A War of Coalitions

As we write this, four months has passed since September 11, and since the pundits began chanting that “everything has changed.” It’s not a long time, but then again, history is moving quickly these days, and its long enough for us to say that there’s little evidence for this nearly universal claim.

We are not, to be sure, impartial observers. Nor are we blind. A great deal has changed, a great deal is different. But much of the difference, it seems to us, lies on an axis of disillusionment: much that was unacknowledged is now too obvious to ignore. Further, it’s clear that, from the perspective of justice and sustainability, we’re in much the same hole as we were before.

So perhaps everything has changed. The question now, as Gregory Bateson used to say, is if the difference makes a difference. And the answer to that question is simply that it’s too early to know. Still, we think a close look at how recent events have changed global coalitional politics can shed useful light on the challenges of the future. So here goes.

The Early Hope was too Easy

In the early days, just after September 11, there was a lot of optimism about a “new Multilateralism,” one in which the US, under the pressure of this “new kind of war,” would inevitably become a more responsive and responsible member of the international community. For example, in a September opinion piece named What Bin Laden and Global Warming Have in Common, Robert M. Cutler, a research fellow at the Institute of European and Russian Studies, wrote that:

“Concerning international environmental policy, the small move that is needed-no less great for its smallness-is to extend the logic of antiterrorist cooperation to nontraditional security issues. In principle, this may not be as difficult as it may seem. The terrorist threat and the threat of global warming share a surprising number of qualities. To mention only three, both are omnipresent, mainly visible in their effects, and impossible to eliminate only by monitoring state borders. In both a sociological and an ironic sense, the threats of international terrorism and global climate change are “post-modern” fraternal twins.”

And, indeed, early October saw both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and British Environment Minister Michael Meacher inveigle the US to reverse its position and support the Kyoto Protocol. For a few days the email flew fast and hard as enviros around the world indulged dreams of sudden deliverance. There was even a UK press report announcing “Bush Set to make U-turn over Kyoto!”

It hasn’t happened yet. Nor is it likely anytime soon. Salvation just isn’t going to come that easily, not for the climate treaty, not for the dream of democratic multilateral governance, and certainly not for the larger dream of global justice and sustainability.

So let’s ask the question more precisely: What impact will the “anti-terror” coalition have on the climate protection coalition that emerged in Bonn And what, politically, will it mean to strengthen the second coalition while the US does its best to solidify the first

Note two things about this formulation.

First, we’re putting the coalitions front and center. We’re not asking if September 11 makes Kyoto’s ratification more likely, though we greatly desire that ratification. Nor are we asking about the fate of Rio+10, which will come in September of 2002, while the media’s attention is-inevitably-on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Rather, we’re asking about the coalitions, the networks, cultures, and alliances of international realpolitic as they appear “on the ground.” We’re doing so because we believe that it’s these coalitions that, finally, will prove decisive.

Second, we’re asking a question that cannot be answered in the terms traditional to “environmental politics.” For just as, before September 11, it was clear that the climate crisis had carried environmental issues into the top tier of international high politics – where it joined military security and economics/trade – it’s now equally clear that, in times of crisis, politics as usual will easily elbow environmental matters aside. As it happens, the crisis came in military guise, but had we entered a global depression prior to the terrorist attacks, similar dynamics would have maintained.

Climate change certainly poses the threat of a crisis, but it is still relatively distant, and approaching relatively slowly. For example, there are good climate models that indicate that, with a doubling of the atmosphere’s carbon concentration – think 2050 – the entire Arctic ice cover will disappear. We see it coming, and if and when it arrives it will be a catastrophe of the first magnitude, but it’s not news, not in time of war.

When will climate change be news again Soon. And when it is, we will, most of us, be both sadder and wiser. For we will have learned that hopeful developments – like the probable ratification of Kyoto over US objections – are only a small part of a complex dance of international politics, and that for every three steps forward, there are two steps back.

Consider the following recent developments, in the arenas of environment, military security, and trade, respectively.

* First, after working together for some time to gradually isolate the US from its traditional climate allies, the EU and developing countries achieved a substantial victory at COP6bis in Bonn. (To see our analysis in detail, see our Tale of Two Cities.

