The Middle Path: Towards sustainability and global well-being
by Asoka Bandarage. The author argues that growing economic inequality and the distribution of resources and opportunities is the main social issue of our time. She explores the systemic roots of the current crisis through an integration of critical social science analysis and a universal spiritual approach to ecological sustainability and social development. She argues that the current crisis can be located in unbridled economic growth and the twin forces of capital and technology.
Today, in the context of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s, unemployment and social unrest are increasing in many parts of the world. The ILO warns of a 'lost generation' of youth dropping out of the labor market, ‘having lost all hope of being able to work for a decent living’. The highest rates of youth (ages between 15 and 29) unemployment exist in the Middle East and North Africa, around 24 percent each. The problem is not attributable simply to population growth. In fact, the downward global trends in fertility may converge to below-replacement levels and a faster global population stabilization than earlier expected.
Growing economic inequality and the distribution of resources and opportunities is the main social issue of our time. According to a 2008 United Nations University– WIDER study, 85% of all global assets belonged to the richest 10% of the global population with over 50% of all assets being the property of the richest 2%. In contrast, the poorest 50% in the world had barely 1% of total global wealth. According to 2011 United Nations estimates, 1.44 billion people are still living on less than U. S $ 1.25 a day with close to a third of the world’s population experiencing ‘multidimensional poverty with deprivations in health, economic opportunities and living standards’.
As corporations develop still more sophisticated technologies and financial networks, these so-called ‘world empires of the 21st century’, control larger shares of global resources and wealth wielding more power over people’s lives than most governments. Governments in turn serve the interests of corporations sanctioning corporate monopolies and mergers; speculation over productive investment; wage restraints and lifting environmental regulations and restrictions on natural resource extraction. As ‘developing’ countries in the ‘Global South’ such as China and India fully embrace capitalism, like their western counterparts in the ‘developed’ ‘Global North, they too sacrifice long term environmental and social sustainability for short term growth.
The accelerating race to control global energy and natural resources threatens environmental sustainability and collective security. Politicians and the corporate controlled media exacerbate dualistic ‘us vs. them’ thinking contributing to ethno-religious conflict, nationalism and xenophobia. As a result, attention is diverted away from the common threats faced by people across cultural and national boundaries. Quite often, political fragmentation of states serve local and external interests seeking control over territory and resources rather than the down-trodden groups that secessionist movements claim to represent. Policies of inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and the United Nations and non-governmental organizations associated with interests of corporations and nation states also mitigate against the development of a common global consciousness. Even minimal efforts to address climate change such as the Kyoto Protocol are undermined and many of the poorest counties are ‘off track’ in reaching United Nations Millennium Development Goals. In the meantime, some of the countries regions with the greatest reserves of energy and natural resources, such as, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South Asia have become the most militarized and conflict ridden (…).
In sharp contrast to the peaceful new world order envisioned at the end of the Cold War, the world is experiencing an explosion of 'complex emergencies'. They combine terrorism and armed conflicts with collapse of economic, political and social institutions, environmental destruction, famine, displacement and other human rights violations. Complex emergencies are especially evident in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia today. Many of the estimated 50 million or so refugees in the world are ‘environmental refugees’, victims of crises associated with climate change. The vast majority of people killed in wars are also civilians, a large proportion being women and children. According to the BBC, there are an estimated three hundred thousand child soldiers (some as young as six years old) globally, not counting growing numbers deployed as suicide bombers.
The language of environmental sustainability, basic needs, human development, human security, human rights, etc. have been adopted by dominant world institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations, USAID and even transnational corporations. The incorporation of such language reflects the influence of social movements and progressive social forces on the status-quo. Yet, as the right wing conservative onslaught discredits liberalism more and more, radical analyses have virtually disappeared from the discourse even in academia.
* Some materials in this work is taken from the author's book Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis (Zed Books) and her forthcoming book 'Sustainability and Wellbeing: Environment, Society and the Economy' (Palgrave Macmillan) with permission of the publishers.
This is a follow up article of SID Journal Development Vol. 55.3 Gender and Economic Justice produced in partnership with AWID.
Asoka Bandarage (Ph.D., Yale) is a scholar and practitioner in environmental studies, international development, gender studies and conflict resolution. She has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, the European Peace University and conducts educational workshops around the world.She is the author of Colonialism in Sri Lanka (Mouton), Women, Population and Global Crisis (Zed), The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka (Routledge) and many other publications.
Photo: UN Photo/flickr