Neoliberal Nightmare: Can geography help sustain the world?

The concentration of current political thinking on development and “progress” is not the best way to care for our planet, argues professor Mark Maslin of University College London.

London, 1 February 2015. I was recently asked by a colleague why I was working in a Geography department. I answered that geography was the study of ‘the who, the where, and the how, of the past, present and future’. I followed this up suggesting our subject has a profound role to play in both understanding and solving the great challenges of the 21st century. Of which I would suggest global inequality, global poverty, global security, environmental degradation and climate change are the most pressing.

I hope this gave them a new appreciation of geography because in my opinion, by combining natural and social sciences, geographers are building a body of work that suggests the rules governing our society are not fit for purpose and new governance systems are required to deal with these immense challenges.

First, let us investigate the state of our planet, starting with human health. Every year, seven million children die due to preventable disease and starvation. 700 million people go to bed every night feeling hungry and one billion people still do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. This is despite the fact that we have enough food and water for all seven billion people, but our political-economic system means that many people simply cannot afford them.

If we look at the Earth’s major bio-geo-chemical cycles, all have been profoundly altered by humanity. For example, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process allowing the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia for use as fertiliser has altered the global nitrogen cycle so radically that the nearest suggested geological comparison was around 2.5 billion years ago. Human actions have increased atmospheric CO2 by 40% to a level not seen for at least 800,000 years, and may have even delayed the next ice age. This has increased the acidity of the ocean faster than anytime in the last 50 million years.

Human action also impacts on non-human life. Global productivity appears relatively constant; however, the appropriation of a third of it for human use reduces that availability for millions of other species. Land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions 100 to 1,000 times higher than background rates, and likely constitutes the beginning of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. We have also moved crops and domesticated animals and pathogens around the world, leading to a unique global homogenisation of Earth’s biota.

Considering the huge influence humanity is having on the planet, it would be reasonable to assume that there should be some attempt to manage and distribute fairly the Earth’s resources. However this contradicts the dominant geopolitical and economic philosophy of the West, namely neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism encapsulates a set of beliefs which include: the need for markets to be free, state intervention being as small as possible, strong private property rights, low taxation, and individualism. Underlying neoliberalism is the seductive view that it provides market-based solutions to all our ills, and enables everyone to become more wealthy. This trickle down effect has been the central mantra of neoliberals for the last 35 years. Currently there are 3.5 billion people who live on less than $3.25 per day. In fact, according to Oxfam, the 85 richest people in the world currently own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. If we want to eradicate extreme poverty and bring the very poorest people in the world up to $1.25 per day, at current rates of trickle down it would require global GDP to increase by 15 times, taking over 100 years. Under the current economic system, this would require a huge increase in consumption levels. So the neoliberal nightmare is that to lift people out of poverty, we need to make and consume more stuff. This all requires cheap energy, which will mainly come from fossil fuels, which accelerates climate change driving deforestation and environmental degradation, making those poorest of people more vulnerable.

Mark Maslin is Professor of Physical Geography at University College London and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

So the geographic understanding of the world’s current and future social and environmental challenges suggests the very economic theories that have dominated global economics for the last 35 years are not fit for purpose. What is required is proactive and aggressive redistribution of wealth, both within and between countries. This could be via provisioning of free essential services, such as access to clean water, health care and education. Progressive taxation is essential to rebalance inequalities and this in turn reduces costs, as it has been shown that small social divisions within a country lower the health care costs and raise longevity. Outdated institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation, need to be dismantled and governance structures fit for the 21st century created to accelerate sustainable development.

This is where ‘geography’ can make a difference by envisioning new political systems of governance, enabling collective action and with more equal distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities.

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