Mission control

  • 14/02/1999

THE bad news first: The space ship called Earth is in serious jeopardy. All of us (and future travellers) have no easy option. No one can shout, "Stop the ship, I want to jump off." No way.

Now some of the cold facts to drive home the point: reckless overexploitation of the Earth's resources has poisoned the soil, water and air, thus making healthy, happy living a receding possibility.

The Earth is like a living organism which has its well-honed system of recovery and recuperation. Like any other living organism, the Earth too has its stress tolerance threshold. That threshold has been crossed already, and the Earth can "collapse" out of sheer exhaustion, so to say.

That sounds quite scary. But there is still some time leftforaction: for puttiUthe Earth back to a balanced state where "development" does not threaten it with destruction, where resource ,exploitation is within the Earth's capability of self-repair.

Carley and Spapens make a credible blueprint for 11 sustainable living and global equity in the 21st century,- a tall order by all means, yet an amazingly realistic target. There are obvious obstacles like politiciari preference for short-term gains, or the propensity of businesses fQt quick and high profits even at the cost of environmental aggravation. However, on a closer scrutiny, one finds that these and other unhelpfull cultural habits can be overcome. Already a number of industries in Europe and Japan are retooling for resource-sparing or recyclable products. Politicians too can be made to see the point. A sustainabdity regime is also emerging slowly.

A major point in this scheme of things is that it is based on the assumption that if things are begun to be put in order, the destructive trend can be reversed considerably by the year 2050, without sacrificing gross domestic product growth because tHe idea is to curb wasteful use of primary resources and increase efficient use. That also brings in the question of the global commons and the environmental space as well as the related issue of equity.

The North has a special responsibility. This was clearly established at the Rio Earth Summit where Agenda 21 noted, "The major cause of environmental deterioration is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialised countries." Most of the environmental decay in the last two centuries has been caused by the North. Thus, it is they who have to begin the global renewal. "This is both in terms of transnational pollutants which enter the atmosphere and in terms of resource exploitation, such as zinc or bauxite mining in the Southern countries. This has generated localised pollution as it develops the industrial infrastructure and feeds consumption in the North," the authors argue. North's responsibility is also greater because it has greater financial and technological resources.

On this hinges the issue of apportioning the global environmental space equitably between all human beings. In a one-page article that figures towards the end of the book, Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment's (CSE'S) Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain raise the issue with remarkable clarity. CSE had made the point in a critique of World Resources Report, 1990, which had implicitly given a large share of the global sinks to the countries which produced larger quantities of co, or methane. "CSE questioned these calculations as these sinks are largely global common property. They should be equitably shared by all human beings. Once this value assumption was built into the win model, the distribution of responsibilities for global warming changed dramatically across the nations," Agarwal and Narain observe.

They suggest that the North, which consumes more than its fare share of the environmental space, should be asked to buy the extra environmental space from the South, which does not utilise its share. They further argue that "... those who consume beyond their share should pay penalties which would compensate those affected by the resulting environmental damage, and underwrite a prevention programme."

By the time one finishes the book, one is convinced that time to act is now.

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