Human beings, or rather, their dominant economic-industrial systems have started to change the earth in major ways, leading many observers and thinkers to accept that we are into the new age of “Anthropocene” – a new chapter in the ongoing “Holocene”, or a time when human society is the most dominant influence on what happens on the earth’s surface and even in the water of the Oceans. Over the last four and half decades, the world community of nations were forced to repeatedly take stock of the deteriorating state of the Earth’s natural systems, often called the eco-system(s). Starting from the 1972 Stockholm conference, this ‘environmental’ concern has taken on some importance even as a global political action agenda, from being a “mere environmental issue”. Twenty years later, one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders on issues related to progress of the human race without endangering its future survival (and that of the rest the so called first Earth Summit, was held in 1992, and the increasingly critical nature of the multiple degradations were recognized. This recognition gave rise to a slew of “global compacts”, mainly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
The Earth Summit was also soon after the global capitalist euphoria of the successful dismantling of the Soviet Union, or as claimed – realization of ‘the end of history’. After another decade, the world again gathered at Johannesburg in 2002, to take stock of how far we have travelled on that road, but the assessment was rather disappointing. 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 reasonably worked out Agenda 21, 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 human-planet has changed considerably since that first Earth Summit in 1992, and in not so hidden corners of the world – distress and anger at the killing exploitations and mind boggling disparities have grown to become a perceived threat the established world order. It was not only the “environment” that was gasping for breath. The economically and socially poorer sections of humanity also were getting the hard end of the stick in ever increasing manner. The gains of improved labour conditions in industries were being neutralized – often reversed – by increasingly exploitative “out-sourcing” accompanied by informalization of labour, and by the law-bending increase of “special Economic Zones” in many developing countries. The world has changed somewhat again, and in not so hidden corners of the world – distress and anger at the killing-exploitations and mind boggling disparities have grown to become a perceived threat to the established world order. After the 2007-08 economic meltdown, millions of people even in the developed world are now questioning many of these magic mantras. The unquestioning acceptance of the private corporations, and their intentions and abilities to deliver capitalistic growth oriented ‘development’, is no longer wide-spread. No one could possibly have foreseen the spread of the Occupy movement in the heartland of capitalism, though 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 eco-systems. This has also brought into focus the age-old understanding in indigenous societies – that of Rights & Needs of Mother Earth, into global recognition.
As the world accepts today, the capacities of the vital systems of the earth are now critically endangered by human production-consumption-waste generation activities in this endless-growth oriented consumerist world. The water cycle in many parts of the world are stressed to provide sufficient fresh water as we are consuming and polluting at a rate much higher than the natural regeneration rate, the carbon cycle is unable to absorb even 40% of all anthropogenic (human origin) carbon dioxide emissions to keep the climate stable, the rate of extinction of biological species has gone up nearly 100 times the natural background species extinction rate – threatening global biodiversity which is vital for our survival. The phosphorus and Nitrogen cycles are near breaking points. That most vital life-nurturer - the Oceans are getting dangerously acidic and polluted….. The Nine Planetary boundaries (figure below) are at different stages of disintegration, all because the high consumption human societies won’t limit either their resource consumption or the resulting pollution of air, water and soil. Only in the case of Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, we seem to have taken strong enough action (through the implementation of the Montreal Protocol, by phasing out Ozone Depleting Substances) to stop the degradation and start the slow process of recovery of the life-shielding ‘ozone layer’.
F1 :Planetary boundaries being pushed to the limits – Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The composite index of Ecological Footprint (originating from the work of William Rees and his research student Mathis Wackernagel, in 1990-1994) – meaning how much area on the earth, land wilderness and ocean - we as human society need to provide for all our current ‘resource’ consumption and to recycle all our wastes, has been calculated to be over 1.7 times the entire area of the Earth, including Oceans (calculated by The Global Footprint Network)! That means, we are consuming not only more than what the entire earth generates every year, but also eating up those ecological support systems which functions as these regenerators, roughly like spending from the bank fixed deposits rather than from the interest (only in this case, the ‘bank’ is mother earth, and many of us will die if her life-support erodes significantly). There was a study done last year (2015) which showed that by August 2014, we humans had consumed the entire primary provisions and regeneration done by the entire earth for the full year of 2014, and for the rest of the four months – the Earth was being literally eaten away by us. This scale of consumption and waste generation by only one species, us the Homo sapiens, is clearly not sustainable by any means. And there are numerous other life forms (over 1.9 million other known species, and possibly another 6-8 million still unknown) that also depend and have a right to these resources generated by mother Earth, and are now greatly stressed as a result of our overconsumption and waste-borne pollution.
