Who cares about poor people and trees anyway?
The “Salzburg Trilogue” is a kind of a summit held in Austria, bringing politicians, business leaders, and academics to discuss world issues. This year’s was held under the banner of “sustainable development and social inclusion”. Participants talked about rising income inequality, the decline of working and middle class wages, the dysfunctions and crimes of the financial sector, the exhaustion of natural resources and the unsustainability of the current economic model…
Given these decidedly “progressive” themes, it may be surprising to know that the meeting’s participants included the head of the World Trade Organization Pascal Lamy, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and the former centre-right Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. It also had participants representing Europe, the United States, Brazil, China, Russia, India and Africa, each bringing a background research paper for the occasion.
But if there was consensus on the need for action (last year’s Trilogue had concluded there needed to be “Norms for Global Governance,”) there were many who believed that actually taking action would prove impossible. Quite simply, the differences in economic development and culture between countries are too great for there to be a common agenda on these issues.
Mzukisi Qobo of the South African Institute of International Affairs summed up the state of affairs: “It is unlikely that coherent global norms are possible in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, given the radical multipolarity of the emerging actors that were on the margins of global governance, (and who are now trying to) carve out influence in debates with advanced industrial economies.”
Different values and interests
The trouble is partly one of culture (subjective national preferences) and partly one of interests. There are resource-rich, typically oil and gas producing countries that have little time for environmental concerns even after they reach a relatively high level of development. These include Brazil, the United States and Russia. Environmental standards and reduced energy production hurt their economies much more than they do resource-poor places such as Western Europe and Japan.
Then there is the abject poverty of much of the world. On India, Lydia Powell argues that “‘Economic growth rate’ is the only indicator of ‘progress’ to which all Indian politicians, even on the extremes, pay homage.” Dr Junglie Zhang of the Asia Society states simply “China does not accept the existence of a conflict between social and economic goals.” With absolute poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy still affecting hundreds of millions of people, social and environmental concerns can seem to be wealthy nation’s luxuries. As one participant put it: “What is this anti-growth rhetoric supposed to mean for an African, an Indian or a Chinese?”
Then finally there is culture. Europe is perhaps unique in that, as Dmitris Zenghelis put it, “environmental and social sensitivities are woven into the fabric of social consciousness”. In fact almost all countries in the world share what some have called a “socialist gene,” the United States being the biggest exception. One participant stressed that the Republican Party, or half the U.S. ruling class, basically rejects social and environmental objectives on principle and that, due to the Constitution’s checks and balances, this effectively blocks all decisive action by the U.S. government. Joshua Meltzer and David Steven of the Brookings Institution state simply in their background paper that “A vision of this kind has no chance of adoption in the United States.”
How then to get out of the impasse? Meltzer and Steven go on to note that “there is little point in expecting the United States to adopt or advocate policies that run counter to its interests and values”. In this they are certainly right. No individual and no nation can be expected to go against their own interests.
But one can make an argument for social equity and environmental sustainability on grounds of enlightened self-interest. On the environment, the tragedy is that those poorest countries going all-out for growth are also those most likely to suffer from environmental catastrophe. As Qobo notes: “Africa’s vulnerability to climate variability and change has serious implications for economic and social development. Many countries rely on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, all of which are climate sensitive.” India, Brazil and even to some extent China are in similar situations. On social equity, there is mounting evidence that more economically equal societies tend to be healthier, less violent, slimmer, and have greater equality of opportunity than unequal societies.
These are arguments that can be made, although it remains to be seen whether the ruling politico-business elite across the Western and emerging worlds will be sensitive to them. Nations that want to move forward will have to at times go it alone or act through “coalitions of the willing,” as well as by pressuring others to join them. It will also involve political risks that some leaders may suffer from. But there is genuine action on this front. In 2009, South Korea dedicated $84.5 billion to environment-related industries over five years, or 2% of GDP. France has recently broken with the Western consensus, reducing the national budget deficit not through spending cuts to healthcare, education and pensions, but by €7.2 billion in tax increases, mostly on the wealthy. Nations, even operating in good faith, cannot be expected to agree all the time when their interests are divergent, but that can’t be an excuse for national inaction.