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An Uncertain Journey towards a Sustainable & Equitable Human Development

Soumya Dutta

 

One of the biggest gatherings of world leaders on issues related to progress of the human race without endangering its future survival in reasonable comfort, in other words on sustainable development, ended some months back in the Brazilian city of Rio-de-Janeiro.  This UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a follow up of the first Earth Summit held in 1992 in the same city, and was therefore also called the Rio+20 conference.

A decade before now, the world had gathered at Johannesburg in 2002, to take stock of how far we have travelled on that road, but the assessment was rather disappointing.  The Earth Summit was also soon after the global capitalist euphoria over the successful dismantling of the Soviet Union, or as then claimed – realization of ‘the end of history’. 

The Johannesburg summit came at a time when even the ‘practitioners of the alternative’ succumbed to the ‘shock & awe’ of the western capitalist juggernaut.

From now on, no more social-cultural experiments or alternatives need be attempted by humanity!

From now on, the western model of privatized, corporatized ‘liberal democracy’ will deliver all the results, for everyone! 

Another decade was about to pass but the 1992 Earth Summit’s well worked out Agenda 21 or even the half-hearted Millennium Development Goals – all seemed to be getting lost in the din of unbridled market capitalism and the panacea offered by liberalization-privatization-globalization.  

The world has changed somewhat again, and in the not so hidden corners of the world distress and anger at the killing exploitation and mind boggling disparities has grown to become a perceived threat to the established world order.  After the 2007-09 economic meltdown millions of people, even in the developed world, are now questioning many of these magic mantras.

Prosperous Europe is seething with anger, and protests on its streets are rising, in tune with its rising un-employment, shrinking public expenditure and rising concentration of wealth in fewer hands.  The unquestioning acceptance of private corporations, and their intentions and abilities to deliver ‘development’, is no longer wide-spread.

No one could possibly have foreseen the spread of the ‘Occupy’ movement in the heartland of capitalism, the United State of America, although the real picture & driving force of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ is not yet clear. 

The shining attraction of the Euro-zone has faded considerably.  And the accelerated exploitation and marginalization of large sections of humanity – the indigenous, the disadvantaged women & children, the poor of the world – has given birth to innumerable resistance movements across the world, to some extent obliterating the North-South divide for the short-charged people.  Unlike at any point of time in the past, the survival of deprived people is seen by the global society as intricately connected to the survival of the earth’s ecosystems. This has also brought into focus the age-old understanding in indigenous societies, that of Rights & Needs of Mother Earth, into global recognition.  

With this emerging new understanding, and the possibility of a new world order, even if not in the immediate future, world leaders (political, social and commercial) got together again in Rio, to talk, debate, fight (with voices and pens and guiles) and come to agreements about the future course of the human experiment on this earth. The road to Rio was neither smooth, nor does it give lots of hope.  Very few signs are there even now of the acceptance of the blunders our dominant societies committed and the plunders all of them tried to their full capacity.

Everyone agrees that the Earth is in danger of becoming so badly scarred, that the life support systems might start malfunctioning soon – signs of which are already visible. Climate change, desertification, large-scale deforestation, ocean acidification, loss of employment in large scale employing sectors – all are in focus because of their massive threats, but none have been adequately addressed by the global community of actors.  

We know that we are pushing the planetary boundaries to the limit but we have not stopped doing so.  The other boundaries of acceptable stress – increasing joblessness, wide-spread-poverty, malnutrition & hunger, collapse of social safety nets – are all in the red zone for a majority of the world’s people, even by conservative assessments.

A significant part of the human race is standing at the very edge of an abyss, and looking in anger at those who are driving down towards them, blocking the only escape route. And the existing governance systems in major parts of the world refuse to accept that – you cannot cure the ills by prescribing more of what caused the illness in the first place.

With this rather overcast sky as the backdrop, world’s leaders met again in one of the biggest such gathering about the human survival and the earth’s continuing suitability for that.  The primary document that was supposed to guide this new journey, the zero Draft, subtitled “the Future We want”, has gone from somewhat objectionable but comprehensible, to complicated beyond reasonable limits, so as to become less & less useful to guide discussions. It has become difficult to fathom – whose future they are talking about, and who all fit into this picture? The two focus areas for the conference – Green Economy, and Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, have seen acrimonious debates and barely any agreement.  The debates have – of late – degenerated to the levels of which institution is to be given more money, where will some head-quarters be located and the like.  The main players of the dirty and black Economy have remained in the driver’s seat to chart out a green economy, and they have understandably opted to paint their dirt green. 

