Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Signposts for the future

The conflicting positions are clear by now, and little will be gained at this stage by pursuing the conceptual discussion of sustainable development. Priority should be given instead to designing transition strategies towards the virtuous green path, taking into consideration the diverse configurations in the North and in the South [86]. How do we get there? At what economic cost (or gain)? When?

Such strategies must allow several decades to develop non-linear trajectories with changing priorities over time, to produce a new generation of environmentally friendly technologies, and progressively retool the productive system. A 40-year period seems reasonable.

Given the gap that separates the North and the South in terms of wealth, technical capability, lifestyles, and compelling social problems, globality should not be used as a pretext to impose a unique strategy and equal obligations on both groups of countries. Quite the contrary: each country must find the ecosystem, cultural, and site-specific responses to global problems (thinking globally, acting locally). The main burden of the transition must be assumed by the North. The richer and more advanced scientifically and technically a country, the greater its flexibility- all the more so in that many aspects of the transition may yet prove to be less costly in financial and social terms than maintaining business as usual.

Science and technology appear as a major, but by no means unique, variable capable of speeding up or delaying the transition. If properly handled, the transition towards the virtuous green path offers many opportunities for innovative use of resources. Since it is impossible to review them all, I shall concentrate on four examples chosen because of their importance for a meaningful transition strategy and their implications for science and technology.

A one Kw per capita society

A low-energy profile in the North but also in the South, in particular a sharp reduction of fossil energy consumption, is probably the single most important objective. As Amory Lovins aptly remarked in his pioneering book Soft Energy Paths [57], people do not want electricity or oil but comfortable rooms, light, vehicular motion, food, and other real things.

In their important study on Energy for a Sustainable World, Goldemberg et al. [32] argue that the systematic introduction of already known efficient techniques of end-use of energy would bring about a considerable decrease of per capita energy consumption in industrialized countries and, at the same time, make it possible to reach the present standards of Western comfort in the South with a very small increase of per capita consumption of energy: one Kw per capita will prove sufficient. In their scenario for the years 1980-2020, they predict a doubling of GNP with a 50 per cent cut in per capita energy use in the developed countries (from 6.8 to 3.5 toe). As for the developing countries, their per capita energy consumption would increase from 1.1 to 1.4 toe. Overall world consumption of energy throughout the 40 years would grow by only 9 per cent. We can speak of a zero rate of energy growth.

The authors do not, however, consider the possible gains from modifying the pattern of demand, a subject already discussed in this chapter that does not lend itself easily to quantitative estimates but nevertheless deserves careful consideration.

Opinions vary about the future of the replacement of fossil fuels by non-conventional energies. A recent monograph of the Worldwatch Institute presents a very optimistic outlook for them, based on the anticipation of a sharp reduction in the costs of wind, photovoltaic, and solar thermal electricity [23]. According to their scenario for 2030, world energy use will increase from 9,300 Mtoe in 1981 to 10,490 Mtoe in 2030. The use of oil will be cut by half, from 3,098 to 1,500 Mtoe, that of coal by a factor of nine (from 2,231 to 240 Mtoe). Natural gas remains stationary (1,707 and 1,750 Mtoe). Nuclear energy (now representing 451 Mtoe) is phased out, while renewables jump from 1,813 to 7,000 Mtoe. The total emission of carbon would in this way be more than halved, from 5,764 to 2,590 Mtoe.

Other studies are much less optimistic, but all of them tend to agree that, where there is the political will, affordable technologies to reduce carbon emissions are now available. A 1991 OTA study considers that the United States can decrease its emission of carbon dioxide by 35 per cent below 1987 levels within the next 25 years. In the short term, most actions for decreasing emissions would focus on reducing total energy demand. These actions might include implementation of performance standards, tax incentive programmes, low-cost loans, carbon-emission or energy taxes, labelling and efficiency ratings, energy audits and research, development and demonstration activities.