* Then, on September 11, the US was attacked, and it set out to successfully organize a variety of industrialized and developing countries into the “war on terrorism.” In so doing, it again demonstrated its ability to dominate a coalition defined in terms of military security.

* Shortly thereafter, at the WTO talks in Doha, the EU antagonized both the US and the developing countries with demands to include environmental protection in a WTO-based regime. (The problem is that, absent real reform of the WTO, writing environmental protection into its rules and procedures would probably create another weapon against the poor.)

These three examples show the relatively independence of the three arenas, but it’s only relative. What are the connections, and what happens next Obviously, a great deal depends on Europe. It depends as well on the developing countries, but let’s be honest about this – after the end of the Cold War, the South lost much of its international bargaining power. Thus, a tough question: Will the Euro/G77 coalition that debuted in Bonn hold, and solidify Will it insist upon new approaches to security, to globalization, to energy development These, after all, are the real questions, for the climate as for the poor, as for world system as a whole.

There are reasons for optimism. In Europe, a variety of factors-from social democratic political traditions to geography – have breed a polity that, when compared to the US, has to be judged as far less dominated by the fossil-fuel cartel, and far more open to the logic of a new North/South deal. And the South, too, is in flux, for while it’s elites see little alternative to “development” as usual, the reality of development has fallen far short of the promise. And despite all the heat of the “sovereignty” debate, few, even in the South, really imagine that the future will unfold as a simple continuation of the past.

In the next five or ten years, it’s reasonable to hope that Europe will continue to play various progressive roles, particularly in terms of climate politics and in its relations to the South. The question, especially after September 11, is if they’ll be progressive enough. Indeed, it’s fair to ask if Europe after September 11 will even be multilateralist, in any real sense, or if the future will hold to the pattern of the recent military campaign, one of a “uni-multilateralism” in which the US (as it did under Clinton as well as under the current administration) sets the agenda, and the rest of the world essentially goes along, sometimes with relief.

It seemed, at Bonn, that a new future was being written in the language of a EU/G77 coalition. But this was not the pattern at Doha, where stalemate and deferral were the orders of the day, and the Europeans played both sides of the street. Given this, and in general, we should not indulge illusions. Even in Europe, where the hope of the North most clearly resides, the elites are split, and often paralyzed, and only rarely can they rouse themselves to bold action. It was, remember, George W. Bush who saved the Kyoto Protocol, by taking such a regressive position that the Europeans couldn’t even hope to negotiate with him. The US, in effect, set Europe free, and had it not done so, Bonn may have come to nothing, and Marrakech nothing at all.

Inside America

The hope of the climate coalition is that the US will be forced, as the years go on, to rejoin Kyoto, and even to work to strengthen it into a plausible climate-control regime. The hope of global justice movement is that not only the US, but all the centers of power, will be forced to attend to the realities of life on this benighted planet, and to allow “sustainable development” to become something more than cruel rhetoric.

Will anything like this happen One must, at some point, turn to the rather strange domestic politics of the last superpower. And to the simple, grim reality that the US is the world’s 800 pound gorilla; while it doesn’t always get it’s way, it can usually stop others from getting theirs.

The significance of US power is difficult to exaggerate. In military terms, it’s no longer enough to talk about the last superpower and its nuclear weapons. Afghanistan announced the apparent maturation of a new weapons system – high altitude bombers, computerized positioning systems and guidance systems, bombs that are maneuverable by on-the-ground spotters – that can be far more easily used, and which may, according to a number of mainstream commentators (see, for example, Niall Ferguson’s 2011, in the Dec 2, 2001 issue of the New York Times Magazine) emerge as the tools of a new military epoch, and even a new Imperium. On the economic side, let’s just say that the US is free to pursue policies (huge trade and fiscal deficits, massive economy-distorting subsidies, a stubborn commitment to fossil-fuel based development) that would have already rendered it a pariah state were it not for its sheer weight and preponderance.

Further, US politics is such that no serious political opposition can state these facts plainly. Inside the US, and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the consensus is that “we” are the righteous leader of the global community; if other countries are poor, it is because they have not sufficiently emulated us; if they oppose our goals or preferences, they are misguided or evil.

