THIS MONTH'S THEME
Sometimes the pieces just seem to fit together and the predicament in which we find ourselves comes home with a sobering thud. This past summer is a case in point. Two brief news events seemed to sum up the increasingly fragile state of our global environment. The first was a small story that faded from sight as quickly as it appeared. But it bears repeating.
In the endless day of an Arctic summer a Russian cruise ship, an icebreaker, steamed towards the North Pole. The trip was without event, until the ship eventually approached within a few kilometres of the magnetic pole. Instead of metre-thick ice, the Russian captain, who'd made the trip a dozen times previously, was astonished to find miles of open water at the top of the world. And in the clear, bracing air, seabirds circled where none had been seen before. Scientists had already told us that the Arctic ice sheet had thinned by 40 per cent over the last 35 years. And they'd warned that Greenland's ice (3,000 metres thick in some places) is also starting to melt. But the evidence that human activities are altering the Earth's climate had never seemed so stark as this story from the unfrozen North Pole.
The second news event, a few weeks later, was by now more predictable -. but none the less worrying for that. Every August for the past decade new data has been released measuring the depletion of stratospheric ozone over the other end of the planet - the South Pole. And the numbers just keep getting worse. (Ozone acts as an absorbent layer in the upper atmosphere, filtering out cancer-causing ultraviolet rays.) Again, this past August, aerial photos confirmed that the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic continues to grow and is now three times the size of the United States. This has occurred despite valiant efforts to reduce the use of ozone-depleting CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) since the 1986 Montreal Protocol.
Both these events, at opposite ends of the Earth, add further weight to the claim that climate change, triggered by rising CO2 levels from the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, is a reality from which we can run, but not hide. Mountains of data from reputable scientific and environmental organizations document the erosion of the global environment and the unwinding of the basic life-support systems of the planet. No matter where we look - from our ravaged fisheries and vanishing forests to the dwindling variety of species, dying coral reefs and the emptying of freshwater aquifers - there are warning signs that the natural world, which gives life and sustenance to our human economy, is nearing a point of collapse from which there may be no return. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth lost 30 per cent of its natural wealth in just 25 years from 1970 to 1995 - a nanosecond in the history of the planet. There are no longer any blank spaces on the map. The process of economic globalization which started 500 years ago with the launch of European colonialism has turned the world into both a global market and a global factory - where no corner of the Earth is safe from the depredations of industrialization, the dead-zone of consumerism or the accumulation of human-made garbage and toxic waste.
'During the last few decades, humans have emerged anew as a force of nature,' says Jane Lubchenco, President of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. 'We are modifying physical, chemical and biological systems in new ways, at faster rates, and over larger spatial scales than ever recorded on Earth. Humans have unwittingly embarked upon a grand experiment with our planet. The outcome of this experiment is unknown, but has profound implications for all of life.'1
As evidence mounts and alarm bells ring there are insistent calls for a different kind of 'progress'. Instead of a system which mindlessly chews up and spits out ever more of the planet's irreplaceable natural wealth with no thought for tomorrow, serious debate is swirling around the concept of 'sustainable development'. The search is on for a new approach to economics and a new set of relationships - with each other and with the Earth itself - based on a rational sharing of the planet's riches. Can human beings devise a sustainable way of living with each other and with the Earth? And how can we ever expect to get there from here?
Back in 1987 the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (aka The Brundtland Report) first popularized the concept of 'sustainable development' as a way out of this cul-de-sac. Unplanned economic growth has pushed the planet to its limits, Brundtland said. If each of the Earth's six billion people were to live like the average European, North American or Australian we would need a planet roughly four times as large.
To deal with the thorny issue of over-consumption by the rich and bone-wrenching poverty - both of which are combining to trash the earth - Brundtland called for 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.
The notion was warmly received and the phrase 'sustainable development' quickly entered the mainstream. But in the market-mad 1980s, with deregulation, privatization and economic 'adjustment' in full swing, sustainability had little impact on the overall direction in which industrial society was heading.
The report was strong on the key issues of over-consumption and inequality. But the Commission confused things by advocating more growth as the way out of the problem. The report called for greater private investment in the Third World to spur economic growth and fight poverty, advocating a 'five- to ten-fold increase in world industrial output by 2040'.
Brundtland also endorsed an 'efficiency revolution'. New technology would make production vastly more efficient - producing more with less, using fewer resources and producing less waste, thus providing growth space for the Third World to become prosperous.
Little wonder the report was embraced by all and sundry. Corporations loved it because it validated their role as agents of progress. It called for more international trade and investment, more involvement by transnational firms and the removal of 'artificial' barriers to free trade.
Even major environmental groups were swayed because the report acknowledged the urgent need to deal with global poverty as a key step towards reducing ecological destruction. The problem was that Brundtland paid scant attention to the political and economic roots of poverty; nor did it tackle the equity issue in a substantive way. 'Sustainable development' was on everyone's lips, but no-one knew exactly what it meant. Or rather, different interest groups tended to interpret it in whatever way suited their purpose.
The era of corporate 'greenwashing' was born and sustainability was twisted and reshaped by shameless self-interest. In its most debased form it has become a code word for the rich keeping what is claimed to be rightfully theirs. For example, Negative Population Growth and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, two anti-immigration groups in the US, blame foreigners for creating 'unsustainable strains on our environment and our resources'. Both lobby for a highly restrictive immigration policy in the name of 'environmental sustainability'.2 The tragedy of this is that it plays into the hands of Third World élites who are doing very well from a 'take-the-money-and-run' approach to their own natural resources. Often the official position from the Majority World is that sustainability is a ploy for letting the rich keep their wealth while denying the fruits of development to the poor. Sustainability translates as 'losing out'. So why should they want any part of it?
