Disturbing global trends continue to evidence the fact that human activity threatens our ability “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This goal of sustainability, as defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, will become more inaccessible without a dramatic change in our current mindset and behavior.
In the last five decades, the population of the world has more than doubled to 6 billion people and the world’s economic output has increased nearly sixfold (1). This unprecedented growth is altering the face of the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. Pollution of air and water, accumulation of wastes, destruction of forests, erosion of soils, depletion of fisheries, and damage to the stratospheric ozone layer threaten the survival of humans and thousands of other living species. In Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment, Stephan Schmidheiny, chairman of the Business Council for Sustainable Development, points out that we are a society living off its natural capital, not its income. We are acting like a planet in liquidation. In essence, humans are conducting an uncontrolled experiment, unprecedented in scope and scale, that represents a significant reversal of the natural evolution which produced clean air and water and the increasingly complex and diverse ecosystems which made human evolution possible.
These trends prompted a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992. The Rio Conference produced a declaration of action, Agenda 21, as well as some treaties and conventions to move society on a sustainable path. Also recognizing that these trends placed humankind at a profound crossroads, scientists around the globe, including 102 Nobel laureates, signed the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in 1992, which read in part:
Human beings and the natural environment are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
WARNING – We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.
Despite these warnings and the rhetoric of commitment to address environmental problems, since the Rio Conference in 1992, all of Earth’s living systems have continued to decline. Moreover, the degradation of natural systems is likely to accelerate with the addition of 78 million people to the planet each year unless strategies to meet human needs are made more sustainable and just. Currently, 83 percent of the world’s resources are being consumed by 20 percent of the world’s population. The world’s poorest 20 percent earn 1.4 percent of the world’s income. According to the UN Development Programme, the income ratio of the richest 20 percent to the poorest 20 percent was 30:1 in 1960; it was 61:1 in 1994 (2). For 30 percent of the world’s population, poor sanitation, malnutrition and air pollution are still the major causes of illness and death. The rural poor continue to migrate and become transformed into an urban poor, thereby exacerbating environmental health and social problems. By the year 2005, for the first time in history, more people will live in urban than in rural areas (3).
By the time population growth stabilizes in the next century, a five- to sevenfold increase in consumption of energy and goods will be needed just to raise the consumption level in the developing world to that in the industrialized world. Agricultural production must increase two- to threefold in the next forty years for all humans to have adequate nutrition — yet we are already appropriating the most productive 40 percent of the land-based biomass for human purposes. Simply to maintain the current unhealthy levels of pollution and waste loadings will require an 80-90 percent reduction in pollution generated per unit of economic output (4).
Furthermore, the world will need an unprecedented 2 billion jobs in the next twenty to thirty years to employ the current 800 million underemployed and unemployed people and the new job seekers that will enter the market (5). This cannot be done with economic activity that substitutes capital for labor, consumes large amounts of materials and energy and creates large volumes of pollution and waste, particularly when we have geometric growth in population. Paul Hawken, author of Ecology of Commerce, points out that with a quintupling of population and an over 100-fold increase in economic output we have the reverse of the situation at the start of the industrial revolution which was an abundance of natural resources and the ability of the biosphere to assimilate wastes. “Our thinking is backwards: we shouldn’t use more of what we have less of (natural capital) to use less of what we have more of (people).”
Finally, there is increasing social and political instability worldwide despite the end of the cold war and the increased globalization of the economy (which many argue contributes to instability). This situation will be exacerbated, according to Worldwatch Institute, by the conservatively estimated, yet still unprecedented, 27 million migrants and environmental refugees moving to urban centers and from east to west and south to north (6).
Our response to the situation described above has been irresponsible and dangerously inadequate. The current ideology of growth has captured our imagination to the degree that we continue to believe that more of the same resource intensive and pollution creating economic growth remains the best way to serve common good. This belief is advanced despite evidence that such “growth” undermines the life support systems upon which all human activity depends. Attractive and promising alternatives to conventional economic growth do exist. In fact, there is no inherent conflict between protecting the environment and a strong human economy since the environment is the support system for all human activity. As Peter Dunne said in a New York Times editorial, “The environment is not a competing interest; it is the playing field on which all other interests intersect.”
The patterns and trends described above confirm the need for a new human perspective. Our vision of a just and sustainable society must be informed by the ecological perspective that humans are part of nature and that all social, economic and environmental systems are interdependent. This perspective immediately reveals that perpetual growth as the defining characteristic of a healthy society is no longer tenable. Rather, a sustainable society is one which measures its development in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, often seeking the virtue of enough rather than more. The steady-state economic theories of Herman Daly and the work of Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins and hundreds of others, for instance, reveal the possibility of enjoying prosperous lifestyles while cultivating justice, equity, diversity, integrity and health in both human and nonhuman communities.
The sustainability paradigm reveals rich and attainable alternatives to our current patterns of behavior. All present and future humans can be healthy, have their basic needs met, have fair and equitable access to the earth’s resources, have a decent quality of life and preserve the biologically diverse ecosystems on which we all depend. Realization of this goal demands, first, that we recognize there is a problem. Few credible voices can be heard at this point denying the urgency of our global situation. Secondly, we must be able to envision and articulate the future we want for ourselves. This provides a starting point from which to actively construct our future. Merely dwelling on the crisis at hand without engaging in the challenging work of remedying the crisis is to act irresponsibly.