We recently put up a post titled: Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. Here is a follow up post taken from Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus’s book.
Information Technology, Globalization, and a Transformed World
As we are all witnessing, the world is going through a revolution driven by information technology (IT). Business, government, education, the media—all are being transformed by the Internet, wireless telephony, access to powerful yet inexpensive computing technology, cable and satellite television, and other elements of the new IT. But what is less well understood is the enormous potential of the new IT for transforming the status of the poorest people in the world. It is not the huge size of the annual addition to the GDP that characterizes the new society being created by the information revolution. It is not about the wealth that certain people or companies are accumulating by using this technology. The new IT’s unique contribution comes from one fundamental fact: It is creating new relationships among people. And this transformation will inevitably have a profound impact on the lives of the poor, particularly poor women and children.
How will IT affect the world’s poorest economies? Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities. One possibility is that, with the emergence of new economic forces driven by IT and their ever-increasing strength in the world economy, nations that were small, weak, and poor under the old dispensation will be further marginalized, making it even more difficult for them to compete. Under this scenario, IT will make the current rush toward uncontrolled globalization even stronger and more unstoppable. Global corporations will dictate terms to the weak economies, which will have no choice but to submit. Their role in the new information-driven economy—if any—will be to provide the most menial services and the cheapest, least-differentiated products, while the lion’s share of the economic rewards will go to their better educated, richer, more advanced, and more powerful counterparts to the north. But there is another possibility, one that is just the opposite of the pessimistic scenario. It’s possible that the new IT will spread into the sleepy, backward economies of the global South so quickly that they will no longer remain sleepy. If the leaders of the developing world are wise and the people are eager and energetic, the new IT can be turned into a magic wand. The distance- and time-annihilating properties of electronic information management and communications can be used to eliminate many of the barriers that blocked the developing nations from full participation in the global economy. The new IT can become a great leveler, allowing people and companies in countries from Bangladesh to Bolivia to compete on an equal basis with their counterparts in the United States and Europe. It is this second scenario that I believe can and will happen— provided we have the will to make it happen.
There are skeptics who think the poor economies are incapable of using IT as a fulcrum for growth. In this chapter, I’ll illustrate how the new IT can enable poor economies to leapfrog past patterns of economic development and become successfully integrated into the world economy much faster than anyone might have predicted. I’ll also list some of the practical, concrete steps that can be taken by both the rich countries and the poor to ensure that the benefits of IT are enjoyed by all, including those who today are among the least privileged people in the world. Globalization is another trend that is transforming our world, both economically and socially. And like IT, it can be either a force for positive change for the poor or yet another way to marginalize and exploit them. Open markets are crucial to economic growth. Free trade can potentially benefit all peoples. But we need well-designed global rules if we are to achieve this outcome. Without such rules, the richest and most powerful companies and countries will dominate those that are poorer and weaker. Instead, globalization can be managed in such a way that less-developed societies and individuals can find their own place and, in time, catch up to their more powerful neighbors. If these two trends—the IT revolution and the advance of globalization— are guided into productive channels, a social revolution will take place on the heels of the current revolutions in technology and economics. There will be an unprecedented explosion in the personal and economic freedom enjoyed by humans around the globe. Two groups that can play an important role in this revolution and will be among its main beneficiaries are women and youth. Newly empowered to unleash the creativity that has formerly been repressed, these two groups can lead the world toward a new era of growth and prosperity. It’s the job of the current generation of leaders to ensure that this happens.
The Power of IT to Help the Poor
In several major areas, IT can play a powerful role in bringing an end to poverty. Here are some of the unique capabilities of the new IT for serving the world’s poorest:
• The new IT can help to integrate the poor in the process of globalization by expanding their markets through e-commerce. Traditionally, the poor have been victimized by middlemen who have controlled their access to markets, dictated business terms, and siphoned off profits. Properly applied, the new IT can largely eliminate middlemen who fail to add unique value, allowing people in the poorest countries to work directly with consumers in the developed world and creating international job opportunities through electronically enabled outsourcing. or New York, transcending the vagaries of local economic fluctuations and market conditions.
• The new IT can bring education, knowledge, and skill training to the poor in a very friendly way. One huge barrier to economic advancement for those in the developing countries has been the sheer difficulty, cost, and inconvenience of bringing teachers, consultants, and other suppliers of outside expertise into remote villages that are separated from capital cities by mountains, rivers, jungles, deserts, or hundreds of kilometers of inadequate roads. For many purposes, the Internet eliminates such barriers, making it possible, for example, for a dairy farmer in a remote region of Bangladesh or Peru to consult with an agricultural expert in Beijing or Chicago about the latest techniques for mproving the health of his cattle and increasing their yield.
The best aspect of the new IT is that it cannot be controlled by a single owner or authority. It is an empowering tool that enhances options and brings all the world’s knowledge to everyone’s doorstep. When IT enters a poor economy, it creates wider choices and new relationships, replacing the traditional uni-directional relationship between the rich and poor with a set of multi-dimensional and global relationships in which the poor have an equal footing. Many people in the developed world believe that IT is totally irrelevant to the problems of poor people. According to this view, IT is too complicated, too expensive, and too impractical for the poor. This attitude sounds hard-headed and sensible at the abstract level. Yet I’ve experienced the power of visionary technology to transform the lives of the very poor—in the face of negative predictions by the skeptics.
