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Whether catalyzed by Pope Francis’s encyclical, the wake-up call presented in Naomi Klein’s urgent polemic This Changes Everything, or the activists calling for system change worldwide, there is a growing realization that sustainable development goals and CO2 emission targets simply won’t be enough to remedy the climate crisis. Many millions of people now recognize that, without reforming the policies that are responsible for widening inequalities and for encouraging environmentally destructive patterns of consumerism in the first place, our response to socioeconomic and ecological crises will remain inadequate and fail to create what Charles Eisenstein calls the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
Although periodic negotiations facilitated by the United Nations offer governments a vital opportunity to overcome national self-interest, prioritize the needs of the disadvantaged, and curb environmental damage, these conferences take place within a wider political and economic framework that is structurally incapable of delivering global social justice or sound environmental stewardship. The policies and institutions that drive our economic systems do not embody a basic spiritual understanding of our collective obligation to serve the common good of all humanity and protect the natural world.
To be sure, an outdated assumption that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive, and acquisitive has long defined the politics of domination and control and still underpins the way society is organized and the way the global economy functions. But the ongoing obsession with prioritizing national interests and safeguarding corporate profits has had devastating consequences for the world’s poor and the environment. As the economist David Woodward recently calculated, it would take 100 years to eradicate $1.25-a-day poverty if governments relied on global economic growth alone—and twice as long if we used a more realistic $5-a-day poverty line. Meanwhile, humanity as a whole has been in “ecological overshoot” since the 1970s, and most people in rich, industrialized countries currently enjoy lifestyles that would require between three and five planets’ worth of resources to sustain if they were the norm across the world.
In recent years it has become painfully clear that aggressive competition between nations, the lobbying power of multinational corporations, and the financial interests of an ultrawealthy elite severely impede the possibility of effective international cooperation. In 2012, the executive director of Greenpeace condemned the much-anticipated Rio+20 Earth Summit as “a failure of epic proportions” and lamented that its outcome document was “the longest suicide note in history.” There has been little improvement since then: after a series of ineffective UN climate change conferences over recent years, governments are widely expected to fail in their objective of keeping global warming below the already dangerous two-degrees-Celsius threshold. There is also a sizable gulf between the ambition and political feasibility of meeting the forthcoming sustainable development goals, particularly since it is not clear how governments will bridge the $2.5 trillion annual financing gap.
The Path Ahead: Sharing and Cooperation
Transforming the paradigm that generated these pressing crises will require moving beyond the aggressive, competitive ways of the past and embracing solutions that meet the common needs of people in all nations. In accordance with the maxim popularly attributed to Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” this process of reforming the global economy should begin in our hearts and minds with a profound realization that “humanity is one”—in other words, that all people are part of an extended human family that shares the same basic needs and rights. This simple spiritual insight must be translated into a heightened empathy for those who suffer needlessly in a world of plenty, as well as a sense of indignation toward the injustice of the world situation and a demand for change.
This is the approach we have taken at Share The World’s Resources (STWR), where we emphasize the fundamental role that the principle of...