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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1998, 417 p.)
close this folder1. Eco-restructuring: The transition to an ecologically sustainable economy
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction: On sustainability
View the documentThe need for holistic systems analysis
View the documentEnvironmental threats and (un)sustainability indicators
View the documentSharpening the debate
View the documentNon-controversial issues: Population, resources, and technology
Open this folder and view contentsControversial issues: Pollution, productivity, and biospheric stability
View the documentFinding the least-cost (least-pain) path
View the documentConcluding comments
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Introduction: On sustainability

Before the beginning of the industrial revolution, some two centuries ago, human activities - on the average - were not really incompatible with a healthy and sustainable biosphere. The vast majority of humans lived and worked on farms. Land was the primary source of wealth. Horses and other animals, supplemented by windmills, sails, and waterwheels, provided virtually all power for ploughing, milling, mining, and transport. The sun, either directly or through products of photosynthesis, provided virtually all energy except in a few coal mining regions. Metals were mined and smelted (primarily by means of charcoal), but their uses were almost exclusively metallic rather than chemical. Recycling was normal. Precisely because wealth was derived exclusively from the land, Thomas Malthus worried at the end of the eighteenth century about the propensity of human population to grow exponentially, in view of the limited amount of potentially arable land available for human cultivation.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, humans are far more numerous and also wealthier (on average) than they were two centuries ago when Malthus wrote. In particular, those countries that industrialized first are now comparatively rich. In the rich countries most people live in cities. Land is no longer the primary source of wealth. Energy (except food) is largely derived from the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). Power for machines is obtained mainly from engines driven by heat from (internal or external) combustion of fossil fuels. (Nuclear and hydroelectric power, together, account for a relatively small percentage of the total.) However, one key attribute of this recent rise to wealth is critical for the future of humankind: what we have achieved so far has been done by exploiting an endowment of natural capital, especially topsoil and minerals. For some material resources technology can offer viable substitutes. For other resources in the natural endowment - notably the biosphere and its functions - no substitute is likely.

The report of the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) - known as the Brundtland Commission - was published in 1987 under the title Our Common Future. This triggered the Global Environmental Summit at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and its major product, Agenda 21. Since that time it has been widely recognized that there is a very real conflict between meeting the needs and desires of the 5 billion people now alive and the possibility of satisfying the 10 billion or so people expected by the middle of the twenty-first century. It will be exceedingly difficult simultaneously to satisfy the objectives of environmental preservation, on the one hand, and accelerated economic development of the third world, based on current population trends and energy/material-intensive technologies, on the other. The implications of this conflict have been delineated eloquently in the Commission's report (Brundtland 1987; McNeill 1989). They need not be spelled out in detail again here.

Experts can and do disagree on the probabilities and timing of environmental threats relative to other problems facing the human race. Some ideologues have even argued that the threats are figments of the fevered imaginations of the "Greens." I think not. Arguments on these matters will probably continue for some time to come. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that major changes in the global economic and industrial system may be needed if the world is to achieve a sustainable state before the middle of the twenty-first century. Even though there is not yet a scientific consensus on the extent of the needed changes, it is clear that they will involve significant technological elements, as well as major investments.

The population problem comes to mind first, especially in the context of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and the Status of Women. It is unlikely that the other problems of the global environment can be solved if the world's population is not stabilized. Experts now generally agree that education and the status of women are central issues here. This implies that a world of relatively stable population must be one in which social patterns are significantly different from those now encountered in many parts of the world.

The kinds of techno-economic changes envisaged as necessary conditions for long-term sustainability also include a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels (especially coal) to minimize the danger of global "greenhouse warming." Alternatives to increasing use of fossil fuels include a return to nuclear power, large-scale use of photovoltaics, intensive biomass cultivation, large-scale hydroelectric projects (in some regions), and major changes in patterns of energy consumption and conservation. Again, there are disputes over which of these energy alternatives is the most (least) desirable, feasible, etc. However, the future of energy, from both the supply (technology) and the demand perspective, is a critical topic (to which several chapters of this book are devoted).

Again, the broad question addressed in this book is how to shift from a techno-economic "trajectory" based on exploiting natural resources - soil, water, biodiversity, climate - that, once lost, can never be replaced, to one that could lead to a future society that preserves and conserves these resources. To facilitate this search, this chapter approaches the problem in three stages. First, it attempts to identify the most pressing questions, especially with regard to the severity of the threat and the technical feasibility of solutions. Next, it attempts to distinguish those questions on which there is little or no scientific disagreement from those on which the evidence itself is disputed. Thirdly, it raises the most fundamental question of all: how to get from "where we are" to "where we need to be."

However, before plunging into the argument, some subsidiary topics are worthy of brief mention. These are discussed in the next two sections.