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I’m into human beings, not nature. That used to mean I didn't trust the conservation agenda. I cared about people facing humanitarian crisis and living with poverty. “Conservation” was just one more way for economic elites in developed countries to “haul up the ladder” (Collier 2010). I imagined conservationist instincts toward the poor to be mean of spirit: “There are too many of you, and you are destroying our world. You can't farm here, cut down that tree, build that brick kiln, kill game species, wash your clothes in that river, use kerosene to stay warm. You need to eat less, use less, walk farther, and work harder to protect the planet because, in the end, we value it more than you.”

My opinion is changing, not just because I’ve spent more time around conservationists and certainly not because I care more about the condition of our planet as an end in itself. As a humanitarian, I’m still a people person. But I am beginning to realize what will happen to people in poverty if our planet stays on its current course.

Accepting that our planet's ecosystems are threatened, I have tried to understand how policy makers are grappling with it. Sitting in Washington, D.C., the answer is terrifying. One cannot even say climate change if one wants to have a bipartisan discussion because the concept is so politically toxic—one must use terms like unpredictable weather patterns. Facts and figures about climate change are treated like a tree huggers’ conspiracy. Policy makers refuse to link so-called natural catastrophes in the United States or elsewhere with human commission (McKibben 2011). It does not matter that the World Economic Forum sees climate change as the greatest risk to global economic and political stability in 2011. Nor does it matter that companies like Swiss Re, a global reinsurer, estimates global economic losses from natural and human-made disasters in 2010 at US$218 billion, more than 3 times the previous year's figure of $68 billion. It does not matter to policy makers that data show dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions, nitrate pollution in soil and seas, and the loss of biological diversity.

Over the last few years, one proposition has come to dominate the development policies of the United States and other major development donors: poverty reduction is best achieved through equitable and sustainable economic growth. That proposition is both banal and troublesome. It is banal because inclusive and sustainable economic growth is poverty reduction, at least in its economic sense; it is troublesome because equitable and sustainable growth rarely if ever happens. When the goals of equity or sustainability conflict with the immediate political, economic, and security interests of the corporate or politically powerful in developed and developing countries, narrow self-interest prevails most of the time. More growth is constantly prioritized over better growth, thereby increasing inequality between the rich and poor and plundering increasingly scarce natural resources. Too often, particularly in developing countries, the powerful appropriate natural and national wealth for private gain with no short-term or long-term benefits for the poor.

Champions of more growth continue to dismiss scarcity and sustainability threats, arguing that depletion of nonrenewable resources has been at the heart of most major development moments; human ingenuity will overcome any constraints to growth that emerge, or inequality and resource waste are a tolerable price to pay for building an economic elite whose wealth will trickle down to the poor in the long term (Milanovic 2011). In economically and politically nervous times many people agree with these arguments.

To confront these arguments in the next 25 years, progressives will have to find new ways to build a popular movement for sustainability and to combat resource scarcity, particularly in the United States. Why focus on the United States when its relative power is likely to decline in the coming decades? The emergence of new global powers (and particularly the growing power of emerging markets like Brazil, India, China, and Russia) has changed the global scarcity conundrum. Whereas convincing policy makers in Washington, D.C., to tackle the scarcity of natural resources is no longer close to sufficient for the health of our planet, the United States remains a necessary champion of any viable global governance mechanism capable of tackling the resource scarcity challenge.

Consider climate change: negotiations on a global deal to cut emissions stalled in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, and made suboptimal progress at the 2010 conference on climate change in Copenhagen in part because successive U.S. presidents could not bring an acceptable deal to the table. Even if the presidents had a vision, they were domestically hamstrung by a Congress that refused to pass climate legislation, in large part because citizens in the United States do not care enough about the issue. In short, unless and until more politically influential citizens of the United States think climate change matters, there is no hope of a global deal, no matter what the other members of the G20 or G77 might want.

Our collective failure, as humanitarians and conservation professionals, to build a broad political dialogue in the United States about managing global scarcity means that politicians can still use the concept of scarcity as anathema to growth. As Republican congressman Paul Ryan argued recently (Sanchez 2011):

[M]any in Washington—including the President—are really arguing over who to hurt and how best to manage the decline of our nation. … I call it the shared scarcity mentality ….The missing ingredient is economic growth.