According to figures produced by the Worldwatch Institute [8], improving energy efficiency has a cost of 2 to 4 cents/Kwh with a carbon reduction of 100 per cent, an estimated pollution cost of zero cents/Kwh, and a carbon avoidance cost (compared with existing coal-fired power plants) of $0-$16/ton. All other alternatives to fossil fuels have much higher carbon avoidance costs.

What place should be reserved for biomass energy? The largest experiment yet carried out is the controversial Brazilian "Pro-alcool" programme, which launched massive production of sugar-cane ethanol, used first as an additive to petrol (22 parts per 100) without any modification of the car engines, then as the only fuel for specially adapted cars. There are now several million such alcohol-powered cars in Brazil. In spite of gloomy predictions made by major car manufacturers, technically the experiment runs smoothly.

The drawback of Pro-alcool is its poor economic results. It was introduced as a crash programme reminiscent of wartime measures, and the objective was achieved without much regard to the cost; the state paid out lavish subsidies under pressure from the sugar-cane lobby. Arguably, too, it would have been wiser to restrict the alcohol-powered vehicles to city-based service fleets of vans, taxis, etc., rather than to distribute the new fuel all over the country.

Attacked by the oil lobby, Pro-alcool seemed condemned at the time of the Gulf war, but it has since been revived with an emphasis on cogeneration of electricity. In fact, Pro-alcool could become a more economic proposition if it concentrated on sugar cane, which at present is poorly utilized; it could, for example, fuel the distilleries. Energy and financial savings at the field level could be achieved through biological pest control and replacing fertilizers by direct nitrogen fixation. Brazil is at the forefront of the research in this area [18]. Considerable progress could also be achieved by improving the fermentation processes and broadening the range of uses of the many byproducts. For example, bagasse is a good animal feed (some alcohol refineries maintain large herds of cattle), and they can be also transformed into cardboard or paper or formed into briquettes. It can also be used for the cogeneration of heat for the refinery and of electrical energy. Thus, from a single-purpose production process we move into an integrated sugar-cane-based agro-industrial system, closing the loops whenever possible and adding new production modules. The overall economic efficiency of such a system is much greater than that of the sum of single-purpose productions. Furthermore, sugar cane agro-industrial systems need not be managed as one large unit: it is possible to design socially responsive systems based on cooperatives and clusters of small-scale industries.

Another way of improving the efficiency of alcohol use in Brazil would be by spreading smaller production units (mini-distilleries or even micro-distilleries) throughout the country, working for local purposes and thus reducing the prohibitive distribution costs.

Of course, other big-fuels may also be envisaged. A vegetable-oil-based additive to diesel would solve many of Brazil's problems. In this area, Europe is more active than Brazil. European regions are involved in several biomass fuel experiments with the support of the EEC. The first pilot factory producing a diesel additive from rape-oil is being built in France. Sweden is more ambitious: the Committee for Research on Natural Resources proposes that extensive efforts be made to build up a competitive phytochemical industry by the year 2000, mainly based on forest raw materials and working through decentralized small-scale production units [58].

Hall [40] has demonstrated that even burning wood instead of fossil fuels makes sense in terms of slowing down global warming. Contrary to a superficial view shared by many Greens, one should use as much forest biomass as possible on three conditions: burning should not be used as a way of clearing the ground; the forest biomass should be used only where it can be regenerated or replanted; preference should be given to lasting uses of biomass (wood transformed into houses or furniture becomes a sink of carbon).

The prospects for large-scale biomass-energy production is particularly attractive for countries with large areas of suitable soils and favourable climatic conditions, such as Brazil or Argentina. In countries with an unfavourable land-man ratio, such as China or India, biomass fuel is also a priority, although the emphasis shifts to the use of agricultural, animal, and human waste. The long and not always successful take-off of biogas in the latter two countries should not divert them from redesigning more efficient biogas programmes.

A modern plant (biomass) civilization for the tropical countries

Bio-energy is only one among many products that can be derived from biomass. Following Jyoti Parikh [74], one can speak of a "5-F model" for alternative uses of biomass: as fuel, fertilizer, food, animal feed, and industrial feedstock. The phrase "civilization du végétal" was coined by Pierre Gourou to describe the traditional civilizations of the Far East: in the Chinese cultural area, for example, bamboo has multiple uses.

With the recent progress of biotechnologies, we can speak now of not only the possibility but the extreme urgency to build a new form of civilization based on the sustainable use of renewable resources [99], at least in the tropical countries, whose climate and ecological conditions are favourable to a high primary productivity of biomass grown on fields, in forests, and in water. Swaminathan's injunction recalls Gilberto Freire's pioneering effort in setting up a permanent seminar on tropicology in Recife. In this way, tropicalization of science and technology has at least been put on the agenda.

Biotechnology has a double potential function: to increase the productivity of biomass and to open up the range of food, energy, and industrial products derived from biomass. Up to now, little progress has been achieved as far as the latter application is concerned, but prospects seem bright.

The main obstacle resides in the lack of access of developing countries in general, and of small rural producers in particular, to the biotechniques necessary for this second "green revolution." On this point, the situation has worsened considerably since the first green revolution, which was already heavily biased towards the interests of large and medium-scale producers (see Glaeser [30]; and for a recent evaluation in India Hanumantha Rao [41]). The present mood is one of extending the private intellectual property rights on an ever wider range of biotechnologies and even of new products obtained through their application.

In so far as the World Bank [106] state-of-knowledge report on biotechnologies applied to agriculture insists on private intellectual property rights and on the comparative advantage of larger producers, its evaluation of the prospect of a second green revolution for the small producers remains very cautious.

By contrast, without ignoring the difficulties of the problem, the project on biotechnology and development organized by the University of Amsterdam [9] explores systematically the package of biotechnologies for small producers. Important efforts in this direction are also being made in India [92]. Biotechnology is expected to increase soil fertility and lower the dependence on fertilizers and chemical pesticides. It is also expected to increase crop yields by incorporating resistance to drought, pests, and disease and enhance the protein, starch, or oil content of crops, and disseminate through micro-propagation the desired fruit-trees and rapidly growing varieties of trees and bushes for fuel wood.

Success will depend to a great extent on the ability to organize publicly sponsored research and extension systems. Producing and disseminating biotechnology packages for small producers constitutes a high priority in development-oriented science and technology policy.

As for biomass-based industrialization, if properly handled, it offers a unique opportunity for environmental, social, and economic gains leading to a new rural-urban configuration through "diffuse industrialization," reducing in this way the flow of refugees from the countryside to the large cities. This idea is at the heart of development strategies in China [22].

The main social advantage resides in the creation of employment and in the reduction of infrastructural costs for the expansion of large cities. Manufacturing industries now create few jobs, essential as they may be for the transformation of developing economies. From the employment point of view, what really matters is the multiplier effect: the higher the workers' wage, the more they will spend on goods and services. But by resorting to biomass in place of oil as a feed stock for chemical industries, one sets in motion a second upstream multiplier, because biomass production is much more labour-intensive than oil production.

As for the environmental advantages, "green plastics" are likely to be more environmentally friendly than their oil-based counterparts, even though one should not automatically conclude that biomass production and the products derived from it are by definition ecologically benign. Moreover, once the biomass-based industry has grown into an important segment of the national economy, careful management of the life-support systems - water, soils, forests - will be internalized in the working of the economic system.

Finally, the choice of the biomass species grown or collected for the purpose of food, energy, and industrial production depends on a very careful examination of the potentialities of each ecosystem, taking into consideration the agro-climatic conditions, the natural capital of big-diversity, and the social and cultural contexts.

