“In an increasingly unequal and unsustainable world, governments must urgently move beyond the restrictive political and economic ideologies of the past and embrace solutions that meet the common needs of people in all countries. This primer outlines the extent of the interconnected global crises we face, and points the way towards an alternative approach to managing the world’s resources based upon international cooperation and economic sharing.”
Welcome to part two of our serialization of Share the World’s Resources‘ latest report, “A primer on global economic sharing“. Today’s instalment takes the concept of sharing to scale it up to a transnational level. Finally, here’s part 1, in case you missed it.
Our failure to share resources internationally has led to the creation of a global economic system that is inherently unjust, highly unequal and environmentally unsustainable. Humanity is now facing a series of interrelated global crises as a consequence that includes massive poverty and rising levels of inequality, climate change and the ecological crisis in all its dimensions, as well as ongoing conflicts over the world’s dwindling natural resources. The following section outlines the extent of this global emergency and the need for an alternative approach to managing the world’s resources based upon economic sharing and international cooperation.
Despite the wealth of scientific evidence that demonstrates how human beings are naturally predisposed to cooperate and share, mainstream economists and politicians still base much of their decision-making on the assumption that people are inherently selfish, competitive and acquisitive. This one-sided perspective of human nature has defined centuries of aggressive empire building and the politics of domination and control, and it still underpins how societies and nations are organised and the way the global economy functions. The influence of this ideological approach to economics is apparent in the policies of governments on both sides of the political spectrum. The dominant trend in most countries is to overemphasise the role of market forces in shaping society by downsizing the State, rolling back government regulations and encouraging the privatisation of public resources. With the pursuit of economic growth driving policy decisions, social progress is largely dependent on promoting consumerism regardless of the social and environmental costs. Since the 1980s, a radically different approach to international development took shape under the guise of economic globalisation and ‘structural adjustment’, which aimed to remove all barriers to economic activity between nations and limit government intervention so that market forces can drive the global economy. With increasing vigour over recent decades, almost all governments have pursued policies that favour large-scale corporate activity, debt-fuelled finance, reduced barriers to global trade and increased capital flows between states. As a result, trade between countries remains premised on national self-interest, international competition and a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude to business that has shifted economic power towards transnational corporations and largely unaccountable global institutions. The ‘neoliberal’ ideology that institutionalised greed and self-interest may have been discredited by the global financial crisis in 2008, but it continues to dominate policy discourse and practice in both the Global North and the South. Previous economic ideals based on egalitarian values, redistribution and social rights have been replaced by a new ‘common sense’ that takes for granted the supposed naturalness of the market and the primacy of profit-making – assumptions that continue to set the parameters of public discussions and media debates. Commercialisation now permeates almost every aspect of life, and has drawn entire populations into a financialised and marketised view of the world that disinclines a majority of citizens from perceiving an alternative to the status quo.
Sharing as a solution to global crises
Yet the world situation today starkly challenges the vision that expanding the free market and private ownership will create greater economic efficiency and social well-being. The economic freedom promised through the liberalisation of market forces has, in reality, resulted in a freedom for the very few and a contradiction of the core free market promise – that increased wealth will be shared. Our failure to share resources internationally has led to the creation of a global economic system that is inherently unjust, highly unequal and environmentally unsustainable. Humanity is now facing a series of interrelated global crises as a consequence that includes massive poverty and rising levels of inequality, climate change and the ecological crisis in all its dimensions, as well as ongoing conflicts over the world’s dwindling natural resources. It takes little imagination to see how nations could apply economic sharing as a solution to these critical global issues. In simple terms, a just sharing of the world’s wealth, power and resources is fundamental to bridging the gap between rich and poor countries and meeting basic needs for all. Establishing a new international framework for sharing natural resources more equitably and sustainably (such as land, minerals and fossil fuels) is also essential for safeguarding the environment, ending centuries of inter-state conflict and fostering global solidarity. From this truly common sense perspective, a new economic paradigm based on sharing rather than competing for the world’s resources presents a pragmatic way forward for the international community in light of the major crises we face. At the same time, it presents a revolutionary challenge to the status quo that necessitates a drastic departure from a prevailing ideology based on economic selfishness, rampant commercialisation and purely materialistic goals.
