Convergence? Not any time soon

Posted on October 15, 2011


Much of the argument being put forward by activists around the globe today highlights the difference between the wealthiest people in the world (the 1%) and the rest, the so-called 99%.  The anger at the super-rich and at governments is focused on the economic impacts of self-serving, and shortsighted decisions that have cost the majority without any apparent impact on those who are making them – ‘the 1%’.

This movement has much further to travel before we will see the impact of such an extraordinary  global happening.  Yet perhaps part of the anger is about all the talk without sufficient action from governments to move to a more caring, humanitarian world, where poverty reduction happens for real and which ultimately results in a more sustainable world.  After all,  poverty reduction has been on the intergovernmental agenda officially ever since the Millenium Development Goals were adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000.  These set out eight targets which if met by 2015 would see a real impact on global poverty.  While progress on individual goals has been patchy, many have argued that the focus of effort should not be simply on poverty reduction, but the reduction of relative poverty – in other words closing the gap between the rich and the poor.  It is runaway wealth that has in the eyes of many, been the most destructive of all forces giving rise to the current global economic crisis.  It has been exacerbated by the fact that much of this extraordinary wealth has been built on debt, and in many cases, forged outside of the real economy – simply a form of legalised gambling using the stock exchanges of the world as a giant gaming table.

Reducing relative poverty, or,  the convergence agenda as it is sometimes known, has also been used to describe the need to bring carbon emissions from the richest and poorest nations into a closer relationship (specifically referred to as contraction and convergence).  These twin goals – poverty reduction and reduction in carbon emissions are closely linked as no country has yet really been able to demonstrate that carbon reductions can occur without commensurate reductions in GDP growth.  It is wicked policy problem that with wealth comes growth in emissions.  Sustainability theorists have suggested many ways this so-called decoupling can occur, but all require a paradigm-shift in the way we live, the way the economy works.  Yet, the principles of convergence have extraordinary resonance and are increasingly being embedded into policy and government goals.  It is an explicit policy of some East London boroughs for example, which want to see a step change in the economic potential and worth as a result of investment spend in the sustainable regeneration of East London.

The extraordinary thing about what is happening now is that ordinary people are taking this agenda into their own hands.  Gone is the reference to the lofty ideals springing from UN conference after UN conference, and here to stay is the very personal reference to individuals, to people, to places, to cities where the rich live and where the poor live.  Gone, too is the belief that this is a problem simply for ‘the poor’, replaced by a recognition that it is (for one of the first times in history) the middle classes who will be the big losers out of this current global crisis.

As G20 Finance Ministers meet this weekend, it feels as if we are entering the throat of the monster, with the belly still to come.  Next year, in June 2012, yet another global Summit will be held: the Rio Earth Summit 2012(+20) will revisit the bold challenges to the world in 1992, when nations gathered to commit to pursue a sustainable approach to development forevermore.  A full twenty years after sustainable development was officially adopted as a concept to guide our futures, desperately, sadly, and terrifyingly, we are no further along the path to making collective action work for a more sustainable, just and humane future.  Yes we have all the technological solutions to hand, but still we cannot get governments to agree to the holistic changes necessary to turn the ship around.  No wonder people are on the streets – they have been very, very patient.  Twenty years is too long to toy with the very survival of the planet, and of its people.