YONELA DIKO: Why G7's 'Build Back Greener' is a big illusion

OPINION

If there is one singular lesson we have learnt from COVID-19 is that if we are to have clear skies and breathable air in all our cities and towns, if we are to reduce nitrogen dioxide and particular matter (PM2.5) that has long filled our atmosphere, taking lives of over seven million people a year, if we are to preserve life itself, we need to STOP. This is the only guaranteed way to end the devastation on our planet and begin to heal.

COVID-19 was a rude awakening to our conditioning that we couldn't stop, that stopping all economic activity was a death sentence, and that the very survival of humanity depended on the constant fuel of economic growth into our planet. It turned out that we could stop, we could clear our skies, we could heal our land, stop deforestation, stop emitting fossil fuel and for the first time in many cities around the world, see each other..

Capitalism, however, will not survive without relentless and unbroken economic growth. The extraction and disposal of earth’s resources must continue unabated. As we now have seen, the devastation to the planet through this relentless pillaging and extraction is risking the survival of humanity. So it’s either capitalism survives or we do - it’s not going to be both.

The Group of Seven Nations' (G7) answer to this planet's devastation is some nebulous "building back greener" slogan, which is really a big illusion that is unlikely to save our planet from the profits driven development. If greener inputs to production were always available why did Industries and developers not choose them? What is going to make them choose now, certainly not profits or shareholder value?

HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

Thomas Malthus, arguably the first person to ever teach economics, argued in the 17th century, that the rate at which the population was growing, earth would not be able to produce enough food to sustain the population growth. He argued that earth would have to self correct if it was to keep the balance and this would happen through famine and disease, epidemics and pandemics in order to keep the population in check, since human beings seemed incapable of controlling their own growth.

Indeed when the Irish potato famine happened the following century, killing over a million people in Ireland alone and displacing another million, reducing the population of Ireland by 25%, Malthus may have felt vindicated.

A few centuries later however, many people feel Malthus's population theory was exaggerated and has since been discredited by human ingenuity and innovation. Population growth has since dropped drastically in developed nations due to Family planning and other preventative means available to the population. People have also found ways to make earth more productive, use technology to get more out of the land, and more food now is genetically modified.

ECONOMIC GROWTH

Population growth may no longer be a threat to the planet today however the relentless pursuit of economic growth poses a real threat to the planet and safety of the very population. The negative spillovers of uncapped and unguided economic growth, air pollution, ozone depletion, acid rain, toxic waste in rivers and oceans, earth is unable to breathe under this avalanche of toxicity and devastation.

According to the World Health Organization, Air pollution is already estimated to kill over seven million people a year around the world. COVID19, which Malthus would have seen as earth's self correcting itself has seen massive reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particular matter (PM2.5), according to data collected by the UK's National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Many Cities have seen clear skies and breathable air for the first time in as many years.

GROWTH AS THE LODESTAR OF GOVERNMENT POLICY

The current pursuit of economic growth is about exploiting the earth for all that it can give, extracting more, pillaging more, and throwing waste on the very earth, as if the planet replenishes itself for our daily human indulgence.

For example, the soft drinks giant, Coca-Cola, is said to be excessively using water in India, draining India's aquifers and devastating lives of farmers and communities.

As important as economic growth is, the well being of the people and of the earth must form the pillars of economic policy if we are to ensure earth sustains us for a very long time. GDP measure of an economy is not a divine providence given to us by the almighty. Infact, it is only after World War 2 that GDP as a measure of economies success and by extension, success of the country was used. Faster economic growth means an economy is doing well. Faster economic growth however also comes with faster use of natural resources and energy.

Yes, economic growth has brought millions of people out of poverty. Unfortunately, this has happened on one side of the world, whilst the other side has been exploited and pillaged, without compensation and this means the current economic growth of the world is dripping with innocent blood and devastating legacy.

COLLECTIVE FAILURE TO COORDINATE OUR EFFORTS

Population growth may no longer be a threat to the planet. We are able to feed ourselves, and we are able to satisfy some basic growth for our sustenance and we are able to thrive. The real threat however to the planet is what is being pursued beyond our basic needs and basic development, namely, profits. Shareholders want their companies to pursue relentless growth, politicians tout relentless growth as the answer to all our social problems, and people continue to be intensely materialistic beyond what they need to live well. Does planet earth have enough resources to satisfy this insatiable desire for more?

G7, which accounts for over 60% of the global net worth ($317 trillion), are well placed to coordinate world's growth and ensure that our pursuit of growth does not come at the expense of our planet. Perpetual growth, uncoordinated, unguided, on a finite planet naturally leads to the environmental disasters we are witnessing. It also leads to unconducive lands being used to produce, deforestation and overgrazing, indulgence of animals that we may not have been meant to indulge on, and all these should be top concerns of the richest countries which account for most growth on the planet.

SOLUTION

Coordinated growth will prevent the over exploitation of the extraction zones, where materials are extracted cheaply and mostly through manipulation of the owners, and the disposal zones, where materials are dumped as waste and pollution, without any concern for the people who live in those areas. Today everything is polluted, from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, relentless growth is devastating everything we hold precious.

We have to manage our economic growth and the rate at which we are extracting from our planet, for the sake of our survival.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko

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