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posted Jun 6, 2012, 7:05 PM by Mizz Abe   [ updated Jun 6, 2012, 7:05 PM ]

Capitalism, global warming, and global solidarity

The Jakarta Post

Rokhmin Dahuri, Jakarta

Naturally, every human being would love to have a prosperous and peaceful life. Indeed, prosperity and peace constitute the basic ingredients of human rights.

For such a reason, capitalism, which has mostly governed human civilization since the Industrial Revolution, seems to believe that well-being could be ensured if certain goals were realized.

These goals include fulfillment of basic human needs, elimination of poverty, availability to everyone of an opportunity to earn an honest living and equitable distribution of income and wealth.

Unfortunately, so far no single country around the globe has been able to realize even these material goals.

Capitalism's failure is made all the more conspicuous by economic instability and macroeconomic imbalances reflected in frequent financial crises; high rates of inflation and unemployment; excessive budgetary and balance of payment deficits; and volatility in the foreign exchange, commodity and stock markets.

The repeated regional and global economic crises since the 1930s Great Depression to the ongoing economic crisis which has hit major capitalist countries (the US, eurozone and Japan) since 2008 are manifestations of inherent weaknesses of capitalism.

In the meantime, developing countries are further trapped by difficult debt-servicing problems, threatening not only their future economic development but also the health and survival of the global financial system.

In addition to economic problems, practically all countries around the globe are experiencing an alarming rate of natural resource depletion and environmental degradation, which is endangering life on earth.

We have created a bubble economy, one whose output is artificially inflated by over-consumption of the earth's natural capital. Nowhere is the bubble economy more evident than in the global warming phenomenon, where the world's economic growth has been inflated by over-emitting GHGs (greenhouse gases) which exceeds the absorptive capacity of the earth's atmospheric system.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) predicted that average global temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius compared to 1980-1999 levels.

The negative impacts of the warming earth could be abrupt, irreversible and no single country could avoid those impacts. There has been an acceleration of warming indicated by the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, glacier loss in Greenland and a slowing of the earth's atmospheric ability to absorb CO2. New evidence also shows that sea level rises are likely to be twice as high by century's end as the 18-59 centimeters.

Thus, the global warming is unequivocal, accelerating and, in essence also as a tragedy of the commons. Consequently, global warming can only be tackled through global solidarity actions. Developed nations should cut their emissions according to the formula and mechanisms that have been prepared by the IPCC.

Developing nations and emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Indonesia (BRICI) should not follow the development path of those industrialized countries (the US, European Union, and Japan) which were growth maniacs without due respect to the environment, consuming too much energy and natural resources and releasing excessive GHGs.

To maintain the earth's absorptive capacity, developing countries should protect their remaining natural forests, mangroves, coral reefs and other natural ecosystems that can function as the lungs of the world.

Deforested areas and degraded land should be replanted with suitable plants that have economic values for increasing local community welfare and the country's prosperity. This is highly important as unemployment and poverty are lingering in developing countries.

In addition, as developing countries also lack financial resources and technological capacity, it is therefore a moral obligation for developed nations to help developing nations in increasing their financial and technological capacity for generating sustainable economic growth to alleviate unemployment and poverty problems.

However, to put global solidarity into practice in curbing global warming, we as the society of the world have to be ready to overcome major structural and attitudinal obstacles. We cannot expect a nation to treat another as an equal, to respect its integrity and sovereignty, if there is a total lack of symmetry in power in global affairs.

The US and China are much more powerful than other countries in the world today, particularly in military terms. Their capacity for violating any international agreement, their ability to inflict pain and suffering upon the rest of humankind is so immense, that all other nations have no choice but to tremble in fear before the two hyper-powers of our time.

We therefore must use global warming as a momentum to have a more egalitarian global power structure. Global institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO need to be radically reformed as a means to balance the unfettered power of the US, China and other powerful nations.

More specifically, global institutions must be transformed in such a fashion that nations, rich and poor, big and small, would be able to relate to one another in a spirit of egalitarian fraternity.

Only if this happens will nation-states be able to enjoy equal rights and fulfill equal responsibilities in the global arena, including in mitigating global warming.

Even if we succeed to make fundamental structural improvements at the international level, we will still have to work hard toward attitudinal (lifestyle) transformation at individual and community levels that can help sustain the new, more egalitarian institutions.

Indeed, the global solidarity can only flourish in halting global warming if we as human beings become less wealth-centered, less consumption-centered, and less status-centered.

In other words, global solidarity can only succeed in tackling global warming if the world's citizens as a whole become more caring, more sharing and more giving in their attitudes.

The challenge is then how to change fundamental values and attitudes which are so deeply ingrained in people, selfishness that is an outgrowth of one of the most natural attributes of the human being, namely self-interest, when the entire social environment militates against us, when the social environment itself promotes and propagates selfishness and greed?

The social environment we are talking about is the global social environment shaped predominantly by corporate, casino and consumerist (3C) capitalism.

The 3C capitalism, which allows mega mergers of mega corporations, which encourages speculative capital to rule the roost and which glorifies conspicuous consumption as a deity, is predicted on crass acquisition and unending accumulation.

Meanwhile, acquisition and accumulation in capitalist culture is driven by greed and selfishness. There is perhaps no evidence that is more compelling of the real character of capitalism than the fact that the average per capita energy consumption of the US citizens is twice as much as Australians or Germans, three times as much as the Japanese or Swiss, nine times as much as Mexicans or Cubans, 16 times as much as Chinese, 53 times as much as Indonesians or Indians, 438 times as much as Malians, and 1,072 times as much as Nepalese.

If up until now human beings have been able to live with these vast and skewed imbalances, it is because selfishness wears the mask of respectability and greed has acquired legitimacy in today's global capitalist civilization.

After all, if high unemployment, famine, disease and poverty that plague more than half of the world's population have not been able to attract the empathy of global capitalists to curb the global warming by reducing their GHG emissions based upon the IPCC's formula, it would be their burgeoning foreign debt, excessive budgetary and balance of payment deficits and financial and economic crises which force them to transform their attitude into less- or zero-carbon lifestyle and economic development patterns.

The writer is professor in coastal and ocean management, Bogor Institute of Agriculture.