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Q&A: 'Engagement, Not Collaboration With Business'

Ramesh Jaura interviews ASHOK KHOSLA, new IUCN President* - IPS/Terraviva

BARCELONA, Oct 13 2008 (IPS) - The IUCN has elected Ashok Khosla its new president. Widely recognised as a bridge between conservation and development, theory and practice, the traditional and the new, and between the North and the South, Khosla chairs the India-based Development Alternatives Group, a non-profit organisation established in 1983 "for creating large-scale sustainable livelihoods." He is also president of the Club of Rome, a global think-tank and centre of innovation and initiative.

Ashok Khosla Credit: Fernanda Zanuzzi

Ashok Khosla Credit: Fernanda Zanuzzi

In an interview with IPS/Terraviva, Khosla said he would highlight the problems of poverty and massive degradation of the environment.

These and climate change are the results of "inadequate economic models," he says. The victims are people of the 'global South', the marginalised sections of the population in both the developing and the industrialised countries.

IPS: What does your election as president of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which is the world's oldest and largest global environmental network, mean for you?

Ashok Khosla, IUCN President-elect: To pastures

Ashok Khosla (AK): It's a wonderful opportunity to take the good work of this Union, which has been going on for 60 years and has involved some of the greatest names in conservation, to the next step, and the next step is going to be basically to put it in the minds of public, the media but above all the decision-makers in a way that they start dealing with these issues in a real way. It's going to take a little while but I believe that, like climate change, the loss of species, the loss of habitats around the world is the greatest threat to the survival of our civilisation, the survival of humanity really. So we have an opportunity to really make a big difference now.

IPS: So your agenda as president is also to focus on issues other than climate change – biodiversity, conservation and poverty eradication, which is also resulting from desertification? AK: Yes, exactly. All these are related. It is not other than, but as much as in addition to. We are really basically going to have to understand that problems which we have in this world, like poverty and massive degradation of the environment and huge amounts of pollution as well as climate change are really the results of very, very inadequate economic models, and we have to change them, and once we get to the root causes many of these problems can be solved with one stroke.

IPS: In your presentation as presidential candidate you proposed the setting up of a world commission to examine the implications of 'green carbon' options. What exactly would this commission look like? AK: Well, it would be pretty similar I would imagine to the World Commission on Dams. It would bring together people from different walks of life, from different viewpoints, from different angles, who can look at where the action on climate change and on biodiversity can take place in the most meaningful way. We very glibly have now gone through several years of international debate on biofuels, on issues relating to sequestration and reducing emission of carbon by afforestation and so on. All this has to be looked at dispassionately, in terms of not just the immediate economic returns but also long-term implications for health of the environment, for the health of the economy.

IPS: One highly controversial issue at the IUCN congress has been that of collaboration with corporates. What is your view on that? AK: This word 'collaboration', I think that's causing a problem. It isn't a matter of collaboration. It's a matter of engagement. We have no choice but to recognise that corporates and also governments for that matter are major players in the degradation of environmental values, and they will have to change their ways. Who is going to change that? Obviously movements like the conservation movement also organisations such as the IUCN have the responsibility to work with them – I'm not sure whether the word collaboration is necessarily the right one – in a way that helps them see the light and change their ways and at the same time contribute.

Because corporations are there not only to destroy the environment but to produce goods and services that people need. So we want to be able to do both at the same time. So it's important for the IUCN to do that. In addition, when we talk about corporates, we talk about large-scale, big multinationals and so on. But it's often the very small and medium-sized companies that cause much of the damage, and IUCN will have to promote activities, not necessarily all by itself, which bring them into the environmental focus.

IPS: That would mean engaging the corporates but not selling away your soul. AK: No, definitely not. Selling away your soul happens basically in two ways. One is called 'greenwash', which is that an endorsement from environmental organisations allows a company to go on doing what it is doing, which is certainly not the intention of IUCN, or "hush money" where you accept money to do whatever you want to do but then you are not in a position to say anything objective about a donor who gave you the money.

Now neither hush money nor greenwash is acceptable. And I don't think IUCN is in that business. IUCN is in the business of working with all actors, whether they are governments, whether they are corporates, whether they are NGOs, whether they are media or academic institutions, to bring about a change in mindset and in their practices so that the environment is improved.

IPS: So IUCN can look forward to pastures new. Would you like to say briefly what these pastures look like? AK: Well, it's in some ways more of the same. It's not something brand new that's going to come up overnight. We've been working a great deal on scarce resources of this planet including water, forests and soil, and we will continue to do that and I think we should do more of it.

We have been looking at the processes like climate change, biodiversity and the chemical cycles that keep our life supports alive – and we must do a lot more of that because many of them are now becoming really life-threatening – and then I think the major thrust in the next four years will have to be to put these issues so squarely on the radar screen of everybody that it becomes natural for every school child, every decision-maker, for every journalist to think what does this mean for the environment, what does it mean for future generations, what does it mean for us.

IPS: In the G8 summits, for example, the World Bank chief is always there because he is dealing with global finances; you are dealing with global environment. Should we look forward to your participation in such global level meetings to tell the bigs of the world which issues they should focus on and where the world should go? AK: Yes, I think IUCN has to be as visible as any of the other players. The World Bank might be dealing with tens of billions of dollars a year, we are dealing with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of ecosystem values a year, may be trillions of dollars. So clearly we have to inject these issues into global decision-making. Whether particularly a G8 meeting is the right place to do that or somewhere else, we'll have to see. Yes certainly we are going to have to work at that level.

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