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The green agenda

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N. R. KRISHNAN

The mechanics of the global efforts to combat environmental problems and their outcome

GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE: James Gustave Speth and Peter M. Haas; Pearson Longman, 482 FIE, Patparganj, Delhi-110092. Rs. 225.

How to save the planet from self-inflicted ecological disaster? Have an international treaty that ticks. And how to work out such a treaty? Just mix two ingredients: widely accepted science and coalition of likeminded parties (read governments) to craft the agreement and then sell it to the non-believing poor and at times the odd rich maverick. That is the recipe James Gustave Speth and Peter Haas prescribe in Global Environmental Governance after examining a host of environmental treaties from the hugely successful Montreal Protocol to the floundering Kyoto.

Treaties and agreements

The authors are quite right that the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, 1987 that came into force in 1989 owed its success basically to the underpinning science that the versatile chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) widely used in refrigeration, air conditioning and a host of industrial, commercial and domestic applications can destroy the stratospheric ozone layer which protects the Earth from ultra violet radiation, a cause of skin cancer. It took the U.S. a while to bring Europe on board and once this was done through a slight dilution of the phase-out schedule, the large block of developing countries were won over by making the transition to ozone friendly substances a relatively painless affair through extension of monetary grants and a longer time for implementation. By 2010, production and use of CFCs except to service old appliances and for some essential applications would be discontinued world over.

What about the plethora of other treaties and agreements? As Speth and Haas recount, very little progress has been achieved with the treaties on desertification and land degradation, biodiversity conservation, marine fisheries, acid rain and regional air pollution, and the Kyoto Protocol, to quote some. Worse still, it has not been possible to arrive at any agreement or a treaty on issues like sustainable management of forests, there being only guiding principles.

Forces at work

Why do treaties and agreements fail? It would appear that the ingredients identified earlier for success are only just necessary but not sufficient. However sound the science or meeting of minds of governments, there are other forces at work. Speth and Haas divide these forces into four groups: the ‘cornucopians’ or ‘market liberals’ who see no limits to growth as they believe that nature’s bounties are unlimited and so its capacity to absorb wastes; the ‘malthusians’ who believe in just the opposite and for whom the ‘tipping point’ has been reached already; the ‘reformists’ or ‘institutionalists’ for whom nature is violable to an extent and not beyond ( the reference is probably to the advocates of sustainable development); and lastly the ‘social greens’ who have little or no faith in the present political dispensation to ensure an equitable distribution of power and resources among all stakeholders.

The prescription of the authors to get over the ecological crisis lies in reconciling the different perceptions of people on the Earth and its resources through ‘dematerialising’ the global economy by promoting environmentally-benign technologies like wind and solar power in place of fossil fuel-based ones; greening the corporates (‘natural capitalism’ in the words of Hawken and Lovins whom the authors quote fondly); and going beyond conventional economics which recognises only allocation and distribution of resources to include considerations of the optimum size beyond which an economy cannot grow without decreasing returns to human welfare.

Workable solutions

On an ideological plane, it is indeed difficult to join issues with the authors on their above prescription. On a practical level, it demands a reordering of the lives of developed societies and their ways as we find them today and may be ossification of the developing world at its present low levels of growth? Is this at all possible or acceptable?

Others like James Lovelock (remember the Gaia theory?) have provided workable solutions. They are essentially scientists who believe that science and technology can provide the answers, given time and efforts to do so. To them, humanity’s problems are not so much of resource use as of resource overuse. Careless technology which promoted such overuse can be supplanted by one which rests on conservation, waste minimisation, reuse and recycling. Signs of this paradigm shift in industry, society and global trade are already visible. In many an industry, energy and water consumption per unit of output is falling; dangerous chemicals are being replaced by environmentally-benign ones; even the operational efficiency of devices to harness non-conventional sources of energy are being improved. No Micawberism this, it’s all real and happening! Even the Toyota Prius of which Speth is a proud owner (as revealed in his earlier book ) is a product of oil conservation efforts of the automobile industry. Despondency like optimism should have limits.

The book is recommended to those who seek to get introduced to the mechanics of the global efforts to combat environmental problems and the success or failure of these efforts. The message of the book is clear; environment is too serious a business to be left to the total care of governments. The civil society should make its voice heard and, heard loudly and clearly.


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