What should one do – if one’s conscience is still alive and political understanding somewhat clear – under this painful scenario?  Should one reject such exercises as useless, even illegitimate and retrograde?  Does continued participation give undeserved legitimacy to the “conferences of polluters”, as the Copenhagen climate change conference (as well as the next three in Cancun, Durban& Doha) was also termed and turned out to be? Does it compromise the strength and purity of the voices of resistance? Or is there merit in trying to engage many actors, in the hope and design of blocking the more damaging pathways, in getting larger voices organized around alternatives emerging from the ground?  How much does it help to build up human connections in the face of de-humanized economy-focused nations ?How much of these churning we have been able to generate in our own countries, states and cities or villages, that can be an important enough input to the world stage ?  Can some of the positive aspects be strengthened by lending the support of those who are at the center of deliberations but not allowed in the glass palaces? As representatives of the voices and understandings of the exploited & the underprivileged, grounded-in-reality civil society faces this difficult choice.   These are neither tick-the-right-box questions, nor there seem to be any definitive yes-no answers and the only course of action for us is to stay true to our convictions and on roughly charted pathways – irrespective of what the immediate results turn out to be.    That’s what we are and will be trying -- raising issues, expanding collectives, establishing bridges across physical oceans and economic gulfs and cultural foundations, to become a humanity united by much more than the genetic identity of Homo Sapien Sapiens, into a society which addresses these survival questions as earnestly & honestly as they can.

There were 7 Critical Issues under serious consideration at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, and let’s take a brief look at these (paragraphs within quotes are from the UNCSD document), for more detailed examination later -

Jobs

“Economic recession has taken a toll on both the quantity and quality of jobs. For the 190 million unemployed, and for over 500 million job seekers over the next 10 years, labour markets are vital not only for the production and generation of wealth, but equally for its distribution. Economic action and social policies to create gainful employment are critical for social cohesion and stability. It's also crucial that work is geared to the needs of the natural environment. "Green jobs" are positions in agriculture, industry, services and administration that contribute to preserving or restoring the quality of the environment. “

This is not the result of an ‘economic recession’ alone, it started much earlier and the roots are much deeper.  In spite of these expressed concerns, over the last 3 decades, the focus of most economies have shifted to increased reliance on ‘automated’ production, eliminating more jobs.  With these ‘modernized industries’, the investment required for creating a single job has gone up very sharply, whereas the available investment has not kept pace, despite huge rise in both production and the profits from the same investments. This has lead to job-less growths in many economies.  In many southern countries, one of the biggest sources of giving people an earning is livelihoods, not jobs. With massively increased and organized corporate plunder and destruction of all kinds of natural resources, the very sustenance of these livelihoods are under grave threats today.  Land, forests, rivers, coasts – all that gave billions of people their livelihood opportunities, are increasingly being parceled out and given to private corporations by most governments.  Jobs have not increased to take in these doubly displaced people, creating explosive social situations.  And in several southern countries, the largest provider of both livelihoods and jobs – small holder agriculture or peasant farming is being pushed out by policy initiatives. Unfortunately, this understanding has not been acknowledged in its fundamentals, and the governance push continues for more of the same change!

Energy

“Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing incomes, access to energy for all is essential. Sustainable energy is needed for strengthening economies, protecting ecosystems and achieving equity. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is leading a Sustainable Energy for All initiative to ensure universal access to modern energy services, improve efficiency and increase use of renewable sources. “

Sustainable energy is really one of the keys, but the thrust of the energy industry do not seem to be taking cognizance.  With climate change and air & water pollution in many countries at an alarming level, even today the world gets over 80% of its primary energy supply from dirty fossil fuels. The dirtiest of them all – coal, is still considered the mainstay of almost all the developing economies, and the continuing massive increase in coal & coal-based electricity capacity in many of these emerging countries is a mockery of sustainable energy talks. In the name of the poor and energy deprived, these dirty energy capacity has been increased hugely, while the reality is that a large percentage of the poor are still out of the reach of the grid, which has served a sharply increased power demand of the emerging elite and the middle classes in these societies. Except a few notable exceptions, most developing economies have given a go-by to the universal access idea, and focused mostly on increased energy availability.

