Beyond Sustainable Economy: Sustainability and International Conferences

Published: 31.08.2017

Evolution of the concept of environmental management

In the late 60s and increasingly in the 70s and 80s, scientists, political thinkers, and social activists realized that the existing life style of humans could not be sustained for long by the resources of the planet earth. First, there was the rapidly growing population. According to the 2008 United Nations population estimates and projections, the world population was expected to reach or exceed 9 billion by 2050. With the existing levels of consumption there are not enough resources to support such a population. In fact, if the underdeveloped and developing countries of the world were to adopt consumption levels equal to those of the developed world, 5 or 6 earth planets would be required to support even the present population level of 7 billion. Then there is the ongoing increase in energy use, depletion of non-renewable resources, dispersal of chemicals and the resulting degradation of the environment and global warming. Together these factors could lead to catastrophic results.

The growing environmental concerns were first expressed at an international level in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference). It is believed that the Stockholm Conference marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics. In 1983 the General Assembly of the United Nations established its World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), popularly known as the Brundtland Commission, after the name of its Chair woman Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway. The mandate of the commission was to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development to the year 2000 and beyond. In its 1987 report the Commission emphasized the need for adopting a strategy of sustainable development to ensure the well-being of the society. The commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The Commission's report was endorsed by the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 and the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

The 1992 Earth Summit outlined "a timetable of targets as a means to secure a way of living for the current global population as well as for future generations, while preserving our ecosystems and resources". The Summit led to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), an international environmental treaty. The objective of the treaty was to stabilize the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, popularly referred to as global warming. The agreements reached under the treaty were however not mandatory and the treaty was supposed to be followed by protocols that had legally binding provisions. The Kyoto Protocol, initially signed in 1997, and brought into effect in 2005, set mandatory targets for the reduction of green house gas emissions for the signatories of the protocol. By 2015, 192 states had signed and ratified the protocol; the Unites States is not among them.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, 37 developed countries committed themselves to a reduction in the collective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5.2% from the 1990 level. The underdeveloped and developing countries were not required to meet any specific targets.  The Kyoto Protocol allows for several flexible mechanisms for meeting the emission targets, one of which is emissions trading, also known as carbon trading. The developed countries may meet their emission by purchasing GHG emission reductions credits from other developed countries with excess allowance or through projects that reduce emissions in underdeveloped and developing countries.

The principle that underlies the strategy of sustainable development is that with proper environmental management or environmental stewardship economic development could be continued without damaging the ecosystem. Environmental management involves reliance on innovative technologies and a limited amount of change in human behavior. Indeed, innovative technologies have been developed to mitigate the adverse effects of economic growth and increasing consumerism. For example, fossil fuels, used widely to meet our energy demands, are known to degrade the environment by releasing carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. Alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, have been developed to reduce the use of fossil fuels. More efficient automobile engines and hybrid engines have been produced to reduce the emission of CO2. The use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or Freon as refrigerants, propellants (in aerosol applications), and solvents has been phased out because they contribute to ozone depletion. Recycling of paper, glass and tin has been actively pursued. However, are these efforts sufficient to offset the damaging effects of ever increasing energy use, excessive demand for material goods, and life styles of luxury and overconsumption? These are questions that are seriously being considered by political thinkers.

Case for moderation and self-restraint

As stated earlier, the factors that contribute to the degradation of our ecosystem and the depletion of earth's resources are: rapid population growth, escalating energy use and a life style that is dedicated to excess material consumption and luxuries. There is not much that can be done to control population growth. Also, as reasoned in the following paragraphs, the western liberal democracies are ill-prepared to deal with the factors related to energy use and extravagant life style.

