Sawing off the limbs we are standing on

World Resources 1994-1995 - People and the Environment: - The World at the Crossroads - The Gnat is Older than Man - Blueprint Three - Development and Environment: - The Ecology of Commerce
March 10, 1995


There is a well-known Monty Python sketch about a petshop proprietor who sees nothing wrong with selling a dead parrot. The people who are trying to sell us sustainable development are a bit like that parrot-seller. They do not mind whether or not the parrot is alive and kicking, so long as it looks like a parrot.

For the most part sustainable development - defined by the Brundtland Commission as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" - is just another example of academic theorising unconnected to the world inhabited by those at whom the concept is supposedly aimed. Most books discuss it in abstract terms - in the case of one chapter in Blueprint Three in abstract mathematical terms - with little or no thought given to the pandemic global forces shaping and destroying the planet.

The parrot is dead and the planet is not, but unless something other than talking about this sustainable development thing is not done soon, most of the species on earth (including humankind) will not be around for much longer. That is not to say, as Christopher Stone is at pains to point out in The Gnat is Older than Man, that "the elimination of the world's exotic species of animals or the annihilation of great forests" will mean the death of the planet. As Stone and anyone who has studied Gaian literature knows, we inhabit an extremely resilient ecosphere.

It is not, however, the salient point here. We already know that many plant and animal species are dying out faster than scientists can identify them. We know - or the World Health Organization and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) tell us - that one billion people (one in five of the planet's human population) are suffering from disease, poor health or malnutrition, and that 100 million people, ,000 a day, will die of treatable diseases. We know that our fresh water is being poisoned by pollution, that topsoil is being lost at a rapid rate while forests are, in the words of Stone, "being stripped, stressed and burned" to the extent that "ecosystems that have been in existence for at least 50 million years are being eliminated within a period of half a century or so". We know that our oceans with their unique and delicate life-forms are being destroyed by nuclear and toxic wastes, so much so that with bioaccumulation some species are loaded with toxins and much of the consequent diseases. Stone quotes a 1991 Consumer Reports survey of supermarkets which found that 43 per cent of salmon and 25 per cent of swordfish tested positive for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The CR survey also found that 90 per cent of the swordfish contained mercury, one of the most persistent heavy metals discharged into our rivers and seas. We also know that because the waste of the industrialised northern hemisphere is swept polewards by winds, currents and animal migration the indigenous human population, the Inuit, have higher levels of organochlorines in their blood than any population on earth that has not been exposed to industrial accidents, such as those at Chernobyl, Bhopal, Seveso, Times Beach or Love Canal.

We know all this, yet we have well-meaning academics and professional greens trotting out this information, as though conferences and reports of conferences (like that of the Association of Commonwealth Universities - all 400 of them - in its 15th congress report entitled People and the Environment: Preserving the Balance) is actually going to change anything. That the world is at a crossroads is surely now beyond discussion.

What is more important is what we now do about it and, in the context of this review, what solutions these books offer. Sadly they all lie within a narrow discourse - for this is ivory tower academia. What those who study social and political movements often fail to realise is that research by itself, whether by anthropologists or sociologists or anyone else, is not empowering. And while these books do a great service by highlighting the world's environmental and developmental problems, they add (unsatisfactorily in my view) to the growing theoretical demand for sustainable development and similar ideas.

Generally speaking, the academics who have contributed papers to these various books - notably Development and Environment, The World at the Crossroads and People and the Environment - are naive about the ways of the capitalist world: even Stone, an international lawyer, permits himself to devote an entire chapter to how economists can save the planet, though he does wonder why "economic thinking and environmental thinking are inherently opposed'' to each other. An example of this naivety occurs in the summary and recommendations of The World at the Crossroads in which Philip B. Smith and Samuel E. Okoye suggest that the redistribution of wealth is a necessity if the world's (or specifically the developing world's) health problems are to be solved. I wonder if this analysis is shared by the transnational corporations, particularly the United States ones, which are lobbying like blazes to have environmental legislation weakened, or by the US arms dealers who sold $32.6 billion worth of arms to the developing world in 1990 and 1991 with a little help from US embassies in those countries. To quote the statement by Frank Amalric and Tariq Banuri in The World at the Crossroads: "The roots of global unsustainability lie in the behaviour of the rich not of the poor. As a consequence we doubt that current global discussion will lead to sustainability, exactly because (the rich) ignore this fundamental point."

In some particular cases (and by way of apologising to those writers who may feel aggrieved by my general comments), I agree that the dialectical approach to global environmental and developmental problems is realist and that it suggests positive agendas that governments and their civil servants - who at least must be reading books such as these - should consider. Stone, in particular, stresses this in his preface: "We have all been so battered with dire conjectures, generally overstated and ordinarily unrelieved by any glimpse of solution, that (they tend) to numb the public into fatalism - a sense that the earth has a cancer that is untreatable."

So what are the solutions? Empowerment of communities for a start. Smith and Okoye recommend that "empowerment of local populations is important for effective environment protection and the realisation of well thought-out national plans and international agreements. Policies should be adopted to reverse the tendency towards centralisation of environmental control, particularly when this leads to interference by international organisations in the management, by local communities, of forests and wildlife."

