@abep 01-en/17

Environmental Governance and Equity in the Post-Truth Era

Governança Ambiental e Equidade na Era da Pós-Verdade

@abep 01-en/17


George Martine


Myths and Governance | We live in a post-truth era marked by ethical relativism. Objective facts weigh less in the formation of public opinion than emotions and personal beliefs. Politicians fail to distinguish between private and public goods.  Populists manipulate the masses with simplistic solutions; their most powerful rep has trouble distinguishing fabrications from reality. Businessmen preach the ideology of the markets but suckle on the State’s breasts. The mass media defends particular interests while the social media concocts and destroys myths in 140 characters. Taken as a whole, the post-truth society produces fragile social structures and erodes the foundations of social capital essential to a viable society. What has all this to do with environmental governance?

Plenty! Myths sold as facts directly affect our understanding of the world and how we govern it. Science has taken a hit in the post-truth era. For the great majority of specialists, the global environmental situation is critical. Nevertheless, science bows to power, facts are subservient to immediate interests and humankind continues on its merry path towards ecological chaos. Almost 100% of all scientists working on climate change agree that anthropogenic causes are causing it, but a small group of negationists, financed by oil and mining complexes, manage to obfuscate public opinion with fabricated evidence and to bar effective national or international action. All this culminated in Trump’s disappointing but predictable reneging of his country’s commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Development on the Hot Seat

As blind and damaging as Trump’s environmental outlook might be, it nevertheless fits squarely within the bigger picture of deeply-rooted opposition to effective environmental stewardship. Our civilization’s biggest project – “development” – also happens to be its major obstacle to sustainability. Negationists’ efforts to undermine environmental science are greatly aided by humankind’s overwhelming faith in this project. However, “development” means exponential economic growth, utilizing energy to transform natural resources into consumption goods and eventually into residues, by the process known as “throughput growth”. This arrangement is impelled and sustained by the universal culture of consumption, which defines not only the contours of our expected happiness (consumption promises to make us happy), but also the social status of individuals and groups. It is remarkable how official and business arguments in favor of environmental governance are always stated in terms of profits and jobs, in order to satisfy “developmentalists”, and hardly ever mention the reduction of consumption. Yet, as Wilk aptly notes – “without consumerism, there is no environmental crisis.”[i] 

There is no denying that the implementation of this paradigm has brought poverty relief and enormous improvements in human conditions during recent times. However, the natural resources that are required to sustain and expand the trajectory of economic growth are inherently limited. This fact is the elephant in the room that we studiously avoid discussing.  

Physics teaches us that it is impossible to produce something from nothing, or vice-versa. Environmental sciences confirm this law by verifying the infringement of key planetary boundaries – including the collapse of biodiversity and climate change – caused by development.[ii] The greater and more widespread economic growth, the more damaging its environmental impacts. The belief that this form of development can continue indefinitely is the greatest hoax promoted by our civilization. As concisely framed by Kenneth Boulding – “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Source: Steffen et al, 16 January 2015, Science: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries-data.html


The fact that “development” can only expand by aggravating ecological destruction and further accentuating inequalities constitutes the major ethical drama of our century. Our current ecological crisis originated in the consumption patterns of the world’s richest 20%. Even today, only one-third of the world’s population can be classified as middle class and consumers, but the other two-thirds also aspire to this “development”. Unfortunately, natural resource limitations clearly prevent this expansion, as can be illustrated using the “ecological footprint” – an instrument that measures the impact of humankind on the biosphere.[iii]

The Planet’s total biocapacity is 12.2 billion global hectares. In a perfect world, these resources would be distributed equally and used within the limits of total biocapacity. However, inequality is on the rise and ecological footprint measurements indicate that, in 2013, we had already surpassed the Earth’s capacity for self-regeneration by 68%. As shown below, if the entire world’s population consumed at the same level as the USA, the Planet could only absorb 1.4 billion people in sustainable fashion; Argentina’s consumption levels would allow 3.3 billion people to live sustainably. In order to sustain the world’s projected population for 2050 (9.9 billion), the current consumption levels of Somalia would have to prevail universally.  

