Sustainability and Conservation: Prospects for Johannesburg
Society for Conservation Biology Conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury - 2002-07-15
My theme this morning is not an easy one. Sustainability and conservation should complement each other. In reality they represent convoys of ideas which sometimes sail together but can all too easily diverge. In one form or another they are on the agenda of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next month. But at this stage it is hard to be optimistic about what will happen there.
This Summit is the third in line in Summit meetings of the world's leaders: from Stockholm in 1972 to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to Johannesburg in 2002. The first was dedicated to the environment. It marked the rise of global concern about the environment and what our animal species was unwittingly doing to it. It had fruitful consequences, not least in the creation of many institutions, national and international, to understand and cope with the problems which had been identified.
Next came Rio. To concern about the environment was now added concern about development. The phrase sustainable development entered the international vocabulary after the publication of the Brundtland Commission report of 1987. Rio was also a fruitful conference. From it came a number of specific agreements on the big environmental issues - climate change, Agenda 21, forestry, later desertification - as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The pace should now quicken, but seems to have slowed. This time at Johannesburg the focus is on sustainable development. There will be a backward look at what has been achieved since Stockholm and Rio. Here the record is patchy. On the up side, the Conventions created at Rio have mostly been ratified and for each there have been several subsequent Conferences of the Parties. For instance, the sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity met in the Hague in April this year, and the Ministerial Declaration which resulted set a target of 2010 for halting the current loss of biodiversity. But generally the results have been disappointing. Notably the United States has failed to ratify both the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and has not even signed the accompanying Biosafety Protocol.
At Johannesburg there will also be a forward look to fill the obvious gaps, and suggest new ways of coping with the ever mounting problems which have become clearer and more alarming over the last thirty years. At this point let me quote a remarkable document, signed by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes, at their conference in Amsterdam just a year ago. The two central propositions state the sheer scale of the problem, Here they are:
- "Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's system to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life…the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth's System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state."
- "The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives."
What those strategies might be is usually incorporated in the concept of sustainable development. But what does it actually mean? As a phrase it is something of a show stopper, and its significance has almost become a matter of choice. The definition in the Brundtland Commission Report was "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Perhaps better is a sound bite from Rob Gray: "treating the Earth as if we intended to stay".
On the assumption, conscious or unconscious, that we do intend to stay, it is as well to be clear about the identity of the main drivers of human induced change. Each is closely connected with the others.
First we have been multiplying our numbers at a giddy rate. At the time of Thomas Malthus the population was one billion. Now there are six billion, while according to the UN Environment Programme, despite all our efforts, our population is set to top 9.3 billion by the year 2050. Indeed since the Rio Conference of 1992, more than 500 million new people have joined the population. The scale of the problem goes well beyond these staggering figures. Half of humanity now lives in cities, many of which are unsustainable by any standards. Increasing flows of environmental and political refuges, disease, drug trafficking and terrorism are all growing indicators of how the mounting global population will affect us all.
Next is deterioration of land quality and accumulation of wastes. We have been damaging the soils which sustain all terrestrial creatures. Soil degradation is estimated to affect over two billion hectares worldwide. According to the UN Environment Programme, 65% of all arable land may have already lost some biological and physical functions. Disposal of the mounting volumes of waste we produce could become an even bigger problem.
We have been polluting both salt and fresh water. Oceanic pollution is worst offshore with spillages from ships posing a major danger to marine life. In the oceans as a whole, fish stocks are a useful test. In the North Sea, fishing fleets are 40% larger than stocks can maintain while it also suffers from pollution. Recent estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that at least 60% of world fisheries are fully exploited or over fished. Coral reefs in terms of productivity and species richness are equivalent to marine rainforests. An estimated 27% are thought already to have been lost. A further 32% may be destroyed during the next 30 years.
Meanwhile, demand for fresh water has doubled every 21 years. The number of people who will face severe water problems could be almost three billion by 2050. Yet the amount of fresh water available remains the same as it was at the time of the Roman Empire when the human population was something over 400 million.