The most pressing reason for establishing an international framework that facilitates economic sharing is to create a more equal world where basic human needs are met universally. Governments first committed to this goal in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 25 (1): “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” More than 65 years later, achieving these basic entitlements for all the world’s people still remains a distant hope and vague aspiration of the international community. Even in many of the richest countries poverty rates have been rising for a decade, and the situation is rapidly deteriorating as austerity measures are rolling back social safety nets and weakening essential public services. Five years after the financial crisis of 2008, for example, about 50 million people in the US – 1 in 6 of the population – were officially hungry, even before dramatic cuts to government food assistance programmes. Across Europe, where the social gains of previous decades are now under sharp attack, analysts have been forewarning of a divided continent with entrenched poverty for more than a decade. Nothing describes the dangerous shift away from the practice of sharing within societies more than the growing levels of hunger and needless deprivation in the affluent parts of the world. But there is no escaping the fact that the impact of extreme poverty remains generally far more severe in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, among other low- and middle-income regions. Despite rapid advancements in standards of living for a large proportion of the world population in recent decades, an unacceptable number of people are still denied access to the basic necessities of life. Even if the Millennium Development Goal for halving extreme poverty is met, around one billion people will officially live without adequate means for survival in 2015 – although unofficial estimates are even higher. Altogether, 95% of people who live in developing countries survive on the equivalent of less than $10 a day (comparable to what $10 would buy in the United States) – an almost impossible task for someone living in a high-income country. The controversial ‘dollar-a-day’ measure of poverty also fails to reflect the harsh reality of life for millions of people in the majority world, not least in the fast-growing slums of developing cities.
Poverty amidst plenty
In an interconnected global society with an abundance of wealth, technological capacity and expertise, it is morally reprehensible and economically short-sighted not to have ended extreme poverty decades ago. But this will be impossible without simultaneously redressing levels of global inequality, which have steadily increased since the 1980s when corporate-driven policies of economic globalisation were widely adopted. In order to tackle this growing crisis of ‘poverty amidst plenty’, far greater emphasis must be placed on reforming the unjust policies and institutions that maintain a divided and increasingly unequal world. Today, highly biased regimes of international trade, finance and taxation mean that at least ten times as much finance flows from developing countries to the rich world than is provided by donor governments as overseas aid. As a result of these unjust arrangements of the global economy, the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population enjoy nearly 83 percent of total global income, whereas the poorest 20 percent receive a mere 1 percent. In recent years, this concentration of wealth has become increasingly extreme, with one percent of the richest people in the world owning $110 trillion – 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. This astonishing misdistribution of wealth and income highlights just how distorted the world’s priorities are when many millions of people still cannot access the essential resources that others take for granted. As global justice campaigners often repeat, the underlying causes of this gross inequity are political in nature as they stem from the policy choices that governments make, the institutions that govern economic relationships, and the unrivalled power and influence of the world’s largest corporations. Without reforming these structural conditions, international aid and other forms of financial redistribution will never be an adequate means for ending poverty or reducing the gap between rich and poor. If the global economy is to serve the interests of all people, it must be primarily geared towards guaranteeing the fulfilment of social and economic rights in perpetuity – founded upon a genuine form of multilateral cooperation and economic sharing.
A call for greater economic sharing has long been at the heart of the international debate on climate change and sustainable development. The crux of the issue is how to ensure that the world’s finite resources are consumed fairly and at a rate that does not exceed the regenerative and absorptive capacity of the biosphere. Whether discussed in terms of ecological footprints or ‘fair shares’ in a world of limits, all people should have an equal right to share the earth’s resources without irreversibly damaging the planet or depriving future generations of access to these resources. To date, governments have abysmally failed to agree on a policy framework for capping carbon emissions and equitably sharing the remaining ‘carbon space’ of the atmosphere among all nations. But climate change and environmental pollution is only one aspect of a much wider ecological crisis that has resulted from our over-exploitation and degradation of the natural world. Approximately 60% of the planet’s ecosystems have been significantly degraded by human activity in the past 50 years, which starkly indicates the rapid loss of biodiversity worldwide that is threatening human well-being and civilisation as we know it. Humanity is currently consuming natural resources at a rate 50% faster than the planet can replenish them, and as a result we already require the equivalent of one and a half planets to support today’s consumption levels. Yet demand for resources of all kinds is increasing exponentially, especially for food, oil, land and water. Hence the issues of resource scarcity and environmental limits have risen up the global agenda in recent years, and are becoming ever more pressing due to both a growing population and rising affluence in emerging economies.
