Posted by: r.m. | May 15, 2012

‘the living planet’ – and the need for courageous environmentalists

The World Wildlife Fund has published its “The Living Planet – 2012′ report.  Available here lpr_2012_final_120507[1]  or here

The situation remains bad, and the trend for overconsumption and exploitation and rampant degradation continues.

  • The Living Planet Report uses the global Living Planet Index to measure changes in the health of the planet’s ecosystems by tracking 9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species. The global Index shows almost a 30 per cent decrease since 1970, with the tropics the hardest hit – where there has been a 60 per cent decline in less than 40 years. Just as biodiversity is on a downward trend, the Earth’s Ecological Footprint, one of the other key indicators used in the report, illustrates how our demand on natural resources has become unsustainable
  • The top ten countries with the highest ecological footprint per capita are: Qatar, Kuwait, the  UAE,  Denmark, United States of America, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Netherlands and Ireland
  • Declines in biodiversity since 1970 have been most rapid in the lower income countries – demonstrating how the poorest and most vulnerable nations are subsidizing the lifestyles of wealthier countries. Decreasing biocapacity (a region’s capacity to regenerate resources) will require a country to import essential resources from foreign ecosystems – potentially to the long-term detriment of the latter.

The report discusses the status of our water, our forests, and also of the dolphins, the Atlantic cod fish, the tigers, and more… 

The report presents climate change projections (from the IPCC)

It is a good summary of the devastating state of our planet.

The general recommendations are fine (see page 107 of the document) – but it is the details – and omissions –  that matter.  There remains a failure to acknowledge the real problem: our economic system, and thus a failure to present a real solution: a new economic model. Rather, the solutions are ones that are presented to be accepted rather than to create change.

Specifically, there is a focus on economic accounting of the environment.  Yes, fine. Let’s measure – through quite problematic economic tools (I know, I taught them) – the ‘value’ of biodiversity goods and services, and then include those measurements within our system.  So? Is the lack of proper ‘accounting’ the reason for such exploitation and consumption and greed?

 there remains an acceptance of the current economic model as the route to sustainability while it is the current economic model that has led to this crisis – both environmentally and economically.  The current global economic system is at direct odds with sustainability, with livelihoods, and with a local, collaborative management of shared resources.  

 we need to understand that the reason that biodiversity is being lost is not for a lack of economic accounting, per se, but because of the economic market that encourages the commodification, privatization, and conversion of biological resources into objects to be sold for profit.  It is critical that we not venture into allowing environmental resources to become mere commodities.  For example, the Payment for Ecological Services (PES) puts a price tag on ecological goods – clean air, water, soil etc, – and the services such as water purification, crop pollination and carbon sequestration that sustain them. A market model of PES is an agreement between the “holder” and the “consumer” of an ecosystem service, turning that service into an environmental property right. By so doing, there becomes a serious risk that these environmental commons can be accumulated by those able to ‘buy’ it and thus additional vulnerabilities and unsustainabilties are created.  This applies both on a local national scale, and on a global scale.

there are healthy models out there – and here we can learn from ecology itself.  see here for an excellent discussion on how to build an ‘ecological civilization’ – one built on diversity and self-regulation.

We also can build one based on previous human models — such as the ones that Elinor Ostrom brilliantly highlighted in her research on the commons in her book ‘governing the commons’.  see here:

The heart of this study is an in-depth analysis of several long-standing and viable common property regimes, including Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines. Although Ostrom insists that each of these situations must be evaluated on its own terms, she delineates a set of eight “design principles” common to each of the cases. These include clearly defined boundaries, monitors who are either resource users or accountable to them, graduated sanctions, and mechanisms dominated by the users themselves to resolve conflicts and to alter the rules. The challenge, she observes, is to foster contingent self-commitment among the members: “I will commit myself to follow the set of rules we have devised in all instances except dire emergencies if the rest of those affected make a similar commitment and act accordingly.”

Ostrom concludes that “if this study does nothing more than shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve common pool resource problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation, it will have accomplished one major purpose.”


I am constantly puzzled when environmental organizations – and others claiming to work for environmental sustainability – present meek ‘solutions’ – basically bandages on a failing, destructive economic model — rather than strive towards building something positive, something that could actually solve the problem and create an egalitarian world.

Fortunately, there are courageous, wise environmentalists – who recognize the link between environmental health and human rights, between sustainability and livelihoods. Examples include the Global Water Justice Movement and the Our Commons movement and the Via Campensino movement and many others…


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