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PARIS, Jan 17 2012 (IPS) - The grave financial crisis and the economic horrors besieging European societies are causing people to forget that climate change and the destruction of biodiversity remain the greatest threats to humanity, as they were reminded only last December at the climate summit in Durban, South Africa. If we do not radically change the dominant modes of production imposed by economic globalisation, we will soon reach the point of no return, after which human life on the planet will become gradually unviable.

Just a few weeks ago the United Nations announced the birth of the 7 billionth human being. In barely fifty years, the number of inhabitants on the earth increased by a factor of 3.5, and the majority of them live in cities. For the first time ever, urban dwellers outnumber the rural population. Meanwhile, the planet’s resources are not increasing and a new geopolitical concern arises: what will happen when the shortage of certain natural resources grows worse?

We are discovering to our astonishment that our “vast world” is no more. In the course of the last decade, thanks to the population growth of certain emerging countries, the number of people who have risen from poverty passed 150 million. Isn’t this a fact to be celebrated? Yes, but it also brings with it serious responsibilities for all of us, because with the dominant consumerist model of life, the emergence of large numbers of people from poverty is incompatible with the survival of humanity on earth.

Our planet simply does not have enough energy resources for the entire global population to use without restriction. For the world’s 7 billion to consume energy at the rate of the average European, we would need the resources of two earths, while three would be needed to extend the American consumption level worldwide.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the world’s population has quadrupled. In the same period of time global carbon consumption has risen by a factor of six. Since 1950, global metal consumption has jumped sevenfold, and plastics by a factor of 18. For a while now the UN has warned us that we are using over 30 percent more resources than the planet can replace. The lesson is simple: we have to come up with ways of living that are much more frugal and less wasteful.

While this would seem to be a common sense conclusion, it is clear it does not apply to the more than one billion people who live in a state of chronic hunger, nor to the 3 billion poor. An explosion of misery is a major threat to the world. This is not an abstract assertion. For example, in the time it takes to read this article -about ten minutes- ten women will die in childbirth, 210 children under five will die of easily curable diseases, eleven because they drank unclean water.

These people are not dying because they are sick; they are dying because they are poor. Meanwhile rich country aid to developing countries in the last fifteen years had dropped by a quarter at the same time that 500 billion euros are spent each year on weapons. If in coming decades food production expanded by 70 percent to fill the legitimate needs of the growing population, the ecological impact on the planet would be devastating.

Moreover, this increase in production would not even be sustainable because of the resulting degradation of the soil, increased desertification, greater scarcity of fresh water, and increased destruction of biodiversity, not to mention the greenhouse gasses that would be released as a result.

A mere 13 percent of the energy consumed today is renewable and clean (hydro, wind, solar, etc). The rest is nuclear or from fossil fuels, the worst for the environment. In this context, it is very worrying that the largest emerging countries are adopting the worst and most destructive modes of development used by the industrial world, leading to a grave erosion of biodiversity.

We are experiencing a massive extinction of animal and vegetable species. Each year between 17-100,000 living species disappear. A recent study showed that 30 percent of the marine species are on the verge of extinction because of overfishing and climate change. Similarly one out of eight plant species is threatened with extinction. One fifth of all species on earth could be extinct by the year 2050. And the loss of each species has a domino effect on the chain of life that it is a part of, which changes the course of natural history.

Defending biodiversity is thus a defense of solidarity among all living beings. The human being and his predatory model of production are the primary causes of the destruction of biodiversity. In the last three decades the excesses of neoliberal globalisation have accelerated this process and led to the emergence of a world dominated by economic terror in which the financial markets and giant private corporations have reestablished the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest.

Globalisation also encourages the pillaging of the planet. Many giant companies use massively destructive means to extract natural resources, making enormous profits while polluting with complete impunity the water, air, forests, rivers, soil, and oceans which are the commons of all humanity.

How can this sacking of the earth be stopped? There are solutions:

-replacing the current model of production with a “solidarity economy” that would create social cohesion by distributing benefits not just to a few but to all people. This would be an economic system that would produce wealth without destroying the planet, exploiting workers, discriminating against women, or ignoring social laws;

-restraining globalisation by restoring regulation of damaging and perverse modes of free market activity. There should be an effort to reestablish a form of selective ecological and social protectionism to spur movement towards deglobalisation;

-put the brakes on the fever of financial speculation that is forcing unacceptable sacrifices on entire societies, as we see in Europe where the markets have seized control. A tax on financial transactions is more urgently needed than ever;

-if we want to save the planet, avoid climate change, and defend humanity, it is urgent that we move away from the logic of permanent growth, which in unviable, and adopt a path of reasonable reduction.

These four measures could restore a semblance of hope on the distant horizon as societies start to restore faith in progress. The question is: who would have the political will to impose them? (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Ignacio Ramonet is editor of “Le Monde diplomatique en español”.

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