Next we have been changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. Acid precipitation can be dealt with when there is sufficient political will. There is an array of international agreements to manage and eventually reverse depletion of the ozone layer. Climate change is more difficult. It relates directly to the ways in which we produce and use energy. Since the industrial revolution we have been using the sky as a waste unit. As a result carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now reached its highest level in 400,000 years, and is a third higher than in pre-industrial times. The science of the carbon cycle is imperfectly understood, but there is a clear relationship between atmospheric carbon and global surface temperature.
The only serious controversy is about the degree of change we are bringing about. The Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published last year suggests rises in average global surface temperature of between 1.4% and 5.8% C by the end of this century, an increase on its previous Assessment of 1996. Sea level is predicted to rise between 9 and 88 cm between 1990 and 2100. Over a third of the world's population now lives within 100 kilometres of a shoreline. This percentage is set to grow. With confidence in the prediction of an increase in extreme and usually destructive events also having improved, the implications for coastal populations are clear.
Last is our continuing destruction of other living species at rates comparable to those caused by extraterrestrial impacts in the long past. Current rates of extinction could be many times what they would be under natural conditions. The number of endangered or threatened species listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has dramatically increased. One in four mammal species, which are key indicators of eco-system health, are facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.
On a global scale, damage to ecosystems is already extensive and the future course of evolution will be substantially changed by current human activity. Nowhere is there more true than in the micro-world of bacteria and viruses, which learn how to react to almost any drug we may throw at them. Humans take twenty years to reproduce. Bacteria do the job in twenty minutes. Nor can we yet assess the effects of introduction of genetically modified organisms.
Similar points have been made many times. Human vulnerability is one of the themes of successive Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) reports from the United Nations Environment Programme. A recent book by J R McNeill entitled Something New Under the Sun shows, if it were needed, the degree to which the current situation of the Earth has no precedent. I think it is fair to say that a periodical visitor from space would find more change in its surface in the last 200 years than in the preceding 2000, and more change in the last 20 years than in the preceding 200.
What of Johannesburg? The question is whether governments and civil society (as manifest in non-governmental organizations of all kinds) are really measuring up to the scope and scale of the problem? Are people even looking in the right direction? In the words of the Declaration which followed the Millennium Summit, are governments really resolved to save future generations "from the threat of living a on a planet irredeemably spoilt by human activities?
I have always found it relatively easy to make the case for action to cope with problems of population increase, pollution of land, sea and air, and climate change, but conservation of biodiversity is much more difficult to get across. The UN Secretary General, who is a practical man, made it the fifth of the specific areas he isolated for results at Johannesburg that were both "essential and achievable". The first four were water and sanitation; energy; agriculture and human health. These relate specifically to human needs while biodiversity raises much broader issues.
How then has conservation fared in the preparations for Johannesburg? Successive preparatory conferences have tried to work out a covering political declaration, a plan of implementation, and an approach involving partnerships between interested parties, otherwise known as stakeholders. An overriding concern has been poverty. But in seeking to alleviate poverty we must focus on its causes, and this means reckoning with the impact of humanity on the Earth as a whole. In the present draft plan of implementation for Johannesburg, the biodiversity issue has been linked with poverty reduction. It states:
"Biodiversity, which plays a critical role in overall sustainable development and poverty eradication, is essential to our planet, human well-being and to the livelihood and cultural integrity of people."
While this recognizes at least part of the problem, neither a deadline of 2010 for halting the loss of biodiversity nor a deadline of 2015 for achieving sustainable fisheries could be agreed, and the emphasis remains firmly on direct human priorities. But tackling the loss of biodiversity requires thinking that looks beyond human use. I believe there are four aspects: ethical, aesthetic, economic, and ecological. Each has far reaching implications.
On ethical grounds it is questionable whether humans should, usually unwittingly, exterminate so many other species on the living planet, whether they are of use to us or not. This is not a point which caused most religions, including Christianity, much concern in the past. There are honourable exceptions; but most theologians have seen humans as separate from the rest of nature which they believed was for their use, convenience, plunder or pleasure. Some now say that humans should be the stewards of the Earth. But for all but the last brief moments of Earth history, the Earth managed well enough without them, and as James Lovelock once remarked of our predatory and destructive activities, humans are as qualified to be stewards as goats are to be gardeners.
