They were right, the world has ended. The world as we knew it came to an end more or less when the Mayan calendar ran out, on winter solstice, 2012.
The old world that died in 2012 had a stable climate, cheap commodities, governments managing change, high growth in output and consumption, and corporations driving economies and serving societies all deeply infused with a blind belief in free markets.
The new world that begins now, in 2013, will be defined by frightening climate instability, commodity and food prices ratcheting skywards, impotent governments reduced to spectators in their own countries, continuing recession, and corporations either being hounded as common criminals or laurelled as champions of virtuous change. An internet-enabled anarchy of the wronged will pull entire countries along unplanned roller-coaster rides through a Disneyland world of commotion and crises. Briefly, here is why I think so.
Breaching the limits of the world’s ecosystems
Our world is rapidly approaching planetary boundaries – across climate, biodiversity, nitrogen, phosphorous, ocean acidification, freshwater scarcity, inter alia. Economies worldwide are still headed in the wrong direction – towards resource exhaustion, social disparities, and persistent poverty. What we need is change at the speed of light, driven by bold leaders. What we have is change at the speed of change, hesitantly nudged by cautious governments. Too little, too late, such prevarication will spill into natural disasters. We saw some as 2012 ended – we shall see more as the earth’s ecosystems do what all systems in equilibrium try their best to do: stay in equilibrium, until they simply cannot. Until what we call “resilience” is replaced by “thresholds” being breached, planetary boundaries being crossed.
Breached thresholds will lead ecosystems into new states of equilibrium, which may not be any good for human life, society, or economy.
The vulnerable will suffer most
Increasing climate disruptions will cause higher price volatility in agricommodities, due to crop failures and crop losses. The world is over-invested in intensive agriculture, and due to a corresponding lack of investment to improve yields and resilience for smallholder farming, the poor will actually suffer the most from these supply disruptions and price shocks.
In the absence of political leadership, others will provide bold leadership, such as corporations, who are the lion’s share of today’s economy, GDP and jobs.Some have already shown real leadership in 2012, such as by measuring anddisclosing their externalities (Puma), or lengthening their investor and analyst horizons by stopping quarterly reports (Unilever). Many more will follow these trendsetters in 2013.
An end to crony capitalism
At the same time, adherents of the old model of corporation – profit-fixated, externality-churning, disconnected from social purpose – will find the going tougher. Public patience with being exploited by the freedoms of freemarket capitalism is running thin. Public outrage at investment banking excesses has not died even four years after the global financial crisis. ”Corporate externalities” is no longer an obscure term hidden at the end of economics textbooks, but a common phrase in news media.
Corporations that habitually free-lunched off global and national governance weaknesses and cheap natural resources will realise that their free lunch is nearly over; mainly because the “crony” governments of their crony-capitalist alliances are either emaciated, or bankrupt, or cannot toe the line of corporate profitability any longer in the face of scientific evidence and citizen activism.Indeed, from the first Arab Spring uprising to a campaign of moral outrage in Britain over corporate tax avoidance, which immediately yielded millions from Starbucks, the internet-enabled anarchy of the wronged has become the vehicle of successful change.
Many years ago, Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things said: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Winter solstice, 2012, was a quiet day. The earth’s magnetic field did not flip. Planes did not fall out of the sky. A nuclear holocaust was not launched. A giant meteorite did not slam into earth.
But if you had listened for a quieter strain, you would have heard her. A new world had begun.
Which environmental economist said: “We need to take stock and attach value to our natural resources and ecosystems such that we may include their value in planning and decision making processes as well as in our national accounts and balance sheets.” ?
The answer is, none. That was President Ian Khama of Botswana, speaking at a Summit for Sustainability in Africa, hosted in his capital city, Gaborone, by his Government and Conservation International, 24th- 25th May. Other participants at this meeting included the heads of state of Liberia, Namibia, and Mozambique and the vice president of Tanzania.
Botswana is the size of France, but it has just 2.2 million people. It is Africa’s largest beef exporter. It also has a huge population of 150,000 wild elephants , and is a growing eco-tourism destination. The summit held here in Gaborone was remarkable for four reasons : because of who participated, when it was held, what was committed and why.
Who participated ? Ten African nations who are all interested in progressing a ‘Green Economy’ transition in their respective countries, whilst others in G-77 still think ‘Green Economy’ is a devious Western capitalist plot to hold back development.
When was it held? Less than a month before ‘Rio+20’, so that the ‘Gaborone Declaration’ can feed into the discourse at Rio+20, and actually deliver a serious outcome at Rio+20 – so long as other nations endorse it .
So what exactly was agreed ? The signatories agreed to develop ecosystem accounting in order to adjust national accounts (System of National Accounts, SNA) as well as Corporate Performance for the invisible impacts that government policies and business activity have on natural capital. They also agreed to annual reporting of progress on these fronts.
Why did they commit this ? Because, they all see natural capital is as their biggest “asset for development” (in the words of President Khama) and believe that its economic invisibility has been a reason for its neglect and sub-optimal management, and they clearly want this to stop. This is also what the G8+5 project TEEB ( see http://www.teebweb.org ) has been saying in its series of reports at COP-9 and COP-10 of CBD.
Another participant at this ‘Summit for Sustainability in Africa’ summarized the challenge thus : “Natural capital – our ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources – underpins economies, societies and individual well-being. The values of its myriad benefits are, however, often overlooked or poorly understood. They are rarely taken fully into account through economic signals in markets, or in day to day decisions by business and citizens, nor indeed reflected adequately in the accounts of society”.
This participant was not an environmental economist either. It happens to be President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.