September 11 exacerbated the problem, but it did not create it. Almost any country attacked as the US was on September 11 would have seen a sharp upwelling of national unity, and in this sense the wide discretion the American people granted their Executive was a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the US is not just any country. It is, rather, a neo-imperial superpower in which unilateralism and a sense of “exceptionalism” are long-standing traditions, and the mainstream culture is deeply tinged with a dangerous moral righteousness. These are, just now, dominant themes, but it would be unwise to imagine that they are only military in their expression. Indeed, when it comes to global warming, it’s probably best to focus on elite opinion in the other key spheres of global politics: economics and the environment.

Let’s begin with the obvious. It’s not news that a huge fraction of the US elite is directly tied to the fossil fuel and automobile industries; their current occupation of the White House is as fine an indication of their political strength as we need. What does need to be said is that, from the perspective of the climate challenge, the Democrats are barely any better. Sure, Clinton negotiated Kyoto, but the actual US role in the negotiations has consistently been to weaken the treaty, to minimize the change that would be required to the “American Way of Life.” This was true through COP6 in The Hague, where the US scuppered the talks with its demands to count the absorption of carbon by US forests (which we cut down in the past several centuries when it didn’t count). Nor has any prominent Democrat ever admitted that the Byrd-Hagel Amendment-which ignores the Berlin Mandate, and insists that the US will refuse to ratify any treaty (like Kyoto) which doesn’t include caps for developing countries-is both insulting and injurious to the South. Nor has any prominent Democrat ever argued that Bush’s rejection of Kyoto is just plain wrong; all we’ve heard are arguments that the US should try to “fix” Kyoto, or suggest an alternative treaty (erected on always-unspecified grounds). And as for the emerging Democratic alternative to the Administration’s climate policies, well it’s too early to analyze them, but they seem so far to be little more than a grim joke.

And then there’s the US environmental mainstream, which has done altogether too little to connect the dots. This is slowly changing, as people begin to peer warily past Kyoto’s ratification to the justice issues that will soon no longer be avoidable. But the cold fact is that a few small organizations are still alone in asserting points that should long ago have become core mainstream messages: climate policy is as much a matter of ethics as it is of realism; Americans use far more of the earth’s environmental space than is their right; just transition planning isn’t just a tactical concern on the labor-environment alliance, but a fundamental precondition of any real turn towards sustainability; there will be no workable global warming regime that is not only global but “fair,” and it won’t just be Washington that gets to define this most difficult of words.

It may be that, in this the new world after September 11, both the tone and content of American politics will begin to change. Let’s hope so, and that the changes, if they come, are to the good. In the meantime, when it comes to climate change, progressive governments, in Europe or the developing world, simply have no plausible negotiating partners in the US. Who, after all, argues that the US’s structural position in the world is unsustainable That if we are to avoid a future of global apartheid and environmental catastrophe, there must be a major redistribution of resources from the industrialized countries to the South Only the global justice movement. Any candidate or party which risked making these points would be consigning itself to inevitable (and probably overwhelming) defeat.

Where does this leave us With the sense that the opposition, in the US, has been almost entirely captured by the fossil cartel. And with the presumption that the US administration will attempt to parley its “multilateral” anti-terror coalition into hegemony in the environmental sphere as well. Given this, we assume that, barring strong EU/G77 led counter movements (or sudden change in the US), the Americans (even under a future Democratic administration) will try to force the big developing countries to accept a climate deal based on grandfathering. More specifically, it appears to us that the US believes that it can coerce the developing countries-even China and India-into accepting caps on their emissions that are based on an essentially status quo division of the atmosphere, presumably by threatening to not reduce its own emissions unless they do.

Would it work We don’t think so, but it might-at least temporarily-particularly if the developing countries conclude that they’re so vulnerable to the threat of climate change that they simply must reign in US emissions, at any cost, if only to live to fight another day. What this portends, we think, is an exhausting and immoral form of environmental brinkmanship. Immoral because, without an agreement, we do in fact face a situation of “mutually assured destruction,” and it is not the proper obligation of the South to agree to permanent inequality in order to prevent it.

