Relational Environment sees environmental risks as a product of economic and political relationships: address the relationship structures in business, markets and government, and progress toward environmental goals be faster.
- Global population growth – expected to plateau at around 9 billion by the mid-21st century – increases pressure on space and resources. As diets improve, food production will need to increase by some 70-100% to meet demand.
- Food, water and energy are connected. Energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use. Food production, including agriculture, takes a 70% slice of water consumption globally, and 30% of energy consumption. In the oil industry, fracking yields more energy, but at the cost of more water use and prolonged dependence on carbon-emitting oil.
- Climate change – whether natural or anthopogenic – raises questions about how a global population interacts to keep the planet inhabitable, with nation states engaged in an urgent process of negotiation to establish a new multilateral framework for ameliorating planetary climatic impact.
- Deforestation is estimated to be claiming between 12 and 15 million hectares per year – 36 football pitches every minute. Some 80% of known species live in forests. Among the benefits of maintaining biodiversity is the current progress in developing antibiotics from soils.
Environmental damage is a by-product of relationships
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is considered the largest in the history of the petroleum industry. Subsequent investigations pointed to defective materials and procedures, implicating BP’s relationship with rig operators and regulators. But the ultimate causes of what a US District Court finally judged in 2014 to be “gross negligence and reckless conduct” on the part of BP can be traced back to plc structures and world oil markets in which relationships to investors and buyers are reduced to economic connections that largely bypass the stakeholders living closest to the rig.
Regulation is only half the answer
Unregulated felling of the Amazon rain forest is widely condemned, but is motivated by global demand for hardwoods which is defined and transmitted through the economy. Similarly the campaign to reduce carbon emissions is conducted in the context of a continuing global dependence on oil. These are not systemic evils: they are simply the result of the way Western societies formalize the relationships connecting consumers, producers, company managers and investors. It’s usually assumed that the necessary restrains can be achieved by means of government regulation, with the result that incentivization pulls two ways – in the direction of increasing environmental risk for the sake of returning profit to investors, and simultaneously in the direction of reducing environmental risk in order to avoid penalties or improve company reputation. Across many parts of the economy, the result has been for Western companies and nations to “outsource” the environmentally dirty jobs to countries like China, where the regulatory environment remains more lax. Western consciences are kept clean without a significant net global gain in environmental quality.
Scale, control and motivation
Environment is always a shared asset. But smaller scales of organization have the advantage that stakeholders will more easily cooperate to their mutual advantage. It’s not usually difficult to get the family to spend Saturday afternoon clearing up the yard. At a global scale, however, the relational distance separating stakeholders, including the sheer diversity of interests they represent, can make progress painfully slow. Relational distance not only weakens the motivation to cooperate; it also increases the suspicion that some players are turning an environmental crisis to their own advantage – for example via a carbon tax. In few places is transparency more important, or harder to achieve.
Effective action on the environment depends on creating the right relationships in the right places.
Deal with the real issues
Abuse of the environment is often seen as an ethical failure – the short-sighted greed of the few abetted by the ignorance and apathy of the many. In reality, though, behaviours that lead to oil spills and the build-up of greenhouse gases are driven by the kinds of relationships our economic and political systems create between us as stakeholder groups. So there is an urgent need to address active systemic causes rather than simply to call for greater regulation.
Participate at every level
The global nature of the environmental debate makes it hard for individuals to participate except through diffuse social media discussions or supporting the personalities or groups who champion environmental causes. Exerting pressure as an investor, voter or consumer is important. But many key environmental goals – avoiding waste, energy efficiency, environmental quality – can also be addressed by engaging locally, where, in relational terms, people are most likely to feel direct shared interest, and cooperate to make improvements happen.
Promote the small city
Greater economic organization at city and regional levels – including companies supported by investors who live in the vicinity – tends to create synergies and promote a focus on the shared interests of all stakeholder groups. City size also impacts on transportation. Individual use of cars (in Europe, and more especially North America) comes at a cost in terms of congestion and higher emissions – and the effect is worsened where cities and hinterlands are too large to navigate by foot or bicycle or where homes and workplaces are separated with a lengthy commute.
Empower the family
Families are crucial units in resource use. How they spend money, and how they dispose of waste, are decisions with far-reaching environmental impacts. The widespread use of processed and manufactured foods, for example, provides convenience, but also signals a way in which families have lost their independence, with a concomitant increase in energy requirements for manufacture, in disposable packaging, and in food wastage. So one small way to benefit the environment – with health, educational, and relational benefits – is to bring more food preparation into the kitchen and make it a social focus.
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