When we launched our cell-phone company, Grameen Phone, in 1996, the skeptics essentially said, “You must be crazy to think of selling cell phones to poor, illiterate women in the villages of Bangladesh. None of them have even seen a conventional telephone in their lives! They can’t afford a phone, they won’t know how to dial a number, and anyway whom will they call? The whole idea is insane! You should stick to what you know, and leave the high-tech stuff to the big corporations and the engineering experts.” Yet the Grameen telephone ladies have emerged as a major force for social, economic, and technological transformation in Bangladesh. They are serving as information lifelines for their villages and creating businesses that benefit themselves and their families. Their telephones also provide Internet services. They are now moving in the direction of becoming “Internet ladies” as well. As the technology continues to evolve, they will be the first ones to bring the super-powerful digital genie into the remote, once-isolated villages of Bangladesh, helping their neighbors solve problems and discover opportunities formerly reserved for the highly educated and the wealthy. Through the Internet, the villagers will gain access to all the information, services, and economic networks of the world. As for those who doubt the ability of poor, illiterate women to play such a role: I remember asking some of the very first batch of telephone ladies, “Do you have any difficulty dialing telephone numbers?” They all told me that they had no such problem. One stood up and declared, “Put a blindfold on me and tell me a number to dial! If I can’t dial it correctly the very first time, I’ll turn in my phone and get out of the business.” I was astounded by her confidence in her newfound skill. But this is what happens when you give the poor an opportunity to show what they can do—almost always, they seize the opportunity and run with it. Already another Grameen company (Grameen Communications) is setting up Internet kiosks in the villages and running them on a commercial basis. We’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the response from the villagers to the opportunity to use the Internet and other computer services. Many young people are signing up to learn computer skills for a modest fee. In villages that the national electrical grid doesn’t reach, solar panels marketed by Grameen Shakti are powering the cell phones and computers. Both Microcredit and IT can empower poor people, particularly poor women, in ways that go far beyond what dollars and cents can measure. I am convinced that the best way to combat poverty is to give dignity and self-reliance to poor women. Both IT and microcredit do this very effectively and mutually reinforce each other in the effort. This is not to say that the challenges raised by the skeptics are completely wrong. The ability of the poor and the illiterate to afford and use the new IT depends on the appropriateness of the institutional environment around the poor and the rate of return on the investment they must make. Microcredit can provide an appropriately supportive institutional environment, as demonstrated by the success of the thousands of village phone ladies who purchased their equipment through loans from Grameen Bank and have transformed their small bits of technology into thriving local businesses. Another misconception is that developing nations must recapitulate the path of development followed by developed countries decades or even centuries ago. New technologies hold out the potential for leapfrogging steps in the process. It is not necessary for a developing country in Asia, Africa, or Latin America to build a network of land lines to provide telephone service, as was done in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, those regions can jump directly to wireless cellular telephone service, saving vast amounts of money, years of development time, and precious nonrenewable resources (such as the copper once used in making telephone lines) in the process. China, India, Bangladesh, and many other countries have made exactly this leap. Cell-phone outreach is expanding in these countries like a tidal wave. Now the real challenge is to discover all the many ways these phones can improve the lives of the people who own hem. Similarly, it may not be necessary for a developing country to go through a heavy industry phase in which businesses like steel, autos, and machinery are emphasized. Instead, such a country may be able to develop its economy around information-age technologies such as software development, IT support services, and production of a host of consumer goods. Fresh, unprejudiced thinking reveals a range of such opportunities for integrating the developing countries into the world economy with amazing speed and effectiveness.
Tailoring Technology to the Needs of the Poor
There’s a lot of talk about the digital divide—the huge gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their access to and ability to use the latest information and communications technology. I share this concern. Left unchecked, the digital divide will increasingly add to the knowledge divide, the skill divide, the opportunity divide, the income divide, and the power divide. However, there’s no reason to assume that the digital divide is permanent and inevitable. Much can be done to alleviate the problem. The effort must start with a new approach to developing IT products and services. Companies can’t simply take their traditional offerings, eliminate a few bells and whistles, and then try to sell the cheapened versions to people in the poorer nations. Instead, IT for the developing world has to be designed from the ground level up, keeping the picture of a poor woman in a poor country in the forefront of the IT product and service designer’s consciousness. What are her daily problems? How can my device, appliance, or service help her find solutions to these problems? The answers to these questions will help create products and services that can truly revolutionize the world of the poor. The solution may involve designing a brand-new chip, a new device, a new Internet link, a new operating system, a new interface—a new everything. The ultimate power tool for the developing world that I want to see IT companies working to create is a device that can be a constant companion to the poor woman in the developing world. It could be a new kind of device—not a laptop computer, a personal digital assistant (PDA), or a cell phone. It could be some new kind of gadget that currently exists merely as a gleam in some visionary designer’s eye. Whatever its precise form, this new device would have the potential to transform the poor woman’s life. It could become her constant friend, philosopher, guide, business consultant, health, education and marketing consultant, trainer—her link to the larger world, her digital Aladdin’s lamp. She’ll touch the lamp or utter a magic word of her choice, and the digital genie will emerge from this lamp, ready to help her find the solution she is looking for. With the help of this technological friend, she’ll come out of her shell, step by step, discover her talents, and lift her family out of poverty. Her children, in turn, will grow up with the IT genie as their best friend and mentor. There are many resourceful people and organizations in the world who are committed to ending poverty. We need them to use their influence to inspire the IT industry to develop infrastructure, products, devices, protocols, activities, systems, and services that fit the needs of poor men and women around the world. The One Laptop per Child project and Intel’s Classmate PC project are promising examples. Giving a laptop to a child sends a powerful message: Discover yourself, discover the world, and create your own world. There is no reason why every developing country can’t participate in this exciting program. Letting all children—rich and poor, boys and girls, urban and rural—have access to computers and the Internet will help compensate for the current vast discrepancy in quality between the educational facilities available to the rich and the poor. But more such projects are needed. For example, why can’t the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley design a voice-based IT terminal for an illiterate poor person that requires little or no training for use? The IT gadget itself would guide the person in learning the possibilities it offers. The user of this device would simply have conversations with it, just as he or she does with any of his or her friends. find it hard to believe that such a challenge is beyond the reach of creative geniuses like those who developed the graphical user interface, the World Wide Web, and the iPod. Another exciting challenge waiting in the world of IT is the language problem. The vast array of content and resources on the Internet are now available mainly in English, Chinese, and a handful of other major languages. In fact, it is estimated that some 80 percent of Internet content s in English, which automatically excludes an enormous portion of the world’s population. In the ideal IT world, there will be only language—your own. All information and ideas will come to you in your language, whatever at the other end speaking your language, with simultaneous interpretation and translation provided automatically without your even knowing it. Conversely, you will talk to the computer in your own language and have the computer convert it into any language you desire.
Does this sound incredible? Visionary? Impossible? No more so than the Internet itself, which would have been deemed an absurd fantasy if anyone had dared to describe it fifty years ago. The new IT is still in its infancy. We can’t even imagine where it will take us in the next generation or two. But I don’t even want to think in terms of “where it will take us.” That’s a very passive view of life. I would rather think about “where we want IT to take us.” It’s our job to figure out where we want to go and to guide the world’s IT makers, designers, and marketers toward those goals. One of the potential benefits of the new IT is its power to alleviate the terrible problem of overcrowding and infrastructure collapse in the cities of the developing world. E-commerce can help to make crowding in the cities unnecessary. When every point on the planet is connected by the Internet to every other point, an ambitious, poor young person from a remote village will no longer have to migrate to the big city for a better job. He can do the same job—or launch his own business—out of his home in the village. Of course, purchasers of services will also benefit from the new interconnectivity. For example, a medical patient will be able to decide whether to consult with a doctor in his own city, one in Bangladesh, one in Japan, or one in any other country in the world. Borders and distances will mean almost nothing; knowledge, talent, and ability will mean everything. The new, electronically enabled interface between a government and its citizens has the potential to change the entire governance structure. The idea of a “capital city” may be altered beyond recognition. With the new IT, all government offices do not need to be located in a single city—or even in a city at all. They could be located in small villages scattered throughout the country, providing jobs for thousands of people who need them.The idea of a university campus will also have to be redefined, because neither the students nor the faculty will have to be located in a single place. The best student in Harvard Business School’s class of 2020 may be a young woman who has never left her village in Ethiopia. The new IT may provide the magic platform to create dramatic changes in any area of our interest: health, nutrition, education, skill development, childcare, marketing, financial transactions, outsourcing, and the environment. The power of the new IT is limited only by our imaginations.
