PCDForum Column #12 Release Date April 15, 1991

by David C. Korten

In 1992, the governments of the world and thousands of citizens organizations will assemble in Brazil for the UN Conference on Environment and Development There they will formalize agreements intended to resolve major global environmental problems. Countless environmental issues have been identified. Yet three fundamental questions, the answers to which are essential to any successful conference outcome, have been consistently sidestepped in official forums.

Question 1: Is sustained economic growth possible within a finite ecosystem?

The prevailing wisdom says that economic growth will provide us the additional wealth needed to invest in cleaning up the environment. This answer argues in favor of business as usual, only applying greater skill, wisdom, and commitment in the quest for sustained economic growth.

Yet the data indicate that environmental destruction is a direct consequence of a world economy that has outgrown the capability of earth's ecology to sustain it. If so, then more aggregate growth will only exacerbate the problem and hasten ecosystem collapse.

Those who challenge the conventional wisdom are dismissed as insensitive to political reality and the needs of the poor. The real issue, however, is the reluctance of the wealthy to accept the obvious implication that if further aggregate growth will not resolve the global crisis, then the only option that will assure the survival of human civilization is a massive reallocation of existing global wealth. Unfortunately, self-deception will not save us.

Question 2: Is the removal of barriers to the free international flow of trade and capital consistent with the essential need for community and environmental stewardship?

Conventional wisdom says that economic growth, and thereby the well-being of people, is best served by the elimination of barriers to the free flow of trade and capital across national borders. We face two problems here, the first being the growing body of evidence indicating that increases in economic output do not necessarily result in improved human well-being.

The second is less evident, yet even more basic. The competitive market is a powerful force for human advancement and one of the most important institutional inventions of human society. However, as with any powerful force, including the state, it may turn destructive if unrestrained. In the East we have seen the bonds of community and the values of environmental stewardship--both essential to a just and peaceful human society living in sustainable harmony with its natural environment--sacrificed to the unrestrained power of the state. In the West they are being sacrificed to the unrestrained forces of the market. Herein lies a simple lesson. The forces of both state and market must be balanced one against the other, and held accountable to the people's interests through the mechanisms of civil society. Both balance and accountability are lost when goods and capital move freely across national borders and people thereby lose their ability to regulate their own national economies.

Question 3: Is official international assistance part of the solution or part of the problem?

According to conventional wisdom increases in international assistance are essential to environmental protection and the eradication of poverty in the South. While international assistance has continuously increased over the past four decades, poverty and environmental destruction have consistently worsened. In the meantime assisted economies have become strangled with debt--the majority of it from official sources--further deepening poverty and pressing assisted countries to mine environmental resources for foreign exchange.

Even if we discount the growing number of donor assisted projects actively exacerbating these unfavorable trends, we must conclude that if its purpose has been to create equitable and sustainable prosperity for assisted countries, official international assistance has failed. There is every reason to expect that more aid will only make the problem worse.

The official agencies responsible for the UNCED are not asking these basic questions. To the contrary, they repeatedly reaffirm the conventional wisdom with such ideological commitment that those who harbor doubts prefer to hold them in silence lest they be branded heretics.

It is unlikely that the delegates to the UNCED will find the right answers to our global crisis without first asking the right questions. Concerned citizens have no alternative. We must commit ourselves to assuring that these and other fundamental questions--no matter how heretical they may seem--are asked and thoroughly examined within the context of the UNCED and other official forums.

David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column is prepared and distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.

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