Trevor Hancock: Conventional economic growth is not sustainable

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It seems that the rights of the Rio Declaration have been heard – but the accountability, conveniently, has not.

As I noted last week, growing concern about humanity’s impact on the environment led to the first United Nations conference on the environment in 1972. However, the issue of sustainability -even was barely addressed at the conference, with only one mention in the 80-page conference report.

Nevertheless, the publications prepared for the conference, such as Only One Earth and The Limits to Growth, as well as the conference itself, led to a greatly increased awareness of the challenges we faced.

As a result, in 1983 the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Brundtland Commission.

Thirty-five years ago, in its 1987 report Our Common Future, the Brundtland Report introduced a broad audience to the concept of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet to theirs. ”

The commission’s report led to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit), which opened in Rio de Janeiro on June 3, 1992, 30 years ago this month. this.

The first principle of the Rio Declaration was: “Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development. They have the right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

But then he jumped into an internal contradiction that plagues us to this day.

The second principle was: “States have… the sovereign right to exploit their own resources in accordance with their own environmental and development policies. »

This was amended with a second sentence warning that they also had “a responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states”.

But in practice, it seems that the right has been heard but the responsibility, conveniently, has not. Note, by the way, that it was not a responsibility not to cause damage to their own environment!

In addition to the Rio Declaration, the summit also resulted in Agenda 21, a global agenda for change that describes itself as “preparing the world for the challenges of the next century”.

There was also a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and a Declaration of Principles of Forest Stewardship.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, these fine ideas have not been put into practice, certainly not to a sufficient extent. The joke in the environmental community was that corporations and governments had the noun – development – ​​and environmentalists had the adjective.

Thus, development has been greatly accelerated, with NGOs and community sectors working to ensure that development is truly sustainable.

It’s not. If you want proof, look no further than the world’s failure to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 by UN member states.

There were eight goals, with 18 targets to be achieved by 2015. In 2018, when data was available, Our World in Data, based at the University of Oxford, found that of the 17 targets that were quantifiable, the world had reached five: developing regions were halved, the gender gap in education in developing regions was closed, global malaria and tuberculosis infection rates were reduced and the proportion of people without access to drinking water has been reduced by more than half.

But 12 targets were not met in 2015. In some areas, there were improvements, sometimes quite marked, even if the targets were not met: “the share of people suffering from hunger has decreased, the share of children in school has increased substantially, more women have had access to reproductive health and contraceptives, maternal mortality has almost halved, and the global infant mortality rate has more than halved,” he said. reported Our World in Data.

But while “substantial progress” has been made in these areas, it has come at a cost. Where “the world has failed most miserably” – you guessed it – are environmental goals.

When it comes to reversing the loss of environmental resources and biodiversity, Our World in Data notes that there have been “clear and alarming failures” on several indicators.

As I will discuss next week, at the heart of this failure is the simple fact that we continue to pursue a policy of conventional economic growth that remains consistently unsustainable.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior researcher in the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria.

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