Obviously, concrete actions are needed to make these dreams come true. One such opportunity arose with a visit to Dhaka by Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corporation, in September 2007. We agreed to create a joint venture social usiness to be named Intel Grameen. We are now working to set up this company, which can address many unexplored issues related to IT. Social Business and the IT Revolution Technology should be harnessed to create a better life for everyone, not just the wealthy few. But in a free-market economy, it is the profit-maximizing companies who decide the uses to which technology is put. Corporate strategists decide where research and development funds are invested; they choose the products and services that are created, and they develop marketing campaigns to convince consumers that the offerings their companies are promoting are exactly what everyone needs. When it comes to the new IT, however, “business as usual” is not acceptable. The emerging technologies will be so overwhelmingly important in shaping our future lives that we cannot leave the development of tomorrow’s IT to the board-room decisions of profitmaximizing businesses alone. Instead, social business must step up to take an important role in creating the next generation of IT. I see individuals as the best bet for starting this effort, particularly individuals who are IT enthusiasts and have a foothold in the worlds of business, technology, science, the arts, and academia. There are thousands of brilliant, idealistic people like this around the world who would like to devote their time, energy, and talent to finding ways of using IT to help poor people escape poverty. IT itself can bring these individuals together, using the Internet to build a strong global force of people dedicated to applying the power of information to the world’s most serious social problems. I propose giving this potential movement a structure by creating an umbrella organization to embody and support it. It might start as a virtual organization, then later add one or more physical locations as the movement grows in strength, wealth, and importance. Let’s call this organization the Center for International Initiatives for IT Solutions to End Poverty—or, in brief, IT Solutions to End Poverty (ISEP).
How will ISEP get started? Any individual, group of individuals, or organization (business, NGO, foundation, or academic institution) can start it by presenting a mission statement on the Web and asking others to join in the network. Once it starts rolling, there might be a conference (virtual or physical) to build a leadership team, to sort out the management issues, and to establish a legal entity that can accept funds and represent the network to the public. ISEP will probably have a group of paid staff as well as volunteers and interns devoted to the network’s program. However, its true legitimacy and authority will come from its membership—high-powered, imaginative people and organizations who are committed to contribute their talents to designing, developing, testing, implementing, and marketing IT solutions for the poor. Instead of having only one physical location, ISEP could maintain a number of enters located in different parts of the world, which would network and compete among themselves in pursuit of the same objective—ending poverty. Funding will be needed for hiring staff, for maintaining one or more offices, for developing systems, processes, solutions, and product prototypes, and for field trials and experimentation for projects undertaken by the network, and the management team will be responsible for finding these funds. Grants from foundations, businesses, and governments would be likely initial sources. Later, an endowment fund could be created by a consortium of donors and contributors to support the core programs of ISEP, and all businesses that produce and market IT products and services—the Microsofts, Apples, Googles, Dells, Infosys, Intels, and eBays of the world— could be invited to contribute each year. And perhaps ISEP could receive project grants from governments, companies in the IT industry, other businesses, foundations, and wealthy individuals. Eventually, ISEP will generate funds by selling intellectual property rights to the products and services that it develops, and it can earn money by selling its services, publications, and products. The money to create ISEP certainly exists. What is needed is the focus on IT for the poor, the will to establish a worldwide network of people devoted to that focus, and the visionary leadership of a few strong individuals who will drive the process. I could make a long list of projects that ISEP members or centers could spearhead. Here are just a few of them:
• ISEP could generate ready-to-apply social-business ideas for using IT to bring services to the poor as well as to take products and services from the poor to the broader market. ISEP should also publicize such ideas as widely as possible so that social investors will be attracted to translate these ideas into concrete social businesses.
• ISEP members could develop prototypes for IT infrastructure and information systems for anti-poverty programs and services anywhere in the world.
• ISEP members could study the interface between the informational needs of the poor (especially those related to their productivity at work) and existing IT capabilities, and then proactively create applications or systems needed
to better serve the poor.
• ISEP could identify IT infrastructure imperatives for the delivery of education, health care, good governance, and legal services to the poor, and provide consulting services to governments, NGOs, and businesses that are interested in producing the necessary infrastructure.
• ISEP could create informational networks based on geographic areas (national or regional), causes and correlates of poverty (agriculture, product marketing, health, education, legal, women, children, destitute, indigenous people, and so on), and type of participants (individuals, NGOs, governments, businesses, and so on).
• ISEP could create a data base of skills, knowledge, and technologies for governments, international institutions, businesses and NGOs that are working or planning to work in poverty elimination programs and social businesses, and become a clearing house for connecting people and ideas.
• ISEP could provide electronic capabilities to assist in the promotion and preservation of the art and culture of indigenous and poor peoples around the world. ISEP will be a dynamic network of institutions and persons around the globe, all working toward common goals as articulated, defined, and monitored by a management and steering team. ISEP will build strategic partnerships with leading IT companies and their staffs, research and academic institutions, social activist groups, financial firms, microcredit institutions, development agencies, health and educational institutions, and professionals from many walks of life.
I am hoping that somewhere in the world someone reading this book will accept the challenge of launching this ISEP initiative around the world.
