Planet under Pressure 2012: here’s the wrap

Questions of planetary power: a mere 0.3% of transnational corporations control 40% of global revenue. Flickr/paul (dex)

The Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference was held in London a fortnight back and released the first State of the Planet Declaration. The conference aim was to set out the science (in a broad sense) in the run-up to the UN Rio+20 conference. The recommendations in the statement have been passed onto the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, who has agreed to take them on board.

Before commenting on the statement, here’s a gap assessment. Instead of seeing who was present — who was absent? Present were over 3,000 attendees and many more online. The peak global change research organisations were represented. The patrons of the conference were mostly blokes and mostly Western, despite a very different mix of interested parties at the ground level. Supporters of the conference included scientific, aid and development organisations. So development interests, gender, poverty and other issues straddling society and environment were present. Absent were the Davos types: leaders and representatives from the OECD, the IMF, mining companies, and other such powerful economic players.

A paper published in October last year, The Network of Global Corporate Control, showed that 0.3% of transnational corporations control 40% of global revenue. Of 37 million companies and investors in the Orbis 2007 database, 43,060 were classified as transnational corporations. A network analysis of those revealed an interlocking core of 1,318. They represented 20% of global revenues but through their shares in blue chips and manufacturing represented a further 60% of global revenue. A super-group of 147 companies controlled 40% of revenue.

This issue is about the governance of global scale risks. How does power at the national and international scale translate into governance? This, of course, is dangerous territory. Especially for scientists.

Let’s leave that elephant hiding in open view and return to the conference. This statement defines what expert knowledge says about global risk:

1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

Why the qualifier we could face threats? Why is the word could there? A threat is conditional, why have two? All they do is propagate doubt. Without urgent action, we do face threats. Doubt in stating what is at risk, given the confidence in the science, is foolish.

4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

Global governance can look very different depending on which cultural prism one views it through. Flick/Vit Hassan

Even if we don’t know what sustainability is, we have a good idea of what it is not. Currently, sustainability is opt in, not foundational. Creating a societal foundation based on sustainability would require unsustainable activities to justify themselves before they can be approved. This creates difficulties for economics because it increases the importance of intangibles, such as preference for family and environment, relative to goods and services in the marketplace. It frames markets and creates boundaries for them, something that many people object to on ideological grounds (even if it not often articulated in that light). However, economics should be able to do that if we are to be consistent with its roots in Greek language.

A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.


13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has … marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.

This message needs to get into boardrooms and around cabinet tables. But it still sits at the “what” stage, not the “how” stage. Science dealing with the social-ecological system at planetary to local scales is highly egalitarian and communitarian. In terms of cultural framing, it appears to marginalise individualistic and hierarchical cultural tropes. This is strongly opposed in many western countries and certainly within the English-speaking media.

Because developing country populations outweigh developed country populations, Earth’s population is mostly egalitarian and communitarian in outlook. Those of us who live in western countries may not see this because our media is dominated by individualism and hierarchies defined by power. Global governance viewed via these diverse cultural prisms looks very different. This is what the “how” has to grapple with, and it isn’t even close.

Comments welcome below.