Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace
Contributed article for the Working Group on Nonviolent Resistance
National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It is a harsh truth: no matter how sound the analysis of a problem and no matter how reasonable and progressive the proposed policy solutions, without a workable political strategy, the vision is more in the way of wishful thinking than a practical guide.
The latest report to the Club of Rome – Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity – falls victim to this truth. It does so, even though the volume is the outcome of collaboration among a multitude of eminent scientists and economists, and with impressive institutional support. The report presents many good ideas about how we might break out of the “business-as-usual” pattern to deal decisively and rapidly with the earth’s ecological decay. Its authors do not ignore the obstacles to the transformation, but they seem at a loss to know how to deal with them.
The report presents an appealing vision of a future world, a world that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and reasonably prosperous. It follows the ethos of The Limits of Growth, a report to the Club of Rome published five decades earlier. This earlier report created controversy in claiming that growth of industry and population was driving the earth close to its environmental limits. The current report accepts environmental limits, claims that the earth is breaking though these limits, and suggests what can be done to avert the looming catastrophe.
It advocates a “Giant Leap” to be achieved within a generation. Five laudable “turnarounds” will usher in this earth for all. They include an end to poverty, a reduction in gross inequality, empowering women, forging a food system that is healthy both for people and the ecosystem, and a transition to clean energy. It is a world which many of us would like to inhabit.
The authors declare that the five turnarounds are practicable in a period of about 30 years. The cost of this transformation is only 2-4 per cent of global income each year.
But, the report stipulates, gross global Income and wealth inequalities cannot continue at their present levels. They give rise to economic, ecological, and political pathologies. Concentrated economic power leads to concentrated political power, and hence to governmental resistance to turnarounds that threaten privileged interests. In addition, the wealthiest global ten per cent account for about half of all GHG emissions. This inequity cannot continue, say the authors. Nevertheless, the top ten per cent of income earners globally continue to do well under the earth4all model. By 2050, the top ten per cent will still account for 40 per cent of global income, down from the current 60 per cent.
The transitions will, the report acknowledges, be socially disruptive. To minimize disruptions (and opposition), generous safety nets will need to be established in all societies. A good idea is a “Citizens Fund” that distributes a “universal basic dividend.” The dividend will accrue from fees levied on the “commons” - on the use of natural resources (including freshwater), on the polluters of land, water and air, and on companies exploiting public data and knowledge. Each individual citizen will receive an equal disbursement, as an acknowledgement that the commons belong to all.
Nationally-based programs will be supplemented with international, mainly North-South, transfers. “Earth for all” includes the low- and middle-income countries, which must be compensated while also playing their part in reclaiming the natural world. International transfers of income and green technology from the wealthy countries to the less wealthy (some already promised but not delivered) are necessary parts of the Great Leap. Intellectual property rights, which usually depend in part on public research organizations for innovations, will not stand in the way of the needed “green” technological diffusion.
The benefits from this giant leap will accrue to all, rich and poor, North and South. Benefits include clean air and water, sufficient and healthy food, the end of concern about ecological collapse, and a greater human harmony. It all sounds good.
But how will this giant leap be achieved?
The report acknowledges that the “winner-take-all” capitalism that emerged in the late 1970s is the major obstacle. Privileged elites will not surrender their exalted life-styles willingly. Right-wing populism, with its denialism of climate change, is a major problem. Thus, social movements will need to mobilize to overcome the political obstacles and clear the way for the five turnarounds, the report suggests. The authors cannot be accused of ignoring the political hurdles.
But acknowledging the obstacles is not enough. What is needed is a feasible political strategy. The latter consists of four interrelated elements: the goal(s) to be achieved, the agent who will mobilize to press the needed changes, the target of their political actions, and the tactics that might be effective. The report scores highly only of the first criterion.
The goal is clear and highly appealing: a giant leap to an egalitarian, just, and ecologically sustainable world by means of five interrelated turnarounds. So far, so good. But the “winner-take-all” capitalism stands in the way. How will this economic system be transformed, and into what? On these questions, the report is ambiguous. It doesn’t mention socialism as an option, but instead opts for an ambiguous “Earth -for-all” economy. Is this a reformed version of capitalism? A lacuna lies at the centre of the analysis.
Who are the agents of this Giant Leap? Apparently everyone. To achieve the goal, the report contends, an “engaged majority” must demand that governments act decisively. This majority will draw on “left and right, the centrists, greens, nationalists and globalists, workers and employers, rebels and traditionalists.” These social forces will come together in a powerful social movement. Such a plan is naïve. Populist parties, many of them climate deniers of one sort of another, command wide support. What will bring the disparate agents together in a common endeavour? If reason ruled the world, a socio-ecological transition would already be underway.
Who are the targets against which political action should be directed? The report does not provide a clear answer. The “winner-take-all” economy is a target for sure, but precisely what elements of this destructive economy - corporations? bankers? government? – are the enemies to be persuaded or overturned? The detrimental role of populist parties is alluded to, but no analysis of how to enlist or eliminate these entities is provided.
Effective tactics for dealing with opponents and impelling governments forward are unaddressed. Social movements will play an important role. That’s reasonable. However, how they will organize, who they will mobilize, and how they will influence government and abolish the existing predatory economy is not addressed. Some references are made to conventional politics, though without acknowledging that these tactics have been tried and found wanting.
Does the absence of a realistic political strategy mean that we consign “Earth for All” to the category of mere wishful thinking? That judgment is harsh. Even if the myriad authors do not know how to get it done, they do show the technological and financial feasibility of a radical giant leap. Globally, we have the money, the knowledge, and the means to save the earth. That’s important to state.
Nevertheless, the difficult task of constructing a realistic political pathway to a social-ecological transition remains. How do we rid ourselves of the winner-take-all economy, and what takes its place? What coalitions will cohere to take on the largest challenge in human history? This important part of the story remains to be written.