Fortress World Or Great Transition?

A report by the Tellus Institute explores four scenarios in response to sustainability demands, and calls for a profound restructuring of global economic priorities. -- The concept of sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report issued by the Commission has been credited with inspiring the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to set binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to a report issued this week by the Tellus Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit research and policy organization, the 1992 Earth Summit represented a global commitment “to the broad challenge of sustainable development.” The report explores four possible scenarios that could grow out of the challenge to meet such a commitment, and states, “We stand at a historical crossroads, heading into an uncertain and perilous future. Continuing to muddle forward in a business-as-usual mode would risk collapse of civilized norms and deterioration of the planet’s life support ecosystems.”In its report, Tellus seeks to operationalize the concept of sustainable development. It replaces such conventional measures of development as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with “quality of development,” or “the degree of well-being in human lives, the strength of communities, and the resilience of the biosphere.”The report divides sustainability objectives into socio-economic and environmental and resource dimensions. The former considers the goals of social stability and resilience, poverty and hunger reduction, and the de-materialization of lifestyles.The environmental and resource dimensions consider such goals as mitigation of GHG emissions, protection of natural resources, and preservation of habitats. Of the four scenarios studied by Tellus in its report, two—Market Forces and Policy Reform—propose an evolutionary development, and “assume the persistence of many of the dominant forces driving development and globalization in recent decades.” The Market Forces scenario is based on the continuing dominance of free market principles in the global economy, with rapid growth in both average global incomes and the global economy itself, which, according to the scenario, would grow over three-fold by 2050 and over eight-fold by 2100.Because a Market Forces scenario would be unlikely to meet sustainability constraints, the report theorizes that ongoing inequalities between rich and poor countries could lead to one of the two scenarios that assume a basic restructuring of the world order, that of a Fortress World. In the Fortress World scenario, income inequality reaches extreme levels, and “powerful world forces, faced with dire systemic crises, impose an authoritarian order in which elites retreat to protected enclaves leaving impoverished masses outside.” Policy Reform, according to Tellus, is a “government-driven scenario (that) assumes a massive implementation of reform policies aimed at meeting sustainability objectives.” In the Policy Reform scenario, “governments intervene to redirect economic growth to achieve key internationally recognized goals for poverty reduction, climate change, ecosystem preservation, water supply adequacy, and pollution control.” According to this scenario, a redistribution of wealth to developing countries would reduce GDP in developed nations by 20% by 2050, compared to the Market Forces scenario. This targeted redistribution would allow developing nations to accelerate investment in sustainable energy as they approach the standards of living enjoyed elsewhere. At this point in human history, Tellus sounds a somewhat pessimistic note about the occurrence of such a positive outcome. Policy Reform, according to the report, “would require an unprecedented mobilization of political will to make the regulatory, economic, social, technological, and legal decisions that would align development with sustainability goals.” At present, the political will to do so, according to Tellus, “is nowhere in sight.” While vastly superior to the Market Forces scenario, Policy Reform, if undertaken within a conventional economic development paradigm, would still “create incessant pressure for ever more energy and materials, land and food.” Global energy usage in such a scenario would, by 2100, be twice that of the second scenario that assumes a basic restructuring, the Great Transition. According to the report, the Great Transition scenario “is rooted in popular values stressing human solidarity, environmental stewardship, and quality of life.” It assumes a stabilization of world population and average global income, leading to “social cohesion and reduced conflict as the world confronts crises with enhanced resilience and cooperation.”< The emergence of a Great Transition is “far from guaranteed,” the report states. “It will require a change of development direction on a par with earlier great transitions of civilization to settled agriculture and industrial society.” As a result, the Great Transition scenario is one of “immense uncertainty,” and awaits the appearance of “historical agents necessary for such grand political and cultural changes” to appear. Yet there is still time in which "progressive elements of civil society, government, international organizations, and business can forge a new sustainability paradigm, an alternative vision of globalization centered on the quality of life, human solidarity, environmental resilience, and an informed and engaged citizenry," according to the Global Scenario Group (GSG), convened in 1995 by Tellus to examine the prospects for world development in the twenty-first century.

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