Three interconnected challenges characterize the times we live in: climate change, natural resource depletion and damage to the environment, and the aspirations of billions living outside the developed world to improve the well-being of their lot. These challenges are a natural consequence of the political economy of industrialization which began in the mid-19th century.
The transfer of natural resources to Europe from her colonies began with the voyages of Christopher Columbus in late 15th century. Seafaring European corporations, at the behest of their patron monarchs, established trading posts around the world which later became imperial colonies. Mercantilism practiced by the early multinational corporations was the order of the day.
The Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century brought with it capitalism: natural resources from the colonies – ranging from tea, salt, cocoa, and precious metals and stones to cotton – fed the coal-gouging and polluting industries of Europe. The rising prosperity of the European colonial powers stood in stark contrast to the declining wealth of their colonies.
Colonialism was a zero-sum game but it had established the paradigm of economic development: the economic development of the European powers came at the expense of their colonies. As the gross domestic products (GDPs) of European powers went up, their colonies descended to a state of underdevelopment and poverty.
United States of America, itself having been a colony, became the first post-colonial power by the end of World War II, but the economic development paradigm has stayed the same until now, giving rise to the challenges of climate change, natural resource depletion and environmental damage.
The bigger challenge of developing the former colonies leaves much to be desired. Post-war de-colonization had only wrought neo-colonialism on the former colonies, as former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah who coined the phrase “neo-colonialism” said, “[the] result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment, under neo-colonialism, increases, rather than decreases, the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world. The struggle against neo-colonialism is not aimed at excluding the capital of the developed world from operating in less developed countries. It is aimed at preventing the financial power of the developed countries being used in such a way as to impoverish the less developed.” It is said that even China today follows a neo-colonial strategy in Africa.
The current paradigm of economic development is untenable if the living standards of the peoples of the world are to converge. The planet cannot be polluted more, damaging the environment, and its natural resources cannot be depleted further into the future. The new sustainable development goals (SDGs) need to be embraced post-2015 for the inclusive development of all.
Vladimir Lenin can be proven wrong, for sustainable development of the planet can be profitable for today’s non-colonial, non-imperial multinational corporations. In fact, it is the emerging zeitgeist.