World Bank Predicts
Catastrophic Global Future

By Larry Elliott
Economics Editor
The Guardian - London

New York City in 2022. Half the 40 million people in the swarming metropolis are unemployed, the air is thick with pollution, food and water are as precious as jewels. This was the world of the future as envisaged in the sci-fi thriller, Soylent Green, in 1973. Now, according to the World Bank, it could come true unless there are dramatic and immediate changes to the way we live.
Unlike the Charlton Heston movie, the Bank does not suggest that we will be making food from dead bodies in 20 years' time. But its warning of an increasingly dysfunctional global society, with enormous pressure on basic resources such as water, energy and health, is remarkably similar.
Looking into its crystal ball, the Bank sees a world of nine billion people by mid-century generating a global GDP of $140 trillion a year. This staggering fourfold increase in the size of the world economy would be enough to guarantee a large-scale reduction in the 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, but the Bank argues that the price will be environmental catastrophe, social breakdown and lower living standards for everyone if policies remain unchanged.
Released to coincide with next week's summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, the Washington-based institution's annual world development report sounds the alarm bell for global leaders as they prepare for 10 days of talks, providing a nightmarish prophecy of what could happen if they fail to turn rhetoric into action.
It's not all bad news. The Bank says that economic growth is vital for tackling poverty, with a 3.6% a year increase in per capita incomes needed in developing countries if the world is to achieve the 2015 targets set by the United Nations of halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, reducing infant mortality by two thirds and giving every child a primary school education. It adds, however, that coordinating globally and acting locally will be critical to ensuring that gains in social indicators - such as incomes, literacy rates, or access to sanitation - of the past 20 years are not reversed by population growth pressures and unsustainable economic expansion.
"This growth must be achieved in a manner that preserves our future," said Ian Johnson, vice-president of the Bank's environmentally and socially sustainable development network. "It would be reckless of us to reach successfully the millennium development goals in 2015, only to be confronted by dysfunctional cities, dwindling water supplies, more inequality and conflict and even less crop land to sustain us than we have now."
The report contains a litany of potential ecological and social problems, from slum-ridden urban dystopias to an increase to the 1.3 billion people who already live on fragile lands which cannot sustain them. Already, it says, the "biosphere's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide without altering temperatures has been compromised because of heavy reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow unless a concerted effort is made to increase energy efficiency and reduce dependency on fossil fuels."
Nearly two million hectares of land worldwide (23% of all crop land, pasture, forest and woodland) have been degraded since the 1950s, a fifth of all tropical forests have been cleared since 1960 and one third of terrestial biodiversity is squeezed into vulnerable habitats making up just 1.4% of the earth's surface.
Unsurprisingly, the Bank concludes that these trends cannot continue. "The $140 trillion world of five decades' time simply cannot be sustained on current production and consumption patterns," said Nick Stern, the Bank's chief economist. "A major transformation, beginning in the rich countries, will be needed to ensure that poor people have an opportunity to participate, and that the environment is not damaged in a way that undermines their opportunities for the future."
So what is the Bank's blueprint for sustainable development? It says:
developing countries should act to clean up their governments, promoting participation and democracy, inclusiveness and transparency as they build the institutions needed to manage their resources;
rich countries need to be less selfish by increasing aid, offering more generous debt relief, opening their markets to developing country exporters and helping transfer technologies needed to prevent diseases, increase energy efficiency and bolster agricultural productivity;
civil society organisations should be encouraged to serve as a voice for the weak and powerless, and to provide independent verification of public, private and non-governmental performance;
private firms should be more focused on sustainability in their day to day activities, and have incentives to pursue profit while advancing environmental and social objectives.
"The world must act to help its poorest people manage their own resources and build their productivity and incomes now, to empower these communities and help them prepare for the demands of the decades ahead," said Mr Stern. "Rich countries can take such a step by opening their markets to developing world exports and by abandoning agricultural subsidies and other barriers to trade that depress prices and limit market opportunities for the very goods that poor people produce most competitively."
Given that the average income in the richest 20 countries in the world is 37 times that in the poorest 20, the Bank feels that the rich west is in a position to make concessions. "It seems to me there is a certain hypocrisy about rich countries telling poor countries to undertake radical reform. The kind of changes we have got to make in the west are much smaller than the kinds of reforms rich countries are asking poor countries to make all the time," Mr Stern told the Guardian.
So far, the willingness of the developed west to abandon protectonist policies has not been much in evidence and, as the Bank recognises in four open questions posed in the conclusion to the report, there are potential pitfalls ahead.
The first is the issue of when consumption is overconsumption. Telling consumers in the west that they have to cut back is not relished by politicians. But the Bank wonders whether consumption will become the modern equivalent of the Cold War arms race; will people in the developing world see the norm as patterns of consumption in the west?
The second vexed issue highlighted by the report is the future of agriculture and of genetically modified organisms. The United States is eager to export GM foods to developing countries, often in the teeth of ferocious local opposition. Should this be encouraged? The Bank is not sure. "Applying the precautionary principle - balancing risks to food safety and the environment against prospects for development and poverty alleviation - will be a difficult task, requiring a broader debate on credible information."
Third, the Bank is concerned about the system of intellectual property rights presided over by the World Trade Organisation. How can the interests of patent holders be balanced against those of the users of products? The system in place has strengthened the hand of western corporations at the expense of poor countries. The potential for unequal outcomes is "worrisome", the Bank says.
Finally, what are the prospects for global migration? The report says that global inequality, combined with demographic trends, will create ever more pressure for migration. "Dealing with this pressure is a challenge worldwide."
The report concludes that the planet will face predictable challenges which will increase in intensity over the coming decades. But the fact that the Bank has no pat answers to its four questions suggests that they will take years, if not decades, to resolve. If the Bank is right, the most precious resource of all over the next half century could be time.
Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World. This report is available on


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