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“An Assault on Human Rights.” – Wolfgang Sachs, on Climate Change and Justice

Wolfgang Sachs; © Wuppertal InstitutWolfgang Sachs; © Wuppertal InstitutThe industrial capitalism of the Western world is considered to be a beacon of economic and social evolution so who can blame the developing world for being attracted by its light. Climate change and the ecological crisis however have shown us that any attempt on the part of the developing countries to try and catch up with the West would plunge them into the abyss. For “post-development” thinkers like Wolfgang Sachs the end of the “development era” is now, after over 60 years, also an imperative for fairness.

Herr Professor Sachs, what particular factors contributed to the rise of transatlantic industrial civilisation and why is a similar development in other parts of the world today out of the question?

Because it was a special historical phenomenon that was based on the mobilisation of biotic and fossil resources, no matter where they were geographically or geologically located. We should not overlook the fact that until the end of the 18th century most of the world’s important civilisations had enjoyed more or less the same level of development. Then along came England - the first country to use colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources to trigger a wave of territorial expansion that would eventually lead to an unparalleled increase in prosperity for transatlantic civilisation. Today however it is the limits of growth that represent a major problem for the developing countries

The endeavouring to catch up is historically obsolete

Wuppertal Institut: Fair Future.  Limited resources and global justice, München: C. H. Beck, 2005.What consequences might that have for their endeavours to catch up?

This endeavouring to catch up is historically obsolete. It would be fatal indeed for them to follow in the footsteps of the transatlantic civilisations. Threshold countries really have to give up on these old ideas and break out in a new direction. Especially when it comes to investment decisions for their infrastructures like transport, energy, food and water – up to now they have always automatically resorted to using models that were invented in Europe in the 19th century, in the heyday, so to speak, of the fossil age.

For reasons of fairness and justice you advocate “re-inventing the affluence model of the industrial nations”. How do you actually see this in concrete terms?

Our affluence model is not capable of being just, because it does not tolerate any participation of the underdeveloped world for it might endanger our resources and biosphere. This is why it has become one of the most important tasks for the rich countries to alter the model in some way so that all the people living on our planet can be part of it. This would mean giving up our dependence on oil, gas and coal and moving more towards other forms of energy like solar, hydro, wind and biomass. This would also necessitate more environmentally kind transport structures, energy-efficient construction techniques – everything in fact that is already taking place now on a small scale in the wake of our ecological rethink. Nevertheless this should also be viewed as a contribution to the creation of global affluence.

That sounds like a shift away from the common idea of affluence through growth …

I believe that this affluence is to a certain extent still in fact possible within the growth paradigm – the keyword here being “green growth”. We should however not deceive ourselves – viewed from the medium or long-term point of view the growth paradigm itself is also on its way out. As everybody already basically knows - in a finite world there can be no infinite economic growth. We have to develop an economic model as soon as possible that will enable us to subsist without any growth.

Contraction and convergence

Wuppertal Institut: Sustainable Germany in a Globalised World, Frankfurt a. M., 2008In this connection again and again we often hear you using two buzz-words – “contraction” and “convergence”. Could you give us a quick run-down on what you mean?

It is all about balancing out the way resources are used on a globally sustainable level. The idea is to put the “resource-guzzling”, rich countries on a diet – i.e. contraction – in order to enable the poorer countries to raise their consumption to a minimal level so that their livelihoods would be ensured and a certain degree of affluence would be guaranteed – i.e. convergence.

Is there any correlation between safeguarding our atmosphere and safeguarding human rights?

For me climate change is most definitely a human rights issue as it above all affects the poorer countries and once again the poorest of the poor. We only have to think of basic human rights such as the right to food, water and housing. These are undermined when agricultural productivity is jeopardised, when droughts prevail and when sea-levels rise. Climate change is a new form of colonialism. It is, as I said, most definitely an assault on human rights. These days rich countries no longer send in colonial armies, but use the atmosphere to maintain their affluence at the expense of the poor countries.

What criteria would have to be fulfilled, if we are to speak of ”ecological justice” prevailing?

Respecting human rights in the way I mentioned before – self-restraint, so that others can develop without being hindered; and of course the recognition that every human being has a right to basic security and freedom.

Justice is no longer a question of distribution

And how can this justice be fairly distributed, so to speak?

It is no longer a question of distribution, but of behaviour. It is not a matter of the rich countries giving more, but of them taking less.

When we think of all the national egos, as we saw recently once again at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, do you think we stand a realistic chance at all of realising your idea of justice?

We do not really have any choice. Ever since the days of Ancient Greece justice has always striven to promote cooperation. Anything else would have been coercion. In an age when the world’s first real global society is forming cooperation is of the utmost, as we have seen from the various crises – be it climate, finance or migration. By the way, Copenhagen failed because yet again, as usual, the approach was not just. For fear of being duped once again the developing and emerging countries were full of distrust, resentment and caution.

Wolfgang Sachs, born1946, studied sociology and theology at university. He focused on ecological issues at, among others, the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut (Institute for the Advanced Study of the Humanities) in Essen and since 1993 has been at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, where today he runs the Berlin Office. Sachs is a professor of “Globalisation and Sustainability” at the University of Kassel, a member of the Club of Rome and was a member of the supervisory board at Greenpeace Deutschland.

Roland Detsch
conducted the interview. He is a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion February 2010

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