Systematic Suppression of Systemic Solutions?

Posted on 11 December 2009 by editor

Credit: Claudius

Credit: Claudius

By Ashok Khosla *

COPENHAGUE (IPS/TerraViva) Systemic failures, such as sudden changes in climate, accelerated loss of biodiversity and rapid growth of poverty and population, can only be solved by systemic solutions that address the deeper, underlying causes of these failures.

Moreover, since many of these problems are inter-related, they generally have to be solved together – where possible – to get maximum all-round benefits at least cost; when necessary, to minimize the likelihood of ameliorating one while worsening the others.Climate change is but one of the dozen or so major crises facing humankind today. Others include massive extinction of species, destruction of land and water resources, peaking of oil and gas production, acidification of the oceans and disruption of biogeochemical cycles through large-scale extraction of mineral resources – all of which are inexorably leading to growing food insecurity.

No less important are the non-environmental threats to human societies in the form of widespread poverty and hunger, alienation, violence and terrorism – and, not least, increasingly frequent, ever more serious and far-reaching financial and economic breakdowns – further intensifying human insecurity.

Over the nearly 40 years that have elapsed since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm in 1972, numerous global summits and major conferences have taken place, each trying to find technical, financial and political solutions to such issues, as new ones seem to mushroom out on the international community year by year.

It is to the credit of national governments that they have made some attempt to address these issues in successive negotiating processes.  However, the lack of success, overall, suggests that there are some basic flaws in these processes.

From the vantage point of systems science, one basic flaw seems to be the strategy adopted in almost all international negotiations, of dealing with a single issue at a time. Clearly, this is a simpler device with which governments are much more comfortable and their specialized advisors are at much greater ease.

But looking at the history of environmental negotiations, one is struck by the constancy of this approach, even when it is demonstrably not capable of delivering the results needed. Could it be that this myopic stance is a result of the “salami tactics” adopted by the dominant participants who guide the definition of the problem, set the agenda, specify the rules of debate, work out the plans of action – all the while restricting all discussion strictly to the one issue at hand?

The systems view is entirely alien to the current negotiations – it is in fact discouraged by the dominant players, who have played the single-issue, focus and compartmentalize game (a sophisticated version of the “divide and rule” approach of erstwhile colonial empires) on all environmental issues, ever since Stockholm.

Indeed, precisely the same approach has been extensively used throughout the 60 years since the UN and Bretton Woods institutions were set up in areas as diverse as global economic and financial issues, trade, commodities, etc. Does this consistent pattern of suppressing discussion of meaningful potential solutions amount to a conflict of interest on a worldwide scale; could it be a tactic by powerful players to bias the rules of the international game in their own favour at the expense of the global good?

At this event, we hope to gather leaders from the fields of environment, conservation and development to take a systems view in exploring the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity, hunger and poverty. Specifically, we will explore how large-scale efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity, manage energy and water resources and alleviate poverty can be designed to mutually reinforce each other.

More generally, we will look at why the primary focus is always on technology and efficiency.  Why are solutions based on reviving nature, changing consumption patterns and, perhaps most important, accelerating the demographic transition through more rapid and equitable development not considered as legitimate?

* Ashok Khosla, Chairman, Development Alternatives and President, IUCN and The Club of Rome.

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