International Panel on Sustainable Resource Management

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On 8-9 November 2007 Mark Swilling attended the launch of the International Expert Panel on Sustainable Resource Management in Budapest. He was one of twenty expert members from around the world selected to be a member of this Panel which has an initial tenure of three years, with possibly a few more to be added.

The official public launch and press conference took place on Friday 9th November during the World Science Forum which was taking place in grand style in centuries old buildings on the banks of the Danube that is now home to the Hungarian Academy of Science.

The Panel is co-chaired by two of the biggest names in sustainable development on the global stage, albeit from different ends of the political spectrum. They are Prof. Ernst Ulrich Von Weizsacker, founder of the renowned Wupperthal Institute in Germany, one time Social Democratic Party member of Parliament, author of the famous book Factor Four (that really triggered ecological economics) and currently Dean of the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California in Santa Barbara. The other co-chair is the Egyptian intellectual Prof. Ismail Serageldin, currently Director of the Alexandra Library, but before that the first Vice-President of Ecologically and Socially Sustainable Development at the World Bank – a position he personally crafted during his 25 years at the World Bank. He is also the Chair of many strategic commissions and boards that are driving many major global initiatives in water, biotechnology, agricultural reform and finance. There was a third great name, and a kind of de facto ‘third chair’ of the meeting – he is Ashok Khosla, a renowned social entrepreneur from India, environmentalist, policy advisor and probably the biggest name in sustainable development in the Asian region. Spending a day with any one of these men would have been for me a privilege of a lifetime, but all three in one room was an extra-ordinary experience.

Below are the names of the other panellists. You will note that Africa and Latin America are under-represented – something that will be rectified shortly. However, the panel includes Yong Ren from China’s State Environmental Protection Administration – he is the author of China’s now famous ‘circular economy’ policy that has been included into China’s 11th Five Year Plan and will soon have its own national legislation to enforce it. And it also includes someone I have wanted to meet for years – Maria Fischer-Kowalski – a feisty, high energy character who has more ideas a minute than most people blink. She heads up the Institute for Social Ecology in Vienna – she and I were really the ‘sociologists’ of the Panel, but we share the same passion for transdisciplinarity and, in particular, making sure that the SD agenda is not hijacked by the scientists and engineers who like to think in terms of ‘techno-fixes’ forgetting that solutions need people for them to work. She has just published her latest book that develops the theory of Social Ecology and applies it to the worlds problems.

I also fulfilled a long-time dream of meeting Wolfgang Sachs, Director of the Wupperthal Institute. Although he is not on the Panel, but he was at the World Science Forum. Another Director of the Wupperthal Institute is on the Panel – Stefan Bringezu, an amazing man who has pioneered all the research on ‘dematerialisation’ and ‘decoupling’ that has been so central to my own recent writing and research. The Wupperthal Institute is a truly remarkable independent research output and think tank that has been enormously influential across a wide range of fronts in Europe, and beyond.

The driving forces behind the setting up of the Panel are the European Commission (EC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Basically, their ambition is for this Panel to become for ‘sustainable resource use/management’ what the IPCC became for Climate Change. The Panel will meet twice a year and in-between global research projects will be conducted to prepare papers for the Panel meetings to consider. Panelists will manage these projects, and work in teams. Global reports published in the name of the Panel will be regarded as the ‘voice of science’ on global economic restructuring, with special reference to resource and material use.

The core focus of the Panel is how to decouple economic growth from resource consumption. This is, in reality, the absolute centre of the SD challenge translated into the real world of economic policy making (unless, of course, you think capitalism must be destroyed first before sustainability can be achieved). What it means is that we need to find ways of managing economies in ways that will ensure that they require less and less primary resources. This is achieved by massively increasing the efficiency of production and consumption processes, finding substitutes for key resources (such as oil that is running out), and recycling and re-using all waste outputs. This is what the background papers that were prepared for the meeting argued, and the entire Panel shared this point of departure. For me this was a truly remarkable affirmation of my own thinking that has enjoyed little resonance in the SA context – the paper I presented to the Presidency’s Workshop on 2019 Scenarios in April was entitled Growth, Sustainability and Dematerialisation: Resource Options for South Africa 2019. It went down like a lead balloon. But decoupling and dematerialisation has been included into the National Framework for Sustainable Development that was adopted by Cabinet in September 2007. My point is that it is very comforting to find confirmation of one’s own thinking and explorations outside of one’s own context. (Saliem Fakir has just written a wonderful paper on the Stern Report and the economics of climate change that  follows a similar line of thinking.) Where my angle on all this was different to many of the others (except for Ashok, of course) is that for me decoupling and dematerialisation must be linked to poverty eradication. In other words, and this is what I argued at the plenary session of the World Science Forum when the Panel was publicly launched, decoupling and dematerialisation in African economies means something very different to what it means for Europe, or China for that matter.