Water :Even amongst the human species, there are hugely discriminatory deprivations and stresses. We all agree that fresh water is one of the most essential life support need, and yet – well over 300 crore people (out of the 720 crore global population) are water stressed for a fair part of the year. Recent research shows that over 50 crore people live in areas where the annual renewable water availability is less than half the water they consume. The figure below (from greenfieldgeography.wikispaces.com)clearly shows that a large part of the world’s people live in either water stressed or water scarce areas, and most of these are in the poorer ‘southern’ countries. And even where there water is available, many poorer people are/ will be facing water stress because of commodification and privatization of water and their inability to pay the ‘price’ that the market demands (economic scarcity).
F2 : Well over three-fourths of world population will be water stressed by 2025.
Clean Air : None of us can live without enough oxygen-rich clean air, yet the global industrial production system is dumping so much toxic pollutants in our common atmosphere that an estimated 55 lakh people died of air pollution in 2013 (Global Burden of Diseases study), and about 10 times that number suffering health problems due to polluted air.
F 3 : Air pollution impacts a huge no of people
Food is the most vital energy source for all life, and yet, nearly 100 crore people in the world sleep hungry every night, slowly wasting away their capacities to work, to create a better world. These include many small farmers who produce the food in the first place ! Right levels of nutrition during childhood is a key for human development, and yet nearly 45% of Indian children under the age of six are malnourished, a percentage figure higher than desperately poor sub-Saharan Africa !The map below (from risk analysis firm Maplecroft) shows again that it is mostly people in the poorer countries who face the highest food security risks.
F 4 : People of poorer countries faces by far the highest food security risks.
Unsustainable and Unequal Ecological Footprint : In trying to analyse the root causes of these massive problems creating an unsustainable world, many western scholars and institutions, even many in the developing world – have pointed to the rising population as a primary driver. While there is a relation between more people and more demands of resources and more waste generation, it is not a linear relation, and population (no of people) is not the primary contributor to this unsustainable consumption and pollution, it is the Lifestyle consumption of the rich which is to blame. Take Ecological Footprint (EFP) as the all encompassing index – the 31 crore Americans (310 million US residents) have a collective EFP of about 254 crore Global Hectares (GHa - the standard measure of EFP), while the 127 crore Indians together had an EFP of about 125 crore global hectares, or half of a country with one-fourth the people ! In other words, an average American consumes vital resources, pollutes and destroys nature roughly at the rate of eight (8) times an average Indian. While an average American had 8 GHa of EFP, the equitable global availability was about 1.8 GHa per person. Clearly it is not the ‘blame-it-for-everything’ population, but consumptive lifestyle of the rich that is at fault. Even in a ‘clean country’ like Canada, the average resident has an EFP seven times of an average Indian.
Land :Talking about land, land based agriculture is still the mainstay of a majority of rural people in poorer countries, with the world rural population still at 46%, and south-Asia having 67% of its people living in villages. For about 65% of south-Asian people, farming is the primary livelihood source, but the availability of arable land (in hectares per person) has gone down sharply over the last 55 years, and is projected to decrease even further (graph below from FAO 2009)– showing their increasing marginalization compared to better off urban people. This become more acute when we consider that in the richer OECD countries, less than 20% of the population lives in villages, with less than half that depending on agriculture for livelihoods. This decline is not only for a population increase, but also because of large scale farm land grab in the name of mining, industrialisation, dams, urbanization etc. Even in India, agricultural income has sharply declined from over 25% of national GDP in early 1990s to about 14% now, while the number of people dependent on agricultural livelihoods is about 56%.
F 5 : Agricultural land availability sharply declines in per person term.
If we think of water, while an average American consumes over 1620 cubic meters of this life giving ‘resource’, countries like Syria, Sudan, Somalia and several others in Africa faces huge conflicts largely due to lack of water, at less than 600-800 Cubic meters per person per year (the UN defines water scarcity at below 1000 CuM/yr per capita). Again it is not the population figure, but the lifestyle consumption which is driving the water unsustainability. Since 1950, the world population doubled, but the water use more than tripled, largely due to lifestyle consumption.