But the truth is that sustainability is at root as radical an idea as you're likely to come across.
The new discipline of ecological economics introduces some key analytic tools for understanding the basics. Central is the idea of 'natural capital'. This embraces the complete stock of the Earth's natural assets - fish, forests, arable soil, fresh water, clean air. But it also includes the life-support systems which are maintained by the planet itself - the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the protective capacity of the ozone layer, and the waste-absorbing abilities of land, air and water.
Some of this capital is renewable as long as we don't over-harvest and disrupt the balance (the Atlantic cod fishery is a glaring example of renewable natural capital ruined by greed). And some of it is replenishable over a longer time, like groundwater supplies or stratospheric ozone. Other kinds of natural capital like petroleum or minerals are non-renewable and any use diminishes the stock for ever. The environmental economist William Rees uses a water-bucket analogy to illustrate that sustainability means living off our natural income, rather than our natural capital, using it no faster than it can be replenished.
'Imagine that nature is a bucket that is continuously replenished by the sun,' Rees writes. 'Photosynthesis produces plant matter, the basis of all biological capital and most other life; and climate, hydrological and other biophysical cycles are solar powered too. The water in the bucket is capital stock that can be drawn on only as rapidly as the bucket is being refilled. This balanced withdrawal rate is a form of sustainable income.'3
Unfortunately, says Rees, 'even today's levels of appropriation are unsustainable'. The human load has grown so that current consumption exceeds natural income. In the words of one of Rees's colleagues, Herman Daly, we are 'liquidating' our natural capital for short-term gain.
Conventional economic thinking conveniently ignores the environment. Natural resources are under-priced or not priced at all. How do you put a price on the ozone layer? Or on clean water?
At the other end, waste products from the economy are disposed of with little regard for the biophysical processes which neutralize and dissipate them. But the human economy is a subset of the ecosphere, maintained by the ecosphere, not the other way round. That is a key lesson of the natural-capital analysis.
In today's high-speed era of expanding world markets and unregulated global capital it is easy to lose sight of the notion of 'overshoot'. The disparities in consumption and wealth are lost in a dizzying glut of numbers about trade deficits and gross national product. But the reality is no different from what George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier in the 1930s. 'In order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation - an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.'
A study by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development using the 'ecological footprint' concept shows that Britain still consumes far more than it produces itself. For example, the IIED study found that the country's forest products 'footprint' was three times the area of its own productive forest. Britain's per-capita consumption of timber products is two-thirds higher than its fair ecological share.
That is the real nub of the sustainability debate. We 'overconsumers' don't see the invisible connections between our lives and the ecological systems and processes which undergird them. Living in cities, anaesthetized by television and technology, far away from the slums of Bombay, the sweatshops of China and the copper mines of Zambia, we are alienated, physically and psychologically, from the impact of our lifestyle on the rest of the planet. And what we can't see, we fear.
Globalization heightens this separation by allowing industrial nations to enrich themselves further by sucking in under-priced natural capital from resource-based economies of the Third World. As long as economic power is so unbalanced and terms of trade so skewed, the resources of the weak will always be appropriated to further the 'development' of the rich. It's built into the system. The neo-liberal economic agenda of the World Trade Organization, the IMF and major global corporations further accelerates the depletion of the Earth's natural resources and the destruction of its life-support systems. Which is why a global economy geared to freeing up investment capital and boosting world trade can never be part of the sustainability agenda. As the last two decades have shown, the further that Southern nations have integrated themselves into the global trading system the more intractable have become the problems of debt and dependency.
We can do more to improve the way we use the Earth's resources - so that we take less from the planet and dramatically reduce our waste. We can improve the design of industrial processes, we can tweak the market with 'green' taxes and the realistic pricing of ecological inputs where possible. But at the end of the day even 'factor ten' efficiency improvements - a tenfold reduction in resource and energy use per unit of economic output - will not be enough. The dynamic of capitalism is such that efficiency gains normally translate into more profits, which are in turn funnelled into further investment opportunities. As long as the efficiency gains keep circulating within the economy they merely end up stoking growth for the over-consumers.
Maybe the best place to start is with ourselves: to look into the mirror and ask ourselves, 'how much is enough?' Research confirms the age-old truism that money does not buy happiness. Describing the US over the past four decades, psychologist David Myers says: 'We've got twice as many cars per person, we eat out two-and-a-half times as often, we enjoy all the technology that fills ours lives. Yet we're slightly less likely to say we're very happy, we're more often diagnosed with depression... the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has tripled, the juvenile violence rate has quadrupled.' Myers says the greatest contributors to happiness are close, committed, mutually supportive relationships, a nurturing community and a sense of meaning and mission in life.
Sustainability means securing a satisfying 'quality of life' for all, one based on material equity and social justice. But it also means challenging fundamental notions of consumer society. One way we can do this is to look at the values central to our own lives. The 'ecological footprint' concept can be part of this: monitoring our own impact on the Earth and constantly trying to reduce it, whether by car-sharing, shopping more locally or investing in solar panels (see 'Little feats'). So too can the 'Simple Living' movement: a huge and growing body of people who are swimming against the current of mindless consumerism, searching for what gives life meaning and purpose.6 This may mean escaping the earn-and-spend rat race, agitating for accountable government or fighting corporate sweatshops. It's all part of forging a pathway to a sustainable future.
Whatever route we take, we need to act now. The wait-and-see option is not on: the longer we wait the more unlikely the possibility of a smooth transition to sustainability becomes. The challenge is clear. And the alternatives not very appealing. Ecological instability and socio-political chaos are not what I want for my children.
How about you?
1 Quoted by Donella Meadows in 'How many scientists does it take to screw in a message?', The Global Citizen, August 1999.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.