A Citizen’s Call for a Global Sustainable Economy

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In the jobs vs. environment debate, neither side is wrong: the problem is the forced choice, and the 20th-Century economy that spawned it.

A major new UN report (the IPBES Global Assessment) revealed that humanity now faces a crucial turning point in how we manage the economy amidst pressing environmental degradation including wildlife declines, global climate change and associated storms, fires, and droughts. Institutions of the world have not kept pace to sustain progress and fairness in the face of such complex collective problems—but they could. We, citizens from around the world, call upon governments, international bodies, and companies to transform our economy to a global sustainable economy to fix these problems at their source.

For too long, citizens of many nations have been saddled with guilt and false choices created by an economic system not fit for purpose. Faced with a devil’s choice between our livelihoods (and lifestyles) and sustaining the environment for nature and future generations, we have been choosing our livelihoods. In the current economy, tragic tradeoffs arise when the local protection of communities and environments fuels the export of not only jobs but also dirty, dangerous, and unjust production. The benefits of this economic growth are short-lived, but many costs are long-lasting, widespread, and unjust. Floods, dam collapses, oil spills, forest loss, coral reef bleaching, and persistent toxic pollution affect us all but particularly the most vulnerable, while a few grow wealthier.

It’s time to draw a clear line in the sand: NO MORE RACE TO THE BOTTOM. No more economic activity that undermines the viability of a species or ecosystem (‘biodiversity’) or nature’s benefits for people (or ‘ecosystem services’), without directly addressing the problems such activity creates. Anywhere.

No more excuses. It is possible to reduce the impacts and mitigate the effects of most industrial activities. Agriculture can build soils and take carbon dioxide out of the air, working against climate change. Mining done well can leave almost no trace (particularly with snow roads). And multi-species aquaculture can clean up nitrogen pollution while producing safe nutritious seafood. Goods and services with fewer negative impacts and more positive ones would likely cost more, in money terms. But safeguarding nature would pay us back in the form of clean air, clean water, less flood damage, fewer landslides, richer soils and beautiful beaches, forests and other natural areas. It is one of the best investments we could ever make for future generations.

This transformation will not be easy. Many powerful corporations, governments, and individuals benefit from the current system, and currently our institutions make it too easy for the selfish and short-sighted to sway votes, decisions, and policies. But creating genuine and lasting wealth for all is achievable, if governments and businesses commit to do so and follow through. Citizens will need to hold them to account and help where we can. And many of us can. The costs of progress should not be borne by those without such good fortune.

It’s time for a principled stand. We—the signatories—call on everyone everywhere to help build a global sustainable economy. Specifically, this means:

  • Governments: Face up to the magnitude of climate and environmental change, and measure all of your policies against this yardstick. Build the full true costs of climate, social, and ecological impacts into every aspect of the economy: then, markets will generate prosperity that lasts. Follow the guidance of trusted experts, such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Put in place fair and effective measures to prevent damaging development in and from your jurisdiction, and work with other states to ensure that such commitments are upheld everywhere. Stamp out corruption and loopholes that foster short-termism and the few benefiting at the expense of the many. Invest in conserving and restoring natural systems, which reduce the impacts of climate change and yield many other benefits. 
  • Companies, businesses: Work within your sector and with governments and experts to develop and enforce standards that ban damaging development and build a circular economy—one that recycles and reuses waste. Innovate and work with nature—adopt extractive and productive processes that nourish the planet’s life support systems, not degrade them. Call out the cheats, who give whole sectors bad reputations. Show principled leadership, and we will reward it.
  • Voters, consumers, citizens: We will do our part. We will support only those politicians and businesses that pledge to build a global sustainable economy, so we aren’t faced with any more tragic tradeoffs. We can’t yet ensure that our consumption is free of negative impact, although that’s what we seek. But we will staunchly support those businesses that foster that vision by documenting, minimizing and repairing their impacts on nature and people. If we can afford to mitigate our own impacts to seed this change, we will. We will speak out about economic structures that promote a race to the bottom, particularly when we encounter divisive debates like jobs vs. the environment. We will seek and embrace solutions that enable economic development while sustaining and restoring nature—win-win, not win-lose.

It is time to make this planet a prosperous, sustainable one—not an unjust and degraded one chock full of (apparently) cheap stuff. We, the citizens of this planet, call on governments and businesses to lead this economic transformation. We pledge to support you if you do. And we pledge to do our own part to meet this monumental challenge, as our ancestors rose to meet theirs.