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Sustainability, global institutions and the human prospect

Address to the Millichap Peace Fund Quaker Group, Hereford. February 3 2005.

Today I will consider what sustainability is, the global institutions we must use to bring about this shared goal, and finally the long-term prospects for humanity. All these subjects have become almost embarrassingly topical.

Sustainability

We live at a time of apparent contradiction: on the one hand we live in a consumer society, and talk endlessly about 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. For most people it still lacks a coherent definition. The formal definition used by the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development (1987) is preferred by many. This suggests:

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

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.

In one sense the environment has always experienced change and always will. It is just that the shortness of our lives and the narrowness of our perspective on Earth history mean that we are mostly unaware of change, and until now scarcely notice the human-induced pressures on the environment.

The last couple of centuries have seen an extraordinary stretching of our understanding of space and time. We can now look beyond the solar system, beyond our galaxy, beyond billions of other galaxies, back to the big bang which initiated the universe we know. As for time, we can look beyond the last thousand years, beyond the beginnings of civilization, beyond the patch of warmth in the last 12,000 years, beyond the many spasms of the ice ages, beyond the first multicellular, eukaryotic organisms, and further back still over more than three billion years to the origins of life itself.

During these almost unimaginable stretches of time, the environment has been on many edges. There have been big hits from space, the changing relationship between the Earth and the Sun, the slow movement of tectonic plates on the Earth's surface, major volcanic eruptions, and not least the influence of life itself. The tightly linked living organisms on the Earth's surface work as a single self-regulating system, tending to create and maintain the environment most favourable to them.

Over time the environment has tipped many ways, sometimes violently, to the detriment of this or that species or ecosystem. There have always been correctives. Life itself is robust. Yet today the actions of one small animal species - our own - are tipping the system in ways which will have consequences that cannot be foreseen, and may not be to our advantage.

The idea may be hard to accept but the Earth has never been in this situation before. In the words of the title of a recent book on environmental history, we confront Something New Under the Sun. These points were well brought out in a remarkable Declaration published by some 1,500 scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. They stated squarely that:

"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'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".

The problem is almost on a geological scale. No wonder the Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen with his colleague Eugene Stoermer should have named the current epoch the Anthropocene in succession to the Holocene.

How did we get into this situation? Let us look at recent human history. At each stage in the development of current society, the impact has increased. Hunter gatherers fitted easily enough into the ecosystems of cold and warm periods in the Pleistocene epoch. But farming with land clearance changed everything. With a vast increase in human population came towns and eventually cities. Tribal communities evolved into complex hierarchical societies. Before the industrial revolution some 250 years ago, the effects of human activity were local, or at worst regional, rather than global. Yet now they are truly global, and globalization itself can be seen as a kind of mutation within the natural order.

This ability to influence other species has given us a profound conceit of ourselves. Yet our mastery of other species is coupled with an amazing ignorance of how natural systems work, their awe inspiring interconnectedness, and our total reliance on natural services. There have been some 30 urban civilizations before our own. All eventually crashed. Why? The reasons range from damage to the environmental base on which they rested to the mounting costs in human, economic and organizational terms of maintaining them. Last week Jared Diamond published a new book Collapse to analyze what can go wrong, but also make clear there was no determinism about it. Things can go right too.

Let me be more specific. There are seven main problems that are pushing the environment to the edge. They arise from human population increase; degradation of land, depletion of resources and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; climate change; energy production and use; misapplications of technology; and destruction of biodiversity. All are interconnected.

Of these factors,

Coping with all or any of these issues requires two fundamental changes:

  1. first, recognition that they exist,
  2. secondly - and eventually - readiness to do something about them.

This process may take some time. The story of how ozone depletion was recognized, and international action followed is a classic example of success. The story of climate change is only halfway there. Many in the Bush Administration are still in a state of denial; but elsewhere in the United States attitudes are changing fast, and I believe that in the end concerted international action will be taken to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

If we are to achieve more sustainable development, neither state-directed economics nor market economics can alone supply the right framework. As has been well said, the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. Markets are superb at setting prices but incapable of recognizing costs. Governments therefore have a particular responsibility to determine what is in the public interest, and to use fiscal and legislative instruments to promote it. But they can scarcely do so without public understanding and support.

They also need some measure of agreement between them. They do not find it easy to take action outside a broad international consensus. Such action can look needlessly damaging to the national interest unless others do the same. It is for example obvious that the current exemption of aviation and bunker fuel from taxation is absurd and profoundly damaging to the environment. It is one of many distortions of energy policy which still sees subsidies going to fossil fuel extraction (some US $73 billion a year in the 1990s). Rhetoric about competitiveness fills the air in Britain as elsewhere.

The sad truth is that so far most such consensus is lacking. In particular we expect too much of what international conferences can achieve. Look at what happened - or did not happen - at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Perhaps the most damning comment came from Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. He said,

"Sometimes our heads of state go from summit to summit, while our people go from abyss to abyss."

