At the 1992 Earth Summit, world leaders signed a document known as Agenda 21. It wasn’t, as conspiracy theorists now suspect, a blueprint for the New World Order, but rather a manifesto on combating poverty, protecting the environment, and empowering children, women, and indigenous peoples. In 2015, after little progress on any front, the UN set out a more detailed agenda for 2030, promising to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty”, and to “heal and secure our planet”.

With just seven years to go, the UN has declared these goals “in jeopardy”, blaming the economic crisis and the pandemic. In reality, the past eight years have just gone much the same way as the previous 23: with sporadic improvements, but the overall direction of travel – particularly regarding planetary health – 180 degrees adrift.

Some see an intrinsic contradiction between our economic and ecological objectives. The recent announcement that the Tories intend to sacrifice green initiatives on the shrine of economic salvation, including those affecting waterways (see our interview with Feargal Sharkey), shows that it’s not just those on the left who believe there’s no way to heal our planet while capitalism reigns. From both sides of the fence the logic is the same: prosperity relies on economic growth, which in turn depends on depleting the Earth’s water, air, soil, forests and wildlife.

The obvious corollary is that to avoid environmental oblivion we need to abandon market capitalism in favour of statist solutions. But the Soviet Union’s seven decades of environmental as well as economic and social catastrophes tell us that collectivism is no way out of Agenda 21’s Catch-22. As Simon Nixon writes in our cover article, getting a balance between private and state control is tricky, and there’s a real risk that excessive interventionism could lead to a “global race to the bottom”. Ultimately, as Peter Lawlor suggests, relying on the state depends on trusting those in power to know what they’re doing and to act competently. You only need to look at HS2 – which if it were a private initiative would have been dumped years ago – to realise that’s a reckless assumption.

If we’re to survive with any level of sophistication and comfort, we need to rapidly square the economy vs ecology circle

It could be argued that modern capitalism’s failure to address the ecological crisis is precisely because it suffers from the same malaise as command economies. Despite the façade of democratic participation, power and wealth – and thus decision-making – are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, so both inefficiency and corruption are inevitable. These days, “competition” mainly means tech oligarchs slugging it out with neo-mercantilist superpowers. Our economies bear little relationship to the eighteenth-century world of “the butcher, the brewer, [and] the baker” on which capitalism’s forefather Adam Smith based his theories about morality and markets in his books Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.

Over 50 years ago, the founder of the Ecologist magazine, Teddy Goldsmith, warned against the shift of power away from locally governed communities and towards global corporations. Back then, he could barely have imagined the likes of Meta and X, which have seen writers such as Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), warn against the exploitation of human resources as well as natural ones – what is benignly called our “data”. In his new book, Technofeudalism, Yanis Varoufakis’s goes further still, suggesting that we’re not just the tech giants’ pawns, but already their serfs.

Whatever label you apply, in our increasingly AI- and VR-powered world – with its chatbot bankers, self-service hotels, killer drones and self-drive cars – both purveyors and consumers are subject to the same real-world constraints as Goldsmith’s beloved indigenous tribes: warmth, food, clean water and shelter. All of these depend on nature’s bounty. If we’re to survive with any level of sophistication and comfort, we need to rapidly square the economy vs ecology circle. But we’re currently stuck in a binary philosophical cul-de-sac of private vs state. What is required is a shift in thinking every bit as radical as Adam Smith’s: not just putting a value on natural capital, but making its enhancement the true measure of wealth accumulation. We aren’t going to find the blueprint on Facebook or in our X-feed, although such tools are useful for communication. Nor in the diktats from Number 10, whether by Sunak or Starmer – although governments must provide the framework. As Wade Graham writes, most of us are stuck in our urban jungles, and (unless we’re filthy rich) it’s too late to retreat to a rural idyll. But it’s not too late to rediscover the smaller communities hidden within larger ones, and to insist on power being devolved to them. To hell with the bankers; the butchers, brewers and bakers, with their symphony of sympathy and self-interest, are still out there. As Sharkey reminds us, after decades of governmental and corporate neglect, the push for clean water – which might well decide the next election – has come from grassroots activism.

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Columns, October 2023, Soapbox

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