Obsession with growth is asset stripping the planet

27.9.2010 (Independent)

By John Lichfield in Lyon

Obsession with economic growth and the greed of financial speculators are destroying
efforts to conserve the world’s diminishing resources.

British and French speakers from radically different backgrounds, and with sharply
contrasting styles, found themselves singing an unlikely political duet at the
Lyon environment forum. Big business, they said, must be stopped from “asset stripping”
a failing planet.

Andrews Simms, the policy director of the New Economics Foundation, said the
“oil-fired” obsession with growth amounted to “treating the biosphere like a business
in liquidation”.

Eva Joly, a former French investigating magistrate who once specialised in uncovering
corruption in big business, accused hedge funds and off-shore financial havens
of encouraging “destructive speculation in hard-pressed resources” including oil,
water and land.

The flamboyant Mr Simms amused a mostly French audience at the Lyon Sustainable
Planet Forum by illustrating his talk with lurid metaphors.

“A hamster doubles in size each week until about six weeks old, then slows,”
he said. “If it didn’t, on its first birthday you would be facing a nine billion
tonne hamster that could eat in a day all the corn produced in the world in a

So much, he suggested, for the argument that economic growth, consuming ever
larger amounts of finite resources, was the “natural” condition of humanity.

He was joined in a debate on how to preserve the world’s resources by Ms Joly,
who first came to France as a Norwegian au pair. She went on to become a feared
judicial investigator and then an MEP. She is regarded as the likely candidate
of the French environment movement in the next presidential election in 2012.

Compared to Mr Simms, Ms Joly’s style was dry and factual: still more magisterial
than political. She said that there was an often neglected new threat to third
world resources from the “constant appetite of hedge-funds for new forms of profitable
speculation”. Now that the bubble in the property market in the developed world
had collapsed, she said, speculators were turning to natural resources and concealing
parts of their profits in off-shore accounts.

Mr Simms made a broader argument. He said the world could no longer afford to
pursue an economic model based entirely on competition and growth. Mankind must
break the “vicious cycle” which assumed that greater wealth and consumption always
equalled greater happiness. We would have to seek alternative approaches, based
on principles of “equilibrium” – such as “cooperation” and “symbiosis – which
were as much present in nature as raw competition.

“If lucky, he said, “we have we 75 months, until the end of 2016, before the
accumulation and concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make it more
rather than less likely that global average surface temperatures will rise 2 degrees
above pre-industrial levels – critically this is the level around which climate-driven
environmental dominoes fall unpredictably.”

And yet, the world was hesitating to save itself, he said. “We have submitted
control over our own environmental destiny to a set of economic ideas that parade
as if they were unquestionable, natural laws.”



see also


24.9.2010 (Independent)

Can the world live with the pace of economic growth? Time to find out

Michael McCarthy reports from the Sustainable Planet Forum in Lyons

It used to be the biggest question, but now it seems to be the forgotten question
of the environment movement: can economic growth continue indefinitely?
And this weekend it’s going to be brought back into the spotlight at a major
international gathering co-sponsored by The Independent.


For three days from today, politicians, environmentalists, writers and thinkers
from Britain, France and Italy will gather in the French city of Lyon to debate
the idea of “A Sustainable Planet”. Sustainability: that’s the forgotten issue
which until a decade ago was the green movement’s major concern. Can we provide
for our needs now, in the present generation, without ruining the prospects of
the generations of the future?

It’s absolutely central, yet in recent years environmental campaigners seem to
have become entirely preoccupied with global warming, to the extent that the environment
movement has more or less morphed into the climate change movement.

This is perfectly understandable, as the climate threat is a terminal one. But
it does mean that some other vital green issues have been shifted into the background,
such as the worldwide threats to wildlife, and the question of sustainability
and sustainable development, which ultimately is concerned with economic growth.

Economists may think of growth as endless, but the fact is that the Earth is
finite, and sooner or later, as the human population soars towards nine billion,
limits will be reached.

In fact, in some areas, such as the exploitation of fish stocks, they have been
reached already. Can we go on like this? In the Sustainable Planet Forum, which
has been organised by the The Independent, the French newspaper Libération and
the Italian daily La Repubblica, we will be examining the proposition in depth
with more than 150 participants in three days of debates, opinion and exchanges.

French speakers known in Britain include the openly gay mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, who beat Boris Johnson to the idea of free bikes in London, and will speak
about cities facing up to the environmental challenge, Jack Lang, the former culture minister, who will debate the idea of “Who benefits from
creation?”, and Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the photographer who, in recent years, through his aerial photographs of threatened
landscapes, has become France’s best-known environmental champion, a sort of cross
between David Attenborough and Jonathon Porritt.

