This post was produced for the Global Economic Symposium 2013. Read more at http://blog.global-economic-symposium.org/.
That was a rhetorical question posed by the illustrious Mr. Marti Ahtisari in the opening plenary session at GES 2013 in regards to a remark about Newsweek ranking Nordic countries the “best countries in the world.” Coming from India, I for one would say, yes! Indeed Nordic countries are heaven. The miracle of drivers stopping for pedestrians, potable water from the tap, warm houses in harsh winters . . . indeed! Since my visit to Finland last year, it has been a recurring theme to arrest my thoughts. After all, what is heaven if not a place where you are free of the worries of survival and security and where well-being is easy to achieve and maintain? Even the sunlight is different, unmarred by the noxious haze that hangs (almost) permanently over major cities in the Indian subcontinent. Finland (and Germany), in my little experience, have the wherewithal, and more importantly, the political will to ensure the well-being of their people, to give them opportunities to grow as they wish. This situation is nothing less than a realizable real heaven.
But, at what cost have these heavens been built? Heaven can afford to outsource not just labor but the environmental and social costs of objects as well. The tragedy in Bangladesh is not incidental but is symptomatic of such costs and risks being outsourced. It takes a physical tragedy to shed light on a social tragedy that people refuse to see otherwise. Imagine the costs that have been externalized to create the high-consumption, high-waste-based paradise that is the Western world.
Gernot Klepper shed some light on this aspect of the interconnectedness of sustainable consumption at the designated session of GES2013. He points to efforts such as fair trade labels and the “Sustainability Agriculture code.” However, these measures are merely creating alternatives and new choices for more consumption, which fundamentally can’t be sustainable. These are incremental improvements. What sustainability needs is a radical overhaul of the system, not incremental changes.
As Ernst Ulrich von Weiysäcker stated in another session, “We need to change the frame gradually, where sustainable business is more profitable.”
Ernst also asserted the need for a shift in perspective on taxation and innovation — from taxing the labor to taxing the resource utilization. From innovation that reduces the need for labor to innovations that reduce the need for resources.
In the later part of this century, as the limits of our resources grow apparent, the paradise will slowly start to transform. Perhaps it would be better to be prepared for that eventuality and create a more “sustainable heaven” that could be replicable elsewhere in the world, too.
Perhaps there are lessons for creating a sustainable lifestyle from the Barefoot College in India.