OLC Blog

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why Conservation Matters

Just suppose that you were important or influential enough to be invited to Davos to hob-nob with the rich and famous during the annual World Economic Forum. Whilst traipsing around between events you get stopped in the street by an inquisitive journalist who wants to know what you think are the three most pressing issues that confront the delegates. What would one say? It might be a bit of a challenge to offer something sensible ‘off the cuff’ as it were. However, as a Davos attendee, such worldly matters may be front and center and there would be no hesitation in coming up with something meaningful.

Well, here are three possibilities to consider – economic growth, environmental sustainability and the human condition. Whether these are top of your list or not they certainly warrant some attention. What is not apparent at first sight is that they are closely connected and, probably, mutually incompatible.

Economic growth is seen to be an imperative. Certainly in the West its stimulation is regarded as vital in order to bring about economic recovery and an attendant rise in employment. The issue with growth is that, as presently understood, it involves increasing levels of consumption and that has some practical limits. The planet is, essentially, a finite resource and despite our ingenuity we are bumping up against some of those limits. Leaving aside the issues of fossil fuels and energy there are the questions of where, for example, will we find the potable water and enough food to feed an increasing global population? This, of course, says nothing about improving the lot of the one billion or so of us who are presently under- or malnourished.

This is where the second pressing issue, that of environmental sustainability comes in. It is a matter of observation that nothing in the natural world grows or expands for ever, at some point everything goes into decline and is then replaced by a new generation or a variation on the previous theme. We all appreciate the universality of this cycle at some level although we seem not to make the connection so far as the desire for economic growth is concerned.

That brings us to the last issue, that of the human condition or well-being. It ought to be clear that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely and is incompatible with environmental sustainability. So long as growth exceeds the capacity of the planet to provide or recycle resources the condition of humanity must suffer.

We are not suggesting that this is a zero sum game – we can only improve our lot on the basis that others in the less developed world cannot improve their quality of life. But the challenge is to find a way for us in the developed world to consume less of the planet’s resources so that others may approach our level of well-being.

It seems to be the case that growth is programmed into mankind in some way. We all seem to want more or something better. As soon as the new 4G ‘phone appears the 3G gets tossed (or given to a technologically challenged spouse). As soon as the ashtrays are full in the beemer we better get a new one. The fact is that more doesn’t always satisfy in a progressive way. The law of diminishing marginal returns operates and after the third helping of pie a la mode . . . Well, you get the idea.

This is where the idea of conservation comes into play.

It would be wrong to assume that all human motivations, such as our desire for more, are selfish, altruism plays its part as well. Indeed, all of us are torn between selfishness and altruism at one time or another.

Shalom Schwartz of the Hebrew University in Israel has done a great deal of work on basic human values and motivation. Together with his colleagues he has developed a ‘Circumplex’ of human values that are structured around two distinct tensions in our psychological make-up. In broad terms the first is the tension between selfishness and altruism. The second is between openness to change and conservation.

As societies have developed, sometimes in hostile environments, we (mankind) have struggled with balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the group. This has been met in different ways at different times depending upon a variety of factors including cultural and societal criteria. The need to innovate has been balanced by the need for stability or tradition, or put another way, the need for conservation. Selfish needs have to be balanced against the broader needs of the group.

Increasingly, today, we seem to be in a situation where the institutions of consumer society are designed to favor materialistic (and, to borrow a politically charged term, rugged) individualism. In turn that leads to the relentless pursuit of economic growth and the resultant need to innovate which embraces an openness to change. The current economic situation bears ample witness to the effect of these forces.

Schwartz’ Circumplex, which has been tested in over 50 countries, suggests to us that to address the relentless pursuit of growth it needs to be balanced by conservation measures that would act as a brake upon those expansive forces. These measures would need to have application at every level in our societies and some will have to be legislated; we cannot rely upon enlightened self-interest to carry the day. In the US we already have some measures in place in terms of institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but we need a greater level of awareness in the global community about the need for conservation.

Perhaps we could get this on the agenda for Davos next year.

Chris Wood

Monday, March 19, 2012


In June of 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to consider sustainable development. In June this year they will re-convene in Rio to consider Rio+20, the 20th anniversary of that event and also the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The objective of the upcoming conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and address new and emerging challenges.

Two themes will be the subject of focus; first, a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and, second, the institutional framework for sustainable development. Weighty matters indeed and worthy of our interest.

A great deal of preparatory work is underway as befits the importance of the event and various stakeholders have prepared draft discussion papers for consideration. One such paper that we have seen has been developed by Oxfam, the highly respected UK-based charitable institution. It is entitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity - can we live within the doughnut?

Simply put, the paper examines the question: Can we eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the planet’s limited natural resources?

This is a large question and one of the difficulties with something of this order is getting one’s arms around it. The paper does this in an engaging way by the use of the image of a doughnut (better yet a bagel for New Yorkers). The bagel is defined by an inner and an outer ring. In this cleverly constructed image the inner ring of the bagel is defined by what is described as the ‘social foundation’ and the outer by the ‘environmental ceiling.’ The space in between the rings, the bagel, represents the safe and just space for humanity.

The inner ring, the social foundation, effectively defines the open area in the center of the bagel and it contains what may be described as the dimensions of human deprivation. They are given as 11 in number and include access to water, food, jobs, education and other things like gender equality and social equity. One can readily appreciate that to the extent that an element of humanity falls below the ‘social foundation’ ring into the bagel’s center one is outside the safe space.

The same situation applies with the outer ring, the ‘environmental ring.’ Outside the bagel are 9 dimensions which include climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and land use change. To the extent that one encroaches beyond the outer ring one has moved beyond the safe space.

Given that there are approximately 1 billion people that are under- or mal-nourished and some 1.4 billion live on less that $1.25 per day it is clear that there are far too many of us living below the level of the ‘social foundation.’ On the other side of the bagel we seem to have broached the environmental ceiling at least in the areas of climate change, nitrogen use and biodiversity loss.

In view of the fact that the world’s population is expected to grow to 9 from its present 7 billion odd by 2050 coupled with an expanding global ‘middle class’ we have our work cut out to develop a modus vivendi with the planet and one another.

This is far from a lost cause. The discussion paper notes that eradicating poverty need not put stress on the outer bagel ring. Providing the additional food needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply. Bringing electricity to the 19% of the world’s population that does not have it would increase global CO2 emissions by less than 1%. Ending income poverty for the 21% of the population who live on less than $1.25 per day would require just 0.2% of global income.

In terms of the outer ring the paper states that the biggest source of planetary stress comes from the excessive resource consumption by the world’s wealthiest 10%. Specifically, 50% of carbon emissions come from the production of goods and services for 11% of the global population. 57% of global income is in the hands of 10% of the population and 33% of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for the European Union, a mere 7% of the population.

Looked at in this way it is easy to see that, from a practical point of view, it ought to be possible to rein in the excesses and provide a sustainable standard of living for all within the so-called limits of the safe space. As we may well appreciate the solution will lie in the political realm and therein lies the rub. As we know from our domestic politics it is seemingly near impossible to get agreement on matters like tax reform and deficit reduction. Scale that up and we can readily appreciate what the conference delegates will have to deal with in June.

Chris Wood