by Bogdan Zymka
Achim Steiner is the Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme. His background includes international development and enviornmnetal policy.
“The environment usually loses to talks of economics.”
Steiner was greeted with quiet applause when he arrived for his impromptu visit to the Youth Blast, (a space designated to voice the concerns of the Youth group that oddly welcomes UN bureaucrats and figures of power). His demeanor is calm and he carries himself as most UN representatives do when grabbing photo ops with youth, with an aura of “I’m here to listen, but I’m also here to push.”
His position, and the official position of the Major Group for Children and Youth, is to elevate the UN Environment Program to a specialized agency, putting it on the same level of influence as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), both cited as representing the economic and social pillars of Sustainable Development. From the point of view of Steiner and MGCY, the elevation of UNEP to a specialized agency would give the environment its first high-level global platform of influence.
He’s right. Most conversations about development put environment on the back burner, claiming that economic development is the priority and that preserving the environment comes after nations and their people have the capacity to do so.
For a man who advocates for environment, he talks like an economist – but an out-of-touch one
“The global financial crisis is not affecting the whole world. Some countries are doing fine and are saying, ‘Please don’t disturb our economic prosperity.’”
But it is affecting us, the 52% of the world who are under 30.
Unemployment and class hierarchies have become one of the defining characteristics of our generation. In the U.S, youth unemployment is 19.1%, more than double the national average of 8.1%. In Spain, the national unemployment average is 22.9% while youth unemployment is 51.4%. In Greece, 21% is the national average while over 51% of the youth are unemployed. This is not only a problem of the developed world; in most developing countries that provide statistics, youth unemployment is double or more of the national unemployment average.
What have most of us done? In the U.S, we go to college to wait out bad job markets, resulting not in a bunch of bored youth with “fine arts” degrees living off of their parents’ money, but rather a mass of educated workers without jobs, who are pissed off. But not everyone has the opportunity to get an education while waiting out rough economic times. In Egypt, the go-to example of youth inciting revolution, two thirds of the population is under 25, and while 80 percent of the youth population is unemployed they retain a 88% literacy rate.
“We’re not interested in the monetization of nature, we are interested in the valuation of it, which manifests itself through monetary means.”
UNEP’s solution to incorporating economics into the environment: Turn everything into markets, “natural capital.” The idea is that free-markets regulate themselves, you use a lot of water, and you pay a lot of money. But that doesn’t work for the human rights and needs. For example, when communities that are already stripped of their rights to water and land have to then pay multi-national corporations for use of the commons, the focus shifts from providing basic needs and services to people who need it most to the further and more detrimental exploitation of the environment. Natural capital means foreign investment and foreign investment isn’t interested in the development of peasant communities, it is solely interested in profit.
“If bees could send us invoices for their services, they’d be for billions of dollars.”
The bees won’t ever send us an invoice because the bees don’t believe in markets, and that’s the point. Steiner’s position directly reflects what the ever-industrializing developed world wants to do with the environment. They pillage, exploit and rape the natural world until it degrades to dust and then we figure out how to turn the rest into “capital” so the rich keep getting richer and the ultra consumers continue on their tirade of pollution with a little less guilt on their shoulders because they’re “investing in the natural world.”
Put simply, it’s the commodification of nature. Putting monetary values to the natural world that can’t and shouldn’t be traded or capitalized. It’s not only a bad idea for communities but it’s a terrible idea for the natural world.
Quotations provided are directly from Archim Steiner at an informal meeting with Youth during the second day of Youth Blast.