Towards Sustainable Human Activities
Recent natural disasters around the globe such as the latest flooding in NSW, Australia, keeps the concern about global warming alive. Global warming or the greenhouse effect, is only one item in a long list of environmental and social issues which are likely to lead us to a political and environmental crisis, unless actions to alter our current economic system are taken now. It seems that at the centre of the problem is our economy, based on market forces while the solution is likely to be greater intervention by governments.
The history of global economic growth shows that while the economy continues to expand, the ecosystem on which it depends does not, creating an alarming stressed relationship between these factors. A reflection of this phenomenon can be seen by the positive economic indicators in comparison to the negative environmental ones. The reason for this conflict, between economy and ecology, stems from the wrong axiom that world contains infinite resources and can accommodate endless wastes (1). This wrong assumption has led to the current economic model of unlimited market forces (2). Market forces economy has not solved our social and economic problems. To emphasise the basic faults built in this model, Dr Ted Trainer, a lecturer in Social Work at the University of New South Wales, presents the following hypotethical case (3):
"A clash between the economy and society becomes obvious when we ask what would happen if we allowed production and distribution within the family to be determined by what would maximise sales or cash income. If mom started making the toast and then selling it to the highest bidder, the economic efficiency of the domestic scene would be greatly improved, but the kids wouldn't get much toast because dad would be able to bid much higher than the kids can. In no time, the desirable social relations which ensure that Grandpa can have some toast, even though is economically useless, would be replaced by calculations of individual advantage".
Living in our current life style is not sustainable and it is compared to the notion of living outside one's capital ability in the bank, we are using resources which should not be used for the sake of an excessive growth (4).
There are many indicators that show that the current human activities are likely to lead to a disaster sooner rather than later. Over the last century the world has lost nearly half of its original forest area (5). Water scarcity is a problem in many parts of the world (6), in some it may trigger a war. Soils are eroding and wetlands are disappearing (7). Plant and animal species are becoming extinct (8) at a rate never known before. Coral reefs are dying, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry and temperatures are rising (9). In addition to these gloomy aspects of the environment we can add the population explosion. According to some demographers the human population will reach ten billion by the year 2050 (10), double in about two generations. The conclusion of all these trends is undisputable: shrinking of resources against expanding demands.
Although we know we cannot continue with our levels of 'usage' we try to postpone difficult decisions while leaving the more difficult ones to the next generation (11). It is better that we cease our current use of resources by adjusting policies and shifting priorities, than by an inevitable rise in resource prices and political instability (12). Unless we act now, nature will intervene in its unpleasant way and force us to take measures which long over due (13), according to the book 'The population Explosion' (Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich of Stanford University, 1990).
While the current environmental trend looks dismal, there are already some indications that we are 'on the right track' and starting to face the problem in a constructive manner, though not at the right pace. In order to 'satisfy the basic needs of people everywhere without self destruction' we need a new economy (14). An economy which will let us to enjoy a growth while living inside the earth 'carrying capacity' (15).
We have to depart from the notion that market forces are the solution to all society illnesses. A company undertaking an environmental friendly procedures cannot win the competition against another company who is neglecting these sort of commitments in our current market forces economy. Not only market forces do not secure 'environmental goods', but they cannot value them (16). There is an existence value for environmental components even though people are not likely to 'consume' them (17). Jacobs (Hobart convention, 1994) suggests that we have to reinforce the basic model of market forces with some 'market mechanism' adjustment, a set of rules that will regulate environmental and social issues (18).
We must adopt good practices of the business community: avoid spending the capital and operate by using the surplus (19). To achieve this we have to ensure that carbon emissions do not exceed carbon dioxide fixation and that soil erosion does not exceed new soil formed through natural process (20). The harvest of forest should not exceed the sustainable yield of forests and the number of plant and animal species lost does not exceed the new species formed through evolution. Water pumping should not exceed the sustainable yield of aquifers and the fish catch should not exceed the sustainable yield of fisheries (21).
A sustainable economy that will use taxing policies and financial penalties should dominate our quest for a new economy (22). These are the tools to set priorities, which would better reflect the need for a sustainable development (23). The new rules must be enforced by authorities and not private entities, as they are the ones reflecting the interest of the community as a whole (24,25). They will be endorsed through 3 levels: international, national and local (26).
Polls indicate that seventy percent of Europeans and North Americans support tax shifting: decreasing personal and corporate income tax while increasing taxes on environmental distractive activities (27). Manufacturers should be held legally and financially responsible for the ultimate disposal of their products. This will put us one step ahead toward a closed-cycle economy and minimise polluting wastes (28,29).