And the not-so-hidden environmental & social costs of these dirty energy use is being dumped mostly on the same energy deprived.

Even the rich & developed countries, with again very few exceptions to a certain degree, have not moved rapidly enough away from the dirty energy and towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.  And the crucial question – whether the earth can sustain the scale of energy extraction and use that these rich economies have established, is not be found anywhere in the energy debates.

Cities

“Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more. At their best, cities have enabled people to advance socially and economically. However, many challenges exist to maintaining cities in a way that continues to create jobs and prosperity while not straining land and resources. Common city challenges include congestion, lack of funds to provide basic services, a shortage of adequate housing and declining infrastructure. The challenges cities face can be overcome in ways that allow them to continue to thrive and grow, while improving resource use and reducing pollution and poverty. “

Cities are also the biggest sinks of most natural resources extracted, including energy, water, food and metals & minerals. In spite of the knowledge that the present urban models pushes up per person consumption drastically, very limited efforts have been made to change either the pattern of consumptive urbanization, or to slow down this trend.  Globally, over half the population already lives in cities, with over half that number living in sub-standard conditions of urban slums.  Though some efforts are on to reduce the urban footprints in some areas – like some attempts at promoting mass transportation, very few countries have looked at the problem from a holistic viewpoint. The successful examples to make an urban area less of a sucker, as demonstrated by Cuba – seems to find few other takers.  Following the trend in the developed countries, attempts are being made in developing ones, to move massive numbers of people from their rural base to the urban slums, irrespective of their capacities to provide even basic services. The deeper question of whether this is ecologically and socially desirable or sustainable, is not being raised at all.  Urbanization has been accepted as a given, mostly because it helps in forming a monolithic class of consumers of industrial products.  The sustainability of this increased urban consumption is a big question mark.

Food

“It is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food. If done right, agriculture, forestry and fisheries can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centered rural development and protecting the environment.But right now, our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources we depend on.A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish today's 925 million hungry and the additional 2 billion people expected by 2050. The food and agriculture sector offers key solutions for development, and is central for hunger and poverty eradication.”

There are vital inter-linkages between all these ‘sectors’ that the ‘solution providers’ often refuses to see and acknowledge. Increasing and fast-paced urbanization is causing an accelerated loss of fertile agricultural lands in most developing countries, as is the push for green-field industries on agricultural lands. The massive agro-fuel programs of many developed countries, along with some of the emerging ones, have diverted the vitally needed food-grains and other food into making fuels for luxury cars, dramatically increasing the food insecurity for the world’s poor, and yet these are certified as part of the “green economy” !   The huge consumption in developed countries and increasing shift in many emerging ones -- towards industrial meat production, has again diverted the poor’s food grains for fattening these, at the cost of far lower availability of total food, and at affordable prices. Water is a vital input for food production, and yet, more and more of this limited resource is being diverted to consumer goods production in industrial factories, starving food production.  Increased commercialization of the food-supply chain and the global movement of produced food – with their attendant grading—packaging--transportation, has dramatically increased the energy & water consumption. The other result is the sky-rocketing costs, making food unaffordable to the poor, sometimes even to the producers themselves, with an increasingly affluent middle class consuming & wasting a larger share of the available food.  There might be enough food available on a per capita basis, but that do not automatically translate to food for every hungry stomach, and sustainable food system must address both these challenges on an urgent basis. 

There are renewed attacks on the world’s small farmers, one of the consistent food growers given the neglect and difficulties they have faced over the last 5-6 decades. The primary contributors of the global green house emission, industry, transport and commercial forestry – have not taken significant steps to reduce their emissions, while the pressure is now building on the small food growers in the southern countries – to do mitigation through soil carbon mitigation. Many governments are rightly skeptical, but that has not prevented global organizations like the FAO & the UNFCCC to push for this dangerous approach, which will further threaten the survival of peasant farming. 

Water

“Clean, accessible water for all is an essential part of the world we want to live in. There is sufficient fresh water on the planet to achieve this dream. But due to bad economics or poor infrastructure, every year millions of people, most of them children, die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Drought afflicts some of the world's poorest countries, worsening hunger and malnutrition. By 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water.”

