A Sustainable World must, by definition, be a Renewable World. A renewable world is one in which the world’s natural capital is used without being used up. It draws its sustenance freely from nature’s resources, but without depleting them to a point where they are no longer available or affordable.
A Renewable World must, in practice, be a Fair World. Extremes of affluence and poverty are not compatible with the imperatives of a renewable or sustainable world. The very rich tend to over utilize those resources (usually of ancient origin such as minerals, fossil fuels, virgin forests and environmental sinks) that cannot be replaced and the very poor have to survive by over dependence on living resources (such as soils, waters and biomass) that can then no longer regenerate themselves. The limits of nature are inherently and inexorably transgressed by both the diseases, affluenza and povertitis, conditions that are now clearly terminal.
So, a sustainable world must be both renewable and fair. This means that we must make use of nature and the planet’s resources in a manner that leaves them intact and fully productive for future generations; and that the peoples and economies of today’s world must all benefit from the positive changes we succeed in making through the use of these resources.
CEESP, the Commission that I have been personally associated with for the longest period (since 1976, including a period as its Chair) has the task, among the most important in the Union, of bringing the human, community and natural resource issues together into a balanced perspective. I have always felt that it must address the specific issues of our biodiversity and ecosystems, and seek ways by which the global economy can effectively and speedily make the transition from a heavy dependence on natural sources to one predominantly based on non-material or renewable-based goals. Its focus is on achieving this in a manner that is good for all people and beneficial for our ecosystems.
The current model of social and economic development is no longer tenable. It is too mechanistic, narrowly conceived and short-sighted. It is too costly for human values and too destructive for nature. It leads to a “civilization” that is uncaring, inequitable and highly unjust. And now, we find, it is also about to destroy the very life support systems that make our existence possible. Giving up bad habits is not, however, easy. And the foot-dragging by the biggest economies of the world on their commitments to dealing with some of the ultimate life-threatening phenomena humankind has ever faced – such as climate change and species extinction – shows that making the transition advocated in this book is going to face major hurdles. Only major wars and disastrous catastrophes have been known to overcome such hurdles in the past.
But perhaps the developing countries and emerging economies have a chance to do something that has not happened before. Could they evolve and demonstrate that other models of development not only work but are even better and more fulfilling in human terms?. Could they move more quickly to an energy system based on benign renewable energy, and remove the millstone of fuel imports from around their necks. Some poor nations spend almost as much on fossil fuels as they produce in GDP per annum. On top of the debts owed to the north this is an unacceptable burden to carry. Totally new solutions are needed to deal with these problems, and it is a matter of survival for not just the two-thirds who live in the global south but for all of humanity that we find them quickly. CEESP can be instrumental in facilitating innovation-oriented networks and in documenting such solutions.
It is easy for people in the developed world to take for granted basic services such as lighting, heating, cooling and running water, yet billions of their counterparts in poorer nations cannot meet even these basic needs on a daily basis. Rural and off-grid areas can benefit greatly from access to energy from technologies like solar, wind or small hydro. With battery back-up, they can provide lighting into the night, and allow education, work and health activities to continue. This can improve literacy, livelihoods and longevity. It will also reduce the pressure on forests, vegetation and biodiversity generally.
Indeed, the biosphere is equally deserving of such investment. Many efforts are underway globally to restore the health of ecosystems, to retrieve productive land from desert areas, to replant forests and mangroves, to allow fish stocks to recover, and to restore people’s livelihoods in a sustainable way. Those closest to the natural world understand the need for balance, as their lives depend on it. City dwellers, who from this year, make up more than half of the world’s population, are insulated from this knowledge. But they will soon have to master it when disaster strikes, when food prices skyrocket, when water becomes scarce, and when rising tides flood coastal cities. It will not be long before we will be forced to relearn how to respect for, and understand, our place within, nature.
The next 40 years are likely to see the numbers of eco-refugees increase globally to as many as a billion. Resettling and rehabilitating these people, providing food and water for them, and creating green jobs will become the central concern of all economies; the alternative is alienation, violence and terrorism on a scale never seen before.
The only sane choice we have is to take advantage of the positive economic opportunities that are offered by the economic transformation which must occur to move to a low-carbon, high biodiversity society. This will enable us to protect and restore the carbon-absorbing ecosystems which have been decimated over the centuries. And it will create meaningful jobs, substantial tax receipts, healthy economies and a sense of civilizational purpose. This is our burden in this most unique of centuries, but also the exciting challenge which can bring this divided world closer together, both among peoples, and between humanity and the natural world that is our home. It can be a renewable, and therefore a just and sustainable, world if we so choose. This is where CEESP can best serve as the interface between our Union and the modern economy.
Ashok Khosla, President of IUCN