Eight of Britain’s leading environmental thinkers will be taking part: Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and Britain’s first Green MP; Porritt, who until last
year was chairman of the Government’s green advisers, the Sustainable Development
Commission; Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, the lobby group for organic agriculture
and food; Tom Burke, the Government’s green adviser; Tony Juniper, the leading green writer and campaigner; Andrew Simms, the policy director of think-tank the New Economics Foundation; Peter Ainsworth, the former Tory shadow environment secretary; and Myles Allen, leading climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

These individuals have vast experience of environmental campaigning: three of
them are former directors of Friends of the Earth (Burke, Porritt and, most recently,
Juniper), while one (Lord Melchett) is a former director of Greenpeace. All of
them are passionately concerned with the idea of “A Sustainable Planet” but they
will all highlight different aspects of it.

Porritt’s attack on the belief in growth is particularly acerbic. He will tell
the conference: “The all-pervading disconnect from the physical reality of what
is going on in the world becomes more and more surreal. Cotton prices hit a 15-year
high. Emissions of greenhouse gases continue on their relentless upward trajectory.
The price of wheat soars as crops are consumed by fires in Russia or devastating
floods in Pakistan. Oil prices edge higher as more and more business leaders warn
of the growing risks of ‘peak oil’. Fisheries around the world report declining
catches. Water scarcity affects the lives of hundreds of millions. And the competition
for land and access to raw materials intensifies as China goes on a buying spree
in Africa, South East Asia and South America.”

Porritt also challenges other environmental and social campaigners, saying: “Millions of environmental campaigners seriously believe that we can mitigate
climate change, slow the loss of threatened species and habitats, manage chronic
water and resource shortages, and put an end to over-fishing and continuing soil
erosion, whilst sticking with pretty much the same kind of economic growth that
brought these natural systems to the edge of collapse in the first place.  In
all honesty, they’re mad.”

Juniper will be saying that we have to work with business, but a great deal needs
to be done to make business “think ecologically”, and Ainsworth will be giving
a practical politician’s view and saying that growth cannot be discarded, as it
is what too many people want, but we have to find was of mitigating its effects.

In three other illuminating talks, Burke will be arguing that we do not need
nuclear power to fight global warming, Lord Melchett that there is no future for
GMOs, and Dr Allen that we need less government in the battle for the climate
(Dr Allen’s contention is that the way to solve the problem is to make carbon
capture and disposal mandatory as a condition of mining or importing fossil fuels
– rather than endless government initiatives).

The British green movement is thus coming together to address once more the somewhat
forgotten issue of sustainability, and we consider these contributions so significant
that we will be publishing them in full in a special supplement to The Independent
next Wednesday. In the meantime, we will be reporting from Lyon on the three days
of environmental debate, exchanges, and, as the French like to say, “engagement”.

Michael McCarthy



see also


Leading article: Answers needed at Lyon conference

24.9.2010 (Independent)

There are are still large sections of the general population determined to stick
their heads in the sand rather than confront the overwhelming scientific consensus
that climate change is not some vague hypothesis but a grim present reality. But
the world’s leading scientists are convinced. So much so that, in many ways, concern
for the environment has largely become concern about climate change. In one sense
this is quite right, for the tipping point to avert disaster is coming rapidly
upon us, if indeed it is not already here.   There is no more urgent issue for
action, international, national and local.


But this apocalyptic preoccupation has a downside. It has displaced debate on
other issues about how we best live on this planet with a lighter footprint, about
how we provide for the needs of today without storing up an ever-accumulating
bill to be paid by our children and grandchildren.

A decade ago, the big ecological issue was how we can live sustainably. Today
it has become the great forgotten question.

To bring it back into the spotlight The Independent, along with our French and
Italian counterparts, the newspapers Libération and La Repubblica, is sponsoring
a three-day brainstorm which begins in Lyon today. It brings together politicians,
environmental scientists and heads of business from across Europe to debate the
present and future of our planet.

Some of the conversations that will take place are philosophical. Are there any
universal values? Should we stop the rich from getting richer? Does religion make
us better environmentalists? But others are very specific. Can we do without nuclear
power or genetically modified foods? Is there a threat to our drinking water?
How can we improve the carbon footprint of towns?

Other debates will question the roles and special interests of particular social
and geographical sectors. How can businesses be more environmentally friendly?
Is corporate social responsibility a sham? Can we find well-being at work? What
future for retired people? How can we reconcile the social and environmental interests
of the rich and poor worlds? Will the West’s looming age of austerity be good
or bad for the environment? Is economic growth the answer or the problem?

The solutions on offer may not be simple. Some may even be mutually contradictory.
But declining to face up to questions of competing rights and priorities would
lead us down a road to oblivion. That is why we will be reporting in detail on
the outcomes of the Lyon discussions in the days to come.