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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Today nearly 120 heads of state gather in Brazil for a summit on global development. Many of them will be glad of the brief, few days in the sun, away from the all-consuming economic challenges they have struggled with every day and night for the last few years.
However, if they were to honestly consider the full, long-term implications for their grandchildren of environmental degradation, water shortages, climate change, energy conservation, and replacement, not to mention the need to double food production in decades, then many would regard the chaos caused by an imploding currency and the ensuing bedlam as a thing of nothing, a passing trifle to be dealt with before a long lunch.
And, frighteningly for all of us, they would be right.
Despite decades of dire warnings — species’ canary-in-the-mine decline or extinction, deforestation, the realisation that water will, in a very short time, be more important than oil — we continue to consume the produce of thousands of years of sunshine (carbon fuels) as if we could replace them at a whim.
Despite an unsustainable and unrelenting growth in human population — doubled to 7bn since Kennedy was president of the US — we have hardly modified our behaviour and live as if the great natural bounty that allowed us to be the most comfortable generations in human history will last forever.
More than 50,000 delegates will visit Rio de Janeiro but the summit is not expected to conclude with any game-changing initiatives. The most optimistic assessments suggest that nothing more than a clarification on "sustainable development goals", a troika of economic, environmental, and social objectives that proponents believe could help guide global development, might be agreed. A talking shop about a growing crisis, so.
Our long-term future — survival is still too strong a word but maybe not for our grandchildren — is being held to ransom to today’s economic crisis and turmoil in the Middle East. In this context it is not stretching things too far to suggest that the greatest consequence of Europe’s economic difficulties will not be economic but our failure to confront our self-destructive lifestyles.
Hanging over all of these deliberations is the simple fact, one that just won’t go away, that poverty not only causes hardship and early death but pollution, too.
Even in 2012, 1.6bn people live without electricity and indoor pollution from heating or cooking kills something close to 2m of them every year, yet many of the solutions proposed involve technologies that are dearer, less reliable, and far less robust than the ones we use. The simple, and moral, solution might be to share technologies we already use rather than impose evolving energy technology. This would lead to the kind of development that would lift millions out of poverty and allow them to eventually make independent and responsible environmental decisions.
A quarter of a century ago, the UN’s Brundtland report came up with what has become the classic definition of sustainability: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Using that criteria we are kicking more than one can down the road, but this second denial may have lethal rather than economic consequences.
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