The aesthetic aspects of nature usually go without saying, but they are difficult to define. There is, I believe, a profound human instinct which causes people to feel linked to the natural world. Even the most hardened city dwellers need space and greenery in their work and play. This point is explored at eloquent length in E.O. Wilson's new book The Future of Life The culture of every people is closely allied to its landscapes and their living inhabitants, and cannot be dissociated from them.
Ethical and aesthetic arguments are of enormous, indeed primal, importance for the psychological health of any society, but they are usually unpersuasive against short term arguments of self interest.
Our economic interest in biodiversity is obvious. We need to maintain our own good health as well as that of the plants and animals, big and small, on which we depend for food. We have our place in the food chain like any other creature, and are more vulnerable than most as predators at the top of it. We pride ourselves on our medicine as if it were somehow detached from the natural world. Yet more than three-quarters of people in poor countries depend on plant-based drugs, while in industrial countries about a quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one compound that comes from higher plants. For example, substances derived from the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar have recently proved effective against childhood leukaemia and Hodgkins disease, and the bark of a Pacific yew has yielded drugs for use against ovarian cancer.
As well as conserving diversity at the level of species and ecosystems, we also need to cherish the genetic diversity that occurs within them. Modern agricultural techniques, and increasingly biotechnology with genetically modified organisms, have led to an excessive dependence on a few miracle strains of even fewer plants and animals. Meanwhile the wild relatives of these strains are often lost when natural habitat is converted for other land uses. Without a large natural genetic reservoir, we make our food supplies vulnerable to disease as the Irish potato growers in the last century learned to their cost.
The same issues arise with greater force over the ecological benefits arising from the diversity of life and the normal services it provides. More specifically we rely on forests and vegetation to produce soil, to hold it together and to regulate water supplies by preserving catchment basins, recharging groundwater and buffering extreme conditions. We rely upon soils to be fertile and to absorb and break down pollutants. We rely on coral reefs and mangrove forests as spawning grounds for fish and wetlands, and on deltas as shock absorbers for floods.
Likewise we rely on the natural processes of recycling and waste disposal. We rely upon the current balance of insects, bacteria and viruses; and we assume the health of plants and animals unless we find to the contrary. Yet few realize the extent to which we have been appropriating the resources of the earth for our limited human purposes. Already we use - or abuse - some 40% of total photosynthetic production on land.
Whether greater respect for other species can be achieved within the framework of sustainable development will depend substantially on two fundamental factors: values and priorities. In both there is an obvious clash of cultures. We have all heard the arguments - and rhetoric - of both.
On the one hand is a belief in free markets, with a minimum of regulation, and increasing consumption as a desirable objective. Increased liberalization of trade is part of this process, often called globalization. This belief is based on certain assumptions, for example that greater prosperity and material welfare are good in themselves and therefore all embracing human targets. Higher standards of living are assumed to mean higher quality of life. Then there is an apparatus of thinking about free trade and consumption. Many also believe, almost instinctively, that problems can always be dealt with by technological fixes, that substitutes for diminishing resources can always be found, and that industrialization is the only means of raising living standards, reducing poverty, and becoming "developed". The priority is wealth generation.
On the other hand is the view, which many here may share, that we are gravely damaging the life systems of the planet, that our species has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. Environmentalists point out that stock market indices may have risen, but the world's natural wealth, measured by the health of its ecosystems, fell by no less than 30% between 1970 and 1995. the WWF Index shows that the development on which so many countries are still bent is in many ways an impossibility. The priority is sustainability.
One of the main difficulties in reconciling these streams of thought is that the first is essentially short term, and the second long term. If and when they come into conflict - for example over a plan for a new airport, or pressure of hungry people on forest resources - it is the first which is most likely to prevail. Economists and planners rarely work to far horizons. Nor do they look for compromises between the two.