Energy : If we look at the primary driver of world economy and the largest source of world pollution, energy – and look at the past century (1901-2000), the population increased by a little less than four (4) times, while the energy consumption increased by over 22 times (with its attendant pollution) ! Energy extraction, conversion, transmission and use have a dual impact – it is both an essential enabler for basic human development – putting the deprived at a disadvantage, while having large adverse impacts on both ecology and society. As the figure below shows, the hugely skewed energy consumption figures in favour of the rich countries is putting the poorer communities to face both sharp ends of this sword – deprivation and pollution.
F6 :Per person energy consumption/availability between countries vary over 50 times !
Life-style :If we consider life-style food consumption patterns, the large meat consumption of US and Latin American (also African) people (in per capita per year basis), at 70-90 Kgs, cause a huge strain on water resources on countries rearing those meat-providing animals, as one-Kilogram of chicken needs over 3500 Kgs of water in comparison to about 1000 Kgs for one Kg of wheat, and roughly 500-700 Kg water for one Kg of vegetable. For Beef, the requirement is anywhere between 11000 to 13000 Kgs per Kg of meat ! And with increasing wealth, meat consumption is increasing in countries like India too. Lifestyles again to blame.and if we are at all serious about sustaining the earth’s life support systems for our future generations, we must drastically reduce the global consumption and waste generation, with a measure of equitable access to earth’s resources ensured.
Livelihoods :This high-consumption, earth-destroying lifestyles are also causing another huge unsustainability, that of destroying low-impact, sustainable livelihoods that a majority of developing country people practiced for decades and centuries. About 56% of India’s 127 crore people are still dependent on farming livelihoods, with about 60% of these based on rain-fed agriculture. More frequent climate change induced stresses (increasing because of consumption led greenhouse gas emissions) and global-warming driven hydro-meteorological disasters (like increasingly frequent droughts and floods) are causing huge losses to many of these farmers, often leading to large scale farmer suicides. There are about 1.1 crore coastal fisher people in India, with a reasonably well off and least-polluting economic activity, which also provides a large source of protein to many. The ever-increasing demand/ consumption for/of electricity is leading to large no of coastal coal power plants being established in India, and their massive toxic discharges have turned many fish-rich coastal belts into low-life watery deserts, rendering once thriving livelihoods of these fisher people into highly uncertain income generating option. Another classic example of how high consumption lifestyles are destroying thriving, sustainable livelihoods.
Climate Change &Disasters : This is an overarching issue, with its impacts felt in many areas of human enterprise. There are two kinds of major direct impacts of the global-warming driven climate change –a) extreme events like tropical cyclones, extreme rainfall events, massive droughts, polar ice-shelf breakups, heavy flooding etc, and b) slow onset events like loss of crop production due to higher prevailing temperature, reduction of water resources as less precipitation becomes common, forests becoming less productive due to temperature-humidity regime, increase of pests etc. The first category has received some media and public attention due to the immediately visible sufferings of large number of people, but the second category of impacts might be more damaging in the long run.
There is third category on adverse impacts, indirect ones – that of the damages caused by the false solutions to tackle climate change floated by global businesses and often supported by governments. The massive displacements and loss of farm lands, forests, homes etc. due to dams have recently been justified by claiming that hydro-electricity is a “low-carbon clean energy”, which is not true. Nuclear power is being pushed again with the same logic of “low-carbon energy”. Indigenous and traditional forest dwellers rights are being encroached upon /curtailed in the name of protecting and enhancing forests as carbon sinks. Millions of hectares of forests – where many communities were living for generations, have been cleared for commercial plantations to produce ethanol and bio-diesel, as “green-fuels”.
Climate Change is such a large and interconnected area, that it will need a separate paper just to introduce all the essential elements, so that will have to wait for another occasion (interested readers can also refer to several books written or majorly contributed to by this author, including the – “Climate Change and India : Political Economy and Impacts”, published by Daanish Books with Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung). Here let me conclude by just giving an idea of how severe the problem of climate induced disasters are becoming. In the early seventies, roughly 1400 people in every 100,000 used to get affected by climate extreme events each year, By the year 2011, that figure has risen to around 3600, or an increase to over 250%. Not all “natural” disasters are climate change driven (like earthquakes are not), but a look at the graph from UN International Strategy for Disaster reduction (F7 below) clearly shows that the largest numbers and the fastest rising types of disasters are those that are called Hydro-Meteorological, and these are climate driven, like big floods and strong storms, with extreme temperature events (severe heat waves – like large parts of India is facing now in April 2016)) also showing significant rising trend.
