caldwell sees the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, the Stockholm Conference, ably led by Maurice Strong, as crucial in both respects: It forced many national governments to develop domestic environmental programs—including those in Europe, which were lagging behind the United States at this point—and it legitimized the biosphere as an object of national and international policy and collective management.
The Stockholm Conference also had a further important consequence in the creation of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), which had a major impact in the 1970s in promoting the global agenda. The UNEP made estimates of deforestation and called for international action; it convened the 1977 international conference on desertification; it promoted international agreements on the protection of migratory species; and it promoted the World Climate Program of the International Meteorological Organization, all in the 1970s.
By the mid-1980s, the intellectual and policy leadership of the scientific community, the NGO community (with groups such as IUCN, Worldwatch, and the World Resources Institute), and the UNEP had paid off: A new and international environmental agenda that governments would have to address collectively had been established. It would take another decade for governments to respond, but by the mid-1990s most of the ten challenges had become the subject of major international treaties, plans of action, or other initiatives.
In short, the global environmental agenda emerged and moved forward due primarily to a relatively small, international leadership community in science, government, the U.N., and NGOs. These groups took available opportunities to put the issues forward—indeed, they created such opportunities—so that governments had little choice but to take some action. The game that many governments played was to respond but not to respond forcefully.
With this background, it is interesting to compare the emergence of the global agenda of the 1980s with the emergence in the United States of the predominantly domestic agenda a decade earlier. Many of the differences have proven consequential in eliciting corrective action from governments. Consider these contrasts:
The issues on the U.S. domestic environmental agenda of the 1970s (air and water pollution, hazardous wastes spills, strip-mining, clear-cutting, etc.) tended to be acute, immediate, and understandable by the public. Those on the global agenda tend to be more chronic, more remote (at least in the North), and more technically complicated and thus more difficult to understand and appreciate. Over time these differences have translated into major differences in the degree of public awareness and support.
The global agenda did not spring bottom-up from actual impacts on people. It was forged top-down at the international level by science, often disputed science; by NGOs, often with circumscribed credibility; and by a tiny U.N. agency—the UNEP—tucked away in Nairobi.
National laws can be written by a majority of the legislature, but sovereignty requires that in international legislation no government can be compelled to agree or be obligated without its consent. As a result, tough treaties are a rare commodity.
The domestic environmental agenda in the United States was largely translated into legislation before corporate and other opposition was aroused. Action on the global agenda has been pursued in a context in which corporate and other economic interests are fully alerted and often powerfully opposed.
The United States, the world's most powerful country, led in the fight for national-level action in the 1970s, but it has largely failed to give international leadership on the global agenda. Indeed, it has frequently been a principal holdout on international environmental agreements.
The villainy of the global agenda is ambiguous. Global-scale environmental problems cannot be blamed only on big corporations when lifestyles, mismanagement by governments North and South, and other factors are clearly implicated. Increasingly, pollution and other problems come not from something going wrong but from normal life.
The domestic agenda could be addressed primarily through regulatory means, but the global agenda requires major expenditures by governments, including development assistance to the poorer countries. Unfortunately, development assistance has gone down, not up, since the Earth Summit at Rio.
Given these barriers, it is a wonder that any progress was made on the global agenda. How should we assess the progress of the last two decades during which we have been "on notice" of extraordinary global environmental challenges? A significant list of accomplishments that followed in the wake of the new global agenda's emergence was noted earlier. Also noted were the severe constraints facing those seeking concerted international action. How has the play of these forces worked out over the years?
I can provide only a personal assessment. Looking back, it cannot be said that my generation did nothing in response to the 1980 Global 2000 Report to the President and similar alerts. Progress has been made on some fronts, but not nearly enough. There are outstanding success stories, but rarely are they scaled up to the point that they are commensurate with the problem. For the most part, my generation has analyzed, debated, discussed, and negotiated these issues endlessly. We are a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. But we have fallen far short on action.
Excerpted from Worlds Apart by James Gustave Speth. Copyright © 2003 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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