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The Mismeasure of Wealth

CAMBRIDGE – Despite many successes in creating a more integrated and stable global economy, a new report by the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability – Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing – recognizes the current global order’s failure, even inability, to implement the drastic changes needed for true “sustainability.”

The Panel’s report presents a vision for a “sustainable planet, just society, and growing economy,” as well as 56 policy recommendations for realizing that goal. It is arguably the most prominent international call for a radical redesign of the global economy ever issued.

But, for all of its rich content, Resilient People, Resilient Planet is short on concrete, practical solutions. Its most valuable short-term recommendation – the replacement of current development indicators (GDP or variants thereof) with more comprehensive, inclusive metrics for wealth – seems tacked on almost as an afterthought. Without quick, decisive international action to prioritize sustainability over the status quo, the report risks suffering the fate of its 1987 predecessor, the pioneering Brundtland Report, which introduced the concept of sustainability, similarly called for a paradigm shift, and was then ignored.
Resilient People, Resilient Planet opens by paraphrasing Charles Dickens: the world today is “experiencing the best of times, and the worst of times.” As a whole, humanity has achieved unparalleled prosperity; great strides are being made to reduce global poverty; and technological advances are revolutionizing our lives, stamping out diseases, and transforming communication.

On the other hand, inequality remains stubbornly high, and is increasing in many countries. Short-term political and economic strategies are driving consumerism and debt, which, together with global population growth – set to reach nearly nine billion by 2040 – is subjecting the natural environment to growing stress. By 2030, notes the Panel, “the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water – all at a time when environmental limits are threatening supply.” Despite significant advances in the past 25 years, humanity has failed to conserve resources, safeguard natural ecosystems, or otherwise ensure its own long-term viability.