Another item that the Paper.Li tools would not handle
JEP 2012 06 27
Have we a new growth industry in sustainability?
Wednesday 27th June 2012, 2:56PM BST.
BLINK and it probably passed you by. But, for something billed as being so important for the long-term survival of the planet and all who roam over it, two formal days in Rio de Janeiro last week reviewing the progress of the 1992 Earth Summit could very well have seem a touch derisory.
To give it its full name, this was the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio +20, attended by delegates from 190 nations. Twenty years on, you could be forgiven a sigh of resignation that worthy predictability could be the only outcome.
The omens were, to put it mildly, unexciting. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had already labelled negotiations on global attempts at setting a balance between conservation and development, industry and nature as ‘painfully slow’, though he described the conference as ‘too important to fail’.
Coincidentally, and not a little ironically, just up the South American continental main road, world leaders were closeted in a Mexican holiday resort for a summit of the G20 richest nations with lashings of economic sticking plaster on a mission to patch up the crisis in the Eurozone and restore economic growth to the fragile world economy. In the lastminute.dot.panic world of keeping currencies afloat and massaging quick-spun reputations, the long-term focus on sustainability may have become just another can to kick further down the road to landfill.
Twenty years ago, the great and the good queued up to claim the green laurels at the Rio podium. This time, Barak, Dave and Angela were conspicuous by their absence. However, a quick glance at the statistics shows that concerns about the health and sustainability of the planet have, if anything, become more alarming.
In 1992, the world’s population stood at 5.5 billion; now it tops 7 billion. Then, summer sea-ice covered 7.5 million square miles; last year it had reduced to 4.5 million. The atmosphere contained 356 parts per million of carbon dioxide; now it’s risen to 396, and emissions are up 40%.
And while individuals may very well interpret the evidence to suit their own conclusions, it’s not unreasonable to question that if in 1992 the world was prepared to devote two solid weeks to negotiating binding commitments, its successor should now have come up so disappointingly short on tangible measures to address, food, water, energy, city growth or marine pollution, despite its grandiose banner of determining ‘the future we want’.
It’s not that sustainability has simply fallen off the agenda; we could just have witnessed a reality check. Two decades ago, the final communiqué contained 6,000 pages, which is a fair indication that every nation wanted to safeguard its own exploitation.
MAYBE we’re concentrating on the wrong approach. Regulation – that little engine beloved of ‘authorities’ in institutions large and small – has much to answer for. It pushes up the cost of compliance and acts as a mighty disincentive. Even basic low-tech innovation falls out of fashion and beyond budget.
Also, in the background lies another little indicator with a disproportionate influence on how we value progress and development. It’s called GDP: the measure of all we spend and produce – goods, services, batteries and farm produce. It’s the Holy Grail. When GDP goes up a percentage point, happiness breaks out; a percentage point down and economists panic.
Growth is an addiction, but what does it represent? Is there such a thing as having enough? Bigger isn’t always better. Maybe we should develop a better respect for limits. Any farmer will tell you that if you grab too much, it rots in your field the next morning.
Who says there’s no room for a more sophisticated balance sheet which awards more points to the health of a nation’s infrastructure – welfare, satisfaction and sustainability – than pure material growth? Furthermore, we could deduct the cost of pollution, crime or social disruption from the equation.
Rapid economic development has traditionally been regarded as the blueprint for economic advancement. There is definitely nothing wrong in wanting a more comfortable existence than the previous generation, with new trinkets and labour-saving devices. But after years of slash and burn, there are now huge concerns in some of the emerging BRIC countries that for too long they have been tearing out centuries of subsistence farming, lowering precious water tables all to build factories to supply rich overseas consumers.
Their new rich are becoming richer, but their poor are dispossessed and driven into greater poverty. Where will they be when the fragile agricultural base is totally destroyed and the promised quality of life cannot be delivered?
If there is one thing we have learned recently, it is that assumptions and certainties are no longer unshakeable. While the West may not be consuming significantly more stuff than ten years ago as a result of global recession, the ecological footfall of developing countries is rapidly advancing, with irreparable damage. We can claim to have become far cleverer in harnessing new technologies to produce and sustain more, but consumption remains the major threat to sustainability and food security.
Well, we have been here before, and curiously there is a pattern. Apocalyptic prophesies of planet destruction were made 20 plus 20 years further back, in 1972, by an influential group of scientists and environmentalists called the Club of Rome.
Then, as now, they cautioned against the rapacious squander of scarce irreplaceable food and energy sources and runaway population growth. But we are still here and some of the commodities we feared we would miss the most, we no longer use. It convinces some critics that we should simply concentrate on the art of the possible. Sounds to me like the beginning of a new growth industry.