All of which shows why it’s so encouraging that, in at least parts of Europe, there’s rising recognition of the need for a new North/South deal. More concretely, Europe has not joined the US and Australia in demanding immediate caps on emissions from developing countries. It may be that this does not require explanation, as it’s fairly obvious to those who understand the patterns of current and historic emissions that such a demand is patently unreasonable, and indeed can only serve the purpose of torpedoing the negotiations. The critical test, however, will come in the negotiations for the second commitment period, when developing countries are likely to broach the demand for caps based on convergence to equal per capita rights under a global emissions cap. French President Chirac and British Environmental Minister Meacher have already gone on record as supporting such convergence, which is a good sign; of course it remains to be seen who will be in power in these countries and elsewhere in Europe when the next round begins.

One thing is certain. The big environmental NGOs had better get a whole lot clearer about equity as the precondition of a global deal, and the sooner they do so the better. Think, again, of Byrd-Hagel. The fact of the matter is that, if the enviros were doing their job, the Democrats, and the honest Republicans, would have been a whole lot less vulnerable to its blackmail. This is a crucial point, for there’s no compelling reason to think that the Byrd-Hagel strategy won’t be tried again. And that it won’t again succeed.

Divided Elites

Equity and global limits are not, of course, simple things. Their implications are daunting, and there are good reasons why reasonable people might seek to defer publicly confronting them.

Unfortunately (or not) there’s no alternative. The second commitment period negotiations will be starting in earnest in only a few years, and despite all the clever devices that policy entrepreneurs are bringing forward to finesse the confrontation – growth baselines, carbon intensity standards, and all the rest of them – it’s difficult to imagine that any deal that isn’t explicitly designed to be both global and fair could serve as the basis for a durable, powerful, climate protection coalition.

So, what prospect does such a deal really have More specifically, what short-term prospects does it have among the Northern elites To answer this question – or, rather, to discuss it coherently – consider this simple typology of the elites, one designed to support informed speculation about the balance of power between different elite factions. This is necessarily a caricature, but it’s closely related to interesting new global scenarios work, and we think it’s a useful one.

Ok, the three “parties”:

The Party of the Fortress World

Given the circumstances, it’s best to start with “the party of the fortress world.” By this we mean the coalition of political forces, within and between nations, who see the post-cold-war period as one in which military power, most of it America’s, can and should be used to police the world. In practice, this unfortunately means not only the suppression of terrorism, but also an increasingly visible iron fist, raised against any really serious challenges to transnational business in general and the fossil cartel in particular.

Clearly, the Bush administration is in this camp, though there are dissonant elements (visible in the splits between the Cheney/Rumsfeld faction and the Powell/O’Neill faction). Just as clearly, the Fortress Warriors are the driving force behind the new unilateralism, including both the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the abandonment of the ABM treaty.

After September 11, with all the talk of protracted war, it’s necessary to add that military crises strengthen the fortress camp. Despite all talk of “alternative” and “comprehensive” security, if the game is one of war and peace, then the Fortress Warriors are likely to make its rules.

One other thing. As a global management strategy, the Fortress World approach cannot work. Despite all appearances, military power is not a solution to the riddle of history!

The Party of Business-as-Usual

Fortunately, most of the North’s elites are not Fortress Warriors, at least not by choice. Indeed, if they’re members of any party at all, it’s the “party of business-as-usual.” And most BAU people actually want a better world, though they generally cannot imagine any serious resistance to the network of status-quo affiliations that make up their lives. Indeed, they shrink from recognizing such affiliations, for this would force them to confront their indirect commitments to the poverty, the division, the decay, the hopelessness.

This is, of course, the center. In the US, the mainstream of the Democratic Party, liberal Republicans, and much of the hi-tech and financial business world comprise the not-very-organized party of BAU. In Europe, the Third Way Social Democrats and most of the Christian Democrats are in the BAU camp. They go to meetings of the World Economic Forum, and issue anxious declarations about global warming and social instability. But they do not connect the dots, or admit that business as usual is inherently instable, or see that the party of the Fortress World isn’t going to be forestalled by good intentions and a frenzied push to expand the powers of the WTO. Indeed, they generally accept the teachings of neo-liberalism, and why not It’s a comforting ideology, and people like to be comfortable.

