Environmental and Ecological Dimensions of Globalization

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 26. March 2011 - 0:16
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

at parallel events to the World Summit on Sustainable Development
(Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 August-3 September 2002)


Arthur Lyon Dahl
Former Deputy Assistant Executive Director, UNEP
Geneva, Switzerland
Presented at the seminar on Multiple Dimensions of Globalization
3 September 2002

The stresses created in society by globalization are adding to human insecurity, as events in the last few years have demonstrated only too well. Yet the focus of debate has been almost entirely economic. In organizing this session at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the International Environment Forum and the European Bahá'í Business Forum wanted to expand the debate to explore the multiple dimensions of globalization and the challenges they present for society. What really is happening? What are the driving forces behind the process of globalization? How can the process be managed and made more just? We do not have time to do more than highlight some key issues, but we hope that this will open wider perspectives for future work.

Looking at the environmental or ecological dimension from a scientific perspective, it is clear that life has always been globalized. The biosphere is a single system, although with many decentralized components in the diverse ecosystems that have evolved on this planet. The human race is also a single species, and therefore by definition globalized. Historically exchanges between different peoples were very slow, dependent on rare voyages, migrations or invasions. However the rapid development of transportation, communications and information technologies has removed all physical barriers to human integration. Like islands on which local species have diverged due to their isolation, and which are then joined together from a lowered sea level, there is an inevitable period of turmoil and competition as a new larger integrated system evolves. Biological and social systems follow the same organic model of evolutionary development. When conditions permit, they tend towards increasing complexity and higher levels of organization. Globalization is therefore a normal and natural process in the development of human society, even if its present form leaves much to be desired.

The present rapid rate of globalization, driven by economic forces and materialistic aims, is creating many environmental problems. Our explosive population growth, accelerated consumption and technological innovations have increased the scale of human impacts so that they are pushing planetary limits. Climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss are planetary problems that require global cooperation and management. The increasing movement of goods around the world has produced problems of invasive species, the spread of toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes, and growing quantities of wastes that are ever more expensive to dispose of safely. Global trade puts the same pressures on natural resources everywhere. A tree is a potential source of wood chips whether it is growing in Siberia, Canada or Papua New Guinea. Since the non-market values of trees and forests, such as for watershed management or biodiversity conservation, are not presently factored into the global trading system, unregulated trade has been very damaging to the natural capital of many countries. Despite the widespread insistence on national sovereignty over natural resources, the only solution is to manage such resources at the global level for the benefit of the whole planet. This is leading to the steady expansion of mechanisms for global environmental governance, with institutions for decision-making, regulation and harmonization that essentially are extending the federal concept to the global level. However, our present ad hoc methods of global legislation, negotiating and adopting a new convention for each environmental problem, will eventually bring us to a global legal gridlock. It will become essential to find a more coherent way to regulate and adjust the behaviour of states and companies in the common interest.

We have become aware of the environmental dimension of globalization because science itself is globalized. From environmental monitoring by satellites to the electronic publication of scientific papers, scientists today form a single global intellectual community, even if there is still too much domination by the wealthy countries who can most afford it. Information is also globalized with instantaneous communications over the Internet. The International Environment Forum could not exist with members in over 40 countries actively participating without e-mail and the World Wide Web.

Just as biological systems evolve and adapt through modifications in the genetic instructions that control individual development and behaviour, so do human societies develop and evolve through modifications in their operating rules and institutions. However, at the human level, it is ethics and values that provide the basic rules for interactions between people. These values also need to evolve and adapt to a globalizing world. The scientific recognition of the unity of the biosphere needs to be complemented by new spiritual foundations for a more integrated and unified world society, drawing on the shared core of values common to almost all religions and traditional societies. There is growing recognition of this in the scientific community.

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Last updated 14 September 2002