The heart of the problem is the value that we place on natural services and the true cost of human activities over time. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the statement that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy. But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism. But as another distinguished American once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs". Prices are indicators. But we have to make sure that they tell the truth about costs. That is not to minimize the importance of market forces, but they need to be put into a framework of public interest.
A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. We should heed the words of Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Esso for Norway and the North Sea who once said:
" Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."
Value does not necessarily mean money value. How can we value the air we breathe, the loss of a species, or the ecological services which like other animals we enjoy for free? Why should we measure prosperity, or more importantly well-being, by measuring only what we produce: GNP, GDP and the rest? What does that phrase beloved of politicians, economic growth, mean in human terms? Is the spread of Western economics under the banner of globalization really such a benign process for all concerned? Is it as inevitable as sometimes claimed? At least we need new systems of measurement, and some form of environmental accounting, with specific standards which, when set against other indices, would tell us where we are now, and what the true costs really are. We also need a great deal more information than is now available. Hence the importance of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year programme to establish systematic data sets on the Earth's environment as a whole.
Politics is about priorities. Can these inevitably general reflections be translated into practical politics for Johannesburg? It takes time to learn to think differently, although so called paradigm shift has speeded up greatly in the last quarter century. But even if policy lags behind change of mind, and practice behind policy, little will change unless and until we think differently.
Most governments probably recognize that some conservation is essential and are ready to devote some resources to it. In this country we have government-sponsored Biodiversity Action Plans. For six years I was Chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species. Our job was to recommend - and finance - joint initiatives in conservation in countries we defined as rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources. With a budget of only around US$ 5 million a year we were able to achieve a high degree of interest and lasting results. In a real sense we were missionaries for biodiversity. The Initiative continues and has since developed further.
But of course we were not at the sharp ends of choice, and other government departments did not interfere. The big issues still remain, here as elsewhere. Governments are not monolithic. Each has different problems and faces different pressures. Even within them there is both disagreement and lack of coordination. It is for example clear that those concerned with trade rarely talk to those concerned with development, and those concerned with development have very different ideas from those concerned with sustainability. The proceedings at the trade conference in Doha in November 2001 had little relation to those at the development conference in Monterrey in March 2002, and those at Monterrey had little relation to those at the preparatory conference for Johannesburg in Bali in May 2002. When it comes to speaking for conservation, which Ministers would see this as a priority for their portfolio?
You may wonder how changes in direction ever take place. The power of inertia is immensely strong, especially in the functioning engine-room of society - the middle ranks - whether in government, business or elsewhere. It is all too easy to get lost in the sheer mechanics of making things work. Such changes usually occur at a low and stately pace as new generations come of age. But this time the combination of the conservation, environmental and political agendas has urgency. Yet the communication of these issues to the public as well as to politicians is immensely difficult. It is a subject in itself.
For change we need three factors: leadership from above, pressure from below, or some exemplary catastrophe. Again timing is essential. The penalties for failure to respect biodiversity, in short the penalties for unsustainability, could well fall on future generations rather than our own. We will be incurring debts to the future as heavy as any our predecessors incurred in the past
There seem to me to be two fundamental questions. First do we know where are going? My answer is not yet. The juggernaut of the conventional wisdom rolls on. Secondly can we cope with the problems raised by the unstable and unsustainable society we have created for ourselves? My answer is also not yet.
But answers have to be found. There is a range of possible results at Johannesburg. One, perhaps the worst, would be a statement of polished platitudes, amounting in some cases to a backsliding from Stockholm and Rio, which would give the illusion of progress but would lead to little or no action. Another would be agreement to disagree, or even a real bust up, which would at least impose on the participants the need to think again, and possibly lead to further conferences on more specific issues. But best would be a substantial plan of action, and agreement on a network of partnerships, to which all would be committed and to which all could later be held to account.
Summitry is always a chancy business. Will the chemistry work? Will enough people think the same way? Will a sense of common interest prevail? The world is watching.