The tremendous gains made by science and the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries had a profound effect on the socioeconomic conditions of the society. The science based technology led to a spurt in the population growth and a manifold increase in the family income. Science made it possible for men to acquire the tools of material comfort, to which they soon became addicted. In the developed western world the industrial production is presently growing at a rate of about 4% each year. If this rate of growth were to continue the earth's resources would soon be depleted and our future generations would be faced with serious challenges. In fact, unless the industrial growth is checked or reversed, in a short time the earth may no longer be fit for man to survive. The political leaders in the liberal democracies, who depend on their position on the votes of the citizens, would not have the courage to ask the citizens to change their life styles or to give up the comforts they have got used to. Developed countries strive to achieve a healthy rate of growth in their gross domestic product (GDP), and a GDP growth rate of 3% is considered as the minimum required for economic prosperity. That such growth rate cannot be sustained without sacrificing the well-being of future generations is something that neither the common citizens nor the political leaders elected by them are prepared to consider. Although the following words of Economist Robert Heilbroner are rather stark, they do contain a grain of truth:

"When men can generally acquiesce, even relish, the destruction of their living contemporaries, when they can regard with indifference or irritation the fate of those who live in slums, rot in prison, or starve in lands that have meaning only in so far as they are vacation resorts, why should they be expected to take the painful action needed to prevent the destruction of future generations whose faces they will never live to see? Worse yet, will they not, if it comes to a choice, condemn them to nonexistence by choosing the present over the future?"

Industrial and economic growth and the increasing demand for consumer goods and services require energy use. As a result, the world energy demand is continuously growing. The average rate of growth is about 4% per year, and most of it is met from non-renewable sources, including fossil fuels. Even when energy is derived from renewable sources, such as hydro electricity, solar energy, wind power, and biomass, extensive infrastructure is required to generate and distribute the electricity. All of this would lead to resource depletion. But resource depletion is not the most serious of our problems. Almost every form of energy use puts additional heat into our ecosphere. If the rate of increase in world energy use continues at the present rate, it will take only three or four generations before our atmosphere is irreparably damaged. This does not even take into account the fact that energy use is expected to rise at a much faster rate in the underdeveloped and developing countries, so that the global rate may be pushed much beyond the present average.  

There is a tendency for some to be skeptical of the forecasts of global warming, climate change, resource depletion, and the general damage to the ecosystem caused by human activity. They believe that the earth's resources are inexhaustible and that innovative technologies will solve all our problems. However, technology does not have the answer to all of the adverse effects of human behavior on the ecology and often the by-products of technological fixes are far from being benign. For example, the nuclear energy, which is supposed to be an endless source of energy, produces dangerous radioactive waste that is hard to dispose off. There are other technological solutions whose impact on the environment and human health is uncertain. Finally, although the technical fixes may prolong industrial and economic growth they cannot provide indefinite sustainability.

Perhaps the most perverting force working against a sustainable future is the society's insatiable hunger for material comfort. As Marius de Geus[1] points out, yesterday's wants have become today's needs and today's wants are destined to become tomorrow's needs. In the affluent societies people want to live in large homes, to have more than one car per family and a cell phone in each hand, and to travel to exotic places for their vacation, and such need are growing exponentially. The greed for material wealth is relentlessly promoted by aggressive advertisement. People who can afford it tend to indulge in a life style of extravagant luxury. As aptly summed up by Jonathon Porritt, "We all need to get from A to B; some people insist they can manage such feat only in the back of a Rolls Royce." Unfortunately, this desire for luxuries is not limited just to the developed world but extends also to many underdeveloped and developing countries where abject poverty often exists side by side with affluence.

Political thinkers in the west are seized by the challenges that must be overcome to ensure the well-being not only of the present population but also of the future generations. These political thinkers are often referred to as ecologists, as opposed to environmentalists, or as deep green thinkers (Andrew Dobson). They reason that the answers to our problems must be based on human values and morality and that the only tangible solution is one that involves a reduction in consumption. The society has focussed too long on the supply side of the equation, ignoring the fact that it is the demand side where the true answer lies. At the least we should redefine what comfort and well being mean. We should recognize that extravagance and luxury do not bring happiness. A life style of moderation and self-restraint can be quite fulfilling. These are virtues that while not measuring up to the Jain concept of aparigraha may be the panacea for our troubled world.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aparigraha
  2. Consumerism
  3. Ecology
  4. Environment
  5. Greed
  6. Science
  7. Sustainability
  8. Sustainable Development
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