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January 22, 2009 |  5 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Jordan Levine

Socioecological Innovation: an Alternative Future

Jordan Levine: As populations increase and resources become scarcer, international relations stand to deteriorate. World leaders must combine global trade liberalization with data on the relationship between ecosystem function and human well-being. Mandatory life-cycle assessments are the best way of doing this.

The scientific consensus is clear: there are important ecological consequences to unchecked economic growth. The Earth is not an unlimited source of capital inputs, nor an inexhaustible waste sink. Rather, the economy is a subsidiary of the biosphere. With a growing population of over 6 billion, and a rapidly industrializing global South, this fact presents humanity with an awkward dilemma. The question of which economies develop, how, and at what pace, is no longer just a matter of equity, but of global socio-ecological stability.

The answer to this challenge is dynamic institutional innovation. We need a system that effectively accounts for the social and ecological consequences of human activity at multiple geographical levels. While daunting, this is entirely feasible. Essentially, we need a global trade regime that takes the findings of such efforts as the United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment seriously. By merging data on the relationship between ecosystem integrity and human well-being with international trade law, we can create a far more equitable, sustainable global economic system.

Without this merger, however, the prospects for coherent global governance are rather dim. In the absence of a functional global initiative to manage socio-ecological change, by 2020, biophysical limits to growth will be a central element of geopolitical strategy. The developed North will be forced to forestall the rapid, carbon-fuelled growth of the South, while energy- and water-hungry states will vie for access to resources with increasing ferocity. Global supplies of food and water will become far less predictable, while demand will continue to rise. Richer countries will begin to feel vulnerable to the vagaries of an increasingly interdependent world market, and a renewed call for protectionism will emerge in the North. Meanwhile, pro-growth logic will require these same countries to continue pursuing access to Southern markets. This moral contradiction will seriously endanger North-South relations. Traces of this can already be seen in the failure of the Doha Development Round. Essentially, we could witness the breakdown of the current global system, to be replaced by a new, multipolar realpolitik of resource scarcity.

That said, this stark future is not inevitable. The present crisis is, in fact, a golden opportunity to construct socio-ecologically resilient institutions. However, this requires not only initiative, but an implementable vision. What we must do is begin accounting for the true socio-ecological costs of our activities in an explicit, globally standardized fashion. World leaders must create a new global trade institution that demands and facilitates standardized life-cycle assessments (LCAs) for all traded products.

LCAs estimate the myriad effects of the production, transport, sale, consumption and disposal of a given product on ecosystems and human well-being. LCAs can then be made explicit to consumers via a straightforward, intelligible labeling scheme--much like today's mandatory nutrition labeling on packaged foods. With its penalization of fossil-fuel intensive production and transportation processes, and its concomitant bolstering of local, durable economies, the simple act of making such information explicit has the potential to radically improve the sustainability of global trade and, ultimately, the quality of international relations.

Domestically, LCA-ratings could be used to shift tax regimes in favor of "sustainable" goods, and away from "dirty" goods (e.g. as with alcohol and tobacco taxes today.) Under such a scheme, consumers would be empowered to make more informed choices in line with their core values. This, in turn, will provide producers with incentive the necessary means to modify their business models to fit contemporary socio-ecological reality.

LCAs are already conducted on a regular basis, and an international standard (ISO 14000) already exists for their implementation. If constructed in a transparent, even-handed manner, a global regime of obligatory LCA-labeling would greatly enhance the integrity and resilience of the planet's rich, but threatened, diversity of cultures and ecosystems. With such a mechanism in place, social and environmental justice will be more palpable on a global scale, making it far easier to establish international consensus on other, equally important issues. This alternative future is no pipe dream: it is entirely feasible. However, without the concerted effort of world leaders, it stands no chance of materializing. Time is of the essence.

Jordan Levine is a PhD Student at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. His thesis addresses the human elements of coastal ecosystem management.

This article has been shortlisted for the Atlantic Community's "Global Governance in 2020" student competition.


The Atlantic Community's World Economic Forum Focus Week (Jan 22 - Jan 28)

This article is part of the Atlantic Community's World Economic Forum focus week in a 5 day run-up to the WEF Davos Conference (conference begins Wed 28 January). We are focusing on two of the most pressing aspects of the conference: the Global Economy and Climate Change.

Other articles in our series on the WEF:


From the discussion on the community page we will generate a special Atlantic Memo that will be distributed to WEF organizers and to decision makers worldwide at the start of the conference. Please share your comments on the recommendations and issues raised in this article.

- To what extent is the economy a subsidy of the biosphere?

- Is a new global trade institution a likely approach for the WEF? How might they put in place mandatory life-cycle assessments (LCAs)?

-What approaches should the WEF take to stave off resource scarcity?

