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Two deadly diseases

Ashok Khosla
Founder of Development Alternatives and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

From the 1950s, early in the UN’s history, the international community understood that it could not achieve its mandate of ensuring global peace and security without improving the human condition and removing poverty worldwide. Several UN-sponsored “international development decades” followed, yet the numbers living in poverty and hunger continued to grow — as they still do.

In 1970, the UN General Assembly, recognizing that the growth of the world’s economy brought threats to the environment, instituted the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Yet despite its worldwide impact on mobilizing UN initiatives, government policies and civil society action, the environment continued to deteriorate — and at an accelerating pace that continues today.

It did not take long for the development and environment strands to come together. By 1980, the World Conservation Strategy, jointly published by IUCN, WWF and UNEP, launched the concept of sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission endorsed it and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro gave it worldwide currency. Several summits later — each bringing together heads of state from hundreds of countries, with vast retinues of officials, business leaders and NGOs in attendance — the degradation of people’s lives and the destruction of nature are worse than ever.

This summer’s Rio+20 summit yet again provided an opportunity for national leaders to come together to debate pathways to a better future. As usual, they made eloquent and profound declarations filled with insights on the predicament of humankind and the threats to our beleaguered planet’s life support systems. Yet, despite several months of preparatory meetings, their experts and diplomats produced virtually no meaningful commitments to meet the challenges exploding all around us. Notwithstanding a remarkable array on the sidelines of the summit of hope, aspirations, models and solutions for a sustainable future from all over the world, the commitments made by governments, corporations, civil society and others were puny compared with what is needed.

The international system seems to be geared to delivering only the most minimal of national commitments at the national level, and thus the lowest common denominators for global policy or action. Given the gravity and urgency of the threats this is a very serious situation.

The twin problems of large-scale human deprivation and massive environmental degradation are symptoms of two synergistic diseases that have reached epidemic proportions around the world. Affluenza and Povertitis are terminal conditions with devastating impacts on human beings, society and nature. They tend to intensify each other’s symptoms. And while they seem to feed on each other, neither can survive without the other.

Affluenza — driven by greed and the single-minded pursuit of accumulating private economic and physical capital — ruthlessly destroys natural resources, particularly “non-renewable” ones like materials, energy, and land. Its spread also tears apart the social, institutional and political capital that has bound people and communities for millennia.

The poor, out of the exigencies of survival, overutilize “renewable” resources, like soils, forests and streams, making them essentially non-renewable under human timescales. The spread of povertitis, which seems to grow in parallel with affluenza, doubly degrades the social and political fabric while inexorably destroying the economic and ecological one.

Thus for ecological, economic and societal reasons — not just moral ones — the close interdependence of different segments of society ultimately requires a reasonably equitable economy at global, national and local levels. This interdependence requires that the basic human needs of water, regular nourishing food, secure supplies, shelter, security of tenure, health, personal growth, education, knowledge, participation, empowerment and personal security are ensured for all — and that everyone has the same opportunities for improving their lives.

Humanity is squeezed on all sides — by pressures from largescale poverty and deprivation, rapid population growth and overconsumption of fast-depleting resources. These pressures are resulting in severe risks to our life support systems: our climate, our biological diversity and the productivity of our land, water and energy resources.

Many new factors are continually emerging. Today’s major issues of climate change and species extinction were little discussed twenty five years ago. We do not know what new problems will crop up over the next two decades. While we try and find solutions for problems we know, we are not prepared for the surprises and sudden changes that the environment will throw at us tomorrow. Already our planet’s environmental boundaries are under severe pressure on many different fronts. How will the billions expected to be living on it in future decades find adequate food, water, housing, education or work? We must urgently deal with human deprivation and environmental degradation, which feed on each other and are linked with over consumption and extreme poverty.

If the world economy is to get back on the track to a sustainable future, there will have to be fundamental changes in policies and priorities. The top ones are:

Putting the last first. This principle, powerfully enunciated by Mahatma Gandhi, means that the first responsibility of a society is to give the highest priority to the welfare of the most marginalized and deprived of its citizens. This is of course a moral imperative, but it is also a social and political necessity, since pervasive poverty degrades society and politics.

Parity and fairness. No nation’s future can be secure if its citizens are divided by great inequalities of economic wealth or political power. With today’s information and communication technologies, the growing marginalization, alienation and violence that will result can only undermine social stability, the prerequisite of a sustainable society.

Polluter pays. Whoever damages the eco-system — the environmental resources on which all life systems are based — must pay the costs incurred by society. These costs must be integrated into economic decisionmaking systems so that they reflect the true expense of our actions.

Precaution and minimizing risk. Wherever we have to choose between different options — including technology and ways of working — we must opt for those that carry least risk to the environment and society and ensure that we err on the side of precaution.

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