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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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2 Globalisation and the global environment: three views

2.1 Political responses to climate change and the environment

Not for the first time in this course, you are faced with a term that is important but difficult to define precisely. Although the fact that plenty of people from different standpoints are using the term ‘globalisation’ is some measure of its importance, it can be confusing to find that there are different ways of framing what it means for humans and the environment today and in the future. In this section, the range of political responses to climate change and environment–economy interactions is organised more generally under three headings: business learns, radical break and sustainability steps(Table 1). It is a little easier to think about what the terms mean if you begin to give them a personality. Figure 3 shows three good examples.

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Figure 3
Figure 3 Three different takes on sustainability: how far apart are they? (a) ‘Green’ businessman Ray Anderson; (b) ecologist and campaigner Vandana Shiva; (c) environmentalist and adviser Jonathan Porritt. (Photos: a, Interface Research Corporation; b, Pier Paolo Cito/PA Photos; c, Sean Dempsey/PA Photos)

Who should we have in mind when we think about these three categories? For business learns, think of the sharp-suited business people working for one of the major oil, computing, car or food companies. These have grown from being national concerns (albeit often with an international reach) to immense organisations that are globally networked, often with revenues larger than those of many less-developed countries. Their political power, although difficult to measure, can influence the thinking of the world's most powerful democratically elected governments.

The caricature of corporate executives tends to suggest that their pursuit of profit and growth ensures that they have no concern for the environment or the world's poor people. This is hotly contested by those who believe business must, in its own self-interest, learn to integrate sustainability thinking. This camp sees growth allied to sound economics (that internalises environmental and social externalities) as the only means of achieving sustainable development. They argue that the spread of corporate social and environmental responsibility (i.e. independently audited reporting in parallel with annual financial results), will transform the workings of global capital and lead to sustainability. These new ways of summarising business progress on sustainability are looked at in the next section. Those making the business case for sustainability don't believe the nation state is the best way to organise this transformation (although many accept that a degree of regulation is desirable) but favour voluntarism. In other words, they believe that rational self-interest will see companies choose a sustainable path as the only way to ensure long-term growth (Figure 4). This perspective is generally in favour of taking risks that promise to accelerate development (e.g. nuclear power or genetic-modification technology).

Figure 4
Figure 4 Production proclaiming a clean conscience: the Ecover washing products factory aims to minimise environmental impact from its heat-insulating and biodiversity-friendly green roof downwards. (Source: Ecover Limited)

The radical break view sees this as empty greenwash. The strongest image of radicals is of the anti-globalisation protestors, who from the late 1990s made media events out of the dry textual gymnastics of trade negotiations by organising major demonstrations (Figure 5). These demonstrations have become a regular feature of international meetings on development and/or the environment. The media's love of conflict, and the protestors' gift for creating compelling media images, underlined the sense that a very different way of looking at the world was being presented. The protestors are only the most visible expression of a line of argument that originated intellectually in the 1960s in the ‘new-left’ and the so-called new social movements, including radical environmentalism and feminism. All of these sought radical alternatives to both state socialism and capitalism. The alternative they propose today is difficult to pin down, but generally involves both a revival of state power, with the aim of taming corporations, and a radical localisation on the scale and pervasiveness of the globalisation that they charge with so many ills. It is assumed that the state will regulate environmental protection and social welfare standards and also, via protectionism, nurture locally based economies. Examples of the radicals' vision include the experiments in local currencies that are outlined in the final part of this section. A radically precautionary approach is followed with regard to new technologies that carried apparent social or environmental risks, however small.

Figure 5
Figure 5 Corporate environmental and social reputations are a battleground. (Photo: Steve Morgan/Greenpeace)

It is less easy to visualise the sustainability steps view, partly reflecting the fact that it is not so easy to categorise in the media or public imagination. This heading can include people who view economic globalisation as a given, but see ways of ameliorating its worst aspects and are realistic about what can be achieved. If we are to place the radicals in an intellectual descent from the new left, those who believe that progress can best be made towards sustainability via incremental steps belong to a different tradition. They link to reformist movements for social democracy; these reformists worked ‘within the system’ to extend the right to vote for women and working-class men, and later created the welfare state. In other words, they seek change, but are looking to bring it about within the existing system and accept its constraints. These ‘sustainability steps’ reformers are offering a descriptive account of what the world is like (flows of capital shaping, and being shaped by, social, political and environmental change). However, they also identify means of progressing towards more environmentally and socially sustainable development. There are already hints about how this view of the sustainable economy might work. One of the most charismatic people who could be placed in the ‘sustainability steps’ category is Jonathan Porritt (Figure 3c). Although he argues for big steps, and soon, he does believe that sustainability within a capitalist system is possible. He summarises his argument thus:

the biophysical limits to growth … will compel a profound transformation of contemporary capitalism … an evolved, intelligent and elegant form of capitalism that puts the Earth at its very centre … and ensures that all people are its beneficiaries in recognition of our unavoidable interdependence.

(Porritt, 2005, p. 324)

One such hint is the rapid growth in developed country markets for fair trade, organic and sustainability-certified goods (e.g. tea, coffee, wine, timber and seafood); these means of making consumption sustainable are described more fully in the next section. Others include the attempts described in Chapter 6 to come up with a single sustainability indicator. The processes of localisation and globalisation are viewed as inextricably linked. Although this has been seen as producing social and environmental ‘bads’ at both ends of the scale, it is precisely this interconnection between local and global perspectives that holds the potential to transform the world for the better.