Responsibility in a unified world

Published: Tuesday 30 June 1992

BIG PROBLEMS cannot be solved without a big vision. And big visions do not come without big dreams.

The Rio conference, which will bring together more heads of state and government than any conference ever before, could have made it big if it was born out of a big dream. But, as things stand, the Rio conference will get to be called a success or a failure simply on the basis of whether these world leaders sign the two conventions on global warming and biodiversity or not.

The biggest problem with the Rio conference has been its petty-mindedness. It has consistently refused to look into the basic processes that lead to environmental destruction. The world's political leaders have shown great fear of the economic and political restructuring that such an approach would demand. The result, on one hand, is a petty focus, promoted by the industrialised countries, on a few specific environmental problems, and a counter to that by the developing world stressing national sovereign rights over natural resources and compensation for the additional costs that would be incurred in dealing with these problems.

But what are the issues that lie at the heart of the global environmental problem? The simple fact is that today the consumption levels -- of most of us in the North and a few of us in the South -- have reached a level that the earth's capacity to bear has been more or less exhausted. The consumption of the rich now has adverse impacts across national boundaries and reaches out to citizens of other countries. Unfortunately, the world does not have an adequate system of checks and balances -- both at national and at global levels -- to address these problems.

If we want to control global environmental problems, we will have to create an effective system of checks and balances. These systems can definitely be developed -- both in the political sphere and in the economic sphere.

If a person's consumption has an adverse impact on the person itself, then we can expect reason to dawn upon the person soon and changes to take place accordingly. The problem arises when one person benefits from environmental exploitation and another has to suffer. Then law must intervene to allow the sufferer to bring the environmental exploiter to book. Unfortunately, at the global level, no such law exists, especially where environmental exploiters are whole societies. The US citizens can push in substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the air and threaten large parts of Bangladesh with submergence. But Bangladeshis have no lever of power to control unbridled US consumption.

Beyond a point the sovereignty argument cannot work in a world which has reached such life-threatening levels and forms of consumption cutting across national borders. All countries will have to accept a basic minimum global discipline. That much is undeniable and pressures will continue to exist and grow even after the Rio conference. The issue is, therefore, simply one of creating a system of checks and balances that are fair to all parties concerned.

The northern efforts to use aid, trade and debt as levers of power to introduce environmental discipline must be rejected primarily because they give power only to one side: the North. But the South itself will have to propose, today or tomorrow, and fight for a system that gives power to all sides. The US Congress too, must learn to be policed and circumscribed by outsiders.

The second problem lies at the level of decisions that are made daily by individuals and firms. We live in a world in which greater and greater consumption has become a normal desire. Every effort must, therefore, be made to reduce this desire through education and spread of human values. But this alone will not be adequate. Every consumption that has an adverse impact on the environment must be penalised. Again, the trouble is that the world market system does not ensure that the rich pay the full ecological costs of their consumption. In fact, ecological costs are usually externalised and have to be borne by those who have created the least problems: the poor.

Why do we have a global warming problem? Because there are no costs attached to the use of the atmosphere. Why do we have a biodiversity problem? Because, despite its economic value, we do not pay anything to use it. If we had paid the cost of using the atmosphere and of biodiversity, the economic system would have moved towards appropriate conservation and environmentally-sound technological systems.

These are things that the market will not do by itself. It does not respond to such signals automatically. Public leaders have to design public policies to ensure that the market responds in the right way. The free market must be harnessed to become a fair market.

Ultimately, the question is whether we who have become global consumers of natural resources and technologies are also prepared to accept the political and economic responsibilities that go along with this globalisation process? The North insists on the opening up of Third World markets and devaluation of Third World resources, but it is not prepared to accept this corresponding responsibility.

The environmental problem will get solved only if we accept the global economic and political rights of others. And this issue will keep coming back to us, regardless of whether Rio fails or not.

As things stand, the realisation that 'Only One Earth' also means 'Only One People' is still a big dream.

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