Battered planet, twisted economics

Battered planet, twisted economics

As the new round of global climate negotiations opened in Bonn last week, the UN's climate chief raised "a heightened sense of urgency" on the current projection of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration which is soon expected to shoot above 400 parts per million (ppm).

Climate scientists have long warned that the level should be limited to 350 ppm if we want to contain a predicted global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius _ the tipping point where many changes to the earth's system will become catastrophically irreversible.

It remains doubtful, however, how the current UN process can reverse this situation since the only substantial result achieved over two decades is carbon offsetting and trading mechanisms to help richer countries and dirty industries meet their emission reduction requirements. Alas, the flop of carbon prices worldwide and the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS), currently the biggest carbon trading scheme in the world, are more than a strong hint that the market mechanism is not a genuine solution.

Tragically, too many people still think this unsustainable path makes sense in this twisted economy because as long as someone has the money to buy either oil, carbon credits, lives and nature, we can still feed our unlimited consumption demand, despite the very high cost to future generations and the planet. But this belief is fundamentally flawed.

First of all, it's because certain things such as lives and nature simply cannot be priced and traded. At the heart of this problematic thinking is the human-centric market-oriented economy which views everything as objects to be commodified, privatised and traded for accumulation of wealth. Eventually, this system gives privileges to the socio-economically advantaged at the expense of others.

An eminent example of this system in action in the globalised market economy is the free trade agreement (FTA) system which allows bigger economies (like US and the EU, both eager to start FTA negotiations with Thailand) to pressure smaller governments into giving way in nature and basic services critical to human rights such as water, minerals, biodiversity, knowledge, education, health care and medicines. This is done through processes such as commodifying of resources and privatisation, patenting and intellectual property rights control.

In the worst cases of some trade/investment disputes, foreign corporations are even allowed to sue governments with arbitration rules that are not subject to local laws. This is an unjust system which allows transnational corporations to control common resources at the expense of local populations, whose livelihoods depend on nature.

Second, nature has limits and we are using up its finite resources. Our endless demand for consumption and economic growth implies that nature has no limits for us to exploit. But we were long ago warned of the planet's physical limitations to humanity's growth and consumption in the famous study "Limits to Growth" (1972). Four decades later and the ongoing world crisis of climate, energy, water, food and biodiversity degradation clearly suggests we are overshooting the Earth's limits. Unfortunately, we are not stopping. Despite indications that we have reached "peak oil", the era when commercially viable and easily accessible oil supplies will start to decline, we have chosen to dig for the last bits of oil with even dirtier methods and penetrate into highly ecologically fragile territories.

Many people question the current growth model base on unsustainable production-consumption-waste systems. Despite economic growth, our health and livelihoods are deteriorating. Trade liberalisation allowing free-flow of materials and capitals should theoretically have distributed wealth and well-being; instead, polluting industries and toxic food and products are spreading.

Therefore, it is now time, more than ever, to question the wrong path we have walked and ask how humanity will survive without completely destroying the planet.

To answer this question, we may need to first and foremost redefine our idea of living and progress. Buen Vivir, literally translated as "good living", is a concept with a fundamental idea that, to live well, humans should live in harmony not only with other human beings but also with nature. It is not surprising that the origin of the concept comes from "Sumak Kawsay", a concept of well-being of the Qechua indigenous people of the Andes who live interdependently and in harmony with their natural surroundings.

Latin-American environmentalists, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador where nature's rights are acknowledged in their constitutions, started to advocate the concept a few years ago. Since then it has gradually gained international attention, most likely because the idea is also intrinsic to many local communities, especially many indigenous cultures.

In Thailand, a prominent example is the culture of ethnic Karen based on the fundamental belief that "the way of nature is the way of life". Their livelihood involves sustainable farming while many of their traditions involve looking after the forests they dwell in.

This is not regressing to the stone-age or to living in the jungle. But the foreseeable future already looks dismal because of our inadequate action; and to reverse this requires radical changes to our way of thinking, especially economic growth. It is no longer possible to ignore the true costs our society has put upon other's lives. Nor is it possible to rely on market mechanisms to bring about gradual changes because these changes are inadequate. More importantly, lives and nature cannot be priced. When nature is commodified and privatised, the market economy seeks maximum benefit. Sharing with others and caring for nature ceases to exist. Humanity needs fundamental shifts in the paradigm of development in order to redesign our way of life in accordance with the real capacity of the earth. In this regard, to redefine our "well-being" in harmony with nature and fellow human beings is one path worth contemplating.

Faikham Harnnarong is a member of Thai Climate Justice Working Group, a coalition of NGOs promoting public participation, socio-political and economic justice and sustainability to address climate change.

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