Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Slow progress towards ecologically and environmentally friendly development
Twenty years separate the UN Stockholm Conference from the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Yet, compared with the expectations raised, little progress was achieved during these two decades in terms of international action directed at a more rational management of the biosphere. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the body that emerged from the Stockholm meeting, never had the resources commensurate with the immensity of the task entrusted to it.
Lack of progress in international environmental cooperation prompted the United Nations to set up a high level environment and development commission presided by Ms. Brundtland, prime minister of Norway. Its report, Our Common Future , did not add much to what was known on the subject, but it had the merit of giving a new impetus to the political discussion on the urgency to promote what is now called "sustainable development." However, the institutional breakthrough at the international level - the Montreal Convention on the protection of the ozone layer - was essentially due to the fears motivated by the adverse effects of human activities on the world's climate, about which scientists produced new evidence.
By contrast, greater progress was achieved in the institutionalization of environmental concern at the national level. Practically all countries now have ministries of the environment. Several promulgated advanced laws. The Brazilian constitution (1988) has an excellent chapter on the environment; Peru has consolidated the legislation on environmental protection and management in an extensive code. Of course, the problem of enforcement of such laws remains. Institutional creativity may even serve as a screen to disguise lack of will to change the status quo. But at least a framework has been built to start action when the political conditions are favourable.
Conceptually, some progress has been made. We shall review it under four headings: the analytical tool-box, the debate on sustainability, the emergence of a new paradigm in ecology, and global change.
The planners' and managers' tool-box
By analogy with technology assessment, a comprehensive environmental impact assessment has been instituted and is today required by law in several countries for projects such as big dams, river diversion, mines, large industrial complexes, siting of potentially dangerous factories (chemicals, nuclear facilities, etc.).
In practice, such exercises are often performed in ways that do not guarantee effective protection to the populations or to the long-term interests of the country. This happens in particular where the investor is supposed to produce the environmental impact statement, but no adequate mechanisms have been set up to control it effectively. While citizen associations are formally consulted, they do not have access to the necessary expertise to analyse in depth the investor's proposals.
Another difficulty arises as regards negotiating compensation for the populations affected or even displaced. The common practice of paying individual compensation lends itself to many abuses. On the other hand, finding meaningful collective solutions proves much more difficult. The imbalance of power between the actors interested in carrying out the project and the defenceless populations is often dramatic. It is not by refining the analytical tools but by perfecting the negotiating and contractual process and by offering adequate institutional protection to the weaker party (advocacy planning) that progress may be achieved .
In spite of these shortcomings, the environmental impact statements constitute already an antidote against spatial interventionism and the radical proposals to transform Nature that emerged after the Second World War both in the USSR (diverting southward the flow of Siberian rivers) and in the United States (an artificial sea in the Amazon region proposed by the Hudson Institute).
The growing interest in the environment coincided with the decline of planning and the rise of neoliberal economics. Under these circumstances, considerable effort was displayed to find ways of including the environmental (but strangely enough not the social) externalities within the conventional economic calculus. A new discipline emerged under the name of "ecological economics" . While the journal published under this name contains many interesting contributions, ecological economics is flawed by the underlying assumption that ultimately the decision-making must rest on the economic calculus.
A radical criticism of ecological economics leads, however, to the uncomfortable (but alas lucid) position that planning and decision-making are an art, not a science .
In policy terms, the attempt to internalize the environmental costs led to the formulation of the "polluter pays" principle elaborated in great detail by the OECD . Although applicable and practical within certain limits, this principle has several limitations.
What should the polluter pay for: The right to continue to pollute? A compensation to the victims of pollution? The cost of shifting to clean technologies? Should he choose the solution that costs least? Does it make sense to establish a market to trade emission rights locally or even at a global scale? The latter solution, carried to its extreme, might for instance lead a polluting industry in the North to buy large estates in a tropical country in order to stop the methane-releasing paddy production there, the social cost of the operation being left outside the calculation!
Another set of questions concerns the polluter's ability to pass on the cost to the consumer, which depends on the imperfections of the market. Much of the theory underlying the "polluter pays" principle assumes a perfect market, which very rarely exists. Paradoxically, mainstream economists have tended to argue that the environment can be successfully managed within a pure market economy, although the evidence does not bear this out.
Another area in which considerable work has been done is that of "environmental accounting. " Two contrasting positions have emerged. One postulates drawing up "accounts" using an array of physical indicators to reflect the changes occurring in the "natural capital": depletion of nonrenewable resources, soil erosion, deforestation, etc. This kind of accounting should provide a safeguard against predatory methods of resource use. The other maintains that the depletion of the "natural capital" could be evaluated in monetary terms and therefore could be subtracted from the GNP (for a more general discussion see Ahmad et al. ). This, however, leaves aside the non-tangible and non-monetary use, existence, and opportunity values put forward by the conservationists .
The debate on "sustainability" and the technology issue
The term "sustainable development" suffers from an ambiguity: Is sustainability to be understood merely in ecological terms? Does it refer to all the facets of development: ethical, social, economic, etc.? How does it relate to economic growth?
As far as philosophies are concerned, the two camps mentioned at the beginning of this chapter maintain their positions: the "Malthusians" sharply attacked the Brundtland Report for its adoption of the goal of sustainable growth, which, in their view, is an oxymoron , while the other continues to put much faith in technological progress.
Whether unlimited growth (as distinct from purely qualitative development) is possible depends on the precise meaning given to the two terms. Extensive growth, using more material resources and producing more waste, i.e. increasing the "material throughput," cannot be envisaged. But intensive growth, meaning by this producing more for the same quantity of inputs and releasing less waste per unit of output, is not at all incompatible with the existing ecological constraints. This is what the partisans of "another kind of growth" have in mind. They add yet another clause: growth should be not only environmentally sustainable but socially meaningful, i.e. directed to meeting goals set by people and not through marketing [15, 105]. Presumably, the concept of qualitative development includes the intensive growth as defined above.
While the policy conclusions of the "Malthusians" are open to discussion, their reconceptualization of the field of economics is of great importance. The pioneering work of Georgescu-Roegen  was instrumental in reintroducing into the realm of economics the physical processes underlying production, a dimension practically ignored by all the economic schools after the physiocrats. This paradigmatic breakthrough was followed by a careful elaboration of the process of production as a throughput of energy and resources and the explicit introduction of the "natural capital" in the production functions .
Much effort was devoted to both the conceptual discussion and practical work on "environmentally friendly technologies." They cover a wide spectrum ranging from small-scale "soft technologies" and upgrading of traditional know-how to major efforts to produce large-scale modern low-waste technologies, as well as anti-pollution equipment.
Special reference should be made to the discussion of agricultural techniques. Can we really speak of sustainable agriculture when it requires growing inputs of fertilizers and pesticides? The concept of "regenerative agriculture" pioneered by Robert Rodale tries to promote agricultural practices that are capable of regenerating the soils without massive additions of industrial inputs. It does not, however, go as far as the "organic agriculture," whose advocates often have an extremely restrictive vision of what is "natural" and, therefore, acceptable.
Lately, as a result of the investigation by a committee chaired by John Pesek, the broad concept of "alternative agriculture" has been recognized by the National Research Council of the United States . Alternative agriculture is defined as any system of food and fibre production that systematically pursues the following goals:
The different schools of thought participating in the debate differ about the scope for applying "soft technologies," sometimes narrowly interpreted as a subset of "intermediate technologies," as well as with respect to the relative importance of low-waste and depolluting technologies. The latter subject involves the question of how much effort should go into preventive actions instead of continuing business as usual - that is, producing "goods" and "bads" and then increasing the national wealth by additional production of equipment to suppress or mitigate the "bads"!
In so far as the spatial concentration of production is a major source of environmental disruption, the opportunities created by flexible specialization, modern small-scale production, and decentralized industrialization are bound to become an important locus of harmonization of economic efficiency and ecological prudence. A thorough revision of the concepts of economies of scale and concentration inherited from the previous stage of industrialization are called for in the light of the recent trends in technical progress (micro-electronics, computers, communication, flexible specialization) [75, 4, 47].
Since instant retooling of the productive apparatus was naturally impossible, the management of technological pluralism  and "blending of technologies" became a major policy concern.
Another policy variable is the durability of products. One has to balance the resource-conserving aspects of longer life cycles of products against the need to ensure a reasonable rate of technical change [10, 29]. Developing countries cannot cope with the present trend towards accelerated obsolescence (a perverted form of the Schumpeterian "creative destructiveness"). On the other hand, they must introduce selectively up-to-date technologies in order to achieve competitiveness on international markets. At any rate, better maintenance of infrastructures and equipment offers an excellent opportunity to create jobs financed through the resource saving thus achieved . Discarding the throw-away society is a common objective for the North and the South .
