Blue Planet Laureates UNEP paper

Another paper with widespread support has just been published. It is a synthesis of papers written by the 18 past winners of the Blue Planet prize, commissioned by UNEP to mark their 40th anniversary and will form part of the input to the Rio+20 conference later this year.

Some commentary on the paper can be found at the Guardian together with a link to scribd to download the paper. (I’m hoping there will be a more robust way of getting it: it was not the easiest process, and what I got is missing half of the diagrams.)

The Guardian’s summary is that “Civilisation faces [a] ‘perfect storm of ecological and social problems'”, and like the Ash Wednesday declaration it stresses that this is not just a technical problem, but one requiring major changes in governance, social behaviour and economics.

The paper covers a lot of familiar territory, and whoever compiled it has done well to combine the very disparate views one would expect from the likes of Paul Ehrlich, James Lovelock, Nicholas Stern, Bob Watson and Gro Harlem Brundtland. However, some of the disagreements you would expect such people to have do emerge, and I’m going to note some of the places where the paper holds a less coherent position than the Guardian’s coverage would imply, reflecting some of the main challenges faced by the green movement at the minute.

Unsurprisingly one of these is the economy, and the questions of whether growth is desirable or even possible, and the role of the private sector. The paper speaks strongly of a

global society infected by the irrational belief that physical economies can grow forever… And the perpetual growth myth is enthusiastically embraced by politicians and economists as an excuse to avoid tough decisions facing humanity.

and notes

The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage.

with arguments for more local control over energy and resources. However, elsewhere the private sector is seen as a large part of the solution, and references are made to a low-carbon (as opposed not low-consumption) economy and a presumption that the global economy will be three times bigger in 2050 than at present.

A second key issue is localism versus high-tech solutions. A case study involves the training of illiterate rural grandmothers as solar engineers in Africa. This could be seen as part of the next bullet point in the vision: a desired “demystified and decentralized system where the management, control and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the communities themselves and not dependent on paper qualified professionals from outside the villages”. The problem, of course, is that solar panels require specialised technology and expertise to construct.

Finally, the paper also advocates both an accounting system for biodiversity and that we at least consider GM crops. Both of these are, of course, somewhat controversial, and again don’t seem to fit inside the localised system proposed elsewhere.

These points should not be taken as detracting from the clear messages elsewhere that our current system is failing drastically and needs urgent action. But it does show that we also need urgent discussion and compromise on what action we call for, or else if and when the green movement wins the debate on the existence of problems, we’ll be in trouble!

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