The essential program of BAU is growth with a human (and ecological) face, but with no substantive changes in institutions, and no redistributive agenda. Which is just the problem, for this is an impossible program.

The Party of Sustainable Development

Finally, emerging primarily in Europe but to a lesser extent in the civil society and political fringes of the developing world and the US as well, is what we might call the “party of sustainable development.” (Given the damage this term has done in the last decade, we’d love to say “the party of global justice,” but we just can’t. At the end of the day, the global justice movement is at the cutting edge of “sustainable development,” and it will almost certainly share its fate.)

The party of sustainable development is committed to substantial (if still vague) institutional transformations, serious protection of the environment, and a challenge, however small, to the dominant image of development. The Greens in Europe fall in here, and they have real influence on dominant parties and government policies, particularly in Germany and Northern Europe. In the US, however, and despite the diffuse influence of the sustainable development camp, its view are almost entirely unrepresented in the two political parties, a fact that has extremely serious implications for the future of the climate negotiations.

First, though, note that all of these parties share a recognition that the current North-South divide is unstable, though they write different prescriptions. Fortress Warriors believe that the military management of the instability is necessary, possible, and even heroic, while the BAU party believes that, with luck, technological change and economic growth will be sufficient to prevent economic and political chaos.

As for the party of sustainable development, well it’s standing at a crossroads. And, increasingly, it knows it.

Let’s connect the dots. The reason we’re so adamant about the importance of the Bonn coalition is that we think it is the almost ideal kernel of the North/South coalition that could make sustainable development into something admirable and real. We think, in fact, that the climate coalition holds the potential to transform the green movement into a political force that can effectively contend with the Fortress Warriors for the “hearts and minds” of the BAU folks.

In this context – forgive us if this is obvious – “multilateralism” appears as a step on the road to sustainability, and the climate coalition is only a clear marker of the historical juncture that makes multilateralism possible.

Recall the Bonn milestone – finally, carbon would have a price, one imposed by an open multilateral process based in the United Nations. It isn’t much, but it’s a step, and a precondition for further progress, and, specifically a precondition for the global, equity-based climate deal that could prefigure and undergird a larger transition. Global justice in a sustainable world, this is the real prize, as it has to be. Multilateralism is only a step, only a prefiguration.

“Realism” no Longer Belongs to the Realists

It’s easy – particularly in the US – to dismiss talk like this is “idealism,” or worse. But what’s really at stake is “realism,” and in particular the realism of the elites. To repeat our main point: solving the climate problem will require equitable access to the global atmospheric resource. China and India do not need our permission to burn their coal, and if we don’t get an equitable climate deal to fund the transition to a clean energy future, there won’t be one.

This is a long story, but note only this: as a political doctrine, the core of realism is that states, especially powerful states, have “interests” that, while not always pretty, are quite properly the primary roots of their international policies; that those who refuse to realize this, and who seek to make states act against their interests, are worse than nave – they are as well inviting unintended consequences.

The US, in this view, is a superpower. If its carbon emissions are large, they are only proportional to is size and power. When it comes to environmental policy, it simply does what it must to defend its interests, exactly as it does with economic and military policy. Nor should its efforts stop at its borders. Indeed, if events like September 11 give the US the opportunity to redefine multilateral alliances to be in line with US interests, or to ease America’s pursuit of its interests by disguising them as universal global interests, its leaders would be remiss to not seize the opportunity with both hands.

The problems here are numerous, but one is especially apropos. Not only are “US interests” today being defined solely by its elites, they are in fact being defined by a particular party within the US elites, the one we’re calling the Fortress Warriors, and in narrow terms indeed. Moreover, if any single belief that binds the party of sustainable development together, it’s that this party, the greens, insist that “real” self interest must be inclusive, of others on this planet, of the poor, of the lands, waters and beasts, of the future.

But is this “realistic”

That’s just the question, and we should thank the realists for forcing us to ask it, and for compelling us to realize just where these rising waters marooned us. To wit: it’s no longer the classical realists, from Bismarck to George Kennan to Henry Kissinger to Robert Kaplan, who deserve the mantle of realism; and if we wish, in Benjamin Barber’s words, to get Beyond Jihad vs. McWorld we must first realize that the laurels of realism belong to the party of sustainable development, if only it can grow large and wise and radical-and realistic-enough to grasp them.

