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PIIGS can fly

Posted by Stuart Bond on August 31, 2011 at 2:53pm

Europe is in the middle of its biggest financial and economic crisis for a generation. Political responses have not yet matched the economic realities presented by either individual member states or an integrated Europe. The crisis is however more than economic: it is also social and environmental. Our bankers, our politicians and our media have lost our trust, youth unemployment is at a record high and the gap between the haves and have not’s continues to rise. The cost of food is on the up, in the Middle East an Arab spring has sprung and change is afoot in most of the world.

In the midst of all of this is the fragile finiteness of our life support system: planet earth. On the economic front, significant tensions between the conflicting objectives of growth versus sustainability have yet to be resolved and are unlikely to be in the near future. On the environmental front the earth’s capacity to supply resources and absorb waste is being exceeded, and on the social front continuing the expansion of resource intensive lifestyles of a growing global consumer class only intensifies the pressure on the planet’s ecosystems, with greatest impact on the poorest, most vulnerable communities.

This crisis is interlinked, interdependent locally and globally, and responses are urgent, uncertain, controversial, and entangled with power and money.

Doing nothing on a no-change ‘business as usual’ path does not seem to be a viable option. This is now recognized by governments, corporations and professional lobbies worldwide. For climate change and the carbon agenda there are international agreements, but the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit demonstrated the fallacy that the global political system could take strong action based on scientific rationality alone. And for the rest of the picture, there are very few clear route maps for the way forward, if any at all.

In Susannah's Stoessel's recent blog what does our desired future look like? the OPEN project's scenario approach was described and the four alternative scenarios fleshed out. Each one of these was designed to achieve a One Planet Economy, and some clearly presented a more desirable future than others. Other than the scenarios themselves, perhaps the most interesting comment was the one line paragraph "of course the largest limiting factor here is the strength of our common commitment to a common desired future." This really nails the conundrum on its head and provides us with a tantalising clue to the precarious nature of our predicament.

In a forthcoming report Katy Roelich and crew have now quantified these scenarios and the results are staggering. Firstly “no scenario was able to achieve sufficient reduction to achieve footprints within… environmental limits” which challenges the idea that our economies can to continue to grow while simultaneously reducing our environmental impacts. Secondly the notion that we can simply decarbonise our economies as the sole way out of this mess raises further questions about current political fixations. Decarbonisation of the electricity supply must be supported by production efficiency and resource sufficiency measures. Finally the quantification report leads us to the plain fact that we are all in this together and that simply working on a domestic approach is not enough, and that all these options need to be also replicated outside of the EU.

What this says is that it is a tall order. We need to go beyond what we think is possible. Feasible? Yes, but only just. And without the glue of a strong “common commitment to a common desired future” we are unlikely to get there at all.

We have to look at this not as an impossible challenge, but a one-off opportunity to rethink the nature of the system – to start building a One Planet Economy. For the PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, this crisis could actually be a catalyst to building a new economy, and an opportunity to become a model of hope rather than a headache in Brussels, a thorn in the side of Berlin and something that President Sarkozy wished he’d never trodden in.

As crunch time is approaching for the euro project, it is equally approaching in our finances, our economies, our climate, our energy, our water, our food and our resources. It is only through political will that we will hold any of this together. If we can find the cash to bail out our banks, to fund wars and prop up currencies what will it take to embark on the sea-change that we all know is required to become a One Planet Economy?
Like the turning of the democratic tide in Tahrir Square, there needs to be a similar movement in Brussels, in London, in Berlin and throughout the Eurozone. Social change will not come from our elective representatives, they will always follow rather than lead the charge. And where better than from the kids at the back of the class? There is no point in even entering a race you can’t win, so why not simply re-write the rules and start a new race based on principles that support this transition, rather than hindering it. Perhaps the unfortunately named PIIGS can rise up to become the harbingers of this new industrial revolution to become the first One Planet Economies in Europe.

This is not an impossible challenge, just an improbable one. Let’s see a day when PIIGS actually fly.

 


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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement N° 227065. The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of the One Planet Economy Network and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. 
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