If nations had laws requiring that we all went about our business wisely and with respect for the planet, those laws would prioritize precaution and force polluters to clean up their mess.
So far, however, few citizens demand such statutes — and fewer governments are keen to draft them. One exception is the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, which is now drafting a new constitution that will put a priority on environment conservation.
The Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle remain little known at the national level, but they are already established features of international law, having been included in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a non-binding statement adopted by 178 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.
Fine phrases rarely jive
Unfortunately, the fine phrases touted at international conferences rarely jive with how we run our economies day to day. Now, 15 years on from Rio, and despite all we know about environmental degradation, many corporations still insist that precaution and cleanup impose an unfair burden, forcing companies to trim their profits and anger shareholders.
Sorry, but tough. It’s time for corporations and governments to worry less about enriching those already rich beyond reasonable measure, and start acting for the well-being of all, including the children of those presently feasting off unearned incomes, who will inherit a compromised planet, too.
And the imbalance of wealth is getting worse. In his Japan Times column last Sunday, Robert Samuelson reported that the richest 10 percent of America’s population receives 44 percent of the nation’s pretax income, while the richest 1 percent receive an astonishing 17 percent.
Samuelson characterizes this gap in income distribution as “hardly optimal,” and concludes by paraphrasing the English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): “The rich are only tolerable so long as their gains can be held to bear some relation to roughly what they have contributed to society.”
If what the rich have contributed increasingly appears to be jeopardizing the welfare of others, then those others may soon see their gains as being not just intolerable, but downright criminal.
And that day may be nearer than we imagine. With governments being called upon to deal with the threats of climate change, corporations that value profits over planetary well-being may soon find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
In Bhutan, for example, new priorities are becoming a reality, as the country is presently in the process of drafting a new constitution for adoption in 2008. Two drafts can be viewed on the Internet, and both adopt wording that makes every Bhutanese citizen “a trustee of the Kingdom’s natural resources and environment.” All citizens are to have a “fundamental duty” to contribute to the protection of the natural environment “through the adoption of environment- friendly practices and ethos.”
Under Bhutan’s new constitution, the government, too, will have clearly defined responsibilities that include protecting the environment, preventing pollution, securing sustainable development, and ensuring a safe and healthy environment.
Specifically, the government must ensure that at least 60 percent of the nation’s total land area is forested at all times, with the parliament being able to declare any part of the country a national park or protected reserve.
Even more forward-looking, if adopted, is language in the first draft that allows Bhutan’s parliament to enact environmental legislation based on three principles — precaution, polluter pay and intergenerational equity — the latter having gained considerable international support over the past decade.
Definitions of precaution vary, but all formulations of the principle contain three elements, according to the Science and Environmental Health Network.
First, when we have a reasonable suspicion of harm; secondly when there is scientific uncertainty about cause and effect; and thirdly, our duty to take action to prevent harm.
Expensive safety procedures
As reasonable as this may sound, the risk of harm is difficult to quantify, and many industries remain adamantly opposed to laws that require more expensive safety procedures, as they know the costs can outweigh uncertain benefits. With scientific inquiry rapidly evolving, however, potential harm is becoming easier to identify.
In comparison, the Polluter Pays Principle is simple — you make a mess, you clean it up. But what happens when improved science reveals that industry has long been degrading the environment with something once seen as benign: ozone-layer depletion, for example, or climate change?
Should energy companies be legally responsible for reducing carbon-dioxide levels that are substantially the result of burning fossil fuels for energy? They aren’t yet. But if oil companies continue to make record profits while investing paltry sums in alternative energies and carbon-sequestration technologies, the anger and demands of citizens, and governments, could spike dramatically.
The third principle, intergenerational equality, has been developed in the wake of efforts to clarify the concept of sustainable development, which is most often defined as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This definition comes from a 1987 report, “Our Common Future,” from the World Commission on Environment and Development. It is also known as the Brundtland Report, because Gro Brundtland, Norway’s first female prime minister, headed the commission.
Clearly Bhutan is on the right track. But what about the mass-production and mass-consumption nations that are most in need of sustainable development, such as the United States and China?
According to a recent brief from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), there are four reasons why unsustainable behavior remains the norm: “Economic growth is considered an inviolable principle, rather than people’s rights and welfare, or environmental processes and thresholds; environmental benefits and costs are externalized; poor people are marginalized, and inequities entrenched; and, governance regimes are not designed to internalize environmental factors, to iron out social inequities, or to develop better economic models.”
The IIED is a London-based independent, nonprofit research institute working in the field of sustainable development. The short report, titled “A New Era in Sustainable Development,” is available on the Internet.
According to the IIED, three paradoxes lie at the core of our failure to change.
“First, the economic paradigm that has caused poverty and environmental problems to persist is the very thing that we are relying on to solve those problems. Second, this unsatisfactory state of affairs coexists with a policy climate that espouses sustainable development. Third, action is being neglected just when it is most urgently needed: sustainable development remains at best a ‘virtual’ world, a planners’ dream.”
So, while most of the world continues to pursue a self-destructive development paradigm that we are too enamored of to change, the people of Bhutan are crafting a better approach, taking proactive steps toward sustainable development.
Unfortunately, they share Earth with billions of others who, for now, are less wise, less fortunate, and less thoughtful. So the question is this: Will we come to our senses and follow Bhutan’s lead, or will they, as passengers on the same planet, be condemned to follow ours?