The IT Revolution and Democracy
IT has the potential to impact the world on many other planes besides the economic. Perhaps the most important of these is the political realm. It’s a topic I consider vitally important, since the elimination of global poverty can never ruly take place until the poor take their rightful place as fully empowered citizens of free societies. Unfortunately, the political process in many countries has been very frustrating, to say the least. Investing huge sums of money to buy overnment offices, manipulating the media to create false images of candidates, and dirty tricks designed to smear opponents and even steal elections have become all too common. In some countries, units of the armed forces or rivate militias have seized control of the mechanisms of government. All too often, “people power” seems to have disappeared from politics, replaced by money power, muscle power, and even firepower. We see these troubles with democracy in some of the world’s largest and most powerful countries, from the United States to Russia. Similar problems exist in Bangladesh, where political corruption, distortion of the very purpose of governance, and self-dealing have been rampant. (Now, in 2007, a non-political caretaker government under an emergency rule is trying to create an opportunity to clean up the political parties and the system. So far, they seem to be succeeding, although much remains to be done to bring true, responsive, and vibrant democracy to Bangladesh.) As a result of the problems of democracy, people around the world are losing faith in the political process. Young people especially have been turning apolitical, rejecting a system they regard as hopelessly compromised. In this climate, politicians feel driven to consolidate their power by stoking hatred between citizens, ethnic groups, religions, and nations. Visionary leaders ho can bring people and nations together are becoming more and more rare. If we had a few such visionary leaders in South Asia, problems like Kashmir and other issues would long ago have been peacefully resolved. Democracy is the best political framework to unleash the creative energy of the people, particularly the young. True democracy empowers individual citizens. When the citizens are forced to confront their own governments in an antagonistic way or must struggle to surmount needless barriers built by the state just to live productive lives, then neither freedom nor free enterprise can flourish. Today, the new IT offers a powerful tool in support of real democracy.
Information is power. This is why governments that seek to rule the people rather than serve them are so eager to maintain their control over information. By making such centralized control far more difficult, the new IT—especially the Internet—creates enormous obstacles for would-be tyrants. IT eliminates middlemen. As a result, both economic and political power brokers are equally threatened by IT. Thanks to the Internet, a single individual can now speak out to the whole world without the control of any intermediary (including the traditional news media, which, in weak democracies, are often biased or government controlled). This makes IT a powerful amplifier for the voices of the people, especially minority groups, the poor, and the geographically isolated. It also reduces the costs in time, energy, and money of communicating with a large number of people. Gone are the days of hand-printed flyers, surreptitious radio broadcasts, or individually typed samizdat manuscripts circulated at great danger and expense. Once I post a message or a photograph or a video clipping on a website, it is there for anybody in the world to see. networking among like-minded people has never been easier. These features are very important for democracy anywhere. But they are particularly important in emerging nations that are struggling to achieve true democracy.
The new IT also serves to empower individual citizens by giving them direct access to their governments. In Bangladesh, we have tried this in a small way through our telephone ladies. Each time a new Grameen telephone lady launches her business, she is given a list of important telephone numbers, including the phone number of the local member of parliament, the head of the local government administration, the police chief, the local health service facilities, and other relevant officials—up to and including the prime minister of Bangladesh. We explain to her that these numbers are for her use whenever she or the people of her village have a problem and need government help. t’s a symbolic gesture, but also a very real indication of the power that being connected electronically can bring to individual people. There are instances when Grameen phone ladies have actually used that power. A favorite story of ine involves a phone lady in a village where a crime had occurred—an assault on a local person by an unknown stranger who quickly disappeared. The people of the village were angry and distraught, and the fact that the local police chief remained totally indifferent to their calls made them all the more angry. In the past, they would have had no real recourse. But the phone lady said, “Don’t worry. I’ll call the police chief.” She rang him up and said, “People in our village are really getting very angry because you refuse to respond to our calls. I request you to send some police to our village right away to investigate this crime. Otherwise, I’m going to call the prime minister’s office—I have her umber right here!”
The police arrived within an hour.
Finally, the new IT can strengthen democracy by providing a platform for citizen activism. This power of technology was vividly demonstrated in 2001 in the largest democracy of the world—India. Using a cleverly concealed video camera, two young journalists filmed an apparent case of bribery, in which a government official was seen accepting a wad of bills amounting to 100,000 rupees (about $2,000) in exchange for a defense contract. Then they posted the film on an Internet news site called Tehelka.com. The country was so outraged that the defense minister and several of his colleagues had to resign immediately to stave off a complete collapse of the ruling government. It’s funny—most Indians assume that millions of dollars’ worth of bribes change hands behind closed government doors every year. But actually seeing $2,000 being exchanged had an incredible impact on public opinion. That’s the power f IT. It can give voice to the voiceless, eyes to the politically blind, and ears to the politically deaf. It’s yet another reason why governments, businesses, NGOs, and ordinary citizens need to join forces in an effort to make sure that the power of technology is put within reach of everyone in our world—including the poorest among us, who need its help the most.
Hazards of Prosperity
In recent years, as a scientific consensus has developed about the growing threat of global warming, people around the world have begun to take this problem seriously. However, in many cases, although the concerns are genuine, people are not worried about the planet as a whole. Instead, their immediate personal responses are centered on threats to property and income rather than to life itself. People worry: Will climate change increase the number and severity of hurricanes in the Caribbean? Will the value of my beachfront property in Florida or the Bahamas be destroyed? Will new forms of insect or crop infestations ruin my garden or drive up the cost of the food I buy at the supermarket? Will my children miss out on the opportunity to enjoy the splendor of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef? In Bangladesh, the situation is more immediate: Global warming is a threat to our very lives and livelihoods. Bangladesh will be on the front lines of the catastrophic changes that many scientists now foresee. In this respect, the troubles of Bangladesh represent those of the entire developing world. Problems ranging from climate change and water shortages to industrial pollution and high-priced energy, which are mere nuisances to people in the global North, pose life-and-death difficulties for those in the global South. Even under normal circumstances, about 40 percent f the land surface of Bangladesh is flooded during the annual monsoon season. Like the fabled flooding of Egypt by the Nile River, this yearly phenomenon has a benign aspect, as it makes our land extremely lush and fertile. But when small shifts in weather patterns intensify the floods, the destructive power of nature is unleashed. Villages and sometimes entire districts are washed away, and hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are left homeless. Many die in the most severe flooding, particularly children. Because we lack the major resources it would take to manage and control the flooding (the way the Dutch have controlled the high seas that threaten their own lowlying country), these periodic disasters have helped perpetuate the poverty of Bangladesh, as our people must spend years simply rebuilding after each inundation. Global warming holds the threat of greatly multiplying the destructive forces aimed at Bangladesh. If the vast ice fields of Greenland continue to melt, global ocean levels will rise, gradually covering large portions of some of the world’s low-lying land masses, including Bangladesh. Imagine the scale of the human crisis this would produce in our vulnerable, extremely crowded nation. The results would include devastating reductions in rice harvests, terrible loss of life, and a flood of refugees that could dwarf most previous mass migrations. This tragedy may happen sooner than you think. Scientists report that the sea level in the Bay of Bengal is already rising. Recent studies measure the rise at between three and eight millimeters a year. It doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that about 20 percent of Bangladesh, home to some thirty million people, lies three feet or less above sea level. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, has warned that a significant part of Bangladesh is likely to disappear completely by the end of this century. We Bangladeshis can do a lot to fight poverty on our own. But how can we fight the effects of global warming on our own? Obviously, we can’t. The brunt of the coming disaster will be borne by the poor people of Bangladesh, along with poor people in many other affected regions, from the Pacific Rim to the droughtprone regions of Central Africa. But solving this crisis will require a unified effort by all the peoples of the world. If this effort is not mounted—soon—I’m afraid that all of our work to alleviate poverty and improve life for the world’s poorest will be in vain. And of course the world’s poorest will not be the only ones affected by global climate change. Like the fabled canary that coal miners used to alert them to the presence of dangerous gases underground, the people of the developing countries will be the first victims of the coming changes, but not the last. Our fate will be a harbinger of what millions in the developed world can expect to suffer in their turn. Economic Inequality and the Struggle over Global Resources To understand what must be done to solve this crisis before it devastates the world, we must understand its roots in economics, social and political circumstances, and human nature. In the decades since World War II, the world economy has been growing at an unprecedented pace. This is a good thing in most ways. The wealth generated by new technologies, liberalized markets, and increased trade has improved the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people in the developed nations. It has also begun the process of lifting hundreds of millions more out of poverty in the developing world.
