Welcome to the World of Waste and Imbalance

An Indian fisherman walks amidst, plastic and other garbage that got washed ashore on the Bay of Bengal coast in Chennai, Ind
An Indian fisherman walks amidst, plastic and other garbage that got washed ashore on the Bay of Bengal coast in Chennai, India, Thursday, Aug.13, 2015. (AP Photo/Arun Sankar K)

The world has enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed, said Mahatma Gandhi in 1947. Gandhi's prescient words came on the cusp of a great acceleration in human consumption and production that now results in "Earth overshoot day."

We are borrowing from our future and we are altering Earth's natural cycles to the extent that there is a mountain of evidence we have entered a new geological epoch -- the Anthropocene.

This world we have created is a world of waste and imbalance, where 800 million go hungry each night, but more than two billion suffer obesity; and while scarcity and shortages plague some places, waste is prevalent: 30 percent of electricity produced, 40 percent of food produced and 50 percent of transportation capacity is wasted. Every dollar of GDP produced produces more than a dollar in unaccounted pollution, waste, health risks and loss of nature.

At the heart of the problem is the cycle of consumption and production. Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be agreed to at a UN summit in New York later this month, attempts to tackle this head on, but the wording is so vague in places that all nations will be able to demonstrate some progress without converting to a truly sustainable model.

On the one hand, consumers are not receiving a price signal that their choices are driving ecological collapse. Recent research led by Beatrice Crona at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, for example, shows that when fish stocks collapse in a region, fishermen move further afield to source the same fish and fish prices remain more or less stable. It's only when the entire fish stock on a very large scale is on the verge of collapse that consumers start to feel the pinch.

But it may be unfair to focus solely on consumers, for it is the producers who prey on consumer's insecurities, desires and race for status (ultimately a zero-sum game: we can't all be better off than everyone else). And of course corporations are locked in a Darwinian fight for survival, driving efficiencies and capitalizing on perverse subsidies for fossil fuels.

To achieve Goal 12, we need systemic transformation of both consumption and production. Our modern economies evolved over two centuries with a single-minded focus on increasing production and productivity. In this pursuit, we have sought to maximize technological, labor and financial efficiencies, and ignored ecological efficiencies. This may have made sense when the oceans, prairies and forests seemed endless, but not when we start pushing against the finite boundaries of space above and rock below. But efficiency alone is not sufficient to create sustainable production and consumption. In some ways, efficiency has the perverse effect of making things much cheaper, encouraging total consumption.

We need systemic solutions and the system we are talking of includes both natural and human capital, in addition to manufactured and financial capitals. We cannot keep ignoring nature and the ecosystem services it provides as "free" goods. If we want nature to remain productive at levels we have seen in the past, we will need to invest in maintenance of natural systems. We need to value natural processes, both for their instrumental value, their aesthetic value and spiritual value.

This will take a reform of business. Businesses are the main engine of human-wealth production. Inadvertently, they are also the main producers of pollution and risk. We need to implement full-cost accounting of production in businesses. That means accounting for natural and human capital in creation of financial, manufactured capital and internalizing so called "externalities."

We need to stop the misinformation from businesses and insist on disclosure of their pollution and use of natural-resource use. When banks assess the credit rating of a company, they should include the ecological sustainability of that business. The Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere program, based at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, argues that when credit-ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor, Moody's and Fitch, who together control the market, hand out triple-A ratings to banks and countries, these ratings should include an element of long-term environmental sustainability. The divestment campaign will certainly prod the ratings agencies in the right direction.

Some major multinational corporations, for example Unilever, Puma and Virgin, are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for politicians to step up and create a level playing field for all businesses. Even Statoil recognizes the risks of burning all fossil-fuel reserves are too grave to contemplate.

Implementing sustainable production and consumption will require a change in values and world views, a change in regulations, in business practices, and personal choices. We need to expose the fallacy that material consumption results in satisfaction and improved wellbeing. Once our basic needs -- food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare -- are met, acquiring and consuming more material goods fails to create more happiness. Goal 12 is a call to balance economic production and consumption with social and ecological wellbeing.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 12.

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