The Roots of Unsustainability: Colonization in Space and TimeFrank (W-9)

The Roots of Unsustainability: Colonization in Space and TimeFrank (W-9)

Publication details

  • Thursday | 01 Apr, 1993
  • Frank Amalric, Tariq Banuri
  • Working Papers
  • 21
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This paper underlines the need to give priority to politics in order to move toward sustainability. Unsustainability is in large part a consequence of the colonisation of the commons, first by western colonizers, and then by the new independent states, in the name of modernization. Moving toward sustainability would demand giving a voice to those who have been deprived of their traditional rights over resources. There is a need to create a space for politics, but with respect to the rights of future generations, such a space cannot be created. Only self-imposed restraint can impede the colonisation of the future. This will remain impossible as long as Northern societies are organised around the idea of "always more". In the game of sustainability, the North has the ball.

Manfred Max-Neef (1982) once posed the paradoxical question to Ecuador's politicians, whether the rich or the poor were more important for the functioning of a society. If the rich were to disappear he asked, what would be the effect on the lives of the poor? Surely quite small. But what if the poor disappeared? Then the whole functioning of society would break down. Analogously, one could argue that if the poor were to disappear, the affect on the environmental crisis would be quite limited, but if the rich were to disappear the very basis of global unsustainability might also disappear. While in this essay we do not suggest anything as extreme, we do argue that the roots of global unsustainability lie in the behavior of the rich not that of the poor. As a consequence, we doubt that the current global discussions will lead to sustainability, exactly because they ignore this fundamental point.

In making this argument, we rely on a useful metaphor provided by Alain Lipietz (1992), who described the UNCED process as a global "enclosures movement" through which rights to the global commons are being allocated. We use this metaphor to argue that this assignment of rights has three problems: political, institutional and conceptual. The political problem is that today's allocation, as was the case of the earlier enclosures movement, might turn out to be inequitable and unjust, and therefore become a focus of opposition and resistance. The institutional problem is that, even if rights could be assigned fairly and democratically, not enough attention is being devoted to the creation and strengthening of institutions that can enable democratic communities to monitor and regulate the rights so created. The conceptual problem is that, even when rights to every inch of the land have been allocated, there still remains the future; and today's political problems are in part being solved, or rather being veiled, by making optimistic assumptions about the future - in effect allocating rights over more resources than can be used sustainably.

To return to North-South issues, sustainability considerations dictate on the one hand a reduction in Northern consumption levels - to make them compatible with the carrying capacity of the planet - and on the other hand an increase in per capita consumption in the South. The latter is needed not only on equity grounds but also because poverty itself is  a major cause of environmental distress. The political question is whether there can be agreement over an allocation of rights that produces this outcome. The institutional question is whether, even with the optimal allocation of rights, the outcome can be guaranteed by the existing system of rules; note especially that global macro-economic relations are such that reduction in Northern economic activity will lead directly to an equal or even deeper reduction in Southern consumption levels. The conceptual question is that while the historical evolution of rights over the global commons took the form of a progressive "colonization" of space, the trend today is towards what can analogously be called the "colonization of time".

The problem of unsustainability can be traced back to this process of colonization. The rights and behavior patterns created by this process have been neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. Furthermore, the process must necessarily create the problem of survival for marginal populations, and this too feeds back to the problem of sustainability. The required global compact can be seen simply as something that will stop the process of colonization, and therefore of growing unsustainability. In other word, both sustainability and survival will remain elusive targets unless this issue of global rights is met head on.