But growth also creates problems. Nonrenewable resources are rapidly becoming depleted as the demand for them increases exponentially. Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal are the primary examples, but industrial metals and minerals, hardwoods, fish, potable water, and many other essential commodities are also becoming increasingly scarce. Thus, in the form of capitalism under which most of the world is currently organized, there is an unhealthy connection between the environment and economic growth. The bigger the world economy, the bigger the threat to planet Earth—and, in the long run, to the survival of our species. In these early years of the twenty-first century, the threat to the world’s natural order comes mainly from the economies of Europe and North America, which were the first to industrialize and therefore have had the longest time to develop a large, heavy footprint on the planet we share. Today, these powerful economies are continuing to use up resources at a rate that far outstrips the portion of the world’s population they represent. In general, the higher the level of income in a country, the higher the contribution to the world s environmental risks. Probably the most obvious result of this hyper-industrialization is global warming. This phenomenon is driven by dangerous and everincreasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, produced primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. These gases are trapping the sun’s heat and altering the world’s climate in ways that are not fully predictable. Although scientists differ about the precise extent and rate of lobal climate change, virtually all agree that such change is already occurring and is likely to accelerate in the years to come. A prestigious study by the United Nations says that average global temperatures can be expected to rise between 2.5 degrees and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.1 And who are the largest creators of the greenhouse gases whose impact will be felt in every corner of the globe over the next three generations? Overwhelmingly they re the wealthy nations of the developed world, which burn the vast bulk of the planet’s fossil fuels to drive their automobiles, light and heat their homes and offices, and power their factories. For example, the United States, with only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, currently produces 25 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, these uses of fossil fuels are not the only way in which the lifestyle of the developed nations is damaging our environment.
For example, it has been estimated that the equivalent of some 400 gallons of gasoline is expended each year to feed every American. Of this total, fully 31 percent is due to the use of fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers. Much of the rest goes to operate machinery, irrigate the soil, and produce pesticides. All of this is tremendously wasteful. As one critic has put it: In a very real sense, we [Americans] are literally eating fossil fuels. However, due to the laws of thermodynamics, there is not a direct correspondence between energy inflow and outflow in agriculture. Along the way, there is a marked energy loss. . . . we have reached the point of marginal returns. Yet, due to soil degradation, increased demands of pest management and increasing energy costs for irrigation . . . modern agriculture must continue increasing its energy expenditures simply to maintain current crop yields. The Green Revolution iis becoming bankrupt.
Industrial-style agriculture as practiced in the United States has been very effective at raising crop yields (as well as generating huge profits for agribusiness). But in the long run, it is not sustainable. It’s obvious that the imbalance between the relatively modest populations of the wealthy developed nations and their profligate use of resources is neither just nor indefinitely sustainable. With every passing year, more and more people in both the developed and the developing worlds come to recognize and appreciate this reality. Unfortunately, however, the principle response by those in power has been to seek ways to consolidate and retain that power. Governments in the developed nations consider it their mandate to make sure that they control the world’s most vital resources, no matter where those resources are found. They work hand in glove with big companies operating in the developing countries to make sure that the availability of crucial resources such as oil, gas, and minerals continues uninterrupted. And when control over resources is being negotiated among corporate leaders, trade representatives, and global diplomats, these major companies bring to the table their own financial power as well as the political and military power wielded by their home governments. It’s no accident that certain regions of the world that are resourcerich have long been centers of political, military, and economic intrigue as leaders of the rich nations vie for long-term control of those resources. The Middle East is the leading example. Thus, the growing anxiety around the world over steadily dwindling supplies of vital resources— especially oil—also poses a serious threat to global peace. Americans and others among the world’s wealthiest may enjoy their lavish lifestyles today. But in the long run, how great a price in environmental destruction and military conflict are they willing to pay to sustain those lifestyles indefinitely?
