By Donella Meadows
–May 28, 1992–
Reporters are calling it the “Rio Conference” or the “Earth Summit.” Properly it is the “United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,” abbreviated UNCED, pronounced “unsaid.” What is mostly unsaid, at least in the Northern press, is the last word in that title — development.
Environment and development were set up as equal issues for UNCED for political reasons. If the meeting were not designed that way, the poor nations, with three-fourths of the world’s people, wouldn’t come. The two years of negotiation leading up to the conference have consisted largely of the rich North and the poor South hitting each other over the head with the two halves of the agenda. Let’s make agreements about the ENVIRONMENT! says the North. Don’t talk to us about environment until you’ve made commitments about DEVELOPMENT! answers the South.
There are better reasons than political ones for talking about environment and development together. The nations of the South can’t possibly build prosperous economies on devastated environments. The nations of the North can’t hope to protect the environment if billions of people continue to live in poverty. The moral reasons to end poverty are apparently not compelling to rich people. Now there are practical reasons of increasing urgency as the world fills up with people, most of them poor.
For example: Impoverished people have no choice but to cut forests to pay debts, to provide fuel, to create cropland. It means nothing to them that they are extinguishing species that may be of immense scientific and economic value to people more technically advantaged than they are.
Cutting a forest changes both local and global climate. So does desertification from overgrazing, again perpetrated by people who have no real choice. These environmental insults clog rivers with silt, darken the sky with dust, shift energy flows, change the way water evaporates and falls. Astronauts in space see clouds of windblown soil stretching from Africa to Japan and from China to California. They see huge curls of algae blooms from eroded nutrients in the oceans, affecting everything from the fish catch to the reflection of the sun’s energy.
In this increasingly crowded world, walls built by the rich cannot keep out the consequences of poverty, whether those consequences are pollutants, viruses, or migrants. The Chinese and Indians between them have the need to acquire at least 500 million refrigerators. If they use CFCs as cooling agents, they will destroy the ozone layer above everyone’s heads, rich and poor. If they power those refrigerators with coal-fired electricity, they will create smog, acid rain, and greenhouse gases that have no respect for international boundaries.
At UNCED the poor countries are saying, in effect, “We can build refrigerators that use other coolants, that take less energy, that are not powered by coal. It will cost $10 more per refrigerator to do so. If you would like us to be environmentally friendly, please deposit $5000 million in the following account.” That’s blackmail, of course. The South has every right to demand it, and the North should and will accede to it.
The most overwhelming reason why the world can never attain environmental stability without development is that poverty is the source of population growth. Of the 92 million people added to the world this year, 83 million live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Population growth occurs in the poorest parts of the earth, and among the poorest people in the richest parts of the earth, for good reasons. If your only asset were your family’s labor, if your only support in old age were your children, if children were all in the world you could either enjoy or own, and if you had neither the personal liberty nor the technology to control your fertility, you too would want many children and have even more than you want.
A world that is cruelly divided into rich and poor cannot be sustained. Its translation of the earth’s bounty into human happiness is maximally inefficient. Both the rich and the poor, for different reasons, waste and abuse resources, human resources as well as natural ones. The keys to environment and development lie not only in technology and production but in lifestyles and equity. MIT economist Lester Thurow has said, “If the world’s population had the productivity of the Swiss, the consumption habits of the Chinese, the egalitarian instincts of the Swedes, and the social discipline of the Japanese, then the planet could support many times its current population…. On the other hand, if the world’s population had the productivity of Chad, the consumption habits of the United States, the inegalitarian instincts of India, and the social discipline of Argentina, then the planet could not support anywhere near its current numbers.”
One reason why the rich refuse to deal seriously with the plight of the poor is that they think they can separate themselves from the consequences of poverty. That may have been true in a less populated time; it is true no longer. Another reason for inaction is that the rich don’t think they know how to help end poverty. Once they have a real intention of doing it, of course, they will find out how, primarily by listening to the poor. A third reason, probably most the most telling, is the fear that economic justice would mean not enough of anything to go around.
For awhile yet that is not true. But every year of population growth and resource destruction makes environmental or social collapse more likely. By viewing a healthy environment and equitable development as separate and competing concerns, we can destroy the possibility of attaining either. By seeing them as intertwined and equally important, we can achieve both.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992