Development for the Amazon region

The approach just suggested should be applied to all major eco-regions. As an example, I shall take the tropical rain forest ecosystem of the Amazon region, known for its climatic importance and ecological fragility [19, 94-96].

It is necessary first of all to discard all the scientifically false information circulated by the media (Amazonia as the lung of the world is just one example). In particular, one should remember that the practical potential for deforestation or reforestation to modify the greenhouse effect is ultimately limited. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is roughly comparable to the amount contained in the biosphere, and the amount within soils is 1.5 times as much as either. By contrast, 15 times as much carbon as in the atmosphere is stored in the ground as fossilized carbon and peat and 75 times as much in the oceans.

While reversal of deforestation and re-afforestation could be cost-effective means of reducing net carbon dioxide emissions, they must compete against alternative land-use demands and take into account the fact that, in order to remain effective over the long term, the carbon must be sequestrated and the process renewed as the trees mature [3].

The Amazon ecosystem should be protected in the interest of its inhabitants and of all Brazilians as a potential source of wealth, a climate stabilizer, and a repository of biodiversity. But the long-term future of the Amazon region cannot consist in transforming it into a huge forest reserve. Nevertheless, development of the Amazon region can be made compatible with banning new land clearing. The original forest has already been destroyed on 300,000 square kilometres, enough to keep at least a couple of generations busy with rational rehabilitation and use of these "capoeiras" without moving the economic frontier further.

The immediate consequence of this approach would be to define a spatial strategy that establishes an archipelago of more or less intensive "development reserves" in the green ocean so as to slow the pressure on the primeval forest, thereby protecting the remnants of the indigenous population and the biodiversity. A related issue is one of slowing down the growth of Manaus and Belem, two mega-cities in the making (over 60 per cent of the Amazonian population is already urbanized; as Bertha Becker says, the Amazon region was born urbanized). At the same time, it is necessary to ensure the minimum critical size for human settlements sufficient to provide social services and cultural amenities.

The so-called "extractive reserves" constitute an immediate solution for the existing population of destitute seringueiros but do not offer a blueprint for a long-term strategy for the Amazon region. One seringueiro needs 500 hectares to earn a miserable existence. In other words, the density of population there cannot exceed 1-2 persons per square kilometre.

Each "development reserve" should strive to make a rational use of the resource potential of its ecosystem in order to establish a fairly integrated local economy, selectively linked with the outside world. Since colonial times the Amazon region has been regarded as a source of exportable raw materials and products, not as a place where many more people could live comfortably. Given the distances that separate it from the south of Brazil and from external markets, the Amazon region will always be at a disadvantage in terms of transportation costs, except for products with high value-added per unit of weight.

The variety of the Amazonian ecosystems has often been underestimated and the debate conducted as if it were a homogeneous area. The development of the Amazon will lead to multiple configurations of a biomass-based civilization in which different systems of agroforestry and of aquaculture will play a dominant role.

Agroforestry and aquaculture, eventually combined in integrated production systems, appear thus as a major priority for research and experimentation, not only in the Amazon region, but in all the countries with extensive tropical rain forests. The "blue revolution" has not as yet come of age, in so far as aquaculture is responsible for a modest share of fish and other water-grown food or animal feed; hunting and gathering still predominate.

Making cities more livable in the twenty-first century

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the majority of the world's population will be living in cities. No visible signs suggest a significant decrease of the urbanization rates in the South within the next few decades. Even the most optimistic assessment of the prospects for biomass/biotechnology-based industrialization do not lead to the conclusion that rural-urban migrations will stop.

Most of the oil is consumed and greenhouse gases are produced in cities [68], and in terms of quality of life for the populations concerned, the disruption of the urban environment is by far the most difficult problem faced in the mega-cities of the South. The apocalyptic description of Mexico by the well-known novelist Carlos Fuentes applies to many other large, and smaller, third world cities:

The pulverized shit of three million human beings without latrines.
The dung in powder of ten million animals that defecate in the streets.
Eleven thousand tonnes of chemical waste per day.
The deadly fumes of three million engines that spew out uncontrollably gusts of pure poison, sooty miasmas; trucks, taxis, cars, each one eructating and contributing to the extinction of trees, lungs, throats and eyes. [26]

The situation in eastern Europe is also chaotic: in the former Soviet Union, 50 million people live in cities where air pollution exceeds the national standard by more than a factor of 10; half of Poland's cities, including Warsaw, do not treat their waste at all; only 30 per cent of the sewage produced in the former Soviet Union is treated; 300 cities and towns in Hungary must rely on bottled or piped water because local water has been contaminated by fertilizer run-off; life expectancy in the polluted regions of Czechoslovakia is five years lower than in the cleaner parts of the country [25].

The situation in the cities of the North is less dramatic. Even so, action to protect urban environments suffering from pollution of all kinds is badly needed and requires imaginative new policies [72]. Such action is all the more necessary because the Northern cities are menaced by a potentially explosive combination of environmental and social problems arising out of exclusion, segregation, and lack of opportunities for young people and minorities.

In neither the South nor the North will these serious problems be resolved by investment and technologies alone. The North has the wherewithal; it is a matter of political will. In the South, lack of funding for the urban infrastructures and their maintenance makes the problems even more intractable.

The cities in the South need inexpensive and efficient technologies for sanitation, mass transport, and housing. A conference organized in São Paulo in 1978 on new technologies for the cities reached the conclusion that virtually nothing, affordable by the third world cities, was available. In sanitation, little progress has been made since ancient Rome.

Mention should be made of the imaginative, though not always practical, ideas put forward by Richard Meier in his formulation of the concept of "resource-conserving cities" for the third world, which blend the most advanced and traditional techniques [62, 63]. Meier's fundamental premise is that any pale imitation of advanced urbanization in the South would require a much greater consumption of energy, water, and human effort than is available.

Closely related to Meier's concerns are the attempts to define an ecodevelopment strategy in the urban context [87]. A city is also an ecosystem and as such is a potential resource. In every city there exist latent, idle, underutilized, and wasted resources: land that can be put under cultivation, at least temporarily; waste that can be collected and recycled; energy and water that can be saved; infrastructures, buildings, and equipment whose life cycle can be extended through proper maintenance. All these activities are fairly labour-intensive, and jobs created in this way may pay for themselves through the saving of resources.

People and citizens' associations have a major role to play in such ecodevelopment strategies. The same is true of "self-help building" and rehabilitation of shanty towns. The pioneering work of John Turner led to a major discussion of these matters and ultimately contributed to a welcome shift in urban policies reducing the emphasis on the supply policies largely based on the use of industrial techniques in building and promoting instead the "enabling policies" designed to support local initiatives by making available the resources and techniques that cannot be mobilized locally (for a review, see Sachs [80], World Bank [107]).

To be implemented properly, this new approach requires a redirection of science and technology policy. The South will have to invent new cities quite unlike the models in the North, as these cannot be replicated at either the scale or the pace required by urbanization trends, nor are they in their present form a commendable blueprint for livable cities.

Pro-active and innovative strategies must address simultaneously the following aspects: institutional and managerial models; new forms of partnership between civil society, enterprises, and public authorities; shifting from supply policies to enabling policies in order to stimulate initiative and resourcefulness; continuous efforts for resource saving and elimination of wastefulness; skilful management of technological pluralism and intensified research for new technological solutions, both affordable and accessible to developing countries.

Cities are like people. They belong to the urban species but they have their unique personality. The response to the urban challenge must take into account the singular configurations of natural, cultural, and socio-political factors, as well as of the historical past and tradition of each city. Instead of proposing across-the-board, homogenizing solutions, the diversity of cities should be considered as a cultural value of paramount importance.

