Multinational Monitor

MAR/APR 2009
VOL 30 No. 2


A New Life for the IMF: Capitalizing on Crisis
by Robert Weissman


Burden of Proof: The Precautionary Principle
an interview with Peter Montague

A Carbon-Free Future
an interview with Arjun Makhijani

Green Stimulus
an interview with Robert Pollin

The Green Chemistry Revolution
an interview with Paul Anastas

A Bias to the Local: The Subsidiarity Principle
an interview with Jerry Mander


Behind the Lines

Big Ideas to Save the Planet

The Front
Global Job Meltdown - Prosecution Prognosis

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News



Big Ideas to Save the Planet

The planet and its people are in peril.

Poisoned water and falling water tables, rapidly diminishing forests, polluted air, species going extinct at an unparalleled pace, and a petrochemicalized environment all signal that things are going seriously awry. And climate change - the impacts of which are already evidenced at an accelerating pace - threatens environmental devastation of an almost incomprehensible scale. Rising sea levels will overwhelm island states, low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, and many of the coastal areas where the world's population is concentrated. Climate change will bring more disease outbreaks, including new diseases and variants of existing illness for which there is no treatment. Changing weather patterns will leave many populated areas with too little rain to sustain agriculture. Existing environmental problems will worsen severely - regionalized water shortages, collapsing forests, species destruction and much more.

There are thousands of things that must be done to avert these problems and reverse the practices that are causing them.

But while thousands of things must be done, it is clear that something more than a laundry list is needed. The world needs new organizing principles and new technologies. It needs big ideas.

In this issue of Multinational Monitor, our interviews present such five such ideas.

Peter Montague elaborates on the precautionary principle, which places the burden of proof on a corporation or person aiming to introduce a new product or process into the market, to show that the product or process is safe, and the least harmful way to undertake an activity. Montague urges that the precautionary principle become a governing idea for society, so that it is "second nature." "We should aim to make it unthinkable," he says, "to undertake a project or product without examining all alternatives to find the least harmful way."

Arjun Makhijani lays out a plan to convert the United States to a carbon-free energy system - meaning zero use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Makhijani argues that such a transition can be achieved in a few decades, using existing technology or technologies foreseeably available in the short term. He is not suggesting that the United States (or, by extension, the rest of the world) wait for some new, magic technology to drop from the sky.

Robert Pollin explains the idea of green stimulus spending, building on his studies that show the job-creating benefits of investments in ecologically sustainable technologies. Much of the program that Pollin drafted in 2008 was incorporated into the Obama administration's stimulus package; but Pollin points out that he drafted his package before the recession, and that there is now a clear case for acting on a larger scale.

Paul Anastas introduces the concept of green chemistry, an approach that aims not just to reduce chemical waste, but to redesign chemical products and processes to reduce and ultimately eliminate hazards and waste.

Jerry Mander makes the case for "subsidiarity" - the idea that economic and political decision-making authority should be located as close to local communities as possible. Reducing transport costs is only the most obvious benefit of locally focused economies. Subsidiarity's "bias for the local" is premised on the idea that it promotes democracy and, by facilitating local control of local resources, creation of sustainable communities.

While all of the big ideas presented in the interviews are complementary, there are differences in perspective among the interviewees. Most consequentially, there are differing views over the extent to which addressing the climate crisis and other ecological imperatives will require fundamental changes in the lifestyles of people in rich countries (and many in the developing world, as well), and the extent to which existing and new technologies will be able to solve environmental problems.

What is certain is that any effort to address the imperiling ecological challenges will require confronting corporate power. New standards for economic activity, limits on corporate scope and authorities and the empowerment of local communities obviously run directly up against corporate interests. But so too will efforts to prioritize new technologies and displace others entail confrontations with big business. The need to phase out rapidly the use of oil and coal obviously conflicts with the plans of powerful corporate actors; even more telling, perhaps, is that many of the leading examples Anastas cites of green chemistry success follow from citizen campaigns against corporations selling products with avoidable hazards (cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and packaging).

One way or another, averting catastrophic climate change and managing the world's other great ecological challenges will require greater public control over heretofore private investment decisions. And that means taking on corporate power.


Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Subscribe Online

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines