The G-20: Fighting for a Safe Spot on the Deck of the Titanic

The ship is heading into iceberg territory, but passengers in first class squabble among themselves to secure a safe spot on the upper deck. Does that make sense? To the leaders of the twenty richest and most powerful nations of the world, it apparently does.

The Leaders' Declaration of the Seoul Summit of the G-20 reads like a report of finance and trade managers faced with short-term emergencies. It centers on international trade disequilibria, discriminating exchange rate policies, volatile capital flows, and the threat of financial crises. It ignores the fact that the entire system in which these problems appear is in danger. That system is not just a financial and international trade system, but the system of human communities in the embrace of nature on the planet. It is destabilized by economic, social, and cultural conflict among peoples, and the deterioration of the ecologies that support life on Earth. The international community is equipped to make the worst of these threats: it maintains vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction on hair-trigger alert. The ship is in danger of hitting an iceberg ahead, but its influential passengers refuse to recognize that it's going the wrong way. They only see the crises that would inconvenience their comfort and threaten their privileges on board.

The Action Plan agreed by the G-20 leaders is a case study in narrowly focused short-term crisis management. It centers on five policy areas listed in this order: monetary and exchange rate policies, trade and development policies, fiscal policies, financial reforms, and structural reforms. Structural reforms are limited to boosting and sustaining global demand, fostering job creation, contributing to global rebalancing, and increasing "our growth potential." The effectiveness of such reforms could hardly have inspired the confidence of the leaders themselves: at the conclusion of the Summit, President Obama felt compelled to go on television to address a plea to China and other trade surplus nations to stop growing by exporting to the United States.

The kind of growth that the G-20 treats as a panacea, even when sustained and better balanced, is merely a continuation of the same unsustainable economic system that is now threatening the well-being and even the survival of vast underprivileged populations, altering the planet's climate, and degrading its ecologies. Today's looming climate, ecology, energy, and nuclear threats are not isolable into narrow specialty areas, and are not manageable by economic and fiscal measures alone. The world needs leaders who can redesign our societies to become socially, culturally, and ecologically viable. It needs comprehensive structural reform so that people can live in peace with one another and with the ecological systems that sustain their lives. And it needs leaders who can address the major threats generated by the reckless orientation of our shared vessel: global warming and nuclear weapons.

If unstopped, the climatic changes produced by global warming will come together with such intense effect that no nation or group of nations will be able to halt or reverse it. According to projections by scientists such as James Lovelock, in the next 100 years more than 80 percent of the human species could perish due to climate-induced catastrophes, diseases sweeping wide territories, and mushrooming conflicts generated by the most massive migration of peoples in history -- giant waves of climate refugees moving across the continents. Faced with such dangers, the timely abolition of nuclear weapons is essential for our survival. We need a Nuclear Weapons Convention prohibiting the production as well as the use of all nuclear weapons in all circumstances.

In a world aspiring to democracy, such a convention must be built on the will of the people. A critical mass of individuals in all parts of the world needs to become aware of the suicidal implications of maintaining vast arsenals of weapons capable of killing the bulk of humanity and destroying most forms of life on Earth. And a critical mass of awakened people is not utopian. In 21 countries, including the five major nuclear powers, polls show that 76 percent of people support negotiation of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons.

But for now, despite the Internet and the rise of alternative media and forms of communication, the road to building a critical mass is effectively blocked. Nuclear weapons are about power, and governments have not given up what they perceive as a source of their power. Powerful military-industrial complexes are trading on the threat to national security created by the very presence of the military establishments that are called upon to cope with it. In the mainstream media there is a virtual blackout on the subject of the nuclear threat. In the absence of an enlightened leadership, it is nearly impossible to mobilize the will of the people to remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

It is ludicrous to squabble over short-term privileges and devise safety nets to ensure the kind of growth that has already brought us to the edge of disaster. The time has come to look the decisive issues in the face, and do something about them. But where are the leaders who are ready to do that? They are not at the helm of the G-20, at least for now.