Most of the solutions to the problems we have caused are well known. Take human population increase. The overall rate is still rising, but in several parts of the world it is levelling off or declining. The main factors are improvement in the status of women, better provision for old age, wider availability of contraceptive devices, and better education, especially for girls and young women. Even so if current trends are anything to judge by, we may well have a population of 3 billion more people in 2050, almost half again the present population of 6.4 billion.

Take degradation of land and water. We know how to look after them both if we try. We do not have to exhaust top soils, watch them erode into the sea, rely upon artificial aids to nature, eliminate the forests with their natural wealth of species, or poison the waters, fresh and salt. Take the atmosphere. We do not have to rely on systems of energy generation which will affect climate and weather in a fashion that puts an overcrowded world at risk.

Take biodiversity. We do not have to devastate the natural world. Then there is technology. We do not have to run the risks we do. In his new book Our Final Century (the publishers removed the question mark after the title), the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees explored the dangers arising from human inventiveness, folly, wickedness and sheer inadvertence. The ramifications of information technology, nano-technology and nuclear experimentation and the rest have still to be understood and explored. His conclusion is to give our civilization only a 50 percent chance of survival beyond the end of this century.

Global Institutions

Let me turn now to institutions. The United Nations is basically an association of sovereign states, even if real sovereignty is leaking away from them all the time. Beyond and above the international debating society that is the UN General Assembly is the Security Council for the regulation of peace and war. It is the most conspicuous institution of the United Nations system, and here the impact of change has been most evident.

As you probably know, I had over three years personal experience of it. During that time (1987-1990) the Five Permanent Members were able to give leadership within the Council in bringing an eventual end to the war between Iran and Iraq, in promoting the independence of Namibia, in finding a settlement in Cambodia, and in creating the coalition which led to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. Obviously the Five cannot even pretend to rule the world. When they began to work together, the others felt a mixture of relief that they should be doing so with apprehension that they might be trying to form some five power directorate.

But in the last few years neither the Five nor the Council as a whole have given consistent leadership, and have reverted to ambiguous resolutions and unwillingness to match means to ends. Moreover we have just seen two of them take unilateral action outside the Charter in defiance of the views of the other three, and of the international community as a whole.

I once tried to introduce an environmental dimension into the work of the Council. Obviously an environmental offence in one state - for example cutting off water supplies - could lead another to war. Yet I got nowhere with my colleagues.

Of United Nations institutions, perhaps the International Court of Justice has so far changed least. It is a pity that more countries have not yet accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court, and made wider use of its facilities for resolving disputes between states. There are possibilities for developing the use of Chambers in which issues can be settled within ad hoc tribunals outside the glare of international publicity. Yet I believe that a new one to cover environmental disputes between states has not been used.

The economic and social side of the United Nations remains a Cinderella. Most of its original functions are discharged elsewhere in such bodies as the annual G8 summits, regional economic organizations, the OECD, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and some of the UN agencies. Protection of human rights is outside the formal sphere of UN responsibility. In this case there is a clash of cultures which remains unresolved. On the more positive side such new institutions as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, created as a result of the Rio Conference, have potentialities

Finally there are the UN Agencies and Associated Bodies and Programmes (over 40 in number) which have already changed substantially over the years. They bring together technical expertise in dealing with global problems, from health to meteorology, and the best of them are indispensable. Obviously some have worked much better than others. There are some encouraging signs. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are co-operating more closely with other UN institutions. The work of the Agencies and Associated Bodies constitutes an important if still somewhat dispersed effort at global management of issues beyond the competence of nation states.

There is a particular imbalance. On the one hand we have the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which are all institutions with real mechanisms for influencing government policy. They are much stronger on trade and finance than on the environment, and tend to be driven by vested interests looking for short-term profitability. By contrast the 200 or more environmental agreements are dispersed and poorly coordinated, with different hierarchies of reference and accountability.

I have long argued for the creation of a World Environment Organization to balance - and be a partner of - the World Trade Organization. The last Director of the World Trade Organization took the same view. If ever we are to cope with the consequences of the environment going over the edge, we shall need something of this kind.

Over the past half century, the United Nations has survived extraordinary changes in international relationships, and adapted itself pretty well in the process. It has survived, albeit at high cost, the East-West polarity created by the hostile coalitions led by the United States and the Soviet Union. It has survived the North-South polarity created by the break-up of the old colonial empires and a vast increase in its membership: many of the new members see the United Nations less as a guardian of the status quo than as an agent of change to put right inequities between states.

It has survived the changes brought about by the end of the cold war which, like the end of the ice age, revealed international landscapes riven by pressures and faults which had long lain hidden beneath the ice. Finally it has survived the current changes not only between nation states but within their frontiers, and thereby found itself drawn into disputes where it had no clear mandate under the Charter.

I believe that the United Nations and its institutions suffer from four main handicaps:

  1. In spite of recent shortcomings, the UN system has almost excessive political credibility. Far more responsibility is loaded on it than it can possibly carry.
  2. Secondly the tasks it is given are often confused or imprecise, not least because member states themselves do not know how to cope with them. Thirdly it is not given the financial and other resources it needs to function effectively.
  3. Last it has not so far been allowed to carry through necessary internal changes and reforms.