It won’t be easy. For if our thumbnail analysis of the elites is correct, the key to the future lies in winning the BAU elites over to the party of sustainable development, even as “the global justice movement” and the “new realism” become, manifestly, principal global actors.

Germany’s Heinrich Bll Foundation, in an online forum dedicated to the impact of September 11th on the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit, asked the pressing question:

Will the shock create a new climate of international co-operation between North and South, East and West, thus creating a fertile ground for a new, “global deal”

And it’s only the importance of the question that justifies this essay. For let us be clear. We do not claim any radical new insights. In the North, the problem, as always, is the shapeless hypocrisy of BAU culture, for it’s what allows the fortress warriors to maintain their control. In the South, the problem, as always, is a lack of options. Even as the future of the South emerges as the obvious pivot of history, the power of the South, and of its elites, is at a low ebb.

Heinrich Bll’s sustainable development officer, Joerg Hass, in his contribution to the forum on Rio+10 that he himself organized, put it this way:

I strongly doubt that the weakened EU is now in a position to repeat the Bonn scenario of a strong confrontation with unilateral US policies Even if environment ministries would wish to go for that, their heads of state and governments will not give them the support needed to enter successfully such a confrontation.

[As for the South] it might be heralding under the title of poverty eradication an initiative of increased integration in the world market, but an integration that most probably will be based on the accelerated exploitation of the natural resources of this continent. A strategy of development based on the export of natural resources, that has been consistently advocated by the IMF in its structural adjustment programmes and has already in the nineties led to a permanent oversupply of raw materials on the world market, leading to continuous decline of the terms of trade. At the end we could observe more and more of the resources of the South being plundered with less and less economic benefit for it, a process that was running counter every strategy to bring down the overconsumption of natural resources in the North as it made these resources ever more cheaper for the North.

Joerg may be wrong, but if you would go beyond the confused adolescence of sustainable development, this is an excellent place to start.

And there’s no time like 2002! Rio+10, after all, is not likely to be a happy anniversary. The war, for one thing, will still be on. And ten years after Rio, there’s going to be precious little progress to report. This is true if you look at the science – the ecological indicators that allow us to monitor, after a fashion, the health of the physical ecosystem – and it’s true as well of global environmental governance, which is going about as badly as global governance itself. In all this, the climate negotiations are critical, for if the Kyoto Protocol isn’t ratified before the Johannesburg summit, there will be little but failure to show for the Rio agenda.

Which is realism comes in. If the climate coalition is to hold, even in the face of the new terrorism and the international politics of the anti-terror coalition, it can only be on the basis of a deeper North/South coalition, one in which Europe stands with the South for a global new deal. This is not idealism. It is political reality.

The last thing we should do right now is mince words. We have to reach beyond easy rhetoric like “poverty reduction,” and “development,” and talk instead about “inequality,” and the need for the global redistribution of wealth as the precondition of any real turn towards sustainability culture. Nor should we imagine that by doing so we raise an obstacle to the climate deal. If it’s US politics we’re worried about, then, frankly, honesty is our only hope. And the honest fact of the matter is that “global” and “equitable” are two sides of one coin.

Think of the South, and its predicament, and ask why Southern elites, desperate as they are for “development,” would accept a climate regime that only raises another wall before them.

During the next few years, the drama of global governance will focus again on trade, and on the efforts, by the developing world and its allies, to launch a “development” round within the WTO negotiations. It’s likely to be a grim show, but if we’re lucky, it will cement the global justice coalition, which focuses, as it must, on the center-ring dramas of the fibrillating global economy. At the same time, the next chapter of the climate negotiations will begin to take shape, and more and more observers will begin to make the obvious connections.

Here’s one that may, perhaps, not be obvious: A solution to the “climate problem” requires a durable North/South coalition for just and sustainable development. It requires, in other words, a development path that the South can plausibly take. Without such a path, Southern blocs are compelled to consider the environment as a secondary concern, no matter how much it grieves them to do so. This, inevitably, puts them in alliance with the party of BAU, rather than the party of sustainable development, in both the climate and the trade negotiations.

