By Donella Meadows
–October 15, 1987–
With rejoicing and relief 24 nations and the European Economic Community signed an agreement in Montreal in September to protect the ozone in the earth’s stratosphere. The negotiations were long and difficult, but as they went on, nation-states and multinational corporations behaved in an increasingly civilized, cooperative, forward-looking way. It was enough to make one believe that the human race might have a future after all.
For once humanity has acted to prevent an environmental catastrophe, instead of trying haplessly and at massive expense to repair one after it has occurred. A set of procedures has been created that can help deal with other environmental problems. And the agreement suggests that we may collectively be learning, at last, that no economic activity, however profitable, is worth the price of a deranged global environment. But it also might be true that the ozone agreement is too little, too late.
It sets up a schedule for reducing the manufacture of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, used in air conditioners, fire extinguishers, plastic foams, and a host of industrial products). The agreed-upon reduction will not be 95% as the U.S suggested, or 50%, as many countries suggested, but only 30-40% over ten years. Many Third World countries have not signed. Signing is no guarantee of action. The pact will have to be enforced, CFC production levels will have to be verified, sanctions against violators will have to be effective.
Even if everyone abides perfectly, there are so many CFCs already in the environment and permitted by the agreement that atmospheric chlorine pollution will probably rise by 25%. And as the dignitaries were signing the agreement in Canada, researchers taking the first measurements of the 1987 Antarctic spring were finding that the ozone depletion was worse than ever.
The ozone pact is no proof that humankind has learned to handle global environmental threats. But it sets in place a mechanism to deal with those threats. It is a true international achievement, and it shows what is necessary to create more such achievements.
The agreement didn’t require a great stroke of enlightenment causing everyone to become permanently virtuous. There was no unified world government enforcing regulations on stubborn, self-seeking nations. What brought the agreement about was dedicated people at many levels with many skills playing many different roles. There were a lot of heroes. I think they should be nominated for the Nobel Peace, Medicine, and Economics Prizes — they have, after all, laid the groundwork for preventing an unthinkable environmental, medical, and economic disaster.
It’s worth listing some of the heroes, to acknowledge them and to understand what kind of teamwork is necessary, if we are to manage our crowded, busy, interdependent modern world:
– Scientists, using tools as varied as balloons, satellites and computer models, working through international networks that transcend politics, spotted the problem, learned a tremendous amount about atmospheric chemistry in a short time, and steadily supplied crucial information to the political process. – Citizen activists and environmental organizations in many countries mobilized pressure, educated politicians, and achieved early bans on CFC-containing aerosol sprays. Some of the organizations that deserve special mention are the Natural Resources Defense Fund, the World Resources Institute, Friends of the Earth U.K., and the Institute for European Environmental Policy. – National governments, in particular the United States, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and eventually West Germany, led the way in the negotiations. – The major corporations that make CFCs saw what was coming, went to work developing alternatives to CFCs, and played a generally constructive role in the negotiations. – Finally, and most important, the United Nations, especially the UN Environmental Programme and its director Mustafa Tolba, provided an internationally-acceptable venue within which the negotiations could take place and skillful, untiring leadership in keeping the discussions going.
All the contributors to the ozone agreement have been branded as bad guys by somebody. It’s easy to poke fun at environmentalists, or claim that the U.N. is worthless, or say that the Reagan administration is hopelessly anti-environment, or believe nothing good about big corporations, or wonder whether scientists deserve their expensive research grants. But every one of those actors was essential to the ozone agreement.
Active citizens, nonprofit organizations, scientists, corporations, national governments, the United Nations. A strange assortment of world-savers, often at each others’ throats. They will probably all be essential to the other international agreements we so badly need, on disarmament, climate change, species loss, acid rain.
Maybe this is the way a workable world looks — kind of messy, but, as the ozone agreement indicates, definitely possible.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987