Eco that we're all failing to hear

State of the World 2003
October 31, 2003

The annual appearance of this global audit of environmental and social problems is a huge achievement and provides a rich resource for students, lecturers, campaigners, politicians and citizens to track the twists and turns of environmental risks, disasters, pollution, energy, transport and much more. The 20th edition ranges over some familiar territory, for example, the environmental destruction caused by mining.

Mining has a devastating effect on the environment and on communities living near the mining operations and their toxic-waste dumps.

These impacts are catalogued and provide a damning critique of the developed world's addiction to newly mined materials and its disinterest in mining the material that lies in landfill sites and dumps in every developed country. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of trying to chart a course out of this mess via environmental taxation, global agreements on land contamination and toxic pollution and control of multinational mining firms.

The standard of writing and information in this catalogue is very high. The discussion on energy is revealing and insightful and provides a splendid case for renewables. Sadly, it also misses the point on transport in asking: "How do you get wind or sunshine into a gas tank?" The answer is: we do not want to depend on the gas tank in the first place. What is wrong with walking and cycling for short journeys or using public transport for longer ones? What is wrong with reducing the need for travel by building things nearer to each other and nurturing local facilities?

This edition ranges over wider issues still, including malaria, disappearing birds, population, biodiversity and "Engaging religion in the quest for a sustainable world". It is all fascinating but falls short of a sharp policy-relevant focus. There is a reluctance to confront the harsh realities of consumption, overconsumption and how to reduce consumption.

Even in the chapter on disappearing birds there is implicit endorsement of "ecotourism", with all its devastating dependence on air travel and the severe impact this has on greenhouse gases and climate change. It is almost as if we must not talk about consumption.

The State of the World books have the potential to inform a policy debate.

Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that policy-makers are receptive to information. Maybe it is time for a radical approach based on cataloguing the state of really good ideas that have implemented sustainability. We need to think more in terms of "the state of consumption", "the state of intelligent decision-making" and the "state of politicians", so that we can better judge our ability to implement sustainability.

John Whitelegg is leader, Implementing Sustainability Group, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York.

State of the World 2003: Progress Towards a Sustainable Society

Author - Worldwatch Institute
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 240
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 85383 968 X

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