F7 : Number of Climate Change driven hydro-meteorological disasters rising fast.
A study by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) released in Oct.2012, has reached this conclusion – “Over the past two years, 700 natural disasters were registered worldwide affecting more than 450 million (45 crore) people. Damages have risen from an estimated $20 billion (Rs.124000 crore) on average per year in the 1990s to about $100 billion (Rs.660000 crore – this is an amount roughly equalling 70% of the entire revenue collection by the Govt of India in 2013) per year during 2000–10. This upward trend is expected to continue as a result of the rising concentration of people living in areas more exposed to natural disasters, and climate change.”
Sustainable Developmentdebates : a very brief introduction : It is now crystal clear that if we are at all serious about sustaining the earth’s life support systems for our future generations, we must drastically reduce the global consumption and waste generation, with a measure of equitable access to earth’s resources ensured – not only amongst this single dominant species and in this generation, but ensuring inter-generational and inter-species equity. Facing and recognizing these massive degradations of the earth’s ecosystems and in the lives of its less advantaged people, the world community of governments were forced to look into the questions of sustainability and equity, and took some steps.
The global debate about sustainable development is many decades old but got into the political centre-stage only with the 1972 Stockholm conference on Environment and Development. The landmark report – “the Limits to Growth”, released in 1972 by the global think-tank ‘The Club of Rome’, raised important issues about the blind pursuit of economic growth and its effects on the sustainability of the earth’s life-support system itself. The debate progressed and became better defined through the establishment by the UN of the World Commission on Environment & Development in 1983, the publication in 1987 of the ‘Brundtland Report’ (‘Report of the World Commission on Environment andDevelopment: Our Common Future’) and then the paradigm-defining 1992 Earth Summit in Rio-de-janeiro, where the ‘Agenda 21’ was adopted, focussing on preserving the environment while pursuing development. The Brundtland Report simply defines sustainable development as the capacity to fulfil today’s needs without damaging the capacity of the earth to serve the needs of future generations. This is just a macro expansion, without examining the intricacies and complexities of the earth’s ecosystems, but points to a desirable direction of “development”.
In the year 2000, the UN adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals, of which only Goal-7 (‘Ensure Environmental Sustainability’) talks explicitly about ecological sustainabilityvis-à-vis ‘development’, that too in somewhat vague terms. One important contribution of some of these global exercises is the firm inclusion of the concept that without a universally inclusive access-to-resources approach, recognizing the hugely increasing inequities and trying to address these, there can be no sustainable development.Another realization - that highly degraded natural ecosystems - with specially climate change are leading to increasing damages due to rapidly rising disasters, compounded by the rise of vulnerable places and vulnerable populations - forced the adoption of a disaster reduction framework, called the Hyogo Frameworkfor Action (HFA) in the year 2005.It is very sad that the shoddy implementation of all of these failed to either reduce the vulnerabilities or the damages, leading to both the environment getting more stressed and the lower half of global poor getting worse off.
Two decades after the first Earth Summit, in the Rio+20 second Earth Summit in 2012, facing increasing impacts of global ecological destruction and increasingly damaging climate change, the UN members realized that there can be no development without ensuring all round health of the earth’s eco-systems, and finalized the globally accepted (by the member governments of the UN) report titled “The Future We Want”. Here it was explicitly recognized that the prevailing (primarily economic) development goals should and could be tailored to an environmentally and socially sustainable development pathway. This is reflected in the key statement in the ‘The Future We Want’ document – “We recognize that the development of goals could also be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development”.Finally on the 25thof September 2015 – 43 years after the Stockholm conference that started the global debate - the United Nations General Assembly adopted the seventeen (17) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its final document titled – “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Unfortunately (but perhaps as expected) for the world’s poor and the marginalized, the designs of these are centred on the same capitalistic, extractive, exploitative production oriented economic growth.
The adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN was preceded by the adoption, in March 2015, of another important element of sustainable development - a new global disaster reduction frame work, called the Sendai Framework, with the knowledge that without a strong Disaster Risk and Loss Reduction mechanism, many of the economic development gains are being destroyed by increasing disasters. The third major component for moving towards a sustainable development paradigm, a global treaty on limiting damaging global warming and climate change, was reached in December 2015, though with very serious questions about its adequacy or actionable elements, and is already being rejected by progressive sections of humanity. So, the challenge remains almost undiminished, and an informed, shared & connected global people’s action seems to be the only solution.