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A Different Path?
With global consumption levels five times what they were just 50 years ago, the natural world is buckling under the weight of demand. The impact tolls of all these are clear: climate chaos, ecosystem stress, soil loss and degradation, ground water depletion, and toxics accumulation are some headlines. The global scientific consensus on climate change proves beyond doubt that there are limits to what our atmosphere can take, and what changes to our atmosphere that our nature, agriculture, water supplies and cities can withstand. 30 The UK Government Review on the economic impacts predicted a 20 percent reduction in Global GDP, which is equivalent to two world wars combined. 31 Already, people are losing their lives and livelihoods due to climate change. 32
Many may applaud the social benefits of Vietnam's economic growth. But should the advancement of the economically poor in that country depend on putting others in danger, say the Bangladeshis and others living in low-lying or water-stressed areas? Pollution and inefficient consumption is everyone's problem and responsibility. Over half a billion middle class Asians are consuming significant and growing amounts of resources with negative impacts on their own rural and urban environments as well as abroad. For example, the Indian middle class have higher carbon lifestyles than the UK average. As Kalpana Sharma wrote in a leader article in the Hindu Newspaper in November: "The argument against putting any pressure on countries like India and China at the moment is that they were not responsible for the problem [of global climate change], so they should not be bound to slow down or change the pattern of growth. While 15 years ago this argument had some validity, today we need to re-examine it." 33
In addition, the article reflected on the local impacts of current development paths and economic growth. "Our current pattern of development is already making the air in our cities unfit to breathe. Our water sources are polluted, our fields are laden with chemicals that travel through the food chain into our bodies, and our forests, the lungs of this country, are disappearing faster than any effort to plant more trees. Is there any point in rapid economic growth if people have to drink, eat, and breathe poisons? In the long run we damage not just the global environment but ourselves too."
The world physically has neither enough resources (particularly energy) nor sinks (particularly the atmosphere) to support or allow resource-heavy consumerist lifestyles for the majority. Consequently the type of 'development' being pursued in Vietnam and elsewhere will neither last nor be possible for everyone. This means that resource-heavy development paths are actually elitist, and certainly not socialist. Recognising this turns the existing cognitive frame of environmental concern on its head: finding a different path to societal development that is environmentally sustainable is a pro-poor and egalitarian concern, not a mere preoccupation of the rich with post-materialist interests.
The implication is that countries in both North and South could consider a different development path. Rather than seeing the environment as something to consider after economic growth is booming, the Hindu newspaper recognised the importance of setting out in the right direction from the start. "Logic would suggest that it is better to start the process now rather than wait until it is too late. The country's economy need not suffer if there are fewer fossil fuel burning cars on the road and better public transport. The economy need not be affected if we use building techniques for our growing cities that are less energy intensive rather than following the Western pattern of glass-fronted high rises that require a huge amount of electricity to keep cool or warm as the case may be. And our energy requirements can be met if we work harder to minimise transmission losses, introduce energy saving at every level, and promote non-polluting forms of energy generation."
The challenge is to find and promote resource-light forms of development. With the right leadership, development need not depend on risks such as cheap oil, inequalities such as poor pay and conditions, and the disruption of rural communities' livelihoods. Money can be made through sustainable business. In December, the Delhi School of Economics in the University of Delhi launched the report "Indian Companies in the 21st Century: An Opportunity for Innovation that can Save the Planet." 34 Rajesh Sehgal, Senior Law & Policy Officer at WWF-India, explained to the JCC that this WWF report "examines the scope for Indian companies to become leading exporters of and investors in sustainable goods and services, whilst emerging as key actors in promoting a proactive international sustainable development agenda."
The implications for corporate citizenship are that companies and investors need to assess how they are helping or hindering the right frameworks and incentives for innovation and delivery of the business models needed in a resource-constrained future. Rather than doing business as usual, with some social and environmental improvements, the scale, urgency and depth of the sustainability challenge requires companies to engage with other actors in society to promote governance for sustainability. If this happens, then the neo-corporatist arrangements in countries like Vietnam may, paradoxically, be beneficial in the change process. Otherwise they will merely compound the problems. If so, rather than capitalism's rising star, Vietnam could be capitalism's supernova, a commercial stellar explosion producing an extremely luminous cloud that briefly out-shines its entire host galaxy before fading from view. Those countries committed to more sustainable and equitable forms of development may not twinkle so bright, yet will maintain their light.
30 2007 Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: http://www.ipcc.ch/
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