|Food and Energy - Strategies for Sustainable Development (United Nations University - UNU, 1990, 81 pages)|
The Future Remains Open
The environment of 40 years from now will be what we make it. We have both the technology to blow the planet apart and the wisdom to cultivate it into a polycultural garden complete with wilderness areas. The carrying capacity of "Spaceship Earth" is not unlimited, but it is elastic. This elasticity depends on consumption models, spatial configurations, technology, and institutional and cultural factors in the broadest sense of these terms. Social and cultural limits must take precedence over physical limits, at least for the decades to come.
The dashed hopes of the Stockholm Conference demonstrate the danger of drift, in which attention is focused on environmental discourse rather than on the redefinition of development strategies; sensitivity towards nature often emerges only after it has been destroyed. Have we already reached this stage? Is the massacre to go on?
Whether we admit it or not, the responsibility of our generation is enormous (Brown Weiss 1989). We are shaping not only our future, but that of our children and their children (without even speaking of the other species with which we share this earth). We will be judged by our ability to question our development patterns (and ourselves) and thus our ability to break with the dominant model in the West, the East, and the South. What can we do in these circumstances, here and now?
First of all, we can clarify the stakes of development, the margins of freedom, and the constraints which exist locally in a variety of forms. Understanding these factors is clearly the first step towards action.
Our capacity for analysis, combining all factors - ecological, cultural, institutional, personal, and socio-economic - remains limited. For that reason, we must envisage a training effort tackling educational programmes at all levels and in all channels. Multi-disciplinarity is not achieved through the juxtaposition of narrow-minded specialists; it entails an open-mindedness to dialogue on the part of all individuals, professionals and citizens alike.
Prominent among the necessary educational aids is an ecological history of humanity, conceived as a systematic exploration of the ecosystem/culture interrelationship and revolving around the themes of food production, housing, energy, and so on. Such a history would make it possible to assess the adaptability of a culture to the various natural environments or, to put it the other way around, to compare the ingenuity of the various cultures in overcoming constraints and seizing opportunities within a particular ecosystem. The concept of "resourcefulness" is at the heart of the development process.
While a sound knowledge of history will stimulate the failing social imagination (by giving it guidance and, at the same time, by identifying anti-models to be avoided), the concept of new production systems meeting the triple criteria of social equity, ecological sustainability, and economic viability will benefit from being viewed in terms of the natural ecosystem, emphasis being placed on the complementarities between the various productions.
The exploitation of natural resources under ecologically viable conditions (the economy of permanence, as Gandhi called it) is by far the most effective and durable form of environmental protection and elimination of "raubwirschaft". This is why the programmes described above warrant a priority that has so far been denied by international organizations.
Such organizations clearly have a responsibility to deal with the "international commons". But progress in this field, if any, is terribly slow despite the magnitude of the stakes. While the establishment of supranational bodies endowed with genuine decision-making and managerial power seems to be out of the question for the time being, there remains the method of agreement. It would be strengthened if international efforts could at least count on automatic financing. Various such proposals were made in the wake of the Stockholm Conference (Steinberg and Yager 1978), but there has been very little acceptance of this idea to date.
Yet only international taxation, however modest, would give the United Nations and other organizations the financial autonomy that is absolutely necessary to elude the pressures of the great powers who are also the principal donors. In the Middle Ages, the Church levied the tithe. The United Nations would certainly be content with a tithe of a tithe of a tithe of the gross world product, which now exceeds US$10 trillion. A world-wide tax of US$1 per million (graduated in such a way that the rich countries would pay more and the poor would be exempt) would bring in US$10 billion. This is ten times more than the current annual budget of the United Nations!
In concluding, it should be emphasized that good work is in progress but much more needs to be done. There is, in particular, a great need for more systematic analysis of patterns of resource use in diverse ecosystems and forms of human adaptation to given natural settings that can show the diverse ways in which people manage to overcome the constraints of their environment and identify opportunities for a better life.
Let us hope that the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development will accelerate political and economic movement in this direction - as time is no longer on our side.
Each generation modifies its historical accounts, whether they be written or oral. Ours should be recording the ecological history of humanity in order to ensure its future.