Most innovation in the international-development sphere focuses on technical solutions to poverty. Life 2.0 could help reduce constraints on natural resources. We could have cows that eat less, defecate less, and yield meat that is more nutritious; drought-resistant grain that produces twice as much edible rice while using less water; genetically modified organisms not just designed to make more profits for agricultural businesses, but to help poor farmers cultivate with less precipitation, land, soil nutrients, or time. It is important to recognize that these technological innovations will not necessarily benefit the poor, and even where they do, they will not be sufficient. We need new ideas to tackle the problem of power—who will benefit from technology?

The collective challenge of the humanitarian and conservation communities is to move toward environmental sustainability while increasing global equity, to give the poor more economic and political power; accommodating a growing global population; and pursuing global economic growth. These are not just technical challenges; they are also huge political challenges.

Consider the global food economy. More than a billion people are hungry today. By 2050 demand for food will increase by 70%. As demand rises, prices will increase by as much as 80% over the next 20 years, disproportionately hurting the poor who often spend more than half of their income on food. Moreover, climate change may inflate prices further, leading to as much as 180% gross increase in prices for key staples over the next two decades (Oxfam 2011).

In the next 25 years, if human are to start living within global ecological boundaries, consuming resources in more sustainable ways and ensuring that the poor are able to consume a larger share of food, we will need new ideas about power and politics. Conservation scientists and humanitarian organizations will need to engage each other in a discussion. I offer four ideas on how the conservation community might begin this discussion and meet this challenge over the next 25 years: call the problem political and make the discussion about patriotism, pastors, and pockets.

Make It Political

  1. Top of page
  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
  6. About the Author
  7. Literature Cited

Scarcity does not mean the poor lack material goods or technology, but that they lack political power. Why are humanitarian and conservation professionals so nervous about casting scarcity as a political problem for the poor? Perhaps it is because of our shared apolitical roots. Humanitarianism's raison d’etre was a moral response to politics’ ultimate failure: armed conflict. Similarly, the conservation movement is a response to the failure of politics to protect nature. Humanitarians and conservationists want to generate ideas beyond politics, not about politics. Generating these ideas is not possible if politics lies at the heart of the problem one wants to address. Like every other threat facing humanity, scarcity has both policy and political dimensions. The real question is which dimensions of scarcity make the politics difficult because the opposition has financial resources, is entrenched, and has strong popular support.

Naming challenges as political precedes political innovation. Unless and until conservation professionals, and those who support them, find a way to talk about politics without violating their core principles or venturing beyond their comfort zones, they will not be effective in the global struggle to address scarcity and sustainability.

Make It Patriotic

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  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
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Today, the more-growth constituency has captured the hearts of many citizens in the United States. This constituency argues that citizens should be frightened of China overtaking the United States economically, and the only patriotic thing to do is to shop more. To be American is to borrow and consume because one can, even if it means living beyond one's means. This constituency argues that now is not the time to ask Americans to sacrifice. Confronting scarcity means citizens reduce their standard of living, while other nations act irresponsibly and gain ground economically on us.

And so, the illusion of a classless society persists while millions of U.S. citizens lose the opportunity to work their way from poverty to wealth. This illusion isn't rational. It isn't supported by facts. Most Americans do not recognize how much inequality actually exists. A 2010 study found that 92% of U.S. citizens—across income brackets, political parties, and racial demographics—prefer a much more equitable model of income distribution over their current reality (Norton & Ariely 2011). Most Americans think that approximately 60% of the population accounts for about 84% of income (Norton & Ariely 2011). In reality, that income is owned by the wealthiest 20% (the highest quintile).

How is there such a huge disconnect between what Americans want and what they are willing to accept as normal? A host of new books, including How we Decide (2010) and Predictably Irrational (2009), reach the same credible conclusion: facts and rationality are overrated. Similarly, in The Political Brain,Westin (2007) argues that conservatives understand this fact better than progressives and have been capitalizing on it for years. Al Gore lost the 2004 presidential election not because he didn't have the best ideas, but because he lost people's hearts. In Whose Freedom (2006) and The Political Mind (2010), George Lakoff explains how conservatives have co-opted emotive language to frame and ultimately win political debates.

