Saturday, April 7, 2012

Global warming and sustainable development


The logo for this series on global warming

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."  The Brundland Report, United Nations, 1987.

Global warming is a well-known, albeit much disputed, topic today. I will not defend global warming in this post, but will simply assume that it is real. See my earlier post on this issue that received almost 30,000 views so far. Those who deny global warning should take their objections elsewhere. For me the reality of global warning is indisputable. The only issue that is left is this: what are we going to do about it?

We can either do nothing, in which case catastrophe may overtake us very soon, or we must take immediate measures to limit global warming. Anything less than the latter will result in catastrophe, though maybe a little more slowly. Immediate measures are needed if impending catastrophe is to be averted. Yet even now there is no guarantee that it is not already too late. Look at all the weather anomalies all over the world this year. 

One measure that has been proposed to limit global warming is sustainable development. While there is no universal agreement on this term, the idea of sustainability has been widely used since the 1980's to describe the general direction in which we should move if we want to avert catastrophe.

The Brundland definition is perhaps the most widely quoted definition of sustainable development. Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote an article in which he gives another interpretation: Sustainable development means achieving economic growth that is widely shared and that protects the earth's vital resources. Our current global economy, however, is not sustainable, with more than one billion people left behind by economic progress and the earth's environment suffering terrible damage from human activity. Sustainable development requires mobilising new technologies that are guided by shared social values (http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sustainable-humanity/default). Unfortunately, Sachs sees the solution in technology. I beg to differ with him. The solution will require much more: a fundamental change of heart that I will describe later

Sustainability is actually an old concept. It is a modification, extension and transfer of the term ‘sustained yield,’ which has been the goal of foresters all over the world for about two centuries. The concept goes back even further to the Greek oikos or household which was assumed to be self-sustaining. Oikos is also the word from which we derive terms such as economics, ecumenism, and ecology.

The term "sustainable" was first used in the modern sense by the Club of Rome in March 1972 in its epoch-making report, "Limits to Growth." The authors explained what they meant by it: "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people."

The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection." These are the "three pillars" of sustainable development. Indigenous groups, however, have long argued that there should also be a fourth pillar, namely the cultural, since they insist that cultural diversity is as necessary for humanity as biodiversity is for nature. However, for the sake of not making this topic any more difficult than it already is, I will assume that there are only three pillars.

One senses quickly note how great the dispute surrounding this term is; everyone who has a stake feels that their concerns must not be overlooked. In succeeding posts I will discuss each of the three pillars separately, but will try to avoid these controversies as much as possible in order to highlight the significance of each.

Unsustainable development occurs when natural capital (which is the sum total of nature's resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. The concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. In theory the long-term result of environmental degradation is the earth's inability to sustain human life and indeed any form of life. Such degradation on a global scale could imply extinction for humanity as well as other forms of life. That may seem melodramatic, but it is high time that we wake up to this impending threat to our existence.

The following table illustrates the various options available, but only the last option is sustainable:

    Consumption of renewable resources     State of environment            Sustainability
    More than nature's ability to replenish          Environmental degradation       Not sustainable
    Equal to nature's ability to replenish             Environmental equilibrium        Steady state economy
    Less than nature's ability to replenish           Environmental renewal             Environmentally sustainable
The Venn diagram of sustainable development shown above has many versions. They have been criticized extensively, but they are still a useful tool for illustrating how the three pillars can overlap. This diagram indicates the relationship between the three pillars of sustainability by suggesting that both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits.

What sustainability is, what its goals should be, and how these goals are to be achieved are all issues that are open to interpretation. For many environmentalists, the idea of sustainable development is an oxymoron as any development seems to entail environmental degradation. From this perspective, the economy is seen as a subsystem of human society, which is itself a subsystem of the biosphere; and a gain in one sector involves a loss from another. This can be illustrated using three concentric circles:
Not surprisingly, the record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor. Yet sustainable development is an urgent issue, and has been for many years, though political will in favor of it has been slow-paced at best. Sustainable development is urgently needed for the 1.3 billion who live without access to clean water, or the half of humanity that lacks access to adequate sanitation and lives on less than 2 dollars a day, or the approximately 2 billion without access to electricity, to give only a few examples.

