Despite many successes in creating a more integrated and stable global economy, a new report by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability — Resilient people, resilient planet: a future worth choosing — recognizes the current global order’s failure, even inability, to implement the drastic changes needed for true “sustainability.”
The panel’s report presents a vision for a “sustainable planet, just society and growing economy,” as well as 56 policy recommendations for realizing that goal. It is arguably the most prominent international call for a radical redesign of the global economy ever issued.
However, for all of its rich content, Resilient people, resilient planet is short on concrete, practical solutions. Its most valuable short-term recommendation — the replacement of current development indicators (GDP or variants thereof) with more comprehensive, inclusive metrics for wealth — seems tacked on almost as an afterthought. Without quick, decisive international action to prioritize sustainability over the “status quo,” the report risks suffering the fate of its 1987 predecessor, the pioneering Brundtland Report, which introduced the concept of sustainability, similarly called for a paradigm shift, and was then ignored.
Resilient people, resilient planet opens by paraphrasing Charles Dickens: The world today is “experiencing the best of times, and the worst of times.” As a whole, humanity has achieved unparalleled prosperity; great strides are being made to reduce global poverty; and technological advances are revolutionizing our lives, stamping out diseases, and transforming communication.
On the other hand, inequality remains stubbornly high, and is increasing in many countries. Short-term political and economic strategies are driving consumerism and debt, which, together with growth in the global population — set to reach nearly 9 billion by 2040 — is subjecting the natural environment to growing stress. By 2030, notes the Panel, “the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy, and 30 percent more water — all at a time when environmental limits are threatening supply.” Despite significant advances in the past 25 years, humanity has failed to conserve resources, safeguard natural ecosystems, or otherwise ensure its own long-term viability.
Can a bureaucratic report — however powerful — create change? Will the world now rally, unlike in 1987, to the panel’s call to “transform the global economy?” Perhaps real action is born of crisis itself. As the panel points out, it has never been clearer that we need a paradigm shift to achieve truly sustainable global development.
However, who will coordinate an international process to study how to encourage such a shift, and who will ensure that -scientific findings lead to meaningful public policy processes?
First, there must be a significant international and interdisciplinary research effort to tackle these issues comprehensively; the panel’s recommendation to establish an international science panel is therefore a step in the right direction, but creating such a body will take time, and the challenge is to get the best science to policymakers quickly.
The 2010 Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress, commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, echoed the current consensus among social scientists that we are mismeasuring our lives by using per capita GDP as a yardstick for progress. We need new indicators that tell us if we are destroying the productive base that supports our well-being.