Empowerment is also seen as the crucial factor by Dharam Ghai, director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and editor of Development and Environment, a book that, in Ghai's words, addresses "the central question of how ecological changes interact with livelihood strategies, property regimes, gender roles and power relationships under a wide variety of social and environmental conditions". Ghai believes that the essays in his book highlight "the importance of drawing upon and reinforcing local knowledge and innovative capacity". But the pragmatist in Ghai notes that the reforms needed to bring about change "in development and conservation policies cannot come without concomitant changes in the constellation of social and political forces at the global and national levels" - which, of course, brings us back to the real problem. These arguments are meaningless if they are abstracted from the context of the free-market model for development that many of the world's poorer countries are being forced to accept whether or not they believe it is good for them. Stone argues for institutional reform. Pollution taxes and green loans may not be enough for, as Smith and Okoye stress, it is human behaviour, our "sawing off the limbs that we are standing on", that is the problem. They ask, somewhat ominously: "Given the current rates of resource depletion and pollution, is it possible to change society sufficiently quickly to avoid catastrophe?" They continue: "It will also be necessary to change both individual and institutional behaviour", and "alter the balances between assertiveness and cooperation, and between male and female values". This can be done, they argue, "provided we can integrate a global perspective with respect for local diversity in knowledge and traditions, and achieve changes in the goals and values of both policy makers and populations."

In a chapter on spiritual and moral dimensions, Stone argues that humankind should consider several foundations on which an environmental ethic could be established. "The foundations range from one that accounts for future generations to one that rests on self-maximisation, but which construes the 'self' not as a conventional individual ego but as an extended self that incorporates a wide range of elements in one's environmental community. It can be maintained that some non-human things may be good intrinsically, that is, good not because of their use to us, but good in and of themselves."

Stone's argument for institutional reform is not dissimilar to that of Paul Hawken, the green entrepreneur whose The Ecology of Commerce: How Business Can Save The Planet is the most intriguing environmental book to be published in many years. Hawken asks: how do we imagine our future when our commercial systems conflict with everything nature teaches us? And he sets out eight objectives business should consider to save the planet. He urges that we should go further than "sustainability" by restoring degraded habitats and ecosystems to their fullest biological capacity. "The dirty secret in environmentalism is that sustainability is an insufficient objective," he writes. "Habitats can endure over millennia, but it's practically impossible to calculate the sustainability of specific fisheries, tracts of land and actual forests. We have also probably passed the point where present planetary resources can be relied on to support the population of the next 40 years. Any viable economic programme must turn back the resource clock and devote itself actively to restoring damaged and deteriorating systems -restoration is far more compelling than the algebra of sustainability."

This is not a new moral argument and those familiar with the works of social ecologist Murray Bookchin and of moral philosopher Mary Midgley will know of it, particularly the much-maligned argument that Man the patriarch continues to deny the spiritual and emotional reasons for humankind's existence as one among at least 100 million species on planet earth, preferring ruthlessly to exploit every species and everything around him.

Which brings us back to that dead parrot, sustainable development, and specifically to David Pearce's Blueprint Three, the latest volume in a series that began in 1989 with Blueprint for a Green Economy and continued in 1991 with Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy. This new work, bringing together many of the academics who work with the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE), is subtitled Measur- ing Sustainable Development. CSERGE's announced role, as an interdisciplinary centre with a focus on environmental economics and management, gives an idea of the kind of audience targeted by this Blueprint series. And while there is much in the series to admire, including in this latest volume, CSERGE epitomises the economic strategy responsible for the planet's ill-health.

The authors of Blueprint Three, it should immediately be said, are aware of these contradictions. In the opening chapter "Defining sustainable development", Pearce, professor of economics at University College, London, and director of CSERGE, and R. Kerry Turner, professor of environmental economics at the University of East Anglia and executive director of CSERGE, debate the pros and cons of sustainable development, most significantly the relationship between environmental regulation and economic performance. Some might say that sustainable development is the pragmatic approach, that one would be naive to expect transnational industry to agree to any other approach. When the Brundtland Commission sat in 1987, the concept had certain merits, particularly the idea that the world's poor would benefit from this model of development, that the standard of living would be raised throughout the globe. Yet won't the continuation of the present economic model, that is, free-market capitalism, only ensure that there is no future? Sustainable development may well be right for those who advocate contemporary economic and political structures and policies - but the approach strikes me as a bit like counting the lifeboats on the Titanic. How does it help to worry that there are not enough lifeboats for all those on board, when the whole ship is sinking?

If we need statistical confirmation of this fact then the World Resources series is a good place to start. The latest book, dealing with 19941995, is the fourth edition. The conscientious student could start with the first edition and make comparisons concerning resource depletion, pollution and population growth over the past few decades. It is a great book to dip into for these facts and, given the massive task the series editors have set themselves to amass this information from no doubt reluctant government agencies, it would be a little churlish to nitpick about the omissions. Of all the books this is the one I would recommend first.

Robert Allen is the author of several books on grassroots green issues and is currently completing Roll Away The Stone, about community self-empowerment in Ireland, and Ecology and Being: The Politics of Pollution.

World Resources 1994-1995

ISBN - 0 19 521044 1
Publisher - World Resources Institute
Price - £25.00
Pages - 400pp

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments