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The first debate on environment and development

The landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 tried to steer a middle path between two extreme and still influential views: the narrowly economic and the unconditionally ecological.

The partisans of the "growth first" approach claimed that all the other dimensions of development either would be taken care of automatically by the "trickle down effect" of rapid growth or else could be attended to in better conditions once the country concerned had achieved a much higher per capita GNP. This approach is still present in the discussions on how to deal with "global change": on the basis of a controversial cost benefit analysis, Nordhaus [70], to quote the most extreme example, makes a plea for postponing measures aimed at reducing the "greenhouse effects" until the danger really knocks at our doors.

At the other extreme were the partisans of the zero rate of growth. Some applied this concept only to the population. Others extended it to both population and material growth, claiming that real development should concentrate on qualitative rather than quantitative aspects (for an up-to-date formulation of this argument insisting on the need to reconstruct the natural capital rather than to expand man-made capital as an investment priority, see Daly [17]). In their most extreme formulations, the partisans of an end to growth demanded the "de-industrialization" of the rich countries and the non-industrialization of the poor ones; the latter could serve in the meantime as a recreational and cultural reserve for the rest of the world [20].

The population controversy

The demographic argument played an important role in the debate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, although this argument should be qualified in at least three respects.

First, contrary to a widespread belief, curbing the numbers of "nonconsumers" will not greatly reduce the pressures on resources and the environment. This point was rightly made by Barry Commoner [13] and is today recognized even by the Ehrlichs in their most recent book [21]. The environmental impact is a function of the population, its affluence (GNP per head), and the technology employed:

environmental impact = population x affluence x technology

If we take as a proxy for affluence and technology the per capita consumption of commercial energy, "a baby born in the United States represents twice the destructive impact on Earth's ecosystems and the services they provide as one born in Sweden, three times one born in Italy, thirteen times one born in Brazil, 35 times one born in India, 140 times one in Bangladesh or Kenya, and 280 times one in Chad, Rwanda, Haiti or Nepal" [21, p. 134]).

Seen from the resource consumption angle, the population problem is essentially one of the rich people (wherever they are) and countries. Moreover, the Commoner equation clearly shows that the environmental impact may be reduced by acting on the other two variables. Thus, lifestyles, consumption patterns, and technologies in the North and in the affluent enclaves in the South should be our first concern, without underestimating the difficulty of achieving meaningful results with respect to voluntary self-limitation of the growth of material consumption on the part of the affluent minority.

Secondly, policies directed at birth control in third world countries, desirable as they may be to slow down the rate of population growth, are likely to prove deceptive if they do not come as part of a social development package, including the education of women, effective public health policies resulting in reduced infant mortality, access to subsidized, rationed, or distributed food for those who cannot afford to buy the minimum ration, and some protection in old age.

The studies of Kerala by Raj et al. [76] and of Sri Lanka by Panikhar et al. [73] documented the possibility of important social advances in very poor regions. The same conclusion can be drawn from the experience of China. More generally, it is possible to argue that developing countries need not repeat the historical sequence followed by the industrialized countries, where the welfare concern appeared at a late stage of development. The time sequence can be inverted provided that adequate human resources (paramedical personnel, primary school teachers, etc.) are trained, service delivery techniques with a high labour content are chosen, and research is directed towards modern yet inexpensive, preventive, and therapeutic techniques and practices, as shown by Unicef (for a theoretical discussion, see Sachs [81]).

By contrast, the experience of India shows that enforcing (sometimes in the literal sense of this word) birth control practices does not lead very far so long as the broader contextual conditions outlined here are not present. And while the impact of urbanization on reducing fertility cannot be denied, the attendant social costs of massive migrations of rural refugees to urban shanty towns are very high indeed [38].

Thirdly, the spatial maldistribution of the world population poses at least as serious a problem as the rates of demographic growth. This observation applies equally to rural and urban areas. Some rural regions have a population that clearly exceeds their carrying capacity. Others, on the contrary, do not have the minimum density required for meaningful social health and educational policies. Less than half the world's rural population have access to basic health care. Half the rural women over 15 years old are illiterate. In most developing countries, those who live in the countryside typically earn 25 to 50 per cent less than those in the towns. Three-quarters of the poor people in the South live in ecologically fragile zones. In order to survive, they overexploit the natural resources to which they have only a very limited access. The number of environmental refugees is estimated at 14 million people.

The situation is particularly dramatic in sub-Saharan Africa. Mortality of children under five still stands at 178 deaths for every 1,000 live births. Almost two-thirds of the population lack safe water, 18 million suffer from sleeping sickness, and malaria kills hundreds of thousands of children each year [103].

The most dramatic social and environmental challenge in terms of quality of life for billions of people is, however, the urban explosion. The third world cities continue to expand as a result of the massive rural exodus. They are attractive as "lotteries of life," allowing upward mobility for the lucky few or, perhaps, their children, and they are also places where things still happen ("bread and circuses," but also schools, hospitals, and jobs for some). According to UN estimates, the urban population in the South will grow from I to 2 billion between 1980 and the year 2000 and double again in 25 years to reach 4 billion inhabitants in 2025. How many among them will be condemned to live in shanty towns, enduring the double plight of pollution by poverty and of pollution generated by other peoples' affluence, which they may help produce while sharing very little of its bounties? According to Hardoy et al. [42], 600 million urban residents are exposed to serious health risks on account of deficient water supply, sanitation, drainage, and removal of household waste.

Without being equally dramatic, the situation in many cities of the North and certainly of eastern Europe - is far from satisfactory from both the social and environmental viewpoints. Urban infrastructures have grown obsolete. Huge investments are required to modernize and expand them, or even for straightforward repair. Pockets of destitution remain. Social exclusion and spatial segregation have not been overcome. In several American cities, urban centres abandoned by affluent people have been transformed into socially and economically distressed ghettos inhabited by social minorities. Social exclusion is increasingly present in European towns, resulting in racial, religious, and ethnic conflicts.

Therefore, there is the need to put very high on the environmental agenda the issues of the habitability of urban agglomerations, of new rural-urban configurations, and, also, of organized migrations from areas whose density of population clearly exceeds their carrying capacity to places that can still absorb the incomers. The first two of these have an important science and technology component, while the third is eminently political and ethical since it presupposes a willingness to receive alien people on one's territory. It cannot be cast in objective terms. This is all the more so in that the evaluation of the carrying capacity is already a subjective and highly controversial matter. In a study prepared for the Canadian Conserver Society, Goldsmith [33] claimed that Canada is already overpopulated! By contrast, pleading for "more immigrants, please" so as to reach a population of 40 million, his critics argued that if the 10 per cent of Canada's territory that is habitable were as densely populated as the Netherlands, Canada would have over 400 million people!

While the concept of carrying capacity is useful in so far as it reminds us of the existence of outer limits, it cannot be quantified once for all, as both the pattern of demand for goods produced and the technological capability to produce more while destroying less are likely to change over time. Tricart and Killian [1023 have used the same argument to question the concept of "agricultural vocation" of different soils widely used in cartography. The only objective approach is to list the physical constraints that new technologies may or may not overcome.

The harmonization game

The middle path suggested by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 consisted in reaffirming the need for further growth with equity while incorporating explicitly a concern for the environment as a dimension of development conceived as a positive-sum game with Nature. Hence the challenge of applying simultaneously to development thinking the following three criteria:

As this last criterion does not necessarily coincide with the microeconomic profitability at the enterprise level, it follows that ecodevelopment strategies - a shorthand for socially equitable, environmentally viable, and economically efficient strategies [82, 83] cannot be implemented in a pure market economy. They call for a set of regulations on behalf of the state within the broad framework of "mixed economies." Tinbergen and Hueting [100] rightly point out that market prices send wrong signals for sustainable economic success that mask environmental destruction. "If collective side-effects (externalities) are substantial and important, the classical doctrine of the blessings of free trade simply becomes irrelevant as a guideline for economic policy" [39].

Neoliberals interpret the collapse of the command economies in eastern Europe as a proof a contrario of the excellence of the unrestricted free-market model. However, when government fails, will the market do better? Barry Lester's well-argued reply [55] to this question shows that it need not be so, even in terms of productive efficiency, not to mention that the free marketeers relegate equity considerations to second place in the development paradigm [43], while equity and efficiency should be considered as complementary, not conflicting, goals [98]. Toye [101] is right when he postulates a case by case pragmatic analysis that is more costly, to decide whether failure should be blamed on the state or the market.

The variables of the harmonization game are situated at both the demand and supply levels, as well as in the location of productive activities.

DEMAND. The most decisive variable here, but at the same time politically the most difficult to manage, is the consumption pattern reflecting the development style. Resource saving through demand management implies one of the following solutions:

While the main obstacles will lie, as already mentioned, in the political sphere, much will depend also on the availability of attractive technical solutions, but not "technical fixes" isolated from the cultural, ethical, institutional, and political contexts.

SUPPLY It is here, at the intersection between Nature and society, that technology plays a leading role. Nature provides energy, space, and resources, i.e. those elements of the natural environment that, thanks to the knowledge accumulated, can be transformed into some `'use value" deemed as such by the society. The concept of "resource" is therefore essentially cultural and historical.

Society sets the values and the societal goals, builds the institutions, and produces the knowledge - both traditional and scientific (techne and episteme) - used to design the goods corresponding to societal needs and aspirations, to identify the resources, to invent the product and process technologies and the necessary equipment. It also supplies the workforce.

The production process combines in a given site resources and energy with work and previously produced equipment to generate a flow of "goods" that go to the market (or reach the consumer through other institutional mechanisms) and of "bads" that are dumped back in Nature, this time acting as a sink.

It immediately follows from this schematic description that technology constitutes potentially a privileged locus to harmonize the three concerns of social equity, ecological prudence, and economic efficiency. This can be achieved by a variety of means:

By contrast, "careless" technologies prove environmentally disruptive and socially costly. It is only natural that left to itself an enterprise tends to externalize its ecological and social costs in order to maximize the internalized profits, up to the point when the environmental disruption or the social discontent become a hindrance. But this stage is reached only after having done considerable and often irreversible damage, locally and globally. The anthropogenic modifications of the biosphere have reached a worrying scale. Ruffolo [79] suggestively contrasts the increasing might (potenza) of our technologies with our utterly deficient political power (potere) to control them (see also ref. 49).

LOCATION OF PRODUCTIVE ACTIVITIES. This is the third strategic variable of the harmonization game. The environmental impact of productive activities will greatly depend on the climatic and topographic features of the site and the density and nature of the human activities in the proximity. The ecodevelopment approach calls for ecosystem-specific, culture-specific, and site-specific solutions. In the last instance, global problems can be solved only through a coordinated set of local solutions. The future does not belong, however, to an archipelago of self-contained local development units. Institutional arrangements are called for to better articulate the local, national, and transnational spaces of development, tilting the balance in favour of bottom-up approaches to overcome the inherited bias towards centralization and the cities.

It is important to emphasize that, far from being an attempt to return to ancestral practices, respectful of Nature by necessity in order to survive but situated at a very low level of productivity, the approach that emerged from the UN Stockholm Conference sought a modern development in harmony with Nature, recreating the old peasant rationality at a completely different level of the spiral of knowledge. It suggested searching for knowledge-intensive, energy and resource-saving, environmentally sound and socially responsive development paths. The utilization of local knowledge is of enormous importance in this endeavour, the task being to extract from it the original ideas it might contain and to study them by applying the resources of modern science. According to Amilcar Herrera, "the most important local contribution would probably be, more than in concrete specific technologies, in new approaches to the solution of old problems, that might stimulate scientific research into hitherto unexplored directions" [44, p. 28].

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