Other Worlds are Possible

Human progress in an age of climate change

This sixth report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development argues that our chances of triumphing over climate change will rise dramatically if we recognise that there we need not one but many models of human development.

This report argues that our chances of triumphing over climate change will rise dramatically if we change the context within which we fight its fire’. More than that, it suggests that we are already surrounded by a sleeping architecture of better ways to organise our economies, communities and livelihoods. We have, in fact, much more choice about our collective economic future than we have been led to believe. The challenge, it seems, is now clear, and many of the solutions known. The task is to act.

In October 2004, Up in smoke? the first report from the UK Working Group on Climate Change and Development, warned that climate change threatened a great reversal of human progress. It created a united call for action from environment and development groups and identified three overarching challenges:

  1. How to stop and reverse further climate change.
  2. How to live with the degree of climate change that cannot be stopped.
  3. How to design a new model for human progress and development that is climate proof and climate friendly and gives everyone a fair share of the natural resources on which we all depend.

Whilst great flurries of activity now surround the first and, to a lesser degree, the second of these questions, it is the third which remains neglected. If anything, as the world struggles to recover from a major economic recession, the opposite is happening. From the banking sector to high street consumerism in rich countries, there appears to be a rush to return to business as usual. It as is if policy-makers and commentators find it impossible to imagine a world fundamentally different, and better, than the one we already have. Yet the danger is that, without deeply rethinking our economic system to deliver good lives which do not cost the Earth, we will end up with a world much worse than the one we have.

A narrowing of visions

Development’ should mean different things in different places and cultural settings. It should describe a plurality of ways of seeing and interacting with a complex and varied world, itself shaped by diverse political and economic agendas. It should be a difficult word to define because its meaning changes across time and space.

Unfortunately, however, it is not. If anything, it has come to mean something uniform – a one-path-fits-all trajectory for societies, regardless of place, culture and circumstance. A narrow economic definition of the term has come to dominate; its meaning largely set by industrialised countries to favour their own economic interests.

But, this report is not an attempt to produce a singly alternative manifesto to business-as-usual; it is an argument for plurality of development models. We have the unprecedented challenge of meeting human need in the face of climate change, resource scarcity and a deeply troubled world economy. To this upheaval, there is unlikely to be a single other answer.

We are confident, however, of the urgent need to use different models. In that light, the report is an invitation to consider them, to begin to think more creatively and openly about how to organise human affairs on a planet whose life support systems are stressed by our presence. And what, anyway, is the meaning of development, if it undermines the very life-support systems upon which we depend.

At the very least, we are convinced that no one-size-fits-all economic approach is viable any longer.

In five previous reports, the Working Group on Climate Change and Development revealed a global picture of impacts from, and responses to climate change as seen at the community level. The reports were full of scenes of day-to-day crises and disaster management. Other worlds are possible is different. It makes the case that we have the power to change the context within which we have to firefight’ the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. And, as such, fundamentally change the likely outcomes for society for the better. More than that, it makes the simple point that we are already surrounded by a sleeping architecture of alternatives, some further evolved than others, but all indicative of the fact that we have much more choice about our collective economic future than we have been led to believe.

Broader horizons

Other worlds are possible begins by outlining key trends that, inescapably, demand change to how real human development is secured. Then there are four essays written by world-leading thinkers from the South, and practitioners on development.

Their experience covers Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as the corridors and meeting rooms of the international financial institutions. They include: Prof. Jayati Ghosh from India, Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai from Kenya, and the development economists Prof. Manfred Max-Neef from Chile, and David Woodward based in Cambodia.

Professor Jayati Ghosh makes the case that without new, less materialistic and aspirational role models for human development, that can realistically be pursued in the light of climate change and resource scarcity, poorer countries are being set up to fail. And, of course, if they fail, by environmental implication, so does everyone else. She writes that the way wealthy nations like the United States have developed has left them vulnerable, and is not the path for others to follow:

The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, markets and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.”

Professor Wangari Maathai argues for a revolution in democratic participation and inclusion in the way that important economic development decisions are made. Both to adapt to climate change and to leap-frog dirty development, significant new financial resources will be needed, along with appropriate technology transfer. Equity and the maintenance of the environment, as the basis for people’s livelihoods, must take centre stage in policy decisions, she writes:

For humankind to manage and share resources in a just and equitable way, governance systems must be more responsive and inclusive. People have to feel that they belong, and the voice of the minority must be listened to, even if the majority has its way. We need systems of governance that respect human rights and the rule of law and that deliberately promote equity.”

Professor Manfred Max-Neef sets out conclusively to demystify and dispense with the notion that the global economy has no alternative directions it can take. He identifies a series of new fundamental principles upon which he believes we can build. The shape of the future is one of far greater regionalisation and localisation of markets:

Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and well-being. Also necessary is the solution of the present economic imbalances and inequities. Without equity, peaceful solutions are not possible. We need to replace the dominant values of greed, competition and accumulation, for those of solidarity, cooperation and compassion. The paradigm shift requires turning away from economic growth at any cost. Transition must be towards societies that can adjust to reduced levels of (overall global) production and consumption, favouring localised systems of economic organisation.”

David Woodward, with direct experience ranging from the international financial institutions to the United Nations, argues that systemic change is unavoidable, possible and desirable given the challenges ahead. He believes that a clear outline of a new, flexible development model is visible, one that can both eradicate poverty and address climate change and resource scarcity. Its first steps look much like a global Green New Deal’:

The alternative economic model described here revolves primarily around a revitalisation of rural economies, taking advantage of the synergies arising from consumption patterns at low-income levels (raising demand, production and consumption of basic goods, of and by low-income communities in a virtuous cycle). It also looks at the potential for widespread application of micro-renewable energy technologies in rural areas, exploiting the potential for considerable cost reductions and technological improvements from the creation of a mass market.”

There then follows a wide range of examples of the sleeping architecture’ of change, drawn from the practical experience of the members of the Working Group on Climate Change and Development. These demonstrate that other worlds are not only possible, but are being created right now. The difference will be whether governments and financial institutions continue to support old, failed approaches, with their policy frameworks and our financial resources, or whether they will move to encourage and replicate new approaches that take account of our changed economic and environmental circumstances.

In October 2008, one of the chief architects of the current global economic order, Alan Greenspan former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, made a historic admission of error:

I discovered a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”

Speaking at around the same time in response to the global financial crisis, the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said:

This is not a time for conventional thinking or outdated dogma but for fresh and innovative intervention that gets to the heart of the problem.”

Now is the time to embrace that appetite for new thinking. This report demonstrates that there is no shortage of new ideas to choose from.

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