Concluding remarks: Disentangling Prometheus

Paraphrasing Salomon [89], one may say that Prometheus is caught in a double bind.

On the one hand, he faces an ever growing gap between the potential of science and technology and the accumulated backlog of unsolved human needs - the "social debt," as it is called in Latin America. This contradiction reaches its height when science and technology are put at the service of death, not life, in the form of sophisticated weaponry with the attendant compulsion to test their killing and destructive efficiency by putting them to actual use. Each war - a perversion of Schumpeter's "creative destruction" necessary to fuel the modernization drive - renews the demand for a new and costlier generation of weapons and for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed.

On the other hand, borrowing the metaphor from Serres [93], Prometheus must seek a "natural contract" capable of overcoming the contradiction between Man and Nature, exacerbated by the predatory use of natural resources and the overloading of the capacity of the biosphere to act as a sink. In other words, the present destructive action of human parasites on their host - Nature - should be transformed into a symbiotic relationship. The parasite will live only as long as the host continues to serve as its life support. Behind ecocide looms genocide.

To face these formidable challenges, Prometheus has two options. Either he reaffirms his blind faith in the power of science and technology to find, in time, solutions to the problems created by their progress, which means that he continues to steer the present course, in which the tool guides the hand. (As scientism is fundamentally optimistic, it tends to minimize the risk of heading towards social or ecological catastrophe.) Or he strives to get the tool under control, to harness science and technology for societal development, subordinated to the three criteria of social equity, ecological prudence, and economic efficiency.

In broad institutional terms, this means going back to Polanyi's enquiry into ways in which the economy is embedded in the society and, as far as the market-oriented economies are concerned, addressing the problématique of the social construction of markets [4]. In operational terms, it is necessary to learn how to make decisions through explicit harmonization of three distinct types of logic: the ethical, the technical, and the political [37].

The environment has been discussed mainly as a constraint and a cost. But it is possible to look at it from a positive angle as a potential asset to be used for rational purposes and through rational methods. This puts an enormous task before science and technology, while at the same time confronting the South with daunting challenges.

For obvious reasons (as we have seen in the case of biotechnology), the South cannot tolerate a situation of total dependence on imports of "black-box" technologies from industrialized countries on monopolistic conditions reinforced through an ever broader definition of intellectual property rights. But the call for Southern self-reliance, abusively interpreted in terms of autarky, is unrealistic.

All the countries in the world, including the most advanced scientifically and the richest, need a science and technology strategy with three components:

  1. purchase abroad and use of black-box technologies;
  2. opening of the imported technological packages and their adaptation (only then may we speak of "technology transfer");
  3. domestic invention.

The proportions of these three components (as well as the balance of trade in technology) depend on the size of the country, the condition of its R&D establishment, and the financial situation.

Self-reliance should be interpreted in a narrower manner, as the ability to be selective in the choice of technologies, to strike a changing balance between the three components under discussion, and to transform the condition of latecomer into an advantage by seizing the rare opportunities for leap-frogging. Even selectivity in imports is hard to achieve? in so far as it presupposes the availability of trained manpower, access to up-to-date sources of scientific and technological information? a truly competitive international market, and institutional mechanisms to carry out effective national science and technology policies.

How many countries in the South have reached the stage of self-reliant science and technology policies? Is it realistic to expect that except for the giants: Brazil, India? China - they will ever get there? Can South-South collective self-reliance offer a way out? [97]. The discussion around the book by Salomon and Lebeau [90] shows a wide variety of opinions.

The confidence expressed by Botkin [7] and Kandel [52] about the potential of science for the management of the biosphere will be put to a very severe test unless the present political trends are reversed. The main threats to the future of humanity and eventually to that of life on Earth pertain to the realm of the sociosphere and, more specifically, to that of the political economy of environmentally sound development that reconciles governability? democracy? social justice, ecological prudence? and economic efficiency in multiple forms of mixed economy.

Contents - Previous - Next