COMMENTARY: The next world war

Posted: 14 April 2005

In his recent book The Next World War: Tribes, Cities, Nations and Ecological Decline Roy Woodbridge calls for a shift of policy that will urgently direct technological change to solve the problem of provisioning humanity, before global population growth and rising consumption put the planet's natural resources under intolerable stress. Here, he outlines the case for a revolutionary response to the ecological crisis.

When reductions in the productivity of natural systems lead to human deprivation and when competition between societies for access to scarce environmental goods and services threatens to escalate into global conflict, ecological decline becomes the enemy of all peoples.

The world is now faced with such a prospect. Our societies are drawing down more from nature each year than nature can regenerate. Almost all of the world's major ecosystems are suffering some degree of human-induced impairment and most forms of ecological overload will have run their course within the next 20 years.

Yet, paradoxically, as the demands of growth push us closer to the precipice, the environmental movement is losing momentum. In the words of a report prepared for the Environmental Grantmakers Association, "Modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live."

Diluted message

The report accurately describes the declining effectiveness of the movement. However, the solutions proposed - reorienting effort towards building broader coalitions and abandoning a narrow focus on technology - are misguided. The environmental movement is not failing because its messages are narrowly conceived. It is being killed because its messages have been diluted.

Environmentalism has not been well-served by its embrace of sustainable development through the balancing of environmental, social and economic interests. This once-dynamic proposition is now so permeated with different forms of political correctness and fractured into so many sub-issues and varying interpretations that it defies encapsulation in an intelligible sense of purpose or direction. The more the movement becomes trapped in the mantra of sustainable development the more it is condemned to operate on the periphery of global growth processes. In sharp contrast to the waning influence of environmentalism, the global agenda is mesmerized by the compelling clarity of "economic correctness" and the virtuous circle of growth. Growth, the theory says, together with democratic systems of governance and open, transparent arrangements for encouraging trade and foreign investment will eventually produce a "virtuous circle" of wealth creation, social advance and environmental protection.

This powerful theory is based on more than 300 years of experimentation with promoting growth. It offers a comfortable resting place for the world's political leaders, particularly when no coherent alternatives are being presented to help them address the pressing needs of their citizens.

Yet, "economic correctness" is also fatally flawed. It works well in conditions of few people and ecological abundance. In the present conditions of abundant people and scarce environmental resources it is creating a huge disconnect between where it is taking the world and where rationally we have to go.

Bi-polar world

Despite impressive gains achieved by many millions of people in rapidly emerging economies, little progress is being made in addressing the needs of the 3 billion-strong under-half of the world's people that live on less the $2 per day and that consume about 1/20th the natural capital of citizens in advanced economies. Present patterns of technological and economic advance appear to be pushing us towards a bi-polar world in which the economic gaps within and between countries are widening. They are also leading us towards ecological Armageddon.

In just 20 years the global economy is expected to be at least 2 or 3 times its present size. This growth must be provisioned from already stressed natural systems. If the world's poor are to have a better life their transition must be provisioned. We must also meet the provisioning needs of the almost 2 billion additional people that will join us by then. Within this short space of time, if economic growth is to continue and we are to address global poverty, we will have to create access, each year, to the ecological equivalent of 3 or 4 earths.

This provisioning challenge dwarfs all other risks to human progress and world peace. The loss of ecosystem viability implied by burgeoning human demands will soon starve growth processes and plunge the world into uncontrolled competition for access to natural capital on a degraded planet - competition that can quickly come to pit the wealthy participants of the global economy against the excluded.

Unlike earlier societies, we cannot escape the consequences of ecological decline by migrating en mass to more favoured locations. We can resort to trade or war to gain privileged access to scarce resources but these actions cannot add to the availability of ecosystem goods and services. Nor can we hope to make sufficient progress, in time frames that matter, through respectful dialogue aimed at changing the personal values of the world's people - by having them all come to embody, in Ghandi's idealized vision, the change we wish to see.

There is, in fact, only one viable option for peacefully meeting the world's provisioning needs. We have to reorganize our societies around new technologies that give us the power to massively expand our ability to access and to use natural capital.

Technology agenda

Old technologies and New Economy innovation are now shaping patterns of economic advance and providing the ever-changing market opportunities around which nation states compete for growth and jobs. We must break this pattern by shifting effort from the pursuit of randomly-generated innovation for national advantage to the international pursuit of directed technological advance to meet the global provisioning challenge. As a minimum, this new technology agenda involves:

·creating the technologies and practices that allow societies to manage the totality of their interactions with bio-regions;

·transforming global agriculture in ways that integrate productivity gains with a dramatic reductions in agriculture's use of fossil fuels and water and that cut pollution and the sector's contribution to climate change;

·developing and using the diverse technologies and management practices of industrial ecology based on closed loop production and life cycle materials management systems and the creation of market mediation mechanisms for redundant waste products;

·redesigning our cities to become vastly more efficient users of natural capital by creating denser populations around mass transit lines and introducing the technologies and practices of Eco-Urban Management that will transform entire cities, like industry, into closed loop processors of natural capital; ·establishing a global R&D program to develop "green" energy technologies that wean nation states from dependence on carbon-based forms of energy use (as partly envisioned by the Kyoto Accord), and

·giving societies the capacity to respond to signs of ecological stress and systemic changes in the operation of ecological systems by developing enhanced regional and global monitoring, forecasting and preparedness technologies. The scope of these new technology requirements and related social adaptation is enormous. The time available for redirecting innovation effort is ominously short. Thus meaningful progress will only be achieved if all nations mobilize around the development and deployment of these technologies on a scale and with the same intensity as if for war.

We must all choose, and choose quickly, whether to fight our neighbours for access to declining sources of natural capital or unite in common cause to wage a new kind of war - a war fought on the battlefields of technological innovation to equitably provision the people's of the world.

Roy Woodbridge is an international business development consultant living in Vancouver. His book, The Next World War: Tribes, Cities, Nations and Ecological Decline, published in 2004, is available from The University of Toronto Press at £18/$27 pb.