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Elements underpinning the green economy

 Recently I have been reflecting on the inability of politicians at Rio+20 to grapple with the serious social, developmental and ecological challenges which are facing humanity and the wider earth community.

The document which emerged from Rio+20 did promote “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.”

Moving away from our current plundering and unsustainable economy will not be easy, particularly for poorer countries.

According to the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, an equitable, sustainable green economy can only emerge in the context of an integrated approach which recognises the complexity of the task.

The following are some of the principles which must underpin such an approach. It is essential that there is a clear recognition of the severity and complexity of the current ecological crisis.

I have often repeated that the only adequate way to describe the damage which our western fossil fuel-driven economy is doing to the planet is to understand it in geological terms.

For example, the collision between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates has over the past 60 million years created the Himalayas. This, in turn, has had a massive impact on climates right across the world.

The current prosperity of economies in the minority world is built on the foundations of 400 years of colonialism, during which the European nations had control of the resources of Africa, the Americas and many other places across the globe.

Thomas Pakenham, in his classic work, The Scramble for Africa, chronicles the saga of greed and exploitation which was the basic motivation behind the movement of the western powers into Africa in the second half of the 19th century.

The greed, venality and brutality which were central to the colonial venture were often cloaked in the lofty sentiments of bringing the three Cs—Commerce, Civilisation and Christianity—to benefit the peoples of Africa.

Secondly, it is important to bear in mind that the increase in western prosperity since the end of World War II was achieved at a time when energy prices were exceptionally low.

During this spectacular period of industrial and commercial expansion between 1945 and 1973, oil prices were less than €3 ($28.80) a barrel. A handful of western oil corporations controlled the industry and designed the system in a way that kept oil prices as low as possible.

During this time, many countries in Africa and Asia achieved political freedom. Nevertheless, their economies were dominated by western economic interests and transnational corporations.

This meant that the former colonies continued to supply cheap resources and often cheap labour to European countries, long after achieving independence.

This brings us to a second cardinal principle in any discussion of a green economy. In July 2012, there were about one billion people who did not have enough to eat and who did not have access to potable water.

A further one-and-a half billion did not have access to basic sanitation. Therefore, any international framework designed to promote the green economy must take cognisance of the fact that poor people in these countries have a right to development.

This might mean that economic growth is essential in some majority world countries as they attempt to eradicate poverty, create sustainable jobs and meet the needs of their citizens to have access to nutritious food, health care and education.

To summarise the above, the three pillars that underpin sustainable development as envisaged by the United Nations (UN) are the protection of the environment, both local and global, social development, especially for those people who are currently living below the poverty line, and finally, social development.

One of the major strengths of the UN approach to engaging with social or environmental issues is that the agenda is promoted on a multilateral basis. This gives a voice, not just to large and powerful countries, but to small ones as well.

The UN is constantly repeating the mantra that action to address social inequality and environmental degradation must be pursued, not just at the local or national level, but at the international level as well.

But the UN is also clear about the fact that countries have played different roles in contributing to the global ecological crisis and that countries are at different stages in terms of the social and economic development of their people.

The equity dimension is captured in the principle that countries have common, but differentiated responsibilities towards addressing the current ecological crisis.


Father Sean McDonagh