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Sustainability: the way forward

Lecture: Scottish Council Foundation, Ramsay Garden Seminar Series, Edinburgh, 15 January 2004.

We live at a time of apparent contradiction: on the one hand we pursue development in the classic sense of rapid economic growth. On the other hand we pursue sustainability in the equally classic sense of a long lasting process favouring this and future generations.

The phrase which is supposed to bring these two together and to reconcile them is sustainable development, which now haunts the international vocabulary. But I must admit that for most people it still lacks a coherent definition. My own preference is for a sound bite from Rob Gray:

"Treating the world as if we intended to stay".

At the moment it scarcely seems that we are doing so. There are five main things for us to think about: human population increase; degradation of land and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; climate change; and destruction of biodiversity. All are interlinked, and all concern the future of humanity.

Awareness of the threats to planetary well-being have greatly increased during the last thirty years. In July 2001 some 1,500 scientists from the four great global research programmes met at Amsterdam, and published a Declaration which stated squarely:

"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 nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth system, their magnitudes and rate of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state".

and

"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".

This was the background to the decision to hold the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg between 26 August and 5 September last year. The result was well described by a British journalist as, "disaster averted: opportunity lost". The political declaration said little new, and was a triumph of repackaging. As for the plan of implementation, only time will tell its value. Of course there were good points, and you will be trying to give substance to them tomorrow. But in my view the best comment on the plan as a whole was: "Many trees but little wood".

The growing division of humanity between rich and poor was the subject of much rhetoric but virtually no action. Advocates of market forces suggest that these will eventually bring their version of development to all. The trends suggest the opposite. In assessing progress on the Millennium Development Goals stated in July last year, the UN Secretary General well said:

"There is no autopilot, there is no magic of the market place, no rising tide of the global economy that will lift all boats, guaranteeing that all goals will be reached by 2015."

Looked at as a whole, Johannesburg was a big disappointment. Almost no specific commitments were made. When the fog of rhetoric cleared, and people went home, most seem rapidly to have forgotten the whole thing, and re-embraced the simple axiom of 'business as usual' as if it had never been challenged.

Before the Johannesburg Summit took place, there was a series of Round Tables of so-called Eminent Persons from the six major regions of the world. I chaired the first of them for Europe and North America. Our main conclusions were:

I do not think that the conclusions of this as of other regional Round Tables had much effect. But I still commend them to you. So how do we take matters forward? Politics, as we all know, is about priorities. My own are broadly to:

So how will change come about. 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 environmental and political agendas has urgency.

Change usually takes place for three main reasons:

There seem to me to be two fundamental questions. First do we know where we 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.

Johannesburg did not find the answers, but answers must be found. I remember that before the Rio Summit of 1992 George Bush senior tried to reassure the American people by saying that no-one was going to change the American way of life. Apparently George Bush junior thinks the same. They are both dead wrong. North Americans must change their way of life, as we in Europe must change ours. Otherwise Nature will do what she has done to over 99% of species that have ever lived, and do the job for us.

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