All this is happening in an age of immense wealth that finds itself increasingly in fewer hands. The inequality of consumption and, therefore, the use of resources is terribly skewed. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report,“20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%.” 

How is sustainable development possible when the richest people in the world (read Westerners) will have to sacrifice the most? Will the rich be willing to change their lifestyle to such an extent that the very poor will be able to benefit? But that is the wrong question. At the moment, it is the poor who are suffering the most. Just think of the drought in the Sahel where 15 million people are at risk and one million children are suffering from malnutrition. Natural disasters affect the poor disproportionately as compared to the rich. Moreover the rich have the resources to deal with any natural disasters, while the poor have nothing.

The rich, moreover, leave a much greater ecological footprint, to introduce yet another category, than the poor. These can be compared at the national level where an enormous disparity is immediately apparent between counties that score high on the Human Development Index. The USA, for example, scores very high on this index, and at the same time it has the highest ecological footprint. See the chart below:
Ecological footprint for different nations compared to their Human Development Index (click on to enlarge)

The ecological footprint is a measure of the demand humans make the Earth's ecosystems. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area, measured in hectares per capita, necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate their associated waste. In 2006, the average biologically productive area per person worldwide was approximately 1.8 global hectares (gha) per capita. The US footprint per capita was 9.0 gha, and that of Switzerland was 5.6 gha per person, while China's was 1.8 gha per person.

Using this assessment, it is possible to estimate how much of the Earth (or how many planet Earths) it would take to support humanity if everybody followed a given lifestyle. For 2007, the total ecological footprint of humanity was estimated at 1.5 planet Earths -- in other words, humanity uses ecological resources 1.5 times as fast as the Earth can renew them. This obviously is not a sustainable situation.

In order to arrive at a truly sustainable situation wealthy countries would have to cut their ecological footprint so much that it would become politically impossible unless there is a massive change of heart. In fact, these nations would have to cut their footprint much more than poorer nations that have very little more that they can cut; the ecological footprint of the poorer nations is already minimal in comparison with wealthy nations.

What would you be willing to sacrifice, or what changes are you prepared to make, in order to reduce your personal ecological footprint? In the next few posts I want to deal with some changes that need to be made in each of the three pillars: the economy, society, and the environment. Each of these pillars directly affect the beautiful world that we share not only with other human beings but with all living creatures.


Let me anticipate the problems that would have to be addressed by making a personal remark. In Toronto I live only two minutes walk from a subway station, thus I do not need a car. I can buy whatever I need by walking to various stores in my neighborhood. In fact, I can even walk downtown, thus I could eliminate the subway from my personal footprint. Yet even that represents only a small fraction of my total footprint. But I am willing to do much more, if necessary. I will try to express some of them in succeeding posts.

However, I would expect other Canadians as well as citizens of other wealthy nations to do their bit as well. In fact, they must. If only a handful of people in each country is prepared to make the necessary changes, then it will not make any significant difference to the national ecological footprint. Moreover, those who do not want to make any changes may prove to be a disincentive, especially to those who are sacrificing much already. Sadly, however, there will always be those who refuse to row in the same direction as other people; they will continue to drive their SUVs regardless of how high the price of gas is or what the consequences are to the environment. Every society has selfish individuals, of course, but in the Western world, particularly in the US, individualism is regarded as a virtue. Individualism is, as I will argue later, part of the problem.

Again I ask, are you willing to make such sacrifices, or make the necessary changes in your lifestyle so that the Earth may be able to continue to sustain life, not only human life, but every form of life there is on our wonderful planet. These are some of the questions that I wish to examine in succeeding posts. I even intend to deal with global warming and theology in a future post.

The creation does not belong to us; we are merely stewards who must take care of it. Lately, however, we have not been doi ng a very good job. What can we do to rectify the situation so that this world will be able to sustain every form of life? This is what I want to discuss with you in this series. I invite your comments on the issues that I will be raising. Global warming is the most important topic of our time, believe it or not. Other issues become academic if our world is no longer able to sustain life properly. The choice is ours: either we change or we will face catastrophe. There is no other option.



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