To conclude, it is necessary to emphasize once more the ambiguity of the concept of sustainability. Addressing himself to the roots of the problem, Rajni Kothari writes:
In the absence of an ethical imperative, environmentalism has been reduced to a technological fix? and as with all technological fixes, solutions are seen to lie once more in the hands of manager technocrats. Economic growth, propelled by intensive technology and fuelled by an excessive exploitation of nature, was once viewed as a major factor in environmental degradation; it has suddenly been given the central role in solving the environmental crisis. The market economy is given an even more significant role in organizing nature and society. The environmentalist label and the sustainability slogan have become deceptive jargons that are used as convenient covers for conducting business as usual. 
Against this rhetoric, Kothari suggests a different meaning of sustainability rooted in ethics and going hand in hand with the search for an alternative mode of development. The essence of his thinking is that a conflict exists between two meanings of "sustainable development": sustainability as a narrow economic ideal referring to maintaining privileges and compromising the future and Nature for the benefit of a minority, as opposed to the ethical ideal of sustainability of life on Earth.
He identifies four primary criteria for sustainable development: a holistic view of development; equity based on the autonomy and self-reliance of diverse entities instead of a structure of dependence founded on aid and transfer of technology with a view to "catching up"; an emphasis on participation; and an accent on the importance of local conditions and the value of diversity. "Our common future cannot lie in an affluence is ecologically suicidal, and socially and economically exclusive. It can, and must, lie in a curtailment of wants," as Gandhi constantly reminded his countrymen and others.
It would be utopian to believe that these views would be easily accepted by the affluent minority living in the North and the Northern enclaves in the South. It reflects a fundamental difference of opinion between the North and the South.
A new ecology
The rate of progress in integrating the environmental dimension into the social sciences of development in general and economics in particular has been disappointing. Mainstream economic thought resists the change of paradigm that would deprive the "dismal science" more than ever of its presence of being a hard science. The mechanistic models of growth and the theories of equilibrium are still strongly entrenched. The neoliberal wave is distancing the state at a moment when environmental concern should, on the contrary, lead to a redefinition of the roles of the state, of the markets, and of civil society, seeking their synergy in the management of both the biosphere and society.
Will ecology succeed better in modifying its fundamental underlying paradigm? A pioneering book by Botkin  undermines the notion that Nature undisturbed is constant and stable, a myth that led to many catastrophic mistakes in the management of resources. Instead of a balance of Nature, we are in the presence of discordant harmonies created by simultaneous movements of many tones, a combination of processes flowing at the same time and along various scales. The result is "not a simple melody but a symphony at sometimes harsh and at sometimes pleasing" (p. 25). The ecologists borrowed the physical concept of stability from mechanics and accepted the Lotka-Volterra equations on the basis of authority. "Although environmentalism seemed to be a radical movement, the ideas on which it was based represented a resurgence of pre-scientific myths about nature blended with early-twentieth-century studies that provided short-term and static images of nature undisturbed" (pp. 42-43).
The new paradigm proposed by Botkin insists on the great mutual influence of life and environment at a global level. Together they form a planetary-scale system - the biosphere - that sustains and contains life. The total mass of living things is a tiny fraction of the mass of the Earth; if mixed, the concentration of living things would be two-tenths of one part in one billion. Yet, even the geologists are beginning to view life as an integrated part of geological processes.
At the global level, three schools of thought exist about the balance of Nature.
This reinterpretation of ecology as natural history is couched in coevolutionary terms between the four dynamic parts of the biosphere rocks, oceans, air, and life - each with its own ranges of movements and rates of change. "Biological evolution has led to global changes in the environment which, in turn, have led to new opportunities for biological evolution. In this way, a long-term process of change has occurred throughout history of life on the Earth, which is an unfolding, one-way story" [7, p. 148]. Thus, the production of a "biospheric biography" is in order.
This theoretical perspective has far-reaching practical consequences. We must learn to manage the biosphere and the Earth's resources in terms of uncertainty, change, risk, and complexity. Botkin's conclusions point in the same direction as the recent theories of complexity and chaos [65, 31]. They should not be interpreted, however, as a renunciation of scientific analysis and engineering action. "We can engineer nature at nature's rates and in nature's ways: we must be wary when we engineer nature at an unnatural rate and in novel ways" [7, p. 190].
The response to the man-made problems for the environment should not consist in giving up modern technology or in clinging to the belief that everything natural is desirable and good. Botkin concludes: "having altered nature with our technology, we must depend on technology to see us through to solutions" (p.191). Happily, he qualifies this statement by saying that we must learn how to live with the discordant harmonies of the biosphere so that they function not only to promote the continuation of life but also to benefit our esthetics, morality, philosophies, and natural needs.