Spreading the Wealth and the Growth Dilemma No one who cares about humanity is satisfied with a world in which a few hundred million people enjoy access to all the resources of the planet, while billions more struggle just to survive. Yet, of course, that is exactly the kind of orld n which we live today. Consider just a few of the grim statistics concerning economic inequality. According to a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University, in the year 2000, the richest 1 percent owned 40 percent of the world’s assets, and the richest 10 percent owned 85 percent. By contrast, the bottom half of the world population owned barely 1 percent of the planet’s assets. Similarly gross inequities exist when we look at income. Five countries—the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—contain 13 percent of the world’s population and enjoy 45 percent of the world’s income. By contrast, three giant countries in the developing world—India, China, and Indonesia—have 42 percent of the world’s population but receive only 9 percent of its income. To put it another way, the 50 million richest people in the world—the top 1 percent—receive as much income as the bottom 57 percent, numbering over three billion individuals. It sounds very cruel—but that’s the reality. And even with the world economy growing fast, income inequality is not diminishing at anything like the rate most caring people would want to see. The reduction of inequality, and the expansion of the global middle class to include billions of people who today must eke out a miserable existence on incomes of $2 per day or less, is therefore a very high human priority. It is the cause to which I have devoted my life. But we must also recognize that solving the inequality problem will bring with it serious new challenges, whose impact and severity are already becoming apparent. One of the hopeful stories of the era in which we live has been the steady economic growth of some of the largest countries in the developing world, particularly the two Asian giants, China and India. Tens of millions of people in those countries have already emerged from poverty as a result. But as these countries expand their industrial base and their consumption of resources, they are becoming major contributors to the global pollution and climate change problems. And the higher the growth rate they enjoy, the higher the probability that environmental issues will be ignored in the hopes of perpetuating that high growth. Already China and India are increasing their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions at an alarming rate. During the years 1990-2004, according to a UN study, developed nations such as the United States, Germany, and Canada increased their emissions by amounts ranging from 16 to 27 percent, while the United Kingdom actually decreased its emissions by 14 percent. Meanwhile, Chinas emissions were growing by 47 percent, while India’s increased y 55 percent.3 In more recent years, as China’s economic growth has accelerated, the problem has gotten even more serious. In 2006 alone, China increased its energy-production capacity by an amount equal to the entire power systems of the United Kingdom and Thailand combined. Most of the new power plants going online in China are based on “dirty,” coal-powered generators, adding enormously to the air and water pollution problems faced by the country. The International Energy Agency has predicted that, by 2009, China will have surpassed the United States as the largest producer of energy-related greenhouse gases. Other researchers say the story is even more alarming; according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China actually overtook the United States in 2006. Of course, climate change is not the only environmental problem caused by uncontrolled growth. The direct effects of pollution can be equally deadly. And, again, the rapidly growing giants of the developing world vividly illustrate the problem and its effects. China today is home to sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities. The situation in India may be even worse. A 2004 study of air quality in eighty-three Indian cities found that more than 84 percent of the population is breathing dangerously polluted air. And, of course, the human destruction caused by pollution also takes an economic toll. Premature deaths, hospital stays and doctor visits, days missed from work, and the expense involved in trying to remedy environmental problems (which are much cheaper to prevent in the first place), all add up to a tremendous drain on the economy. Depending on which study you accept, the estimated cost of environmental degradation to the Chinese economy is somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of that country’s GDP. We live in a world where economic inequality is causing enormous human suffering for the billions of have-nots. Yet the apparent solution to the inequality problem—rapid economic growth in the developing world—appears to bring with it catastrophic dangers of its own. We might call this double-bind the Growth Dilemma. The Logic of Uncontrolled Growth What are the root causes of this painful dilemma in which we seem to be trapped? Ultimately, I believe, they can be traced to the same incomplete and flawed view of society and human existence that underlies our entire economic system. Here, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of capitalism that virtually every economist, corporate executive, policy expert, and business writer takes for granted:
• A better way of life for the people of the world—including a reduction in the suffering caused by inequality—can be produced only through robust economic growth.
• Economic growth can be fueled only by capital investments through the competitive free markets.
• Investment money can be attracted only by companies that are managed so as to maximize their return on capital.
• Return on capital can be maximized only by companies that make profit maximization their only objective.
This logic brings us back to the same conclusion we reached earlier, based on the assumption that human beings are one-dimensional creatures for whom money is the only source of motivation, satisfaction, and happiness—namely, that profit maximization is all. In its own terms, the logic seems irrefutable. Yet when we look at the real world, the results are not satisfactory. Businesses in the developed nations are diligently maximizing their profits—and as a result, resources are being squandered, the environment is being despoiled, and generations to come will have an increasingly grim future to look forward to. As the capitalist philosophy spreads, developing nations like China and India are growing their own classes of business people who are also diligently maximizing their profits, following their models in North America and Europe—and as a result, hundreds of thousands of people are afflicted with diseases and dying prematurely due to pollution, and the global problem of climate change is rapidly moving toward a point of no return.
Obviously there is something wrong with the “irrefutable” logic of uncontrolled growth. Think about what the philosophy of uncontrolled growth dictates when it comes to natural resources. If it is right and proper for businesses to maximize profits at all costs, how should they behave in regard to those resources? Obviously they should follow the principle of “First come, first served.” Whoever has the money or the muscle power (in the form of military support) to seize and control resources should do so. Then those resources can and should be used to support businesses that will maximize the profits of their owners, who have the sole legitimate voice in determining how the resources will be allocated. In fact, this is a very accurate description of how resources from oil, gas, and coal to farmland, fish, timber, minerals, and even fresh water are currently controlled and utilized. In some cases, private companies exercise he control at their sole discretion. In other cases, businesses wield power in collaboration with their governments. In almost no case is there a seat at the table for the vast mass of people whose very lives depend on access to a share of he resources. After all, according to capitalist logic, why should they be considered? How do their needs contribute to profit maximization? This system, under which plundering nations and companies are allowed to grab resources and use them to maximize their immediate profit, would probably continue unchecked were it not for the fact that life on earth is approaching a crisis point. As nonrenewable resources continue to shrink—as the rate of their consumption continues to increase— and as the danger from climate change continues to advance— even the most ardent capitalist must accept the fact that pure pursuit of profit is no longer an acceptable principle on which to base
our environmental policies. How will even the world s greatest billionaire enjoy his wealth if the air around him is too dangerous to breathe? How Much Consumption?