However, the challenge of sharing the planet’s resources is inherently linked to the huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world. Currently, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population – most of whom live in rich countries – consume 80% of global resources, and are therefore responsible for the vast majority of climate change and environmental destruction. Meanwhile, the poorest 20% of the population lack sufficient access to essentials such as food, clean water and energy, and account for just 1.3% of global resource consumption. It is also the poor that suffer disproportionately from the harmful effects of climate change and resource depletion, which further contributes to growing inequalities and often increases poverty and social conflict. This leads to serious issues around fairness and equity in the discussions around planetary boundaries and sustainable limits. If the world’s finite resources are to be made accessible to all people but consumed at a sustainable rate, high-income countries will clearly have to reduce their use of natural resources considerably in order to enable poorer nations to grow their economies and improve their material standard of living. At the same time, poor countries will have to aim towards a less materially intensive model of development than compared to today’s industrialised nations, in accordance with international environmental objectives.  There is no way around this basic adjustment needed to achieve equity-based sustainable development, which will ultimately require reconceptualising notions of prosperity and wholesale economic reorganisation. Creating a sustainable and just world will remain impossible to achieve unless we change patterns of production and consumption that deplete natural resources, erode biodiversity and pollute the atmosphere, and until we place the rights of Mother Earth before commercial interests. Such a transformation may seem unachievable within the current political and economic context, but the certainty of irreversible damage to the Earth’s life-support systems leaves the international community with one remaining option – to place economic sharing and environmental stewardship at the forefront of policymaking and global governance.
An alarming consequence of humanity’s continued failure to share resources is the escalation of interstate conflict over land, fossil fuel reserves and other key industrial materials. Almost every government now assigns a great strategic significance to resource security, particularly in relation to oil and gas supplies. The result is a new global landscape in which competition over vital resources is becoming the governing principle behind the accumulation and deployment of military power. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons continuing unabated, however, any intensification of the struggle to secure the world’s untapped natural resources increases the likelihood of a catastrophic war among the major industrial powers. The need for a vigorous military role in protecting energy assets abroad has long been a presiding theme for many of the world’s nations, and remains increasingly central to both foreign policy and national security strategies. Between 1965 and 1990 alone, 73 civil wars over resources occurred in which more than a thousand people a year died, and at least 18 international conflicts have been triggered by competition for resources since then. Many analysts also maintain that securing key resource interests was a key factor justifying intervention in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even today, the possibility of future violent conflict grows as nations race to control oil and gas reserves in the Arctic, the East and South China Seas, around the Falkland Islands and elsewhere. As governments continue on their current trajectory of aggressively competing to control the planet’s scarce natural resources, a number of factors all but guarantee a further escalation of violent conflict in the immediate future. This includes a growing world population and a rapidly expanding consumer class in developing countries, which is spurring an enormous increase in demand for energy and raw materials. The impact of climate change will also further exacerbate resource scarcity by dramatically constraining access to food, water, land and other vital resources over coming decades.
A cooperative approach
Despite a distinct lack of public debate on this issue, there can be little doubt that a viable resource security strategy for the 21st century must be based on an alternative framework of international cooperation and resource sharing rather than national self-interest and recurring conflict. While there are various options for how such a framework could function, it would be essential to establish robust and impartial international institutions in order to ensure equitable access to the world’s existing resource stockpiles, alleviate shortages in times of acute scarcity or emergency, and guarantee universal access to critical commodities. Working through the UN system, the international community could also reduce the pressure on global fossil fuel reserves by channelling investment into renewables and sharing alternative energy technologies as they emerge. A cooperative approach to resource security is not only necessary for avoiding conflict and addressing social and environmental crises, but it would also salvage significant financial resources from global military budgets and foster goodwill among nations. Even to engage in the formidable process of negotiating such a strategy, governments will have to overcome the zero-sum, nationalistic impulses that currently dominate what is essentially a ‘winner takes all’ global resource acquisition paradigm – particularly in relation to fossil fuels. At the same time, policymakers must be prepared to mitigate rapidly escalating consumption rates that drive the unsustainable demand for energy and raw materials. In the end, this will mean fundamentally rethinking the dominant economic model that requires ever-higher levels of consumption for its continued success, and adopting new industrial processes that are not dependent on supplies of finite resources. However idealistic it may seem to envisage cooperative solutions that can prevent future conflict over land, water or fossil fuels, humanity faces an unavoidable choice: either to find ways of sharing the environmental commons more equitably, or to continue on the path of intensified resource competition and risk further economic trauma, the acceleration of climate change, and the eventual possibility of a third world war.