Agreeing to disagree makes no sense at all


The deluge of posters, pamphlets and platitudes that roared out of Johannesburg during the 2002 Earth Summit has ended, though to no one’s surprise this summit’s conclusions were much the same as those of the first Earth Summit in Rio a decade ago.

Sure, we know what the problems are and what needs to be done — but the big question still remaining is who will take up the reins of leadership, and when?

The Johannesburg meeting, formally known as the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, lasted 10 days from Aug. 26 and highlighted several key problems: First, we are using natural resources faster than nature can replace them. Second, we are putting more pollutants into our environment than the natural world can assimilate. And third, hundreds of millions of people still suffer from poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy.

Ironically, we also know that human society already possesses all the wealth, technology and innovation it will ever need to overcome all of these threats. We simply cannot agree on how to save ourselves from ourselves.

On Aug. 22, this column examined the first problem — the overuse of resources — and something called the Ecological Footprint, which measures human consumption of renewable natural resources in relation to the Earth’s biological capacity to regenerate them. The measurement is outlined in the “Living Planet Report 2002,” published in June by the Swiss-based World Wide Fund For Nature, which is known in North America as the World Wildlife Fund.

The WWF concludes that we are simply not living within our means — to the extent that, even by three years ago, human consumption had already “overshot the Earth’s biological capacity by almost 20 percent,” as the report notes. Meanwhile world population continues to grow by nearly 2 percent annually.

Not surprisingly, the report finds that Asians and Africans use the least resources, and North Americans the most in terms of “global hectares” — with the WWF defining 1 global hectare as 1 hectare of average biological productivity. The United Arab Emirates and the United States — the two nations with the largest ecological footprints per capita in 1999 — consume about 10 global hectares of resources per person. (Interestingly, according to the Aug. 19 issue of Newsweek, for the past eight years the U.S. has been the world’s biggest arms dealer, and the UAE the world’s biggest arms purchaser.)

At the other end of the spectrum, Ecuadorians and Chinese required about 1.7 global hectares per person. Clearly, few nations are living within the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity (1.9 global hectares per capita, according to the WWF), and some that are now, such as China, will not do so for much longer. Meanwhile, other nations such as the U.S. and Canada that are already over-consuming from a global perspective, still have vast national resources to exploit — unilaterally, if they choose.

Even viewed with some optimism, based on U.N. scenarios that “assume slowed population growth, steady economic development and more resource-efficient technologies,” the WWF report states: “The world’s Ecological Footprint will continue to grow between 2000 and 2050 from a level 20 percent above Earth ‘s biological capacity, to a level between 80 and 120 percent above it.”

More graphically stated, if the Earth’s population reaches 9 billion by 2050, as expected, its resource needs will equal “between 1.8 and 2.2 Earth-sized planets.”

To feed and clothe billions more people, and lacking another planet, humans will have to find a way to coax more resources from the limited capacity of global ecosystems — for example, through technological innovation.

If technology does not save us, something will surely give. Perhaps it won’t be the collapse into famine, war and disease long ago predicted by the English economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) — who foresaw unrestrained population growth peaking, then plummeting, as resources were used up — but we appear firmly on course for hardship and shortages nevertheless.

Or, we could decide to forgo some things first . . .

The WWF suggests giving rather than taking. As the report notes: “Three factors determine the size of the Ecological Footprint: the efficiency of production systems used to harvest renewable resources and deliver goods and services to consumers; the level of consumption per person; and the number of consumers.”

Furthermore, the biological capacity of the Earth depends on the health of its ecosystems, and these can be “improved and maintained through good management and conservation,” the WWF report notes. It suggests that governments use economic and regulatory policies to reduce resource demand and protect ecosystems by focusing on four areas in particular: production, consumption, population and ecosystems.

In the first area, the WWF supports improving the resource-efficiency with which goods and services are produced, using subsidies and tax systems to encourage long-term sustainability in agriculture and industry.

Regarding consumption, it calls for “equitable and sustainable consumption.” This entails promoting markets for sustainably produced goods and services; ensuring that polluters pay for the full environmental costs of their production; minimizing consumer waste; and recovering all recyclables.

Addressing the obvious need for population control, the WWF recommends education and health care for all, particularly for women and particularly in low-income countries.

As for ecosystems, the group advocates protecting, conserving and restoring “natural ecosystems and biodiversity to maintain biological productivity and ecological services.”

So who will lead this planetary housekeeping revolution? As the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, the United States is the most obvious candidate. Arguably it also has a moral responsibility to lead, being the globe’s largest consumer of resources and the nation that has touted to the world “buy now, pay later, feel good” overconsumption.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, and much of the U.S. public, is in no mood for looking at the long term. As has been the case for decades, many Americans suffer from a myopic sense of entitlement and are oblivious to its consequences, for themselves and everyone else: From SUV owners who take the wheel of their oversize vehicles and toss safety, civility and the environment by the wayside, this extends right through to corporate executives whose only notion of professionalism is avoiding the attentions of regulators.

Perhaps the U.S. does need a war — though the battle required is nowhere near the top of President George W. Bush’s wish list. Were he to declare a war on disease and pollution, on waste and consumption — and on governmental and corporate irresponsibility — then perhaps he could garner global support for his own pet ventures.

However, as long as the Bush administration’s sole international objective appears to be unilateral dominance for self-enrichment, there will be no consensus among the community of nations.

A healthy global environment is essential for all nations and all peoples, but restoring that health will require cooperation from the entire world community. For decades now we have skirted the need for united, international environmental citizenship and responsibility; the Earth will not likely allow us the grace of too many more.