I am a firm believer in personal freedom. Each individual person on this planet is packed with limitless capabilities. An ideal society should create an enabling environment around each individual so that all of his or her creative energies can be unleashed to the very fullest. A maximum of personal freedom is vital to the creation of such an enabling environment. At the same time, we all realize that there are circumstances in which sacrificing some part of our personal freedom is necessary to enhance our own security, safety, and long-term happiness. That’s exactly the reason why we have traffic rules in the streets. Of course, having to stop my car at a red light diminishes my personal freedom to a small extent. But if there were no traffic lights, it would be highly risky to drive at all, never knowing whether a careless driver might come barreling through the next intersection without regard to the presence of other cars. Most people in civilized societies willingly accept reasonable regulations on business and other personal activities for much the same reason—that in the long run they enhance the quality of life for all without imposing an unfair burden on any individual. In the circumstances we face today as a species, I think it is time to consider limiting the freedom of the individual nation to consume or waste natural resources. To begin with, I would urge nations to think about restricting their own consumption voluntarily. If this proves inadequate, I would move—reluctantly—toward restrictions defined and enforced under global treaties. Through their current, virtually unrestricted consumption, waste, and despoliation of natural resources—including both nonrenewable resources like oil, gas, and coal, as well as essential shared goods such as clean air and water—the citizens of the wealthiest countries are depleting assets that should be the shared patrimony of all humankind. In the process they are short-changing future generations of an equal chance to enjoy a full, satisfying life as well as depriving people from the developing world who aspire to a better way of life. Someday, when the people of Bangladesh and other developing countries reach the stage where they are ready to enjoy a similar level of consumption to that enjoyed in North America and Europe, it may be impossible for them to do so because the necessary resources have been sequestered for use by the richest countries—or even completely used up. People and nations have a right to enjoy their lives as fully as they want. I endorse Jefferson’s ringing words in which he declared “the pursuit of happiness” to be an unalienable human right. But does this mean all nations have a right to waste as much as they want, to use up resources that others need to survive, or to leave behind a planet that our children and our children’s children will find unlivable? The urge to consume without regard to the long-term social costs is a natural, even inevitable outgrowth of the breakneck quest for profit maximization. When we put profit first, we forget about the environment, we forget about public health, we forget about sustainability. The only question we consider legitimate is: How can we buy and sell more goods, at a higher rate f profit, than last year? Whether those goods are actually “needed” by the people or are beneficial to them in the long run is considered irrelevant. In this mad rush for profit maximization, what gets lost is environmental quality, longterm sustainability, and even the health of individual consumers. Agencies like the Food and Drug Administration in the United States can only oversee the purity of what consumers are eating; it cannot oversee how much they are eating and how it will affect their health over decades. Meanwhile, marketing experts are busy urging consumers to devour more than they need. Making Space for a New Set of Voices Today the marketplace is dominated by the voices of traditional capitalism. Many of these voices speak on behalf of corporations, urging consumers through advertising, marketing, publicity, and consumption-oriented media (such as magazines devoted to cars, fashion, home decorating, and vacations) to buy more goods and services as quickly as they can. The sole messages are: Buy More! Buy More! Buy More! And Buy Now! Buy Now! Buy Now! And we wonder why so many young people are alienated, and why older people often feel their lives have been less than fully satisfying. The only voice in the marketplace is the voice of profit-maximizing businesses, geared to making sure that the objective of ever-increasing consumption is achieved. This voice follows consumers everywhere— when they are reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching TV, driving their cars, or surfing the Internet. A seamless stream of messages urging consumption keeps flowing every second of their waking hours. Businesses are finding ever smarter ways to grab consumers’ attention in every possible situation and persuade them to buy their products. No wonder virtually everyone finally surrenders and makes the purchase. But even then the commercial propaganda does not stop. Businesses then want consumers to buy more, to abandon the first product in favor of a newer, more expensive model, or to buy more simply for the sake of buying. This process of promoting consumption is supposed to be a driving force behind economic growth. But what about global sustainability? What about restraining wasteful consumption? What about the personal satisfaction to be derived from enjoying what one has rather than constantly striving to seize the lead in a endless struggle for economic dominance? Don’t these values deserve a hearing, too? I strongly feel that we need a parallel voice in the marketplace, offering consumers a different set of messages—messages like:
• Think about whether you really need it!
• The more you buy, the more likely it is that you are exhausting earth’s nonrenewable resources.
• Check the packaging—is it wasteful?
• Buy from a company that will take back your last purchase and recycle it.
• Create a socially responsible home.
• Are you spending like a citizen of the world?
Where the voice of the PMB urges consumers to damage their health through excessive consumption (“Why not super-size it?”), the parallel voice will send messages about the pleasures of being healthy and the steps required to achieve good health: what to eat and what not to eat, how to help kids become interested in nutritious foods, how exercise and activity contribute to well-being, why natural and locally produced foods taste better and are better for you, and so on. Some might complain that I am urging the use of “propaganda” to manipulate people, or that I am trying to turn society into a “nanny” that nags people about proper behavior. But the people of the world are already being inundated by propaganda and by the nagging of a nanny—except the propaganda and the nagging come from the corporate profit-makers, whose only motive in spending huge sums of money is to cajole consumers into providing them with even bigger profits. We need a parallel voice to provide at least a semblance of balance. Where will this parallel voice come from? Social business can play a crucial role. Even today, parallel voices like the one I’ve described are available. They come from schools, NGOs, charities, foundations, faith groups, and other not-for-profit organizations. But these voices are faint and hard to hear. Short on money, the groups that provide these voices lack the giant platform and the powerful media megaphone that mainstream businesses enjoy. No wonder they reach only a tiny audience and are generally drowned out by pro-consumption hype. If this voice comes from mainstream business as a business message in a business campaign format, it will reach a much bigger audience. An important part of the campaign will be to make social business understood and appreciated by people. I believe that the core idea of social business is already embedded in every human mind, waiting to find expression—only our existing theoretical framework does not recognize it. As I travel the globe speaking about microcredit and social business, I’ve met countless young people in schools, colleges, and universities throughout the world. I’ve been impressed by their idealism, their compassion, and their creativity. I believe they are ready and willing to do the right things for themselves and for the world. Social businesses may become a source of the strong countervoice that we are looking for. They can be a credible source that people can believe, because they know that those who speak aren’t trying to manipulate them in search of personal gain. A social business dedicated to environmental objectives can highlight how PMBs are harming the planet and how consumers can alleviate the climate crisis by using environmentally friendly products. A social business running a microcredit program can explain why this program is necessary and how the mainstream banking system needs to be reformed. A social business offering low-cost health insurance clout necessary to bring their out-of-the-mainstream messages to a broad, mainstream audience for the first time. And social businesses will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas because everyone will know they have no incentive to lie. Because there are no dividend-takers in a social business, the only objective of the company is to create a social benefit. Consumers who hear about the cause and share the values behind it will support the business—and spread the message. The voice of social business will find ready listeners because many people feel harassed, abused, and manipulated by the marketing techniques applied by PMBs. Many people, particularly the young, will listen because they want to find a way of life that is healthy, sustainable, environmentally friendly, generous to the poor, and conducive to peace of mind. The ultimate result, as the efforts of thousands of social businesses accumulate, will be an unmistakable shift in the tone and content of the public conversation. Values other than money will have a place in the discussion and be recognized for what they are: important guides and stepping stones toward a more meaningful and satisfying life. Solving the Growth Dilemma Meanwhile, what can we do about the Growth Dilemma—the conflict between the absolute need to improve the living standards of the billions of poor people in the world and the equally absolute need to prevent economic growth from accelerating the destruction of our global environment and producing devastating climate change? It seems clear that we must make progress on several fronts. Over the past two centuries, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the rich nations have enjoyed the use of world’s nonrenewable resources without any restrictions. Now it is time to decide how the world’s remaining resources are to be allocated.
