The survival value

John Huige

Article II-97: Environmental protection
A high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be integrated into the policies of the Union and ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.

Environmental protection is insufficiently guaranteed in the Lisbon Treaty. We need to reformulate sustainable development into an ecological and climate-safe alternative to neoliberalism: the survival value of the EU.

History, being mainly the pursuit of economic growth in terms of GDP, seems to be unstoppable, and the urgency of environmental protection is growing at frightening speed. The European Commission proclaims: “Broad-based economic growth is essential for long-term sustainable and socially-inclusive development.” Sustainability is understood in the sense of realizing the seventeen sustainable development goals of the UN. If one takes a look at these goals, see for example goal number 12, we find 12 targets. Seven out of the 12 targets name the word sustainable (-consumption, -information, -development, etc.). A big problem in using the idea of sustainability is the fact that it is largely undetermined. So it is often used for greenwashing.

The Brundtland definition is: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If history continues the way it does, the needs of future generations will be reduced to a few leftovers. Here are some examples. The list of endangered species is growing rapidly. Of all breeding birds (in the Netherlands) 44% are on the red list. This is a disastrous development. Even more frightening is the fact that the world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion or pollution in the past 40 years, with potentially disastrous consequences as the global demand for food soars. Around 30% of the world’s ice-free surfaces are used to keep chicken, cattle, pigs and other livestock, rather than to grow crops.[1] The issue is not whether we are leaving enough for future generations. The issue is whether there will be a future worth having.

Another example from the list of development goals. By 2030, we are supposed to have substantially reduced waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse. How much is substantial? Is it 10%, 50% or 75%? These measures are significant given the rapidly growing popularity of the circular economy. Circularity is important, but at the moment it still has all the characteristics of a linear path. This becomes clear if we look at the strategy of Unilever – the global consumer goods corporation. Unilever connects growth to the possibilities of innovation, thus combining a circular production to a linear growth strategy. Sticking to these growth strategies (either GDP on a state level or on a corporative level) will have to come to an end. A 100% circular economy does not exist. Growth is not a solution; growth is the problem.

Another problem is inequality. The inequality in income and wealth between countries is diminishing, but the inequality within countries between the top 5% and the rest of the population is growing exponentially. This inequality harms the realization of sustainable goals. The Commission’s goal is an inclusive society. Bravo! But what does that mean for income differences? Should the maximum difference be one to ten or one to fifty? Or, are we ready to develop a basic income to guarantee inclusivity?

Popular support for major transitions like the food transition or the energy transition only seems possible if the costs are evenly spread. The current policy framework of EU 2020 only covers poverty. Income policy furthermore also needs a policy for top incomes. In the words of Wiemer Salverda: “Taken together this supports the importance of looking at the two tails of the distribution where top incomes and poverty are found. Inequality appears to work from both ends, the top and the bottom, at the same time.”[2]

The current dominance of neoliberalism enormously limits the possibilities for adequate strategies. The three main components of this ideology steer the economy and the political arena:

  • The market is the only distribution tool that works. Any government interference tends to cause an inefficient allocation of resources.
  • The goal of corporations is to maximize shareholder value.
  • Economic growth is the best solution for societal problems.

Along with the popularity of neoliberalism we saw the rise of a limited number of giant corporations. In a much cited article of Vitali, Glattfelder and Battiston[3] it is argued that no more than 147 network corporations are in global control of the economy. Not surprisingly financial institutions lead the herd.

So if neoliberalism and the giant corporations aren’t going to help the future generations in the world and in Europe in particular what should be the strategy of the EU? If the EU is serious in pursuing its fundamental values: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, and of goals formulated in the EU Charter of fundamental rights – one of them being environmental protection – following steps must be taken.

For the EU strategy 2020-2025 (of the next EU parliament and the new EU commission) we need a new narrative on sustainability. The existing treaties are insufficient, while the urgency to take measures against the ongoing climate disruption is growing fast. It needs to be clear that those measures cannot be focused on climate alone. It is a matter of system change. System change will have to include the following components:

  • We need an alternative for neoliberalism; new visions for markets, for government interventions. Control of the European economy is a European responsibility. How can we kiss the Rhineland model back to life and make it climate disruption proof?
  • This alternative should be part of a new narrative in which we not only formulate long term goals (say for 25 years), but also the objectives, the expected results, and the activities (say for 5 years).
  • In this narrative we develop new ideas on economic growth, incorporating other indicators for welfare than GDP. Limiting income and wealth differences are a prerequisite for popular support.
  • In this narrative the EU takes a firm stand against the power of the giant corporations and develops European alternatives for the algorithms of the big five tech corporations.
  • Ecological safekeeping and restauration are a vital part of this narrative.

The EU cannot save the world, but the EU can develop an exemplary model of a system that goes far beyond the hollow phrase of sustainable development, thus really leaving enough for the survival of generations to come.

[1] The Guardian, December 2 2015.
[2] Salverda, Wiemer, EU Policy Making and Growing Inequalities, discussion paper 008, 2015.
[3] PLOS One, October 26 2011.

John Huige is an independent consultant in sustainable development.

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