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Reith 2000: Our common environmental future

Updated Tuesday 29th August 2006

For many, the theme of this year's BBC Reith Lectures 'Respect for the Earth', begins and ends with environmental issues. Yet even a sustainable environment cannot exist in an economic and social vacuum, as the issues under examination show

An Australian bush fire Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

What difference has sustainable development made?

The idea of sustainable development has certainly stirred debate, but it has yet to produce a viable working model of what it seeks to replace, and this is viewed by many as its greatest weakness. If the current systems are working (albeit not without problems) then why attempt to 'mend' something that isn't 'broken'? Others see the lack of a new model as a testament to the strength of vested interests that would be displaced or challenged by such new theories and practice. The continued debate does, however, force clarification at a time when our deepest and most fundamental understanding is called upon. It is part of the continual human desire to synthesise wisdom from our ever-expanding web of knowledge.

Most of those involved in the debate accept that there are three main interrelated areas of concern under the sustainable development banner: the areas are, Social, Environmental and Economic. The Reith Lectures this year are five perspectives around a central theme. Each perspective takes into account two or more of the three main identifiable subjects of sustainable development, and if none provide clear answers, they at least point the direction to further questions.

Can business put the Environment on the balance sheet?

One of the conclusions reached about environmental costs is that industry and business have traditionally not accounted for the costs of their own environmental impacts. The growth of interest in 'green accounting' is matched by the efforts of economists to determine monetary values for aspects of the environment previously excluded from economic models. But is it possible to carry out a cost benefit analysis of intangibles such as the air we breathe, and even if it is technically feasible, is it something that helps inform our future choices?

Is biodiversity important?

The maintenance of biodiversity is considered a 'soft issue' by many concerned in business, economic development and policy making; an issue that does not respond well to integration in their immediate models and systems. At the same time, it is accepted that biodiversity is something that should concern everyone, despite the constraints imposed by international politics. The result is a lack of in-depth understanding of how diversification of flora and fauna can be encouraged and supported by policy development.

What is eco-efficiency?

The idea that any improved efficiency benefiting business processes will also automatically benefit the environment has gained much support in the last five years. International and European mechanisms such as standards and regulations on environmental management systems and environmental auditing have certainly helped drive the concept home to many businesses. Yet eco-efficiency is only the first step down a road that leads to environmental sustainability. Businesses are in a pivotal position to harness creative energy to a disciplined approach, without harming their economic growth.

How do we build environmental concerns into business decisions?

Even the best environmental management system inside an organisation is no replacement for the incorporation of environmental concerns at the strategic decision-making level. Eco-efficiency alone, say critics, simply allows 'business as usual', even if it is in an environmentally more acceptable way. However, our abilities in this area have not yet had the sufficient widespread practice to become fully integrated into management disciplines.

How does climate change work?

Asking friends and work colleagues how climate change, global warming and the greenhouse effect are related to one another may reveal a wide variety of answers. Many may not even understand the question, stating that the terms are all but interchangeable. On another level, the continuing debate about genetically modified organisms and their potential effects on our eco-systems is criticised by scientists as being 'emotional' and 'uninformed'. Yet our level of knowledge about these issues will determine the way we vote, act and consume.

Can we really get more, from less for longer?

Companies are realising the benefits of doing much more than simply designing products to fill a market niche. When it comes to environmental impacts, many can be 'designed out' on the drawing board, whether it's green design, design for environment, eco-design or any other part of the green creative spectrum. Innovation in service delivery is proving similarly exciting, leading directly to process improvements, decreased environmental burdens and improved profits.

Are eco-systems too complex for us to manage?

Though there is much competition in claiming who is the 'greenest' political party, manufacturer or food producer, there is still relatively little thought given to how we maintain the wide range of eco-systems we have remaining. Current debate rages as to whether the 'hotspot' approach (concentrating scarce resources on identified 'at risk' eco-systems) is anything more than a sticking plaster over an unacceptable erosion of our environmental foundations, or whether it is merely the most sensible managerial option. Over and above these concerns are those who state that human management of eco-systems is a contradiction in terms.

What are the ecological constraints on growth?

The study of ecology, though intimately bound up with the environment, is not limited by it. Instead, it concentrates on the relationships that living organisms have with each other and their surroundings. The better our grasp of the scientific principles that make up such study, the better we will be able to apply our knowledge and skills to conservation and agricultural support.

What role will technology play in preserving the environment?

Our collective awareness of technological development has shifted more to a focus on the pace of change as well as a growing uncertainty about our ability to accommodate such acceleration.

 

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