The delusion that the global development project continues to propagate is that everyone could consume like the USA, or at least like Argentina. This suggests the need to review traditional debates about the role of population dynamics in environmental issues. To this day, the misconception that rapid population growth generated the current environmental crisis persists in some quarters, blandly ignoring the fact that the richest 20% produced this mess, despite their lower fertility levels. On the other hand, it is even more foolish to assume that demographic dynamics can be ignored in our future environmental trajectory. In a finite world, the dimension of those additional billions demanding inclusion simply shatters the rationale behind the current development paradigm. Such a dramatic clash between development, population and environment simply cannot be resolved without socioeconomic convergences that respect planetary limits and promote a drastic global transition to de-materialized values and behavior. Failure to do so can only enhance conflict and human misery. 

But technology solves it all – or doesn’t it?

Present-day optimists have backed off somewhat from trumpeting the “miracle of the markets” and increasingly place their bets on one of its subsidiaries – technology – as a magical solution that will solve the problems created by development while also stimulating the economy. Unfortunately, there is no such quick and easy fix. The expansion of major technological advances, particularly in the energy sector, will undoubtedly be critical in efforts to overcome environmental challenges. This will create jobs and turn profits, unquestionably. Yet, technology also has critical limitations, starting with the fact that a huge amount of energy is required to develop and deploy alternative systems. Essential resources such as oil and lithium are finite and, thus, most solutions simply transfer problems from one area to another.  Moreover, as noted repeatedly since Jevons, each new technological advance, upon enhancing the efficiency of a natural resource, inevitably intensifies its total use.[iv] That is, technology actually promotes consumerism, which is why the fantastic technological advances of recent decades have unwittingly caused an unprecedented explosion in the use of the Earth’s materials.[v]

Finally, the control and use of technology are unpredictable, as seen from the manipulation of advances in computation and armaments, currently controlled by such mercurial personalities as Trump and Putin. Attributing magical powers and inherent benefits to technology is naïve, since it has no autonomous influence on social and political processes; betting on it to resolve ongoing environmental disasters is global Russian roulette.

Malfunctions of global governance

By ignoring Nature’s inherent limitations and the consequent impossibility of perpetuating economic growth, the two main initiatives of global governance intending to deal with the current environmental conundrum – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Conference of Parties (COPs) – are destined to failure. The SDGs and Agenda 2030 offer a wide variety of environmental, social and economic goals and targets, on various levels of generality. Taken together, however, they constitute a trilemma since Goal #8 proposes the very engine that created our current social and environmental quandary, that is, the promotion of sustained economic growth by all.[vi] 

By the same token, the Paris COP fails to offer a viable strategy. Its proposed limits to rising temperatures are grossly inadequate and, moreover, will not be attained, even if – unexpectedly – the signatories actually fulfilled their emission promises. Worse, Paris failed to address THE critical issue – the redirection of “development” in accordance with the needs of different countries and of drastic reductions in emissions.

Given the enormous disparities between countries and social groups, a radically different development paradigm, based on the principle of convergence, would have been imperative in both initiatives. Both the SDGs and COPs were important in raising environmental consciousness but missed the opportunity to address the development conundrum. Such touchy issues were not explicitly debated for fear of “losing” key countries in the signing of unprecedented universal agreements. This strategy, however, might backfire, since it enjoins complacency by sustaining the illusion that effective measures were taken. In this sense, the outrage spurred by Trump’s ill-advised rejection of the Paris Agreement could actually spark more realistic discussions of the pathways and obstacles to sustainability.

In short, great myths also prosper in the post-truth era. The greatest and most dangerous of these involves the pretense of resolving the current socio-environmental chaos by perpetuating the paradigm of development that caused it. Effective action requires recognizing the gravity of the issues faced, modifying our culture of consumption and promoting social and economic convergence at sustainable levels. Global governance simply cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room.


[i] Cf. Wilk, R. 2017. Without consumerism, there is no environmental crisis. https://www.populationenvironmentresearch.org/cyberseminars/10449

[ii] Steffen, W et al. 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 13 Feb. Vol. 347, Issue 6223.

[iii] Global Footprint Network. http://data.footprintnetwork.org/countryTrends.html?cn=231&type=cdPC

[iv] Alcott, B. 2005. Jevons' paradox. Ecological Economics. 54 (1): 9–21.

[v] UNEP. 2017. Resource Efficiency: Potential and Economic Implications. A report of the International Resource Panel. Retrieved from: http://www.resourcepanel.org/reports/resource-efficiency. United Nations Environment Programme, Paris. 168 p.

[vi] Martine, G e J. E. Alves. 2015. Economy, society and environment in the 21st century: three pillars or trilemma of sustainability? Revista Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais, v. 32, n. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0102-3098201500000027


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