There is a curious and unbridged gap between the often repeated wish of governments, expressed in the Security Council, the General Assembly and elsewhere, for the United Nations to defend international order, fulfil its obligations under the Charter, and take on new responsibilities; and the means - political, financial and administrative - by which it could do so. Governments often blame the United Nations for failures. Some people in Washington have made it part of their political roadshow. More legitimately the United Nations blames governments.

So far I have described the gradual, sometimes hesitant movement of the world community towards international codes of conduct and law, and willingness to cooperate in coping with global issues, whether of peace and war, or of sustainability in all its aspects. But now we have to face up to what, I suppose, was a natural consequence of the ending of the cold war: the emergence of a single superpower - the United States - which is increasingly setting its own agenda, laws, and rules of conduct.

US unilateralism is not new. But the tendency has become much starker in the Administration of President Bush Junior and goes against the grain in an increasingly interdependent world:

The attitude of the Administration towards climate change and its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol have aroused particular indignation elsewhere. The science is not now in question. Nor are the potential hazards for the world as a whole, including the United States. There is a marked contrast.

"the non-participation of the United States in the global effort on climate change is more than a national embarrassment. It is dangerous."

How President Bush will handle our Prime Minister's insistence on making climate change one of his two top priorities when presiding over the G8 this year remains to be seen.

All this sounds - and is - gloomy. But since 2000 the United Nations and its members have endorsed the eight Millennium Development Goals, and a high level committee under the chairmanship of Jeffrey Sachs has put forward radical proposals about how these might be realized. Still more relevant to the future of the United Nations is the report of another high-level committee, with equally radical proposals for changes in the UN structure itself.

Both these reports will be on the agenda for the UN General Assembly in September, and the question for all member states, is the extent to which they can be put into effect. All institutional change is very difficult. Realism usually defeats idealism, and I am afraid that fundamental changes in thinking about international management, accountability, democracy, economics, trade, globalization and the rest are both necessary but immensely challenging. Vested interests are like tigers. They fight hard.

Britain has a vested interest of its own. Our small and vulnerable island has long been dedicated to the effectiveness of international institutions and the rule of law. In a world with - at present - only one super power, the United Nations must be more than an international body that names and shames. Wars must not be allowed to crowd out, even temporarily, the need to think about the big issues and work together in trying to resolve them. An enormous amount needs to be done and all states need to have their say in setting the agenda and judging results. If the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The Human Prospect

This brings me to prospects for our future. If present trends continue, we could well push the environment to, or even over the edge with unforeseeable consequences above all for ourselves.

James Lovelock recently gave a sobering warning. He wrote:

"We have grown in number to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease. As in human diseases there are four possible outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis - a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and the invader."

But let us assume that we survive this century. In peering further ahead it may be useful to jump a few hundred years, accepting that our ability to look even 20 years ahead is extremely limited. If statistical projections from the past have value, there will certainly have been some sudden disruptions before 2500, whether volcanic explosions, earthquakes, impacts of extraterrestrial objects, or even destructive wars using unimaginably horrible weapons. Ecosystems will be drastically changed, as after extinction episodes in geological history. Human health will be affected by the development and spread of new pathogens.

How our successors, if there be such, will react to these new circumstances we cannot predict. We must always expect the unexpected. But it is hard to believe that there will be anything like current human numbers in cities or elsewhere. It has been suggested that an optimum population for the Earth in terms of its resources would be nearer to 2.5 billion rather than - as now - over 6 billion with the prospect of 2 or 3 billion more to come. Communities are likely to be more dispersed without the daily tides of people flowing in and out of cities for work. People may even wonder what all those roads were for.

The implications for governance reach equally wide. Already there is a movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to deal with global issues; downwards to communities of human dimension; and sideways by electronic means between citizens everywhere.

There is a wide range of possibilities including forms of dictatorship and disaggregation of society. The problems of politics will be as difficult as they are today: how to ensure greater citizen participation without creating chaos; how to establish forms of accountability to ensure that governance is by broad consent; and how to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse.

There is also the possibility, however sinister, of differentiation of the human species. H. G. Wells invented Eloi and Morlocks (those up above and those down below), and at the time, more than a century ago, it seemed an amusing fantasy. No longer. Redesigning humans has become a real possibility. Through genetic manipulation humans could split into distinct varieties and over time into subspecies. It is worth remembering how vulnerable even the Eloi were. Some of these ideas were explored by Lee Silver in his book Remaking Eden in 1998.

Let us hope that humans will soon work out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the Earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. The opportunities for our species seem as boundless as the hazards.

Working together, we may merit our survival. But our long-term prospects cannot be assured. I sometimes wonder how long it would take for the Earth to recover from the human impact. How soon would our cities fall apart, soils regenerate, the animals and plants we have favoured find a more normal place in the natural environment, the waters and seas become clearer, the chemistry of the air return to what it was before we polluted it?

Life itself, from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the seas, and even below that, is so robust that the human experience could become no more than an episode. Above all let us remember how small and vulnerable we are as creatures of a particular environment. We are like microbes on the surface of an apple, on an insignificant tree, in an insignificant orchard, among billions of other insignificant orchards stretching over horizons beyond our sight or even our imagining.

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