Foreign investments, while showing some threats to the environment also represent some opportunities (30). Foreign investment catalyse privatisation which in turn eliminates the conflict between the environmental laws regulator and the private owner (31). While private entities are more difficult to mobilise at this point of time, as 'The Friends of the Earth' reports, a leverage by institution can help. It is known that many of the private investments are attached to funds of large government controlled bodies. These bodies can enforce an environmental and social regime, which will also apply to the funds of the private sector, hence controlling a large amount of capital. Some of the major lenders like the World Bank have set an extensive variety of environmental and social policies (32) and it should be followed vigorously.
Taking action on an international and national level is not enough. The author of 'Global Environmental Management' claims that the current trend of solving the environmental problems, in the form of treaties and agreements between nations do not work, as money is not the solution but rather the attention to details and commitment (33). He also maintains that environmental issues are unpredictable and therefore prevent us from prioritising our response to them (34). To support his view he uses the 'butterfly effect' as an example, he believes that an enormous environmental disaster may be initiated by a local, apparently insignificant deed, indistinguishable from many others (35). Antony Giddens, a sociologist, agrees with the notion of the bilateral treaties being inefficient and believes that in circumstances of globalisation, the nation state has become 'too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems of life'. (36).
While many believe that involvement of governments is still the best way towards a sustainable economy in the longer term, there are other means that have to be undertaken now in order to mobilise big companies. Independent sustainability reports by private companies are a concept that will ensure sustainable activities by companies according to Gavin Murray, from Placer Pacific (37). This will lead to integration of sustainability as a core issue in their operations (Gavin Murray, 1998). Paul Guilding, a former head of Greenpeace International, suggests that we have to hold companies accountable directly, and not through government bodies (38). According to Danny Kennedy, a director of Project Underground, the way to achieve this is by speaking to shareholders and showing them that there is huge liability in their business activities, which they will be financially accounted for in the future (39). It is also believed today that those companies that are environmentally friendly have performed better than those with large environmental liabilities have (40).
Stabilising the climate is a very essential component in the new economy. It is already dominating a massive effort by world organisations and nations, and is causing a major concern for two major industries, the agriculture and the insurance industries. The agriculture sector is faced with some lost harvest due to the recent climatic changes and the insurance industry is faced with more claims due to natural disasters. In order to stabilise climate we have to reduce carbon emission by using energy more efficiently (41) and the use of renewable energy sources such as solar or hydrogen instead of fossil fuel (42).
We have to adapt to the principles of reuse and recycle (43), thus creating Industrial Ecology. Industrial ecology follows the example of nature, where one organism's waste is another one's sustenance. Accordingly, Industrial ecology is designed so that one industry waste is another one's raw material (44). Recycle activities have started a long time ago and are proving to be successful (45). Waste management and reduction will also result from a better technology (46).
Fighting water scarcity by attaching a real price to the water is an important tool (47). For countries facing water deficits the best way to reduce water use is to concentrate on industries other than those who heavily rely on water consumption such as agriculture (1 ton of grain = 1000 ton of water) (48). Moreover, advancement in technology should allow us to use crop yields from any specific land in a more efficient way. There are reports that up to forty percent of the harvested corps is being consumed and the rest is lost (49).
Stabilising population is another crucial step that needs to be taken in order to reduce the strain on our natural resources (50). A way to achieve this is by removing social, religious and physical barriers from family planing, taking into account that one third of the population is due to unwanted pregnancies (51). Reducing the need for large families in developing countries, where it serves as 'social security' is another way of stabilising the population (52). Education of women is an additional part of this issue. Career women are likely to have fewer children than housekeepers (53). Raising the legal age for marriages is the fourth pillar of this policy and will stretch the gap between generations (54).
We need to help those undeveloped countries to make the step from a pre-industrialised economy to a post- industrialised one, therefore jumping over the industrial economy which was problematic by environmental standards. For example, installation of cellular phone networks instead of the large amount of telephone lines. The creation of an advanced public transport instead of private car to every person.
In conclusion, facing the looming environmental deterioration and population growth in alarming rate there are already many voices calling for a change. While those voices are not strong enough and the actions taken are definitely not determined enough, it seems that we are embarking on a road for a different future. A future when environmental issues and our ability to operate within sustainability limitation will be a significant part of. A different economy than the one we know at the current time, will be a major part in shaping this future. An economy which will take the real price of resources into consideration and therefore will secure their conservation for future generations.
Bongats, J. 1994,
"Can the growing human population feed itself?",
Scientific American, March, pp. 18-24.
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