Both water availability and consumption varies tremendously between countries, and even within countries - between classes and regions. The supposed consensus on priorities, that drinking water & other basic human needs gets first priority, followed by food production, is increasingly threatened in many countries by the large scale water privatization for industrial use. The recognition of the role of ecological flows of rivers and other ecological water needs is only technical, not followed in policies and actions.   Urbanization and industrialization are both demanding and getting larger shares of scarce water resources, along with huge waste generation, that also pollute the rivers and ground water sources.  Spreading dumps of industrial pollutants – coal-ash ponds of power plants being one big contributor – has contaminated vital aquifers in large areas.  Many of the big urban centers in the emerging countries have dumped billions of liters of untreated sewage into the very rivers they depend on for life support – converting them into foul drains. Increasing numbers of dams on rivers are killing aquatic eco-systems, as well as preventing aquifers along the course of these rivers from getting recharged, whereas the withdrawal from them increases.  These have also stopped billions of tons of fertile silt that were earlier carried to fertilize millions of hectares, threatening the food security and increasing the demand for GHG emitting synthetic fertilizers.  In spite of the UN general Assembly passing a resolution in July 2010, on water and sanitation being basic rights of each human being, the global, national and regional governance systems seem to be un-willing to change course. The only silver lining appears to be the increasing assertiveness of exploited communities, in reclaiming their own resources and sustainable environments.

Oceans

“The world's oceans - their temperature, chemistry, currents and life - drive global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind. Our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all ultimately provided and regulated by the sea. Throughout history, oceans and seas have been vital conduits for trade and transportation. Careful management of this essential global resource is a key feature of a sustainable future. “

And yet, the great rush for exploitation further and deeper into the oceans, continue.  Taking advantage of the Arctic ice loss due to global warming, the Arctic Ocean is being explored for possibly huge oil resources, irrespective of the fact that this will hasten the reduction of Arctic ice cover, decreasing the earth’s albedo and accelerating climate change.  The oceans are the biggest sink – for not only the CO2 emitted by fossil fuel burning, but also of the heat that is forced into the earth, with over 90% of this heat ending up in them.  Both this are causing a drop in the ocean’s ability to absorb and retain CO2, leading to a dangerous positive feed-back for a climate catastrophe. And the millions of marine life species are finding this warmer, more acidic environment harder to adjust, resulting in great stress on marine eco-systems.  Notwithstanding these, there are risky geo-engineering plans to inject possibly billions of tons of CO2 – from the yet-untested-in-large-scale CCS (carbon capture & storage) – under these threatened oceans!  The fish and other marine resources have been depleted by both over exploitation and thermal & chemical pollutions, and yet, there is an increased trend of locating huge coal & nuclear energy based power plants on the coasts, increasing both thermal & chemical pollutant loads on the coasts, and devastating coastal ecosystems and the multiple millions of livelihoods that depend on coastal resources.  The oceans are also being looked as the possible sources of extension of our mining madness – for manganese nodules, for methane hydrates etc. All these greed driven actions are trying to ignore or hide the science of the oceans, indicating they are close to the ecological tolerance boundary for life-support systems.

Disasters

“Disasters caused by earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis and more can have devastating impacts on people, environments and economies. But resilience -- the ability of people and places to withstand these impacts and recover quickly -- remains possible. Smart choices help us recover from disasters, while poor choices make us more vulnerable. These choices relate to how we grow our food, where and how we build our homes, how our financial system works, what we teach in schools and more. With a quickening pace of natural disasters taking a greater toll on lives and property, and a higher degree of concentration of human settlements, a smart future means planning ahead and staying alert.”

Both the global rate of disasters and the number of people affected by these have increased sharply over the last few decades, and most of the contributing factors are anthropogenic, or rather, from certain kind of economic choices.  Earthquakes & tsunamis are natural, but human interference in the earth’s climate & other eco-systems have either increased the floods, droughts, big storms, or increased their strength and damages. There are studies to show that the most vulnerable countries are also those that have contributed little or nothing to this increase, where those causing this trend – though affected – are far less vulnerable.  This called for a just and CBDR (Common but Differentiated Responsibility) based response – but increasingly, the richer countries have withdrawn from even the minimal earlier commitments. Adaptation is a key need for the increasingly vulnerable poorer societies, but there is hardly any support available, with talks and vague assurances replacing actions and concrete commitments.  On the other hand, the corporatization of adaptation – through big-budget technological solutions is finding increasing favour of even the poorer country governments.  

About the Author

Soumya Dutta is national general secretary, India People's Science Forum and has written extensively on climate change

 

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