| Boiling Point No. 13 - August 1987 |
Reviewed by Stuart Marwick and Simon Burne
The Brundtland Report is finally out, over three years after the World Commission on Environment and Development was established by the United Nations to examine ways out of the global environmental crisis.
It is a very positive book - it has tried deliberately to avoid being a "gloom and doom" prophesy but has rather sought to map out a "global agenda for change" which is achievable within existing institutions in dealing with immediate issues with a more general hope that those institutions may themselves change in the longer term.
The book examines the interlocking crises of environment, energy and development and shows how problems are no longer containable within communities or countries; how the whole world must urgently address these issues. Having accepted the challenge, the book maps out policy directions for population and human resources, food security, species and eco-systems, energy, industry and urbanisation. It then suggests international cooperation and institutional reform to enable the policies to be implemented.
Much is made of the "tragedy of the commons" (where no individuals restrain themselves because if they did they would lose out, although that individuals can clearly see the benefits if everybody restrained themselves; hence the demise of the commons) but perhaps the "prisoner's dilemma" is more to the point: individuals can maximise their own benefits by tricking the others or earn less through co-operation even though the total gains to everyone are much higher if everyone worked together.
Herein lies the book's greatest weakness an assumption that global change means global benefits which are perceptible to all. But we need look no further than Mrs. Brundtland herself to question that assumption she has rightly castigated Britain for causing the mass pollution of acid rain while finding herself unable to support a global ban on whaling.
The institutions, like the World Bank, and multinational corporations exist so greatly for the benefit of the industrialised world (for whom, after all, they were initially established to benefit) that the hopes expressed in the book appear forlorn. The United Nations is similarly lobotomised by the powerful nations' vetoes, drastically limiting effective action.
This report suffers from the same problems that always arise from such a multinational political undertaking compromise and fudge tone down the hard edge to make the meal digestible to anyone who does not have teeth or does not like the taste.
Hence they shy away from direct criticism of industrialised countries' development policies, or from the iniquitous behaviour of many developing countries whose policies grossly enrich tiny oligarchies at the expense of the mass of poor people.
They clearly see the link between environmental degradation and human development, but stop short of calling for massive land reform and political change within Third World countries. It is worth remembering that many of the most successful postwar economies have been founded on these two fundamental changes (viz. Japan, Taiwan, Korea). One speaker at a public hearing is quoted as saying "you cannot eradicate poverty ... only by redistributing wealth or income, but there must be more redistribution of power". The commission accepts that in terms of a new international economic order, but shies away from suggesting the same imperatives within countries. There is no manifesto for using international institutions to use their weight to change internal policies of countries in these directions, despite the fact that these institutions currently exert great influence over countries' policies for a different set of objectives We need look no further than the IMF for incontrovertible evidence.
The Report puts strong emphasis on the importance of shifting policies and economic investments from the development of conventional energy resources to increasing energy efficiency through conservation measures of various kinds. In Brazil, for instance, a total investment of $4 billion in more efficient refrigerators, street-lighting, motors and other end uses could defer construction of 21 gigawatts of new electrical supply capacity costing $l 9 billion from 1986 to 2000.
How to persuade governments and industries to do more of this is, of course, the main challenge. But the methods proposed in the final chapter focus on UN reorganisation and the drafting of international treaties and so forth...not much for the possibly interested industrialist or policy planner to get their teeth into. This is not to deny the worthiness of the proposals themselves...only to point up the absence of proposals for others to take to heart and support.
Some mention is made of social issues relating to woodfuel: ownership of land, and of trees and forests, the smoke/health problem, the inability of commercial forestry to meet the fuelwood needs of rural areas, etc. Green belts round large urban areas to provide wood fuels for urban consumers are given the nod as is the importance of increasing alternative energy sources..electricity, LPG, kerosine and coal. (There is lots of coal for the next 3000 years, apparently...the only problem is that this fuel if environmentally harmful, like wood).
Full praise to the Commission for identifying the powerful links between the environment, people, economics and development. A recommended read for anyone who enjoyed the Brandt Report. But, like the Brandt Report, having put on their gloves and climbed into the ring, they then sit down and design a better pea shooter.
THE INTERNATIONAL COURSE ON BIOMASS ENERGY which is being organised by the KENGO Regional Wood Energy Programme in conjunction with the Kenyatta University Appropriate Technology Centre and which was to take place 23 May - 14 June 987, HAS BEEN POSTPONED to 11-29 April 988 to give prospective participants more time to locate sponsors.