Debate traces the long road to sustainability

How far has the last 20 years of environmental activism got us along the road to real sustainable development? This was the starting point for an impassioned debate at the IUCN Barcelona congress on Monday.

Bill Adams, Professor of Conservation and Development at Cambridge University and co-author of IUCN book Transition to Sustainability, pointed out what is at stake. At a time when wildlife populations are declining, human beings are using up more and more of the planet’s resources.

“We are consuming ourselves out of the earth,” he said, “we need a transition to sustainability because the arguments we made 20 years ago still matter, it’s just we haven’t carried them out.” His book suggests a simple three-point plan which should help create “an economy that can fit on a single planet.” Its targets are decarbonize the economy, commit to social justice and protect the biosphere.

Panel members gave their view of what is the most significant progress made over this period. For Ray Anderson, whose carpet tile company Interface is striving to totally elimininate its environmental footprint, “the awakening of business leaders to sustainability is the most important thing I’ve seen happen.”

Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, publisher of the International Herald Tribune, agrees that business, especially the media, has made great progress in grasping the importance of sustainability. “This is beginning to translate into public and consumer awareness but it stops there,” he says. “The change required is so significant that I am not sure the environmental movement is articulating the details of how this can occur.”

For Janine Benyus, author on biomimicry, the current financial crisis gives environmentalists new opportunities to get their message across. “The myth that Reaganomics works is crumbling but that doesn’t mean we have won,” she said. “It means there is an opportunity for new ideas so we really need to articulate a list of social and technological challenges written in a way people understand.”

Tariq Banuri believes sustainability is impossible without fairness. Research suggests that people’s sense of wellbeing increases with their income but after about US$10,000 it flattens out, he said. “Rich countries need to rein in their consumption because if it doesn’t add wellbeing it is just wasteful,” he added.

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