We often hear that the fast-growing economies of the South (India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, and expanding economies in Africa) must not fall into the same consumption style as the North; instead, they must develop a better and more environmentally sustainable lifestyle and value system for themselves. This is true, but it’s also insufficient. We should not be talking about two lifestyles—one for the North and one for the South. That is neither desirable nor sustainable. Instead, we should move toward one converging lifestyle the world over. Of course, there will always be cultural, historical, and religious diversity in lifestyles. But as products become global, company operations become global, and information technology turns the whole world into a global village, there is no way to maintain the current divide between North and South. What the North does affects the people in the South—which is why countries like Bangladesh are already suffering the effects of global warming created mainly by consumption in Europe and in North America. Soon the North will start feeling the impact of damage done to the planet by the peoples of the South. We are in the same boat, and we must all learn to live responsibly— or we will sink together.
We need to put our minds together to outline the basic features of a new, globally sustainable lifestyle so that we know in what direction our technology, our innovations, and our creativity have to be directed. Technology blossoms only in the directions where our minds direct it to go. If we are not thinking about something, technology will not flourish in that direction. But if we want to get somewhere, technology will be developed to get there. So if we truly set our sights on making a sustainable global lifestyle for the entire planet, the technologies we need will begin to appear. Unfortunately, our current efforts are in the opposite direction. Most of the creativity of the developed world is focused on spreading the unhealthy, non-sustainable lifestyle of the North into the growing nations of the South. Through their skillful marketing campaigns, powerful companies in North America and Europe are extending their influence into every corner of the world. Even people in the remotest villages in poor countries want to drink Coke and Pepsi, to smoke Marlboro and Camel cigarettes, to use Tide detergent and Crest toothpaste. People in those remote villages dream of using these products and enjoying the “good life” they represent. This is another reason why a compelling alternative voice must be heard in the global marketplace. Government regulation on both a national and international level must also play a role in solving the Growth Dilemma. The dynamic of capitalist competition among businesses is such that firms that operate in a socially or environmentally friendly fashion may have a disadvantage in the marketplace, at least in the short term, while those that save money by polluting at will may gain the upper hand. The same is true at the global level, as countries with lax or weakly enforced environmental standards may attract companies eager to do business unconstrained by government regulations. This is why international agreement on guidelines to protect the environment is so crucial. It is the only mechanism to prevent a “race to the bottom” by countries competing for business in a global marketplace. The Kyoto Protocol was born out of this necessity. The chief goal of this international accord is the reduction of greenhouse gas emission levels by the year 2012 to an average level of 5 percent below the 1990 levels—a reduction of up to 15 percent below expected levels in 2008 and of almost 29 percent compared to predicted levels in 2012 if no attempt to limit greenhouse gases was made.
Although opponents of the Kyoto plan decry its rigidity, the use of flexible market mechanisms to facilitate these reductions is an important part of the protocol. Countries in the developed world (known in the terms of the protocol as Annex I economies”) that find it difficult to achieve the mandated reductions may purchase equivalent reductions from financial exchanges or through the so called Clean Development Mechanism, which reduces emissions in the developing world. This “cap and trade” system gives countries several options they can consider in pursuit of the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions at both the national and global levels. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1998 with a provision that it would go into effect once it was ratified by at least 55 nations, representing producers of at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. That point was reached with the ratification by Russia in November 2004. As of December 2006, 169 countries that collectively produce over 61 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases have ratified the protocol. However, the United States remains a holdout. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore, representing the Clinton administration, signed the Kyoto protocol, but it has not been ratified by the Senate, and without such ratification it is not binding. This is a sad case of failure to lead by the nation with the most important leadership role to play. And the rest of the world has taken note of the American attitude. Leaders in China and India point to the failure of the United States to ratify Kyoto as ground for their reluctance to make international commitments to take strong steps on environmental protection. In the spring of 2007, a new report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the growing importance of the two Asian giants in the effort to stem climate change and led to fresh calls for action on their part. But the official newspaper of Chinas ruling party pushed back with an editorial that said, “As the biggest developed country and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas, the irresponsible remarks and behavior of the US government will only leave an impression of its being ‘heartlessly rich.”‘ This language, which many in the developing world would surely support, illustrates the degree to which the United States since 2001 has lost the moral high ground in the battle to protect the global environment.
I am not saying that the Kyoto Protocol is a perfect document. Very few treaties developed through negotiations among dozens of independent states are. Environmental scientists disagree over the precise details of the best plan for halting the onset of devastating climatic changes. And the fact that the Kyoto Protocol places no immediate emission reduction requirements on the nations of the developing world, including the rapidly growing giants China and India, is a flaw that will ultimately need to be remedied. Supporters of Kyoto have always acknowledged that the current protocol is simply a first step that must be supplemented by new measures as the world’s environmentand economic situation evolves. Kyoto represents an important and useful starting point for addressing the problem. It is short-sighted and tragic that, even as the U.S. government rejects the approach presented by Kyoto, the current administration is unwilling to offer any serious alternative plan for getting greenhouse gas emissions under control. Other efforts are being made to address the climate change problem, but with mixed results. In January 2006, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate was launched. Under this agreement, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have announced nearly 100 projects aimed at clean energy capacity uilding and market formation. The pact calls for the setting of national goals for greenhouse gas reduction, but envisions no enforcement mechanism. China has set its own internal targets for pollution control, aiming to increase energy efficiency by 4 percent per year, but it has so far failed to achieve these goals. Thus, the way forward on global pollution and climate change is far from clear. Along with millions of other concerned citizens of the developing world, I can only hope that a change of heart among the leaders of the wealthiest nations—especially the United States—will create an opportunity for the people of those countries to show some real leadership in the quest to develop new ways of life that will be less destructive, more sustainable, and more rewarding in the long term. The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ends in 2012. Before that, the world must get ready to adopt an enforceable global treaty on climate change issues. At their meeting in Germany in 2007, the G8 countries agreed to “consider” reaching a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 within the framework of the United Nations. (However, many environmental groups around the world are demanding a reduction of 90 percent by 2050.) I hope there will be enough political will generated within the United States so that it not only agrees to this goal but also takes the leadership role in making it come to pass. We see, then, that the problem of global poverty is deeply interwoven with many other challenges faced by humankind, including some that may threaten our very existence as a species. This makes the necessity of reforming the capitalist system and making room for the new kind of enterprise I call social business even more urgent. “Doing the right thing” is no longer merely a matter of making ourselves feel good; it’s a matter of survival, for ourselves and for generations to come. And while we continue to bring pressures on the policymakers to make tough decisions to save the planet, I urge young people to make up their minds as to what they will do as they grow up. Are they willing to distinguish the products they consume as “red” products, “yellow” products, and “green” products, depending on their negative or positive contribution to the survival of the planet? Are they willing to adopt the principle that each generation must leave the planet healthier than they found it? Are they willing to make sure that their lifestyle does not endanger the lives of others? I hope so—and I believe they are.
- Muhammad Yunus, ‘Creating a World Without Poverty’