We have to square the circle. There has be a global climate regime, and it has to be structured as a convergence to per-capita emission rights under a global cap, and in such a regime, there would have be large North to South capital transfers. Obviously, there are huge problems posed by such a prospect, but unless we contrive an alternative, a realistic alternative, it’s probably best for us to swallow hard, face the facts, and then set about solving them.

Justice and Realism

The last decade of the second (Christian) millennium was one of glaring contradictions. The rhetorical recognition of global problems reached new heights; reading the publications of the “new” World Bank, one might think one was reading the radical critics of the ’70s. “People centered development,” progress in establishing the precautionary principle, environmental impact statements, the long slog through a series of UN social summits, and, of course, the emergence of the global justice movement gave people hope that “sustainable development” might actually become, as they say, “operational.” On the other hand, the real policy of the international institutions in the 1990s was “structural adjustment” – fiscal stability at any cost, increasing exports of ever cheaper primary commodities from developing countries, and the privatization of just about everything. Whether the triumph of neoliberalism led to increased growth or only created a mirage of progress is debatable; what’s not debatable is that the benefits of “globalization,” as it is called, have been and are being unfairly distributed, and that the dominant economic policies have utterly failed to solve the problem of global poverty.

Non of this changed when the twin towers fell.

The critical question is on the table, though generally still ignored: what kind of “development” is possible in a world of finite environmental space Recent analysis has emphasized better technology and better institutions, and often implied that with them, the whole world can begin to approach the “standard of living” of the North. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. In the one case where it’s easy to do the math – energy use and fossil-fuel emissions – the answer is crystal clear; there is simply no way which the South can follow the path of the North without catastrophically destabilizing the global climate.

There’s good reason to believe that in other critical dimensions – the use of primary commodities, water, and food – the answer is equally grim. Ten billion people cannot live at the consumption levels of today’s North, let alone the levels that the North will have reached in another fifty years. Some few countries, like the US, may have the resources sufficient to more or less sustain domestic consumption, but this, really, is a small point. If the world’s finite resources are divided by the market as we know it, the result will be permanent global economic apartheid.

And, of course, permanent global war.

The transitions necessary are known in outline if not in detail. The two keystones of the modern order – national sovereignty and private property – must again be recognized for what they undoubtedly are: historical creations that served particular needs at particular times. This recognition, which entered the popular consciousness with the radical movements of the 19th century, has survived, partly transformed with an ecological twist, in the academic and political fringes; the challenge of the coming years is to find ways to mainstream it, even in the face of neoliberal ideology.

Does the problem of climate change offer some hope We argue that it does. Clearly it represents a counter-weight to claims for absolute national sovereignty; if we are not protected from others’ emissions, we have no choice but to agree to mutual self-regulation.

If the atmosphere is a global commons, then, to borrow the classical formulation, our rights end where others’ begin. We do not have the right, as individuals or as countries, to harm others in the pursuit of our own self interest. In this regard, Bush’s claim that we won’t agree to Kyoto because it would harm our economic interests will come to be seen as a rejection of the standards of responsibility necessary to the global community. It is grim to be an American and have to hear it; it is worse to see the willingness with which so many people, schooled in the narcissistic powerlessness of BAU culture, rush to agree.

September 11, they say, “changed everything.” But did it change it decisively That, actually, is up to us. We have, in the days since the attacks, woken to find ourselves living, in fact, in a world we knew already in our darker imaginings. It was a shock, and a moment of illumination, but it left us with a teachable moment, in which many more people can begin to see our real conditions of existence.

And those conditions That peace, as Martin Luther King Jr., taught us, is more than “the absence of war.” That it is, rather, “the presence of justice.” And that justice has been in rather short supply of late.

And here we must say that we are, actually, a bit optimistic, for we agree with Herman Daly, the dean of ecological economics, who once said that our best chance may be an “optimal crisis, one bad enough to shake us up, but not so bad as to impair our ability to react.”

We may have just gotten one.

— Paul Baer and Tom Athanasiou