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Last gasp

Updated Tuesday, 24th August 2004
Jonathon Porritt offers his opinion on the prospects for the environment.

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Rolling hills Putting economics before ecology has a devastating effect on the planet. But while solutions for sustainable development already exist, political will is sadly missing.

So how many Planet Earths do you think we will need by 2050 to keep humankind in the style to which we have become accustomed? Two? Three? Half a dozen? It's an absurd question, of course, and there's an absurd answer: two Planet Earths would apparently suffice, according to a Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report published recently. But it's nothing like as absurd as the fact that there's not a single world leader prepared to give more than the most spurious consideration to our imminent collision with ecological reality.

WWF's Living Planet report provides an annual snapshot of the state of the critical ecosystems we depend on, and humankind's total "ecological footprint" - a measure of our collective use of renewable natural resources such as crop land, grazing land, forests, fishing grounds and so on. The "footprint" is a neat if simplistic way of getting a handle on the degree to which we can claim to be using these renewable resources sustainably.

WWF's "ready reckoner" sets the total of productive land and sea at about 11.4 billion hectares; divide by 6 billion (the current world population) and you get the magic number 1.9 hectares per person. Having crunched a huge amount of data from around the world, the average rate of use for 1999 emerges at 2.3 hectares per person - already 20% above the Earth's basic biological capacity of 1.9 hectares per person. Fast forward to 2050 (with a projected population of around 9 billion), and that average use rises to around 4 hectares per person - an ecological deficit equivalent to one whole Planet Earth.


A boat stranded as the Aral sea dries up We'd never get that far of course - feedback from collapsing natural systems would be so severe that we would be forced into emergency "coping strategies" long before the crunch - but at what cost then, so late in the day, to our economies, and to our democracies?

This is just one of a battery of curtain-raising reports that were published in the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Nothing new there. Big international events of this kind are always preceded by apocalyptic warnings of bad times ahead.

Not so long ago, however, these warnings inspired heated rebuttals from governments, often accompanied by crude attempts to disparage the scientific credentials of those offering the warnings. These days, all we get is silence. Hands-off, stony-faced, heard-it-all-before silence.

The truth is they can't rebut these warnings. The data used in reports like that of the WWF come not from "flaky, politically-motivated NGOs", but from the UN, international agencies, government-funded research programmes, and academic experts. Year on year, the data gets stronger and stronger. For lack of an even halfway adequate response, politicians keep their mouths shut.

And therein lies the real problem. Whatever our politicians may say about the importance of "evidence-based policy-making", of putting science at the heart of efforts to build a more sustainable, equitable world, their silence is in effect a betrayal of science.


Waste piles up on a Bangaldeshi landfill site If policy truly reflected what we now know about the state of the planet (in terms of climate change, water resources, disappearing habitats, deforestation, overfishing, growing numbers of environmental refugees, and so on), the political declarations such as those coming out of the World Summit would be very different from the anaemic and duplicitous efforts to date. What we have is ideology-based policy, with science deployed in a partisan and self-interested way to justify political expedience.

When George Bush was thrashing around to justify ideological abhorrence for the Kyoto protocol, he not only impugned the integrity of world-class scientists involved in the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but he totally ignored the judgement of the US Academy of Sciences (to whom he had turned in the hope of getting something more to his liking), which emphatically endorsed the findings of the panel.

Closer to home, despite overwhelming evidence that mass-burn incinerators are hugely problematic for all sorts of environmental reasons, government ministers have steadfastly argued that they represent the "least worst solution" to the fact that we're rapidly running out of dumping grounds for our waste. It really cannot be claimed that the available scientific evidence has played much part in this crucial debate.

Such examples are legion, globally and nationally. The underlying problem is not the science itself, but the fact that the science is telling politicians something they are desperate not to hear: that it's all up with our current model of gung-ho globalisation. The price we're all having to pay for today's economic progress (which, incidentally, advances the interests of a small minority of humankind) is the systematic liquidation of the natural capital on which we all depend.


When the economy and ecology collide: Clearing up after an oil spill in Milford Haven But all the principal global institutions are "genetically predisposed" (as it were) to give precedence to the economic over the ecological. The IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, most UN agencies and all regional and international banks take their marching orders from white men in dark suits whose mission (for the most part, it should be said, a wholly honourable if misguided mission) is to expand the global economy on behalf of OECD governments and address poverty elsewhere through more of the same kind of Earth-bashing growth that has got us into such a mess.

Agencies such as the UN Environment Programme are impotent in the face of such hegemonic control; global treaties designed to slow the pace of ecological destruction invariably come off worst in any clash with the titans of international trade and economic liberalisation.

Experience of how such an analysis is sometimes received makes it necessary for me to put in a rider: this is not an anti-growth case, not anti-trade per se, and certainly not anti-development in the interests of the world's poorest people. It's the economic and social costs of that growth that preoccupy us, the one-sidedness of that trade, the inadequacy of that kind of development assistance. And the demeaning subservience to an economic model that may once have served some of us well, but which isn't delivering the goods today.

The irony is that the solutions are already to hand - and entail only a relatively small political risk.


A boat stranded as the Aral sea dries up

Start by doing right by conventional market economics: get rid of all perverse subsidies that pay people to destroy the environment. Franz Fischler's new proposals for common agricultural policy (CAP) reform are a serious step in the right direction. But George Bush's US farm bill (pumping $180 billion of new subsidies into US agriculture over the next 10 years) is an even more serious step in the wrong direction - and yet another example of the kind of redneck unilateralism that is persuading more and more people of the status of the US as the number one rogue state.

Next, start internalising some of the costs that allow business to dump on to the environment, so that the price we pay for things more accurately reflects their true costs. Massively improve the efficiency with which we use energy and resources, so that every unit of production comes at a fraction of its current ecological impact.

Then get real about sustainable development on a global basis. Address the needs of poorer countries as they see them, not as we see them. Underpin their economies by securing and enhancing natural capital (in terms of water supply, sanitation, local food production, biodiversity, sustainable forestry, clean energy, and so on) rather than accelerating its destruction.

Further, slow the rate of population growth by prioritising investments in better primary healthcare and education for women, as well as far easier access to contraception.

Finally, rein in "crony capitalism", constrain the power of multi-nationals, channel foreign direct investment into socially-inclusive and ecologically sustainable wealth creation.

Pipe dreams? It's hard to see why. There are already more than enough inspiring success stories around the world to demonstrate what now needs to be done on a global basis. Bringing about such a transformation is not impossible. But it does demand a quality of political leadership that Earth scientists and green activists currently can only dream about.

First published in The Guardian newspaper Wednesday July 17, 2002 © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002


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