We spent a day debating themes and focus areas, and then divided ourselves into sub-groups that will work together over the coming years. I am in a working group on decoupling on a global scale led by Ernst Von Weizsacker (who is writing a new book called Factor Five) – the other member is Yong Ren from China. Ismail Seragelding is leading a group on water, and a young Prof from Norway called Edgar is heading a fascinating group on primary metals (Stefan is part of this). A very interesting group is looking at ‘prioritisation’ – this relates to a background paper that assembled some fascinating data that demonstrated that mobility, building construction and food account for 75% of all resources consumed in developed economies. In other words, it makes sense to prioritize these three sectors – increase efficiencies/change to renewables here, and you hit the bulk of the problem. The challenge is that the bulk of these primary materials comes from developing economies which depend on these exports to drive growth to deal with poverty. Decoupling in developed economies could spell economic disaster for developing economies if the latter remain export-oriented economies governed by the insanities of neo-liberal economics (interestingly, no-one was familiar with the writing of Ha-Joon Chang, Peter Evans, etc that Firoz and I have been playing with and which were central to the course we taught for the Provincial leadership). Decoupling in the developed economies therefore, will need to be coupled to so-called ‘leap-frog’ strategies that will make it possible for developing countries to jump stages of development that developed economies went through but which cannot be implemented again for various obvious reasons – oil is running out, CO2-induced global warming is transforming the global eco-system, eco-systems are disintegrating, key resources like water are threatened, food supplies will not keep up with population growth as soils continue to degrade at current rates. These are the kinds of issues this Panel will deal with.

The only issue that caused significant underlying tension and some polite disagreement was biotechnology. Serageldin is pro-GM (i.e. manipulating nature), and Von Weizsacker and Khosla are pro-biomimickry (imitating nature). In my view, over the next 20 years global power will depend less on controlling global trade, and more on controlling knowledge via intellectual property regimes (patenting, etc). I agree with the predictions of the Dag Hammarskold Foundation that the World Trade Organisation will be supplanted in time by a global Technology Transfer Treaty that will create a new global divide between those countries with the intellectual wherewithal to compete, and those that don’t (which is also where the majority will be  living.) A new division of labour will be created between those who survive by geo-re-engineering the planet in their own interests, while the rest die from pollution, eco-system collapse, pandemics, resource scarcities. No brave new world here, but rather a new imperialism via knowledge regimes that work against the poorest countries in the developing world. The challenges are great, and the role that research and teaching for sustainability can play will be central to the process of finding practical solutions.

My hope is that this Panel can make a difference by articulating perspectives that transcend regional and nationalist economic interests. A key political driver behind this initiative is that the EU wants to decouple/dematerialise, but it cannot do this alone. And in global negotiations, scientists line up behind the interests of their national governments. The Panel is there is develop a global knowledge set that can catalyse a wider global vision.  Whether this vision can counter the positions articulated by researchers funded by global corporations with vested interests in unsustainable production and consumption processes remains to be seen. However, if the IPCC is the role model, then sound research informed by a commitment to sustainability values can make a difference. It took the IPCC nearly 15 years.

The next meeting will take place in May in Alexandra at the Alexandra Library hosted by Ismail Seragelden – a fitting place to think about what needs to happen to reconstitute the knowledge base for understanding the world we would all like to see. A memorable quote from Serageldin was:  “Our job is not just look at the world and ask why,  but to look at how the world should be and ask why not?” Indeed, why not? Indeed.

Posted by Mark Swilling