Already in the early 1970s, it was clear that for the first time in history, human intervention was reaching a scale capable of producing significant and irreversible modifications to the working of the biosphere. That evidence transformed itself into an alarm as advances in climatic research confirmed the potentially deleterious consequences of the "greenhouse effect," anticipated a century ago by Svente Arrhenius.
When will the catastrophe occur, for which several more or less plausible scenarios are explored by the media? Which countries will be the most affected? Are all the foreseeable climatic changes negative? Opinions about these questions differ, and none of the existing climatic models can reliably predict the pace and rate of climatic changes . Yet, the presumptions have proved sufficiently strong to mobilize the international community for the first time to undertake preventive action on a significant scale.
Conferences of scientists and politicians succeed each other at an accelerating pace. Important legal precedents have been set. On the one hand, the international community has recognized the need to jointly manage a significant portion of the "international commons" the atmosphere. On the other, it has agreed to phase out the production of some products releasing greenhouse gases (CFCs) and to enshrine this decision in the international convention on the protection of the ozone layer. Negotiations about global conventions on climate, forests, and biodiversity are under way.
But these initial successes should not be overestimated. Fundamental differences remain between the North and the South about the hierarchy of problems. Is global change to be put above the immediate needs of survival of the poor majority of Spaceship Earth's passengers? Is the recognition of the globality of a problem to be interpreted as a pointer for equal treatment of all the countries whatever their degree of development? How should the costs of adaptation be apportioned? Gallopin, Gutman, and Winograd  point out that the recommendations addressed to the South to restrain future energy consumption "sound like a fat man coming out from a fine restaurant and advising a beggar to fast because that is what he is thinking to do after indulging in such a good meal."
The methodology used to estimate the net emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as the data used, have proved highly controversial. The Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal  challenged outright the work of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington , which had calculated net emissions of gases by assuming that the same proportion could be applied to all countries to take account of Nature's capacity for the sequestration of gases, and then subtracting the result from gross emissions. Agarwal considers that the "emission rights" due to the natural capacity for self-purification should also be equally distributed among all the inhabitants of the planet. This point is well taken, and it completely upsets the calculations of the WRI, which underestimate the relative share of the industrialized countries in the global warming of the atmosphere.
An even stronger ethical point has been raised by Agarwal. Pollution arising from the need to survive and pollution arising from affluence cannot be treated on an equal footing. Are we going to reduce the livestock population in India or reduce the paddy fields throughout Asia just because cows and paddy fields release a lot of methane? Or should we instead concentrate first on reducing the consumption of fossil fuels by the hundreds of millions of cars that circulate in Northern cities and highways?
As for the primary data, Brazilian scientists and authorities have challenged the WRI's estimates of deforestation in the Amazon region. The figures quoted by the two sides vary by a factor from one to four.
Instead of summarizing the conflicting views about the imminence and the extension of the likely damage produced by global warming, I shall turn to some underlying epistemological and policy questions .
A distinction must be made between the realm of "scientific questions" raised by global warming and that of "societal questions.'' The latter should be evaluated by citizens, not by scientists. As far as the former are concerned, in the forecasting of the climate's future, the concept of "the average" may be misleading; often what matters more are the extremes. Meteorology deals with movements and transportation of energy and water in the atmosphere. Hundreds of thousands of atmospheric "cells" must be taken into account, each one subject to the laws of gravity and of fluid mechanics, and each having many interactions with one another. Modelling this complexity poses very serious problems, and efforts so far leave many uncertainties. "Bold forecasts assisted nowadays by numerical modelling using supercomputers are nevertheless fragile and may even lead to error if one does not consider very carefully the different time-scales which intervene in the processes under study, as well as the degree of confidence that can be attributed to the modelling of different processes" [52, p. 72]. Significantly, Kandel shares Botkin's opinion about the myth of natural equilibria. He uses the concept of dynamic equilibria, which takes into account the evolution of the biosphere.
Even more important than the problems raised by Kandel, scenarios of the consequences of global warming depend on three levels of modelling:
Another difficult question concerns feedbacks. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, analysed mainly in terms of its impact on global warming, at the same time encourages the growth of vegetation. If properly used, the increased biomass production may be a good, not a bad. The ability to put this biomass to good use depends on another feedback: that of human intelligence [52, p. 77].
The real question is to know whether we really want to steer our planet. If we can really know what the consequences will be of this or that policy, if we can really change the policy on the basis of this knowledge, we can - of course within the limits fixed by the laws of nature - choose our destiny. The scientific knowledge and the political mechanism which can save us from an undesirable climatic change are the same as will allow us deliberately to modify the climate. The future of the climate would in this way be inextricably linked to the future of humankind." [52, pp. 122-123]
Contents - Previous - Next