Population Matters

On the Road to Rio

June 12th, 2012

Dr. William E. Rees, a human ecologist, ecological economist, professor, and former director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning who is best known as the originator of the Ecological Footprint, has posted a blog ,“On the Use and Misuse of the Concept of Sustainability,” that should be required reading for everyone attending next week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit.

In his blog, which was posted last week, he notes that:

The concepts of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ continue to be subverted, distorted and otherwise misused in the ongoing political debates concerning global change and economic development. Society continues to be in deep denial of fundamental facts pertaining to contemporary biophysical reality and the increasingly global socio-cultural context within which the human universe is unfolding.

Rees’ message needs to be heard by all the delegates going to Rio.  In the deliberations leading up to the Rio Conference, most of the debate has been focused on making development “more sustainable,” but that’s not the same as “sustainable.” The difference is more than semantics.  As Rees notes in his blog:

The current scale of human economic activity on Earth is already excessive; the human enterprise is in a state of unsustainable ‘overshoot.’ By this we mean that the consumption and dissipation of energy and material resources exceed the regenerative and assimilative capacity of supportive ecosystems. Many critical stocks of ‘natural capital’ are in decline and global waste sinks are filled to overflowing. ‘Business as usual’ for today’s global human enterprise is clearly unsustainable. Any society that is living by depleting its capital assets is unsustainable by definition.

Rees’ warning is echoed by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which just released the fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5).  In preparing this year’s report, UNEP examined 500 internationally agreed goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing biodiversity loss, and numerous other environmental safeguards.  It found that “significant progress” has been made on only four of the 90 most important of the environmental goals and objectives.

In unveiling the GEO-5 report,  UNEP’s Executive Director, Achim Steiner, warned that “If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled,’ then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation.”

In issuing that warning, Steiner was echoing what scientists all around the globe have been saying. As part of the run-up to the Rio+20 Summit, thousands of scientists attended a March “Planet under Pressure” conference in London.  The attendees produced a “State of the Planet Declaration,” which cautioned that, “the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk….creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.”

Similar conclusions were issued in April when England’s prestigious Royal Society produced a “People and the Planet” report, which warned that current rates of population and consumption growth are not sustainable.  This week’s edition of Nature, a leading scientific journal, raises similar concerns.

The hope is, although it’s a fading one, that this month’s Rio+20 Summit will re-engage the global community and steer humanity onto a sustainable path. With world population projected to climb from 7 billion to 9 billion or higher by 2042, and the world economy still on track to triple or quadruple in size by mid-century, the task of reconciling what we demand from the planet with what the planet can sustainably provide is daunting, if not impossible.

The 1992 Earth Summit produced a lot of good rhetoric, but little in the way of follow up.  We cannot afford to make that mistake again.  Exhortations alone will not suffice.  We need action in the form of binding agreements and more funding, including more support for voluntary family planning.

Let’s hope that next week’s Rio+20 Conference is the path to a new beginning…not another dead end street.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, President

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