The way to shift political debate on scarcity is for humanitarians and conservationists to embrace the emotive and patriotic dimensions of this debate. If they want to capture the minds of U.S. citizens, they first need to capture their hearts. Tackling scarcity needs to be reframed as a fundamentally American idea and the key to economic opportunity and mobility, not the barrier. The truly American thing to do is to call for equitable, transparent, and accountable use of scarce resources because when policy boundaries are clear and rules transparent and there is genuine equality of opportunity, Americans win. Until Americans remember in their gut that responsible consumption does not mean sacrificing the future, that it is about building a better future, rational arguments about scarcity of land and water and climate change in some other part of the world will have little political impact in the United States. We have to make it patriotic to tackle scarcity.

Make It Godly

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  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
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  7. Literature Cited

In most countries there is a choice curve between religion and wealth—the more wealthy a nation is, the less religious it is. With one very notable exception: the United States. 59% of Americans said that religion is very important in their lives (as compared with 11% in France and 33% in the United Kingdom) (Pew Research Center 2002). In short, religious values in the United States are much more similar to those in developing countries than any other developed nation.

Faith leaders may be the most effective voices to tackle scarcity in the United States. When secular organizations silently or overtly critique different religions for being too focused on the distinguishing features of their own particular moral narratives, they are guilty of precisely the same sin themselves. Secular groups working to minimize climate change have far more shared values than differences with organizations like GreenFaith and National Religious Partners for the Environment, and secular organizations need to keep building stronger bridges with faith organizations if, collectively, they are to have any hope of changing American beliefs in the next decade.

Make the Economic Case

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  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
  6. About the Author
  7. Literature Cited

The interests of the business, humanitarian, and conservation communities (those who care respectively about profit, people, and the planet) are famously at odds. When two out of the three interests collaborate, they often do so in opposition to the third—conserving nature profitably often comes at the cost of the poor. When the conservation movement finds common ground with humanitarians, it is often to protect nature for the poor at the cost of corporate investment. Making the business case for tackling scarcity in the United States will push us to find measures of success that are shared across our worlds, that center of the Venn diagram where, for example, corporations make more profit from building natural infrastructure that lifts people from poverty in sustainable ways.

American companies are losing out if they do care about responsible development and intergenerational impact because they do not have an enabling policy environment, either in the United States or on a global playing field. We are underinvested in renewable energy while China has run away with the solar and wind industries. The Obama Administration's Global Climate Change Initiative is under political and budgetary threat.

All over the world, companies from emerging economies are using natural resources unsustainably. Because they are not being asked to price their investments accurately, the negative externalities that result become global public problems. This inaccurate pricing will become increasingly costly for the United States, not just in terms of today's U.S. business interests, but in terms of tomorrow's security and political and long-term economic interests. Shaping rules and incentives for U.S. and global commerce that confront scarcity challenges will reward companies that innovate more effectively.

Perhaps the most important dots to connect to American pockets are jobs. Can we inspire Americans to think of 194 growing economies with healthy, educated, largely employed populations engaging with each other sustainably and productively for their mutual benefit? Is it so hard to see the United States as an employment benefactor from such a vision?

If the United States is going to help tackle the global scarcity challenge of the next 25 years, it is going to need a broader national dialogue that recognizes the fundamentally political nature of the scarcity problem. To start that discussion meaningfully, conservation and humanitarian professionals need to go to where people's heads and hearts are, and in the United States, that means speaking to their patriotism, their pastors, and their pockets.

About the Author

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  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
  6. About the Author
  7. Literature Cited

Paul O’Brien is the vice president for Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam America. Prior to joining Oxfam in 2007, Mr. O’Brien lived in Afghanistan for 5 years, where he worked in the office of the president and the Ministry of Finance as an advisor on aid coordination, development planning, and policy reform. Prior to that, he worked for CARE International as their Afghanistan advocacy coordinator and Africa policy advisor. Previously, Mr. O’Brien was the president of the Echoing Green Foundation and a litigator in New York for Cravath, Swaine and Moore. He is the cofounder of the Legal Resources Foundation in Kenya and the founder of the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium in Afghanistan, both of which are thriving organizations today. Mr. O’Brien has juris doctorate from Harvard Law School and has published on humanitarian policy, human rights, and emerging trends in development.

Literature Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Make It Political
  3. Make It Patriotic
  4. Make It Godly
  5. Make the Economic Case
  6. About the Author
  7. Literature Cited