 

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Christia  Flourentzou

January 22, 2009

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I strongly agree with the recommendations made in the article in terms of both the need for institutions which take into account the environmental challenge and the need to reform the current global trade regime to make it more accountable to the requirements of international law. However, in contrast with the author’s optimism that this change is “entirely feasible” I think that in the current international system, where state sovereignty still looms large, the idea of “dynamic institutional innovation” will encounter obstacles.

Firstly, there is no direct link between environmental degradation and national security. Climate change, deforestation or resource depletion are not seen as developments which have a direct impact on the national interest. Unfortunately, in the current international system issues become part of ‘high politics’ and are acted upon once a direct relationship to the national interest is established. (although environmentalists make the case that linking the environment to national security might also be counter productive as it would risk militarizing the issue) Secondly, the attempt to create an international system which “effectively accounts for the social and ecological consequences of human activity’’ is likely to face implementation difficulties. When it comes to the question of who is going to allocate responsibility to the “polluter” difficulties emerge. The issue of environmental degradation is one which overcomes state boundaries and produces regional and global consequences so that it is not clear whether a state or an NGO or an international organization like the UN should be in a position to hold parties accountable. Additionally, when it comes to punishing violators of international law, weak enforcement mechanisms result in ‘soft’ punishments which do little to discipline offenders.

I think that the article is addressing a very contemporary issue, as environmental degradation is one of the biggest global challenges currently. The planet does not provide us with unlimited resources and indeed, resource scarcity is expected to be the main cause of conflict in the next decades. While a “stark future is not inevitable” it will take a lot of commitment, sharing of responsibility and multilateral cooperation to secure a viable solution. Bearing in mind the limitations, the WEF starting next week provides the best forum for the discussion of this controversial issue and offers the opportunity to world leaders to take a first step towards creating a more environmentally friendly international system.
 
Member deleted

January 23, 2009

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One agrees with Jordan here: about the necessity for saving the planet earth. At a global scale - where world leaders form a new institutional mechanism is again a welcome idea. But then, in response to an article that is so eloquent about the needs of a common global vision, and which is based upon a reality that affects all its denizens, one feels slightly remorseful and reticent: about other areas that already are there and whose insititutional mechanisms are in place and yet!
The mechanical institutions that already are in place pertain to Human Rights & encouragement for Democratic governance that also, in the manner of values enshrined therein, call for a natural value-system that encourages practices that enrich the planet (as the common and also - the only - petri-dish that we know about and of - where we live.) Now, petri-dish residents would always need to ensure the conditions that allow them to co-exist - for longer periods of time, or be resigned to the idea of the owner of the petri-dish having set a time-table in the experiment of life that earth represents for the denizens of the earth. Where movements that seem to be the part of a 'normal' and gradual geo-political exercises and trajectories, but where the very basis of sustenance of life, in the petri-dish, gets threatened.
While there is no denying the need for what Jordan has put in here, including the idea and notion of LCAs - a very desirable practice, what can one say about states that (in the context of what Jordan has mentioned) lie in the bottom dredge of the perti-dish and talk of flying other kinds of LCAs, alongwith its various other co-habitants in the petri-dish. Where the existing global institutional mechanisms are sabotaged or non-functional - including its domestic derivates from them.
It is true that it is about time (as it has been for a long time) that a newer set of mechanisms are put into place. Of course, how does one deal with the dredge at the bottom of the petri-dish also needs to occupy one's concerns. So that the attempts at scuttling the gradual shrinking of life-in-petri-dish do not get jeopardised, along with the notion of life that such useful articles as that by Jordan highlight.
 
Mark Peter  Hirschboeck

January 28, 2009

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This article makes a strong case for the broader use of LCAs. I’d simply like to stress one additional point that wasn’t emphasized in Mr. Levine’s analysis—LCAs are merely units of information. This fact is simultaneously their greatest strength and greatest weakness. On the one hand, they are able to educate consumers about sustainable habits and encourage them to make small changes to reduce their environmental impact. Compared to other proposed methods of reducing environmental impact, LCAs would be more easily introduced and more palatable to governments. On the other hand, as simply pieces of information (and unlike, say, carbon taxes), they possess no coercive power to change consumers’ habits. Because they are less expensive, dirty forms of energy will maintain their appeal.
 
Unregistered User

September 1, 2009

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It would be interesting to see what options are available to land-locked nations too
 
Michael  Maman

December 11, 2009

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"Scientific consensus is clear" hate to break it to you Jordan, but the scientific consensus is not clear. Maybe the political science is clear, but not in the real scientific community. I think using that phrase automatically silences the need to debate the science behind climate change, and exactly how much of it is anthropogenic as opposed to cyclical.
 

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