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Rethinking the Global Environment

Who should drive the urgently needed change in environmental policy?

December 13, 2004

Who should drive the urgently needed change in environmental policy?

The period of deepening environmental deterioration does not lie in the future. It has begun.

There are fewer and fewer cod in the great Grand Banks fishery. Every year, massive chunks of tropical and arboreal forests continue to be cut and burned away.

There is less fresh water, of lower quality, available in the world for drinking and household use. And water tables everywhere are sinking, including beneath the three largest grain-producing plains on the planet.

The global climate is warming and becoming more volatile. In scale and impact, the behavior of one species has risen to such a level that we have begun to destabilize the biosphere itself.

Swift and discontinuous change has occurred before on the earth, as the result of geological traumas and external disruptions, such as asteroid strikes — and may occur again.

But never in the history of this small planet has the activity of a single species metastasized so feverishly that it started to undermine the macro-conditions that allowed it to emerge and flourish in the first place.

To act in response to this environmental challenge will require that we think for the first time within a global framework — and out toward time horizons extending several hundred years into the future.

There is no other conceptual framework within which we can deal successfully with climate change and ensure the fertility of the oceans, the health of coral reefs, the preservation of potable freshwater, the survival of tropical forests and fauna.

We must think more creatively about agricultural productivity, the disposal of toxic waste, the size of the human population upon this earth, energy generation and consumption, the needed shift away from carbon-based transportation systems — and more.

It's a long list. Taken as a whole, it involves rethinking our economic models and the largest part of our contemporary industrial system.

The Western economic system has changed before and it has, in fact, already started to change again.

It is now drifting marginally in the direction of patterns more compatible with long-term survival — such as reduced birthrates and energy efficiency.

But government policies regarding these issues are still ambiguous and hesitant — and the pace of change is woefully inadequate.

To make the transition to workable and sustainable patterns of life worldwide, that change must be accelerated. It must be guided by a shared framework of global values and objectives and it must harness the power of the market.

This cannot be done overnight, but I believe we can make a good beginning over the next two or three decades. And it is possible, I believe, that we have that much time left.

Above all, this transition needs to be embraced and reinforced — rather than resisted — by the leadership of both the public and private sectors.

In the transition to a new and more sustainable development model, the market will not — and should not be expected to — provide the stimuli that cause that model to emerge.

The market can only send short-term signals within a larger framework of values and rules. The market, for instance, did not send signals "against" lead-based paint, DDT, or the hydro fluorocarbons that destroy the ozone layer.

After experience, research and advocacy in the public sector, these products were acknowledged to be dangerous and a framework of values and rules created by treaty, law and regulation banned them.

Then, and only then, did the market respond with stimuli that favored safer alternatives and encouraged their use.

We know today that universal extension of the present Western industrial model is not viable and will not occur. The present model will slowly implode — or it will change. As Vaclav Havel reminds us, "The market is a good servant and a bad master."

The market is a mechanism, not a direction setter. It is most emphatically not a moral compass, any more than a computer or a stock exchange clearing system can be a moral compass.

Only decisions in the public sector can bring about basic changes in values and rules and thus unleash the market's enormous power to accelerate the transition to a new model and effectuate those changes efficiently without the stultifying and often corrupt hand of the state.

These public sector decisions include philanthropic institutions and other non-governmental organizations.

There are leaders in the private sector who have started to change the ways their firms operate and who recognize the serious challenge we face. But the "framework conditions" for a successful response to this ultimatum must be debated and forged primarily in the public sector.

The point is this: We all — citizens, governments and foundations — face in common the imperative to respond constructively to the crises of our times. And we are not responding. We are only drifting.