By Paul Ekins, on 10 October 2013
Davos, Switzerland. The home in January of the World Economic Forum. But also, this October, the venue for the World Resources Forum. It is easy to forget in this high mountain setting, with so much breath-taking scenery and pristine nature, that the world is facing a resource and environmental crisis which, unless addressed by determined and systematic public policy, will greatly reduce the chances that the 9 billion people seeking to make a living on planet Earth in 2050 will be able to do so with dignity and prosperity.
The agenda of the meeting is, as might be expected from the name of the event, broad and deep, global and local, macro-economic and sectoral, ranging across the full spectrum of resource and environmental issues, covering them from many different perspectives: natural science, engineering, economic, behavioural and political.
I was there with Michelle O’Keeffe to present various aspects of work at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, especially our European FP7 project Policies for a Resource-Efficient Economy (POLFREE), but also to listen to and learn from the rich experience of 70-odd other speakers and around 450 participants from some 50 countries.
At the headline level, the message emerging from many of the sessions was both encouraging and frustrating: encouraging because there is now much experience about the kind of policies that are required to move societies in both industrial and emerging economies towards sustainable resource use, frustrating because it is extremely difficult to get these policies adopted at the kind of strategic and stringent level that is required to make a decisive difference to the resource-intensity of development paths. Time and again the same issues emerged from both plenary and workshop sessions, two of the most important of which were the need for resource taxation, counterbalanced by reduced taxation of labour, and the need for robust systems of resource governance, both to control the exploitation of open access resources, and to ensure that the revenues from resource exploitation benefit broad populations rather than a privileged elite – a recurrent theme was how to break the bind of the ‘resource curse’ that seems so often to prevent resource-rich countries from obtaining broad benefit from their resources.
Some businesses are managing to make money out of resource efficiency despite the ongoing failure of the economic system to give resources their true value and to internalise the many negative environmental impacts of resource extraction and use. Their experience is important to illustrate the benefits and opportunities that might be generated were public policy to make it easier for many more such businesses to thrive and displace those that make profits through wasteful and environmentally damaging business practices.
The way in which broad international agendas have often sought to address issues of resource use is through the rubric of ‘sustainable consumption and production’. Of these two, and despite barriers to resource efficiency in business, the easiest to address by far has been sustainable production, and much progress has been made on resource efficiency through the improvement of industrial processes and products, although often the benefits have been eaten into by the rebound effect.
The realization of ‘sustainable consumption’ has been a much more problematic matter, on which very little progress has been made since the concept first emerged at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. An interesting insight into the resilience of current consumption patterns was given by a presentation that suggested that conspicuous and wasteful consumption was, and had been in most human societies, an essential part of sexual and status signaling in the search for a mate. Such a powerful drive was unlikely to be counteracted by conservationist appeals to ecological rationality or forecasts of an impending resource apocalypse. Rather the suggestion was made that the under-30s, especially, might be inventing a new, and much less intensive, mode of sexual signaling through the social media. Whether this really would lead to cultural transformation, and whether it would replace, or become another mechanism for, conspicuous consumption, was hotly debated. What was undeniable from the presentation was the extent to which sexuality was used in advertising to sell a truly astonishing range of goods and services. Probably no sober scientific conference on resource conservation and efficiency has ever been exposed to so many partially clothed, provocatively posed, young men and women!
The messages from the World Resources Forum need to be heard at and acted upon by the business and political leaders who attend the World Economic Forum, as a matter of risk management if not of ecological conviction. The precedent of the 2008 financial crisis, the warnings of which went unheeded right up to the moment that Lehmann Brothers went bankrupt, does not give a lot of hope that these leaders excel at the management of systemic and potentially catastrophic risk. Perhaps they are too busy signaling their status to their peers at this alpha-gender event to notice the resource Cassandras at the gates. Perhaps as an antidote to this the World Economic Forum organisers should organize, as at the World Resources Forum, an exhibition of artworks by young people expressing their concern at the diminishing ecological capacity that will constrain their futures, to remind world leaders of their responsibilities to upcoming generations, as well as to their shareholders and present electorates.