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Post Sustainable Modernism?

Politics / Environmental Issues Jun 24, 2012 - 03:24 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThe phrase “sustainable development” was thrust into widespread use by the 1987 UN report of the Gro Harlem Brundtland commission, a group of “eminent persons” supposedly setting “a global agenda for change” in response to the alleged interaction of failing economic development, depleting natural resources and a deteriorating environment. Media treatment naturally went a lot further, rooting sustainable development in a soup of hysterical forecasts of environmental apocalypse, man-made global warming driving sea levels up so far they swamp most cities, mass species die-off and extinction, spiraling oil and other resource depletion, nuclear and industrial catastrophes, rampant overpopulation, mass starvation, epidemics and global poverty. Without explicitly saying it, the Brundtland report implied that unfettered capitalism was the basic driver.

Brundtland’s seemingly reasonable definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is often taken as a critique of market systems and economics in general, but is never attacked for its totally false logic. Firstly, what passes for 'development' is not meeting the needs of the present, for example the need for jobs in the US, Europe and other regions, or the totally simple and basic need to feed the world's present population, but more 'philosophically' how do we know, today, what future generations will need or want ? Going back 2 generations in time, to the late 1950s or early 1960s, who could have said at the time that Europe, for example, would need 215 million cars and 460 million cellphones two generations later ?

If that had been known, guessed or forecast 2 generations back in time, what could have been done at the time to either make it easier to happen, or harder to make it happen? Maybe "we" should have outlawed the transistor and tunnel diode ? Of course the real answer is that it didn't matter. Technology changed. Attitudes and values changed, society changed and the economy changed.

The bottom line for sustainability boomers is always that we can forecast coming disasters, and fixing the forecast mess needs world government. Hence with no surprise the UN remains heavily committed to sustainable everything, promoting itself as the only way to get more political oversight and control, balancing out the triple bottom line of the economy, environment, and society. As Brundtland commissioner Maurice Strong, who orchestrated the 1992 Rio conference, declared in the run-up to the dead on arrival Rio + 20 conference: “We must devise a new approach to co-operative management of the entire system of issues.”

Few national delegations at the forlorn Rio + 20 get together made anything but glancing references to why the loudly trumpeted  draft planning and agenda document for the conference, “The Future We Want,”  was a non starter. Penned and marked-up by a myriad of ultra-liberal NGOs, UN bureaucrats and business hopefuls this set of Nice Ideas is out of range and out of time for countries with vast budget deficits, astronomic sovereign debts, huge trade deficits, rising unemployment and a loss of national identity. In a crisis riddled financial and economic situation, nobody is specially worried about what happens in 2 generations time. Managing the next 7 days or 20 days matters more than the next 20 years. This is the real "system of issues": the future already arrived and it is bad. What do we do now?

More sophisticated arguments - like how do we know what "needs" will be in 50 years time ? - were absent for Brundtland's talkshop back in 1987, possibly because the logical fallacies of the now copybook and idiot friendly Brundtland definition of 'sustainability' were never pointed out. They are certainly and logically even more absent today, because global elites have already admitted defeat (would you expect them to say it, outright?) in telling us what our needs will be next week and how we can't meet them.  As the European debt mess or panic shows every day, the 17-nation Eurozone could or might not need the euro currency as soon as the end of 2012, or might be magically morphed into an EU Federal Debt Union. Who knows? Now tell us what our needs will be in 2020 or 2035 !

This only underlines what daily reality teaches any sane person; not even knowing what we need in the present makes it really hard for our elites to manage the future. The claimed argument (by conspiracy theorists) that Europe's elites are deliberately making things as bad as possible, to ram through their secret federal Europe plan, is about as funny as global warming theory in the European "summer" of 2012, to date. There is no plan ! Face up to reality.

The NGOs writing the fairy stories used for "The Future We Want" can demand curbs on “any technology that can imply a serious risk for the environment or human society, including in particular synthetic biology, geo-engineering, genetic modification, nuclear energy and nanotechnology", but one Fukushima disaster has a real world, hard to talk around impact. A second disaster of the Fukushima type will almost certainly seal the fate of The Doomsday Machine, with no need for Rio be-ins. Exactly the same applies to all other Dr Strangelove specials, from nanotech to GM animal and plant "engineering", whose economic siginificance - for decades ahead - is almost a guaranteed zero.

Only massive, clear and irrefutable disasters change human behavior - until then, there is always a geek "trying to make it work". The May 1937 Hindenberg disaster, which killed a tiny fraction of the average daily death toll in Syria, was however enough to seal the fate of hydrogen filled and diesel fuelled Zeppelins as upmarket transatlantic transport providers. At the time, passenger planes were developing rapidly: the Hindenberg was already a curiosity - exactly like the Rio + 20 conference.

The failure of Rio + 20 is also the failure of so-called "ecology politics": public interest in the conference started low, and went lower on a one-way track because its posturing and preening has no relation to the real concerns and real worries of the general public in any country, anywhere. Ecology politics reflects this: voters have lost interest, or are losing interest. Public opinion is already fully aware of the degraded environment, diminishing resource supplies, price-rationed basic foods and a future of almost certain declining wealth, or even poverty, which Miracle Liberalism (call it capitalism redux) can only deliver, and does deliver.

The greatest real and legitimate fear, as shown by a host of opinion poll results in all OECD countries and the Emerging economies is much more stark: the non survival of the nation and national identity. These (nations) are a highly threatened species, in no way protected by the Petri dish type multiplication of supposed New Nations, whose sustainability is close to zero. In the globalized real world of today there is only one nation: The No Nation.

How the No Nation is governed is obviously a tricky question: how does a non-nation or non-entity govern itself ? Can it govern itself? What will its life expectancy be ? This mysterious thing called "the global economy" is in fact very closely related to the magic thing called "the market". Neither exist except by default, and only because society was out to lunch. There was always an alternative, before. There will be so, after.

Rio + 20 went down the WC pan of History as easily as an avocat and langoustine side dish goes down the throats of senior traders at a busy bee finance conference, with the same lashings of champagne to burp during the press conference afterglow, but its failure underlines how close we are to spontaneous mega change.  Of course called "surprising", because it was never the focus of lumbering decades-long UN talkshops nor featured in a myriad of media show events (like the fake crisis of global warming), it will happen all the same.

Arab Spring already happened, but how many UN meetings talked about the need for urgent and total political change in the Arab countries, in 2010, one year before it started? Arab Spring also quickly morphed into what it really is: civil war. During these, the talk-talk tends to get pushed aside, and people get around to doing what comes naturally: fighting.

The longstanding and creaky spectre of Peak Oil crisis, where oil consumers and consuming countries simply go on always consuming more, whatever the price, and the world runs out of oil just like that - has morphed as totally as the prospects for Hosni Mubarak's next 10-year one party rulership life extension, surrounded by his Western democratic political chums and paymasters. It didnt happen. Oil demand flattened and then started declining, and may go on doing so for a host of reasons I look at in other articles. Mubarak got kicked out of power and sentenced to life imprisonment. Things change.

For the elite this is dangerous and uncontrolled change, another way of saying they didnt think of it, or want it, or want to talk about it. But it happened. In no way are the world's environment problems going to steal away in the night - as likely as Bashr el Assad stealing away in the night - but they are going to change in accelerated fashion. When this type of change happens the past and future are totally unalike, which again helps explain why Rio + 20 was not only a farce but a failure. The conference addressed problems that had been talked down and out, but morphed into different formats and broke out as spontaneous and real change. This is the change that is coming, and a likely collateral demage victim will be the nation state - and 18th century invention that came alongside things like "the market".

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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