Can globalization save the environment? NRC Guest Blog by Prof. Simon Bush

This blog post is is the first of our new series of Dutch blog posts on important issues from the field of environmental policy on NRC online.

You can find the original post (in Dutch) here.

Globalisation and the environment – friends or foes?

Simon Bush, Chair of the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University

Tuning into the news will reveal a fairly predictable storyline on globalisation. Worker rights, terrorism, and environmental decay are all put down to the global reach and control of Western economies. But imagine a headline reading ‘Globalisation saves the environment’. ‘Fake news!’ or a challenge to think differently about how global connectivity can also lead to positive outcomes?

Environmental sustainability is unquestionably global and one of the most important social challenges of our time. It’s exactly this global challenge that drives us scientists in our work. But for the majority of society ‘global’ challenges can be overwhelming and distant. That doesn’t mean we don’t care. Saving the forests, whales or polar bears remain engaging public issues. The real problem is working out what we can do about them in our day-to-day lives.

We could leave it to international politics. There have after all been some recent successes that have given hope to multi-lateralism. Take the Paris Climate Accord, for example, that has brought together 125 countries to reduce global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. The magnitude of this agreement can’t be understated given the troubled history of previous climate negotiations.

But that was 2015. Since then fractures have reappeared. All but one of the signatory countries, the United States, has maintained their commitment to the bargain. Yet whether such support will continue is less certain given that national politics in many parts of the world is becoming less cooperative beyond their own borders. Central nationalists turn away from globalisation – a point stresses in the US president’s call for nations to reject multi-lateralism for ‘patriotism’ in his 2018 speech at the United Nations.

Beyond the populist rhetoric there is evidence of both benefits and costs from the globalised world we live in. Trade in commodities and ideas have led to welfare gains to many of the world’s poor. At the same time it has led to a redistribution of capital and wealth away from once prosperous communities in richer countries. Likewise, globalisation has led to forms of capital accumulation that have led to a dispersion of tradable goods and environmental ‘bads’.

What we often fail to see is that globalisation is not ‘out there’. It’s us, meaning we can change the architecture and infrastructures that enable global interconnectivity to address global sustainability challenges. Ironically this is exactly what those populists, including those in once liberal economies, clearly understand. Instead of seeing globalisation as a threat it is also possible to see it as an opportunity for shaping positive global environmental outcomes.

As social scientists are starting to take up the challenge of understanding what an ‘environmental globalisation’ might look like, we are in fact expanding the possibilities for society to engage with those seemingly remote global challenges.

In doing so we are showing that globalisation is experienced through what we do in our everyday lives. Do we choose sustainable or fair trade coffee? How do we travel to and from work? Where do we go on holidays? And where do we get our electricity from? Answering such questions can help us to determine how environmental gains can be built into moments, decisions and practices of global connectivity. And, once we have done this, we can start to work out how to shape these collective moments and practices to address global sustainability challenges.

Of course, what everyday decisions people make is still dependent on where they live. How a citizen of the Netherlands incorporates environment into their lives will differ to how a citizen of China will. This means that context, and therefore states and politicians, still matter.

By rethinking globalisation we can avoid tired old categories and assumptions that are leading us into a confrontational (‘patriotic’) world of us and them. This includes confronting the effects that different kinds of globalisation have on global sustainability. We can no longer assume that the liberal western economies will remain either the source or saviour of global environmental problems. Similarly, at the dawn of the Asian Century we have to open to the role that China, who is currently rolling out their programme of globalisation, is going to play in setting a new global environmental agenda.

Environmental globalisation is therefore neither a political agenda or an oxymoron. It’s an invitation to scientists, governments and society to think how our shared global future can create a level of awareness and action to foster a sustainable future that was never thought possible. Taking up this invitation starts with just the kind of informed conversation we are not seeing in the news.